Island Bound Traveller Writer, Storyteller
Gary Grieco is a freelance writer, avid reader, sailor, and motorcycle enthusiast based on Texada Island, British Columbia, Canada.
A Sailor's Hideaway
A House Fit for a Retired Man of the Inland Sea
By Gary Grieco - email@example.com
From the prairies to the mountains,
To Gitchi Gumee white with foam,
We live our dream upon her shores;
sail her waters far and wide,
Always back to home sweet home.
Published: LAKE SUPERIOR LIVING July 2011
One feels a spirit of tranquility when entering Bob and Donna McKay's lovingly handcrafted two-storey timberframe home on Lake Superior's Wiley Point, located close to Thunder Bay and west of Pie Island above Cloud Bay near the entrance to Sturgeon Bay.
The warmth of solid pine, shaped stone, rounded lintel, stained glass inset and vintage solid brass fittings embrace you upon entering through the front door. You sense it's a setting where friends frequently gather to cook, eat and laugh, all the while aware of mighty Lake Superior's brimming, wave-etched waters as a backdrop. From the water, the multi-faceted house emerges lighthouse fashion atop a rocky ridge where native fishermen once camped. In the last glow of evening the exterior of russet-flecked grey stone culled from the lakeshore heightens the impression that it was styled by a retired sea captain, though now settled on land, still yearns for the sea.
Bob McKay is an avid sailor and his current 35-foot sloop, Windwalker, can be anchored near his Lake Superior home (the rainbow didn't cost extra, but it certainly adds to the value of the place). Photo by Aki Peltonen
Because of the spectacular views
to the south, the McKay's chose this rocky ridge building site on the old shoreline of Lake Superior. Mink, Thompson, and the Spar Island Chain are close by, and on clear days the trees of Isle Royal can be seen.
Bob started from scratch, with only desire, a design and his remarkable skills in woodworking, stonework and metal-working. The
result is a panoramic masterpiece created almost single-handedly with
the help of only a few tradesmen.
The McKay's decided on this pristine paradise because as Donna
explains, "It was a favourite sailing area, and the perfect location to moor our boat."
The area was untouched except
by a history of commercial fishing, loggers who thinned the forests, and the lone miners who prospected and sank shafts on the surrounding islands in search of their elusive dreams.
To get to this point was a 35-year
odyssey that led the McKay's from the Manitoba prairies of their birth to the foothills of Canada's Rocky Mountains before they finally realized their dream of sailing and living close to the biggest
lake in the world. Two lifelong friends, this author being one of them, introduced Bob to sailing on stormy Lake Winnipeg. It became his passion.
In 1973 after a career in the Canadian Army as a master diesel mechanic and player on the Army hockey team, Bob, along with Donna and their three daughters, left Calgary,
Alberta, towing Bob's self-designed and constructed 25-foot sailboat named 'Slocum', after that great master mariner Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail solo around the world.
The Mckays traveled across the Canadian prairies to Thunder Bay, where Bob built their first home deep in the forest. The McKays sailed and explored Lake Superior for the next 23 years in a variety of sailboats. When their chalet became an empty nest in 1996, they sold it, then bought acreage on the shore of Lake Superior. Their goal was to build an energy-efficient, self-sustainable home that would complement their surroundings. "We started out living in our log sauna on the new property," Donna says, "and built and worked full-time for the next 10 years while our daughters attended university." The log sauna decided them against a log house: "Too much maintenance and movement." Bob chose to do most of the work himself because of his experience continued......
and ideals. He was introduced to
timberframe construction and loved the concept.
Hundreds of 24-foot, solid West Coast Douglas fir beams were salvaged and purchased from Thunder Bay's historic Canadian National Railway Broadway Roundhouse when it was dismantled in 1996. These 150 year old mainly knot-free fir beams became the inner core of the house. The timber frames were square cut to 12 inches with a portable bandsaw. Bob, careful to avoid nail heads, used a metal detector. Donna was on edge at this phase. "There were spikes in the beams," she recalls. "Bob was moving them around with his tree farmer when one fell, putting a spike right through his hand." Planed to a smooth finish, the timbers were pinned together using dovetailed joints. "Dovetail joints, though harder to make, are the most satisfying," says Bob.
"I also like wood fastened with screws, counter sunk, plugged and finished off to hide the screws. This is not done in the house building industry for obvious expense reasons. The clear sections were used to build kitchen cupboards."
The home's main floor has a hydronic in-floor heating system. This environmentally sound design helps to maintain an even temperature throughout the ground floor.
The concrete also forms a solid base for the the massive fireplace built with natural hand-selected smooth square stones, mostly from the shore of Lake Superior. This masterful piece of visual art faces both the dining and sunrooms and performs a vital function in the cold northern winters. The efficient fireplace has hidden copper pipes above to aid in pre-heating domestic hot water and in-floor heating.
Solid wood beamed ceilings give the McKay's house the feel of a ship at sea. Facing photo: Hanging pots from the ceiling adds storage space and interest in the kitchen of the house.
Photo by gary grieco
Bob's attention to detail is evident
in the basement boiler room, where a wall of zone valves and plumbing includes an in-floor boiler for heating circulation. This includes on-demand hot-water heaters, a sophisticated water treatment system and an electric panel that switches to a 24 -volt backup system in a power failure.
Everything is automatic. When the power goes off, an automatic switch shuts off the grid, and power from the 24-volt batteries is diverted through an inverter to a 100-amp panel in the boiler room. This panel is dedicated to powering pumps for hot-water circulation, refrigeration, and lights. This back-up system can be used for a day or a week, depending on the amount of power consumed. If the voltage drops below 24 volts, a gas generator is on standby ready to recharge.
Architecturally, the house is a reflection of the McKays' lifestyle, personalities and values. The resulting look and feel of the house that Bob built is one of solid beauty and permanence.
"Our house was designed to fit into the rocky landscape," explains Donna. "We wanted it to blend in with nature's work, be strong, safe, and maintenance free. This leaves us free to kayak and sail from our doorstep in the summer, and snowshoe and skate on the Lake's ice bound surface in the winter." The interior exudes charm and warmth that only the natural color of aged fir and pine can bring.
Doors, cupboards, and nearly all of the furniture and cabinets were hand-crafted by Bob, including the polished fir staircase.
"Toronto interior decorator Glen Yetmen, helped us with decisions on style related to window frames, baseboards and doors," says Donna. Most of the trim with solid design is pine, stained to match the fir. Donna loves to cook, and the kitchen is one of her favourite rooms, sporting numerous cupboards, ample counter space, and beautiful views. "It easily accomodated three cooks for our potlucks, and is a gathering spot during a party when everyone wants to get into the act."
The large kitchen island with its deep pasta sink and four-burner propane gas stove with BBQ grill and griddle, is fit for a professional, as is a matching Sub Zeror-brand refrigerator.
The home decor is pure Donna. The guest bedroom's matching walls, duvet and curtains all fairly glow in late afternoon. Large windows overlook decks, a sauna, and their private marina with its own haul-out rail system, all the while allowing the sweet scent of water into the house on fine days. Large framed openings looking down into the sunroom from both bedrooms were designed to create airflow. Apart from the connection with the living area, they assist with warm air movement from the main floor's centrally located fireplace, which also helps to heat water for the in-floor system. The 6,000 terra-cotta floor tiles in the living area came from a local brickyard. Donna painstakingly laid them over one year; the variety of tones providing a harmonious effect and aura amidst the glowing fir. Bob and Donna feel they have achieved their goal of building a home where the technical workings were chosen for safety, efficiency and dependability along with comfort and beauty. Bob wanted a strong, quality crafted house with a boat launch in his front yard. He chose to do most of the work himself because he has definite ideas and construction principles. "We love living here. This area has so much to offer. It can be harsh, but we have always felt up to the challenge." The result is a Shangri-la and shipwright splendour in the house that Bob built. End.
Donna McKay left and Sandy Peltonen
Photo by Aki Peltonen