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A natural haven awaits vacationers in Eastern Ontario along the shores of Charleston Lake. Balanced along the eastern edge of the Frontenac Arch geological formation, Charleston Lake has been the place to go for swimming, boating and fishing for over a hundred years. Charleston Lake has seen visitors since far back in the dim recesses of history, when local native people came here to fish and to shelter under the rock ledges along the shore.
First dammed in the early 1800s, the lake that feeds Wiltse Creek started attracting resorters in the 1880s, where they stayed in lakeside hotels and traveled along the lake in wood-burning steam launches. By that time, the logging and mining companies had mostly packed up and left, and local residents were trying to eke a few crops from the thin rocky ground. Many of them soon found it to be more profitable to work as fishing guides for the city dwellers who came to try their hand at angling. As the age of resort hotels passed, Charleston Lake became a desirable place to own a small lakefront lot and build a cottage retreat. Those who wanted an occasional week's vacation at the lake took advantage of the rental cottage communities that found a home along the lake's rocky perimeter. Some of those cottage resorts are still in existence - and likely welcoming the descendents of regular visitors from their early years.
The over-5,000-acre lake is ideal for sailing, sail-boarding and water skiing. An irregular shoreline and many bays and coves make it the perfect place to canoe or kayak. Many pleasure boaters enjoy island-hopping. Many residents have developed a tradition of visiting friends or observing wildlife by pontoon most days in good weather. A marina at the eastern end of the lake near the village of Charleston sells gas and limited supplies and rents boats, pontoons and water toys. Charleston also offers a public dock and parking for boaters' vehicles. Many of the cottages have their own semi-developed swim area, while others take advantage of the swimming beaches of the Provincial Park at the west end of the lake.
Charleston Lake holds a mixed warm-and cold-water fishery, with both native lake trout and largemouth bass and smallmouth bass being the most sought-after species. Also caught are northern pike, bluegill, perch and crappie, the smaller panfish being the true favorite of children. Some bays are no-motors waters, so a copy of current lake regulations should always be consulted before power boating.
With over a hundred islands, Charleston Lake experienced a development boom along accessible parts of the shoreline in the mid-1900s. Several of the islands held camps and cottages accessible only by boat. In 1972, the Province of Ontario developed Charleston Lake Provincial Park on nearly 6000 acres of land encompassing much of the shoreline. The park was quickly a popular camping spot, with nearly 300 campsites, picnic grounds, swimming beaches, playgrounds, ball courts and boat launches. Today about 90,000 visitors enjoy the park and lake access. With the addition of park lands, development along the shoreline was severely reduced, increasing protected habitat for local wildlife and birds. Several hiking trails, some handicapped accessible, have been developed in the park, with interpretive guidance during warmer months. The trail to Blue Mountain, the highest spot in Leeds County, is only accessible by water from the park.
Located at the extreme edge of the Frontenac Arch, the lake basin is split between the harder granite of the Canadian Shield and the softer sandstone to its east. The soft sedimentary rock has resulted in many rock ledges, 'caves' and unusual geological features of interest to nature lovers. Additionally, the park straddles the division line between two different woodland habitats, giving it a unique mix of plant and animal diversity which even extends to the fish in the lake. The park area is considered a valuable addition to the Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve and is currently the location of efforts to re-establish the peregrine falcon and provide protection for the rare Eastern rat snake.
Wiltse Creek, below the dam at the small settlement appropriately called Outlet, flows lazily to the Gananoque River, then drains into the Saint Lawrence River. The waterway is gaining in popularity as a canoeing route, although locals warn such a trip will of necessity involve a couple of portages.
The creek was originally dammed in the early 1800s for milling purposes, but in 1877 the Gananoque Light and Power Company replaced the dam with a larger one, creating a storage reservoir to ensure adequate water for hydroelectric generation downstream. This raised the water level nearly three feet, flooding farmers' low-lying fields and creating even more islands from newly-inundated peninsulas.
As would be expected, lawsuits continued for several years, along with several acts of vandalism, and necessitated the building of a small 'fort' near the dam. Some farmers did not fare well in the court settlement, including one who claimed his land had flooded so badly his cows could no longer get to the lake to drink! Archives of the Leeds & 1000 Islands Historical Society relate some humorous narratives about local 'characters' whose exploits have gained them a permanent spot in Charleston Lake lore. Two stories that appear NOT to be true are that 'Charleston Heston was born on the bed of the lake' (his stage name was Charlton and his biography says he was born in Illinois), and that the lake is 450 feet deep. Scientific reports say it reaches about 300 feet in depth. The dam was last replaced in 1960 and is now under the control of Eastern Ontario Power.
Only 25 miles from Brockville and about 30 miles from Gananoque, Charleston Lake is close enough to attract week-end visitors. Both towns offer the best selections of shopping and entertainment in the area. Closer is the small town of Athens, about five miles away, where campers and cottagers can pick up a few groceries or needed supplies. The Joshua Bates Centre is a performing arts venue located in Athens that features music, theater, dancing and art. Twenty miles south of Charleston Lake is the famed 1000 Island area along the St. Lawrence Seaway which has a number of attractions of interest to sight-seers.
Real estate on Charleston Lake is becoming increasingly rare, since much of the shoreline is now protected. New development is strictly controlled as the lake is considered 'at capacity' due to the delicate ecology of the region. Existing cottages and homes can sometimes be found along the lake, with others located on nearby waterbodies. Lodgings are plentiful, with private rentals of cottages, resort cabins, island hideaways and small motels available either on the lakefront or nearby. Private homes can sometimes be found for rent for the entire season. Many resort cottages can be rented year-round, as ice fishermen and cross-country skiers enjoy the local opportunities for winter fun. So, make the trip to beautiful Charleston Lake to enjoy both the water and the unique natural habitat. Like a Northwoods Robinson Crusoe, reserve your own private island - at least for a week - and experience the solitude of Charleston Lake. You'll be amazed that you didn't discover it before now!
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