Friday, February 19, 2016

Partying in Pennsylvania or Visiting Falling Water and Laurel Caves

Falling Water, Mills Creek, Pennsylvania

Ok, I’m going to say it…the one country I try to avoid visiting is…the United States of America. Now I must admit there are some wonderful, inspiring, historical, awesome places to visit in the old US of A and I’ve visited a few of those.  In my early twenties, with a young family and a very limited budget, I took numerous road trips to Myrtle Beach, Virginia, Washington D.C., and Florida. I’ve always hoped to take a road trip along Route 66 (showing my age, I suppose) and if I’m honest these were some on the greatest experiences I’ve had, especially when the Canadian dollar was strong and I got a good bang for the buck.  Unfortunately, a few negative experiences have really jaded me – being kicked out of Disney World, some very sketchy motel experiences, dry counties, and a few unsettling conversations involving politics and race…

Regardless, when Shelby, my youngest daughter turned twenty-five this past summer, and she decided that the birthday present she wanted was to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, I put my prejudices aside and agreed to a road trip.  I’m really glad I did because this was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had while travelling!

Shelby, our friend Doris, and I headed down to the southern part of Pennsylvania on a beautiful fall weekend. A little “Thelma and Louise” was definitely in order and these two ladies were the ideal companions for just such an escape! We decided to take the quick route down along I79 to I76 and we were making such good progress we opted to wait until we were close to our destination to stop and pick up some necessary items for a girl's weekend away – wine, snacks, and more wine. This was a mistake because once we turned off the interstate the options for purchasing such items became very limited.  Apparently, this southern part of the state of Pennsylvania has very limited options for the weary traveller to partake in a bit of liquid refreshment! Being determined sort of people we managed to track down a small specialty store in a little spot called Jones Mill for beer and wine…apparently, it was so special the prices were even worse then what I’m used to paying in Ontario! Shelby was quite happy with her 24 of mixed ciders and Doris and I happily sampled numerous wines before settling on a nice assortment of about ten bottles…all for a one-night stay! We headed off to the Seven Springs ski resort where we planned to have dinner and spend the night. The resort was beautiful and my only regret was that we didn’t get there early enough to have a sled ride down the mountain. We had a fabulous buffet dinner where we celebrated Shelby’s 25th and then headed to our room for some well deserved drinks after the eight hour car ride.

The area of Pennsylvania that we were traversing is surrounded by numerous parks, rivers, waterfalls and is dotted with endless little villages and towns with names like Normalville, Chalk Hill and Mill Run.  The drive along winding roads going through mountains and valleys provides the traveller with some really breathtaking scenery, especially with the Autumn colours just beginning to make their debut.

Laurel Caverns

Lights in the Laurel Caverns, Pennsylvania

We decided to start our day with some spelunking after I read about some local caves that were nearby.  The Laurel Caverns are truly impressive, offering over three miles of passages with some ceilings reaching up to fifty feet! The Cavern entrance opened due to a sinkhole, which predated the Pyramids and the caves were widely in use by natives, early explorers to the area, a rather large bat population and now by visitors.  The site offers a variety of guided tours, rappelling, accessible activities, and even a mini-golf experience all for a reasonable cost. The lower caves can only be accessed if one is suitably attired in hiking boots, which can be conveniently purchased in the well-stocked gift shop.
Shelby, myself and Doris all geared up!
Since I have yet to experience rappelling on my many adventures I thought this would be the ideal opportunity and Shelby was a trooper agreeing to accompany me. Our somewhat timid companion, Doris, at first declined the adventure but we shamelessly bullied her into joining us and we were quickly suited up in our rather unflattering harnesses listening to some very young gentlemen explain the finer points of hurling oneself off the side of a cliff deep in the rather dark atmosphere of the Laurel Caverns.

I’ll admit this wasn’t exactly the Himalayas, but taking those steps to the edge and trusting that all my clampy things were doing the right clampy stuff, as I stepped into oblivion for the first time, was one of my more frightening experiences. But after my first go, and making it to the bottom safely, I was excited to take the long walk through the caves to rappel a few more times. Pretty soon Doris, Shelby and I felt like we had channeled Sir Edmund Hillary as we used words like “On Belay” like pros! (The first time I said this, I thought I was supposed to shout, “On my way!” much to the amusement of our guide!)  On our last hike up, our guides took us to a rather cool area of the caves where we sang Happy Birthday to the honoured participant causing a spectacular light show!

The Laurel Caves were a terrific side trip on our trek to Falling Waters and should be put on your list if you are heading down to Pennsylvania!

Brave Doris rappelling for the first time! On belay!

Not so great picture of me on my first rappelling adventure!

Shelby looking confident!

Falling Water


Balconies, Falling Water

Structure making
room for the tree
Rock built into
the house.
I am so glad Shelby suggested this destination because it definitely is one of the most unique places I have ever visited. For the architecturally uneducated, Falling Water is the name of the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (you may recognize the name from the Simon and Garfunkel tune) built over a waterfall in 1936. Wright is famous for his vision to design dwellings, which blend into their natural surroundings and incorporating nature’s gems into the very structures. This house, commissioned by the famous Kaufmann family does just that by using large boulders and trees on the site as components of the structure itself and by incorporating large balconies from every room. The Kaufmann’s were a very well off family from nearby Pittsburgh, who owned a department store chain but loved to escape the smoke of the city by heading to the mountains. The property has two houses and a swimming pool naturally fed with water from the passing creek.  I would happily reside in just the guest-house! 

Apparently the total cost for the build was $155,000 US dollars, which included the $8000 Architecture fee and the $4000 furnishings!  This is about the same amount I paid for my little palace fifteen years ago. Damn inflation!


  • despite a heafty fee to view the house, a rather pricey gift shop and restaurant, visitors are still herded into a room at the end of the tour to listen to a plea for more donation money
  • this is obviously a very popular attraction because visitors are herded through like cattle in groups of twenty or so every ten minutes
  • an overnight trip didn't really cut it for this fabulous area of Pennsylvania that offers so many amazing things to see and do - we drove through Mill Run and it looked like a fabulous place to spend a day!


  • listening to the guide tell stories about the Kaufmann family
  • seeing the scenery driving back to Ontario straight up number 219 highway

Useful Tips 

Since we were going into the states and couldn’t risk the ridiculous roaming charges, we were sans phones and GPS on this trip so I took advantage of my CAA membership and picked up an assortment of maps and guide books. It was great going a bit retro for a change!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Things to Do and Places to Visit in Renfrew County

Watching the Hummingbirds on Marnell's porch!

View of Bonnechere River 

Being a lifetime resident of the rather populace area of Southern Ontario I have taken several trips to the great north of my home province throughout my life but after a somewhat disastrous camping trip about twenty years ago I had avoided the whole outdoor campy type thing and cottage country for many years.  I decided to finally take the trip to visit a terrific friend and childhood neighbour who had made Renfrew County her home and has a beautiful little spot near Golden Lake. She generously opens her home to many Southern friends and family throughout the summer and she made my visit to this area a wonderful experience. Marnell spent several days chauffeuring and guiding us to some beautiful gems in her area of the western part of Renfrew.

The County of Renfrew reaches from the Ottawa valley, along the shores of the Ottawa River to the northern tip of Algonquin Park. Renfrew County is the largest County in Ontario boasting over 900 pristine lakes. The western part of the County has a small town feel with numerous small urban areas that hold on to the heritage of the founding members whether they be Polish, Irish, German or Scottish.  This tendency towards cultural pride means visitors can get a taste of not only beautiful and stunning scenery but interesting historical narratives kept alive by the descendants of the original settlers of the areas. With Marnell as our guide we were able to visit some of these interesting areas in and around the area of Wilno.

Bonnechere Caves
Bonnechere Caves – An interesting and informative spelunking activity off the beaten track in Eganville! The tour starts with an interesting interactive lecture from the guide about the fossils in the area and is followed by a tour of the caves themselves. Although not as large or grandiose as caves I’ve visited in other parts of the world the guide made it very interesting by retelling the story of the discovery of the caves. The site is appealing not only because of its history but also because the caves are naturally filled with water each year to provide the natural hibernation habitat of the resident brown bat population!

Wilno Tavern – A wonderful restaurant/bar in the centre of the town of Wilno, which we visited for dinner after a trip to the Emergency in Barrie’s Bay. I had the buffet boasting a variety of Polish delicacies including Pirogies and sausage! Apparently the tavern is a hotspot for late night get-togethers featuring local bands and talent.

Polish Kashub Heritage Museum & Skansen – located in the centre of Wilno this is a unique and informative display highlighting life for the Polish settlers of this area. An interesting and beautiful display for the history aficionado.
Polish Museum, Wilno

Madonna House Museum
Madonna House Apostolate – located in Combermere this community advertises itself as a family of Christian lay men, women, and priests, striving to incarnate the teachings of Jesus Christ by forming a community of love.  There are several buildings including a museum and store, which is filled with many unique items including crafts, art, and donated items. Apparently, people come from all over the world to join this community for varying lengths of time many of whom donate all their worldly goods to the commune.  The community was founded by a Russian immigrant, Catherine Doherty, in the forties.

Szare Szeregi Monument – This monument was erected in memory of 10.000 polish scouts who were killed during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and were murdered in concentration camps in occupied Poland from 1939-1945. It sits on the top of a hill in a lonely field on Old Barry’s Bay Road and is a very sad reminder of a tragic event.

Szare Szeregi Monument

Crooked Slide Park – This park is located near Combermere and is a reconstruction of an original log chute used by loggers in the early 1900s. These chutes or flumes were used to bypass rapids and bends in the waterway which would damage the lumber.  It is a beautiful spot for a hike, a picnic, great photography, and on a warm day, a swim. When we visited, there were many people enjoying the refreshing water of Byers Creek and the rocky rapids.

Byers Creek, Crooked Slide Park

Chute at Crooked Slide Park

Boating and Fishing – Since Marnell’s place is located on a tributary between Golden Lake and Round Lake it is a terrific area for boating and fishing.  Anything from a motorboat, a canoe, a paddleboat, an inner tube, or even a pool noodle will do. The river and lake are pristine and a cruise around provides great views of properties, old farmhouses, and wildlife. Not wanting to exert myself unduly, I avoided the more strenuous boating choices and opted to let Marnell chauffeur me about in her motorboat or serenely float on a pool noodle!  Fishing, although not my forte, is also a very popular activity.  The fish are so plentiful that my niece waved a worm over the water at the end of the deck and used a scoop net to haul in her catch – a very humane sort of fishing!

Boating with Marnell

Swimming – We took many relaxing and cooling dips in the Bonnechere River, right outside Marnell’s back steps.  The rocks were a bit slimy and since I had forgotten my handy little water shoes I had to kind of jump in with a noodle and keep my feet up.  Floating around as the sun sets and sipping (or chugging) an ice cold Coors Light can’t be beat! We also went for a nice swim at The Sands on Golden Lake one afternoon.  The white sand and beautiful clear water was gorgeous. The entire area in and around Golden Lake has a multitude of terrific beaches and cottages for rent to suit all tastes. 

Sands on Golden Lake

Relaxing on the beach at Golden Lake

My trip up north this past summer has renewed my faith in the allure of Cottage Country so much that my past disastrous experiences are almost eradicated! 

Lily Pads, Bonnechere River

Kashubian Art

Pioneer buildings
Tree Face