About this series: With COVID-19 restrictions having eased over the last few months, Wheels wants to inspire you to get ready to explore — but only when it is safe to do so. This series of daytrips and longer drives highlight great experiences you can have in the province and across Canada, ands show you why this country is “Ours to Discover.”
For most, Burk’s Falls and the nearby Muskoka region typically conjure up pastoral tableaus of the Canadian Shield, azure blue lakes and bent white pines that looked plucked from a Group of Seven painting. But there are edgier artforms — macabre, in some instances — to be behold a few hours north of Toronto: ghoulish concrete smiley faces emerging from the earth, five-metre monsters forged of steel, and sculptures made from motorboat engines. Here is how to go on an art crawl through the area.
The Screaming Heads of Midlothian Castle
Visitors get a true sense of the Screaming Heads outdoor art gallery the moment they breach the gates to sculptor Peter Camani’s thick-walled home, Midlothian Castle, which dominates the 125-hecatre outdoor art venue on the outskirts of Burk’s Falls. The gate is a massive metal spider web. On top of the castle, which also houses Camani’s studio, perches a two-headed dragon. But it’s the area surrounding this edifice that can require nerves of steel should you visit late in the fall.
A winding trail through woods, ponds and meadows reveals about 100 “screaming head” sculptures, some in form of concrete smiley faces, hands reaching up out of the ground and arches in the form of gaping mouths that threaten to swallow all who approach. Some of the sculptures stand about seven metres tall, with a few weighing as much as 30,000 kilograms. The Screaming Heads are frequently called “Canada’s Stonehenge.” This isn’t a typical museum experience: you drive up, park your car in a field and drop some cash into the contribution box at the entrance. Helpful tip: wear boots.
Directions: From Toronto, drive north on Hwy. 400 and then merge onto Hwy. 11 north. At Burk’s Falls, take Hwy. 520 west to Midlothian Road.
The Bala Bog Monster
The Bala Bog Monster (originally titled Koilis), has alternately wooed or weirded out people since its first public appearance in 2007. The tentacled monster is made of 900 kilograms of steel and stands (or, rather, crouches) at a height of four metres by a cranberry bog In Bala, Muskoka.
Orville and June Johnston, proprietors of Muskoka Lakes Farm and Winery, acquired the freakish monster in 2018 because, “It reflects the scary beauty we often see in nature. As cranberry growers, we are stewards of many creatures perceived as ugly or threatening: hog-nosed snakes, snapping turtles, frogs, rattlesnakes and carnivorous plants,” Orville said about the sculpture during a talk at the Bala Cranberry Festival in 2019.
“To us, they belong here and are an important part of our ecosystem.”
The sculpture hasn’t always been so warmly welcomed. When Koilis resided on Muskoka Region’s Baxter Island, boaters habitually called it The Beast of Baxter Island. When it was moved to downtown Bala, outside Mike Chesney’s Mystery Diner chip truck, some admirers proclaimed it fabulous art, yet to others it was a frightful eyesore. Beauty is in the heart of the beholder.
Directions: From Burk’s Falls, take Hwy. 11 south and then Muskoka District Road 169 to Bala.
The Tree Museum
“Bring water and hiking boots when you visit the museum,” said E.J. Lightman, founder of The Tree Museum, a permanent exhibit of outdoor sculpture on the shores of Ryde Lake, near Gravenhurst. Viewing the installations, which celebrate the collusion between nature and culture, involves extensive walking over uneven terrain and scrambling up rocks. The first sculpture is about one kilometre from the parking lot.
Since The Tree Museum opened in 1997, Lightman and co-curator Anne O’Callaghan have invited guest curators to use the trees, lush meadows, rocky outcrops, lichen-covered rocks, wet shorelands, ponds, lakes and twigs in their artworks. One installation positioned horizontal tree trunks on granite rock to create the effect of a diving board—a common activity in cottage country. There are usually 15 temporary sculptures, and no admission for the self-guided visits. There is also an outhouse on site.
Directions: From Bala, follow Frank Miller Memorial Route and Muskoka District Road 169 to Doe Lake Road in Gravenhurst.
A natural art show
The Torrance Barrens Conservation Area became the world’s first permanent dark sky reserve in 1991. Thanks to the stunted trees and bushes —and an absence of light pollution — visitors to the 1,900-hectare Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve can enjoy incredible 360-degree views of the sky on a clear night. Stargazers are frequently rewarded with views of some of the planets, the Milky Way and other classic constellations. The Northern Lights (Aurora borealis) can also make an appearance in late summer and fall.
Directions: From Gravenhurst take the Frank Miller Memorial Route and Muskoka District Road 169 to Southwood Road/Muskoka District Road 13 to Torrance Barrens.
For the drive
Download podcasts of the weekly radio show “Arts R Us” from Muskoka Radio. Learn about local painters, sculptors, musicians and other Muskoka-based artists with hosts Karen Cassian and Noreen Mitchell.
COVID-19 need to know
Most restaurants, stores and attractions are open with reduced capacity. Note that the government-mandated proof of vaccination rule is in effect. Check provincial guidelines before you head out on your road trip (Ontario.ca).