Monday, March 31, 2008

Moving to the Country

Had enough of the big city? Head for the hills!

By Alex Roslin
Good Times

April 2008

Harry Yates calls himself a city boy “from top to bottom.” Born to the crammed streets of Glasgow, he has lived in some of the world’s major metropolises—London, Paris, Munich, Bangkok—and worked as an ad writer in the pressure cooker of New York’s Madison Avenue.

The last thing this self-described “nature hater” ever thought he’d do was give it all up at age 68 and move to a drowsy village of barely 5,000 souls tucked away amid the cow pies, braying horses and dirt backroads of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. But after years of gentle cajoling from his wife, Monique, a Quebecer born in the province’s northerly Abitibi region, he agreed to move to the country. Monique’s goal, he says, was “creating a field of memory that will forever sustain our children and grandchildren with an abiding sense of place.” It sounded charming, but Yates was dubious.

Yet, after finding a beauty of a house (Yates describes it as “walking into a hug”) on a wooded 4.5-hectare (11-acre) lot near picturesque Lake Brome and the charming historic village of Knowlton, he quickly warm to life as a country squire.

The first thing he did after the movers left was head to a local pub, where he met a plasma physicist, a wild boar farmer, an airline pilot, a maple syrup mogul, a fashion model, and numerous locals, all “swapping fascinating yarns about the right way to install septic tanks,” he writes in a book he wrote about his experiences, Knowlton Chronicles: How My Wife Made Me Move to the Country Even Though I Hate Nature.

The book, which came out last fall, is a look at “the good and the bad, the sour and the sublime,” as he puts it, of moving to the “sticks,” written for the cavalcade of babyboomers and retired Canadians contemplating the same journey.

It’s a Trend

Yates is part of a country-wide renaissance of back-to-the-landers who are transforming rural Canada. They’re 50 years and up, and they’ve had it with the bad air, noise, and traffic of the big city. “As boomers age, they’re going to be moving out of the suburbs to places like this—Knowlton—or to the city core,” Yates says, as we sit in a village café overlooking a pretty pond where the occasional heron or duck alights.

The new back-to-the-landers aren’t the long-haired twentysomething hippies of the ‘60s. Many have grandkids and want to host them in a bucolic setting with lots of space and nature’s beauty all around. Others are still working but are tired of the go-go city pace; these folks are able to work at home or willing to put up with a longer commute. Some fortunate ones maintain two homes, living in the country most of the week but heading back into the city when they need some adventure.

Demographers are just starting to tweak to the trend. New research shows the back-to-the-land trend is actually repopulating some rural areas. According to a Statistics Canada study of urban-rural migration released last April, Canada’s three largest cities—Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver—lost almost 10 per cent of their population to interregional migration between 1996 and 2001, while rural areas within commuting distance of those centres gained 35 per cent.

Baby boomers make up the single biggest group of newcomers to the country, second only to 30-year-olds with small kids in tow. Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver lost about 30,000 people aged 55 to 64 from 1996 to 2001, while rural zones gained the same number. And as the Canadian population ages, a huge number of boomers are racing off to the country. Already, the highest ratio of retirement-age people can be found in a rural belt just outside the regular commuting range of the big cities. In this zone, 15 per cent of residents are 65 years old and up, compared to 11 per cent in the big three cities, Statistics Canada says.

“People are leaving to go beyond the cities before retirement,” says Jean-François Lachance, a demographer at the Quebec government’s statistics institute. “We hadn’t noticed this trend before.”

Lachance and his colleagues are studying the exodus with the help of newly available data on address changes in Quebec health-insurance records. The found large Quebec cities had a net loss of 2.1 per cent of their residents aged 54 to 56 due to migration to other areas between 1995 and 2005, while rural areas and small villages gained 7.4 per cent.

On the Move

The same thing is happening across the country. On the picturesque Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, boomers are pouring into Powell River, a 20,000-resident timber-and-fishing outpost that’s a five-hour car-and-ferry trip north of Vancouver, says Vicky Needham, a local real-estate agent.

Over 60 percent of Needham’s clients are out-of-towners, and almost all are in their 50s and 60s. “It’s huge,” she says. “They’re just tired of the big city life. They want a more relaxed lifestyle.” Most aren’t yet retired and are either able to work at home or locally as teachers, police officers or other professional jobs. Some keep a pied-à-terre in Vancouver and commute by plane—a 20-minute flight, which, Needham says, “costs less than what it does to park for a week in Vancouver.”

Another reason for making the move: galloping city house prices. “Prices here are still very reasonable,” Needham says. “A lot of people sell their house in Vancouver for $600,000 or $700,000 and get one here for $300,000 with an ocean view.”

Tom Cruickshank, 53, editor of the magazine Harrowsmith County Life, sees the same changes in his neck of the woods in Bewdley, ON, a tiny hamlet 90 minutes east of Toronto. In 2000, he moved with his wife into a 111-year-old Victorian house on a 30-hectare (75-acre) hobby farm. Cruickshank is a city boy who lived for years in Toronto and Montreal, but he now raises chickens and sheep and works from home. “I like that I can set my own pace. The simplicity of day-to-day life is the big reward. I had a romance with it,” he says.

He’s noticing an influx of like-minded city slickers—most of them aged 45 and up and still working. Many commute to Toronto every day by VIA Rail. “Eventually, they find a job out here or a way to work at home.”

Retirees also make up a large portion of the back-to-the-landers. John Lines, 75, and his wife Helen, 72, settled in an idyllic spot after John retired in 1991—a 5,200-square-foot house in secluded Upper Cape, NB, with ocean frontage on Baie Vert and a spectacular view of Nova Scotia across the water.

The house was originally built by Helen’s ancestors about 200 years ago—near as anyone can guess—and it has been in her family since. The original dwelling had only two rooms, but successive generations added rooms as the family grew. “It’s sort of a living museum,” Helen says.

John, born in Toronto, was far from being a country person. The couple had lived in many of Canada’s biggest cities where he had been stationed during a 32-year career in the military. “Our friends thought we were crazy” to move to a remote corner of New Brunswick, he says. “Now when they pass through, they say they understand.”

“It helps keep the family together. Our children come to stay over with our grandchildren. That’s important to me,” Helen says.

The invasion of city folks is changing parts of rural Canada, repopulating some areas that were hard-hit by an exodus of people. In Powell River, employment at the local pulp-and-paper mill has declined from 2,000 in its heyday to just 600 today, but the community has been revitalized by the arrival of the boomers, Needham says.

In Quebec, a mass flight from resource-dependent regions like Lac St. Jean and the Gaspé is being partly offset by city dwellers moving to other areas, like the Laurentians and Eastern Townships.

The new arrivals are also helping to foster diversity and breathe new life into their adopted communities. In Power River, many are settling in an older, once-rundown neighbourhood where they are refurbishing the historic character homes. “It’s been great for the city,” Needham says.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

So what’s life like for the country squire? There are some important cons you should weigh alongside the pros before you head off to the land of pickups and honey.

If you’re used to a city where you can walk a lot of places, a big change is at hand. You’ll be burning gas to visit friends, go shopping and maybe even pick up your mail at the community postbox or post office.

That was one of the hardest adjustments for Harry Yates. He sighs as he talks about how he loved strolls in his former neighbourhoods in Montreal and New York. Worse, he and his wife needed to get a second car when they moved to the country. “You’re tied to a car,” he says.

Another problem in many farflung areas: health care. Vicky Needham says the lack of medical specialists in her isolated town has been an obstacle stopping some retired people from coming.

Yates, now 74, is starting to think about his medical needs, too. That’s one reason he and his wife rented a pied-à-terre in Montreal this fall, after six years in Knowlton. The apartment brings them closer access to medical help Yates may need as he gets older.

The other reason for getting the apartment: while Yates adores his country hideaway and village life, the city still runs deep in his veins, and he occasionally yearns for an extravagant lunch at a chic city bistro or a stroll in Old Montreal.

“Country living is not for everyone,” says John Lines. “I wouldn’t advocate this for someone who loves the excitement of the city.”

If you can afford it, he suggests, do what he and his wife did: hold onto your city place for a while when you move to the country, just in case you don’t like it.

In the plus column: your new neighbours. “I never had a problem making friends anywhere I went,” Yates says, “but it’s easier here because people come up and say, ‘Oh, you’re the new guy. I’m so-and-so.’” Needham agrees: “Anyone who moves here says they can’t believe how friendly it is.”

Cultural and ethnic homogeneity can be a drawback in much of rural Canada, but there are many pockets with flourishing diversity. Power River has a large Italian minority—descendants of workers who came to work in the mill in the 1920s and ‘30s. Other farflung areas boast a strong First Nations presence, including museums, historical sites, and eco-tourism.

John Lines says his area of New Brunswick is full of cultural events, including the arts scene in the university town of Sackville, whereas it was Ottawa, in fact, that he felt was “very insular.”

What about fitting in? In much of rural Canada, the locals go back five or six generations—and much more in the case of Aboriginal residents. Do they look kindly on newcomers?

“I’m from away, and I’ll always be from away,” Lines says. “If I suggest something should be changed, people will say, ‘What do you know? You’re from away.’ You have to work your way into the community. It’s not a given.”

Lines’s solution: volunteering. Having worked as a structural engineer, he pitched in to oversee the refurbishing of a 180-year-old stone house for a local historical society museum—a six-year undertaking. “I figure it’s now payback. It’s my turn to give something back.”

For Yates, the biggest worry isn’t fitting in with the local people—his answer was to head to the village pub, where he made friends arm-bending in no-time—but the local critters. Six years of rural living still haven’t put him quite at ease about the creatures of the forest, from skunks on up to cougars. As he shows me around his property, he stops by a pretty stream and gazes fearfully at the woods on the other side, filled, he is sure, with bears, coyotes and moose just waiting to do him in.

“I’m still a bit leery of wildlife waiting for me in the driveway when I come home,” he says, laughing. But he says he hopes his grandchildren won’t inherit his “weird perturbations,” having experienced at his little country slice of heaven what Shakespeare called “a green thought in a green shade.”

[TAGS: Country living, retirement, baby boomers, Eastern Townships, Knowlton]

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

New Life for Mont Glen

Starting today and for the rest of March, the ski hill will be open on weekends as it prepares to become a members-only resort next year

Alex Roslin

Montreal Gazette
Saturday, March 1, 2008

Mont Glen, one of the Eastern Townships’ oldest and most storied ski hills, is reopening today and for four weekends in March after a three-year hiatus.

The reopening is a prelude to the hill’s launch next year as Quebec’s first member-only ski hill—a new concept that manager Pat Côté hopes will resuscitate the long-struggling resort.

“There’s lots of excitement here,” he said. “The snow is great, reservations are going good, people are happy.”

Mont Glen, which first opened in 1960 and boasts a 350-metre vertical drop—higher than every hill in the Laurentians except Tremblant—had hard times through the 1990s because it lacks snow-making equipment and is heavily dependent on the snow gods to deliver fluffy white flakes all season long.

Côté said he hopes the strategy of charging an annual membership fee will translate into uncrowded runs and no chairlift lineups, which will help his hill stand out in a competitive Townships ski market that includes four hills within a 20-minute drive of Mont Glen—Bromont, Orford, Sutton and Owl’s Head.

Côté describes the March opening as a stripped-down test run, during which Mont Glen will sell only 300 tickets per day through its website. Only one lift will be operational, and there will be no equipment rental, cafeteria services or bar.

Côté said the hill’s owner, Knowlton real-estate developer Mario Lamothe, initially tossed around the idea of a super-high-end resort in the vein of several private ski hills around Collingwood, Ont., which charge $30,000 or more for membership and up to $5,000 per year for a family pass.

In the end, Côté said that idea was dropped for now as “too much of a gamble” in favour of the more modest idea of a “Club Costco-style card” that “will be affordable for everyone.”

Mont Glen had long had an almost-fanatical fan base drawn to its challenging runs and feathery all-natural powder, which unlike artificial snow doesn’t turn icy after a lot of traffic.

The hill’s lively extracurricular scene was also notorious, including a colourful bar life and slopeside parties. Mont Glen attracted such a loyal partying clientele that a second bar opened off-site to help serve them, the Thirsty Boot, a favourite drinking hole of author Mordecai Richler.

Ski Canada magazine once called Mont Glen “the zany black sheep of the Ski East centres.”

But repeated seasons of poor snowfall and competition from neighbouring resorts caused the business to deteriorate in the 1990s. It finally closed in 2004.

One earlier owner sought to revive the resort’s prospects by developing condos at the 700-acre site, but that idea was shot down by the town council of West Bolton, where residents wanted to preserve the mountainous area’s tranquility and picturesque natural vistas.

Côté said the current owner hasn’t made any decisions on developing 500 acres of the site where residential construction is a possibility.

Local residents are responding with enthusiasm tempered with a measure of skepticism owing to the hill’s past financial travails.

“I don’t think there is more than a 50-50 chance of success,” said Brian Eddington, a columnist with a local newspaper who wrote a book chronicling the hill’s rich history, titled Out of Bounds: The Glen Mountain Ski Story.

Still, Eddington said he is happy to see the hill where he skied for 30 years reopen. “A lot of us miss it.”

West Bolton mayor Donald Bager is also skeptical. “It will take some fairly ingenious solutions to make it profitable.”

He also said some locals were concerned about the idea of an exclusive resort at the hill. “It doesn’t take a rocket science mentality to see what that would do to the community.”

Documentary-maker Albert Nerenberg, who moved near the mountain with his family last summer, called the reopening “great for the whole area,” but said he is also glad the high-end plan was dropped.

“We were really worried it would bring in a bunch of Polo-wearing riffraff.”

[TAGS: Mont Glen, skiing, Eastern Townships, West Bolton]

The New Back-to-the-Landers

A growing number of people are saying goodbye to Quebec’s biggest cities for a slower, cheaper life in the countryside

The Montreal Gazette
Saturday, July 28, 2007

Lying on a hammock on an island in the Bahamas was a good place to find inspiration.

“Why should we live in paradise for only a couple of weeks of vacation a year?” my wife, Rhonda, asked. “We should live in paradise all year-round.”

And so we decided to move with our two kids out of our apartment in the Mile End.

We are going back to the land. We’re moving into a beautiful old house in the Eastern Townships.

It turns out we’re part of a back-to-the-land renaissance that is transforming rural Quebec.

The new urban refugees aren’t quite the commune-dwelling Luddites of the ‘60s. They are often yuppies or have young kids and just want to get away from noise, pollution and crazy real-estate prices. Many work at home as writers or artists and rely on the Internet to stay in touch with clients. Others are willing to commute an hour or more to the city.

The newcomers are also often babyboomers looking for a slice of country paradise where they can host kids and grandchildren.

“We’ve noticed a return to the land and smaller communities,” said Chantale Girard, a demographer at the province’s Institut de la statistique du Québec who is studying the trend.

Montreal, Laval and Longueuil are losing thousands of residents to rural areas and smaller communities that lie beyond the region’s traditional ring of suburbs, according to newly available data that Girard is studying on migration patterns within the province.

The information comes from provincial health-insurance records, and it challenges the common perception that the countryside is being depopulated as young people migrate to urban centres in search for jobs.

While many people are indeed fleeing resource-dependent regions like Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Lac St. Jean, other rural areas like the Townships, Laurentians, Lanaudière and Outaouais are actually projected to grow faster than the provincial average in coming years.

Montreal lost 22,700 people to interregional migration last year, while the fastest-growing region, with 6,900 people gained, was the Montérégie, which stretches from the South Shore to the ski village of Sutton and the U.S. border.

For us, it was not an easy decision.

Mile End is pretty close to perfect for us, with cultural diversity and a cool friendly vibe. Rhonda and I have called it home for 25 years between us. Every time we stepped outside we were bound to bump into a dozen people we knew. Rhonda’s brother calls it Sesame Street.

But we needed more space for our growing family, and we felt sick about spending the kind of money needed to buy a house there or in any of the neighbourhoods we liked on the island.

Besides, our vacation inspired us to realize we loved being around nature.

What we needed was a Mile End somewhere in the countryside. So we started looking for a house in the Eastern Townships. Three weeks later we were signing the paperwork to buy a house in the historic village of Knowlton.

We fell in love with the spacious stone and cedar home built by the region’s pre-eminent stone retailer, who happens to be named Mike Stone. It stands on an acre of land backing onto a forest and is nestled into the side of Sugar Hill overlooking picturesque Lac Brome.

All this for less than the cost of a tiny condo with no yard in Mile End. We moved in last week.

Our real-estate agent, Peter Reindler, was a kindred spirit. He quit Montreal 30 years ago to settle in Sutton.

This was back in the day of the first back-to-the-landers—the hippies inspired by the band Canned Heat and its hit Going Up the Country.

“I’m gonna leave the city, got to get away,” the song goes. “I’m going, I’m going where the water tastes like wine.”

People aren’t just leaving the big city.

They’re also quitting many suburbs for more rural areas. For example, Longueuil last year gained 2,600 residents from Montreal, but it lost even more people—2,800—to more farflung parts of the Montérégie.

The biggest beneficiaries were Haute-Yamaska (which includes Granby and Bromont) and areas around St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Chambly and Beloeil.

Bridget Wayland is a former Montrealer who settled in a distant corner of the Montérégie with her family. She knew she was done with big-city life after her son was born.

Her cramped second-floor apartment in the Mile End had no yard access. She and her husband, Chris, couldn’t afford to rent a first-floor apartment with a yard, much less buy a house. Little Sebastian would have two choices—playing on their small balcony or at the park four blocks away under an overpass.

“Oh God, this is not how I want to raise Sebastian,” Wayland recalls thinking.

So they decided to move into a historic house built before 1870 near Frelighsburg, at the end of an idyllic country road just 200 metres from the U.S. border.

Wayland, a writer, works from an office in the barn, while her husband, a teacher, found a job in nearby Cowansville. They raise chickens and grow veggies and herbs that they sell at the local farmer’s market.

“It’s much more calm,” she said of country life. “We love the day-to-day quality of life. When you go to bring the garbage out, you look up, and it’s the Milky Way and gorgeous stars—whereas in the city you never look up.”

Tom Cruikshank, editor of the magazine Harrowsmith Country Life, is a former Montrealer who moved seven years ago to a 75-acre hobby farm with a century-old house a couple of hours northeast of Toronto.

He and his wife both work from home and keep 10 chickens for eggs and 11 sheep for fleece and meat.

“I like the manageability of the smaller setting,” he said. “You can be more relaxed. People bump into each other again and again, so they tend to be nicer to each other.”

There are some drawbacks to country living, though.

Lyle Stewart and his family gave up their Plateau apartment and lived for a year in their cottage deep in the woods outside the Lanaudière village of Chertsey to save money to buy a house in the city.

They enjoyed the fresh air and being surrounded by nature, but the downside was being stuck in their car for everything from grocery shopping to commuting to work in the city, said Stewart, a union communications official.

“The commute is a killer,” he said of his two-hour daily roundtrip.

It was a big change from life in the Plateau, where they could walk or bike almost anywhere they needed, he said.

“Country living may look nice and green, but you’re burning a lot more energy and contributing to global warming (through driving),” Stewart said.

But not all the newcomers become more dependent on cars. Stéphane Tardif and his wife Eloise took a bold path when they moved from Montreal to Knowlton five years ago.

Now relocated in Cowansville, they refused to buy a car and rely instead on walking, bikes and the regional bus service to get around with their two small kids. “It’s a radical way to be in the country. People always said it was impossible (not to have a car here). But we did it,” Tardif said.

Tardif, a youth counselor, even recruited his bike for work when he got funding to start Biblio-Vélo, a service to bring books to local youth, towed along on a wagon.

“We changed our rhythm of life (by leaving the city). We have picnics, walk in the forest and look at the animals. There was a real gain of time and family life.”

Where They’re Going

The Eastern Townships, home to vineyards, pretty country drives and charming villages soaked in history, is one of the regions luring many Montrealers moving to the country. Some of the choice spots for the new back-to-the-landers are:

Sutton: The outdoor enthusiast’s mecca around this laid-back skiing village attracts lots of environmentally conscious young families and artists, drawn by the area’s pure mountain-top lakes and 150 kilometres of hiking trails.

Bromont: This rapidly growing village at the doorway to the Townships sits at the foot of the ski hill of the same name. Just 45 minutes from the Champlain Bridge, it’s attracting people who commute to Montreal.

Knowlton: This tony village boasts heritage architecture, vibrant cultural life and charming boutiques. You can also gape at the ridiculously expensive estates around Lac Brome.

The region also has some hidden gems that are little-known to outsiders but beloved by locals:

Owl’s Head: The out-of-the-way area around this ski hill has a fanatical following among residents. Attractions include breathtaking country vistas, nearby Lac Memphrémagog and a golf course with panoramic mountain views.

Glen Sutton: Considered one of the most scenic spots in the Townships, this 300-resident village has been enticing nature lovers and landscape painters since the 19th century.

Glen Mountain: This spectacularly beautiful area surrounds the ski hill of the same name but is also close to services in Knowlton.

[TAGS: Eastern Townships, Knowlton, Sutton, Bromont, country living, back to the land]