Tilley's Take: Lake of the Woods vs. Muskoka

Alex Tilley—the man behind the iconic Tilley hat, outdoorsman and cottager—visits the vast lake region of Sunset Country. But how does it compare to his usual stomping grounds?

Travel to any part of the world where boating is popular and you’ll see people wearing his hats. Even though they’re now worn and sold in many countries, when we see the hat that Alex Tilley invented, it’s more often than not identified as Canadian.

Tilley’s hats are so durable and practical that they’re guaranteed for life. And Canadians have trusted that guarantee with increasing support over the decades since the hat was first introduced in 1980.

A one-of-a-kind hat for the true Canadian sailor

Few realize that the classic hat, created by the avid sailor, was born essentially out of frustration. Tilley was looking for a hat that wouldn’t blow off his head as he sailed and, if it should take off with the winds, would float until it was retrieved.

I personally met Tilley when he would come to my then-retail outlet in Winnipeg, where we sold those iconic hats by the thousands. He would occasionally visit stores like ours to do hat signings, donating dollars to charity for each hat signed, new or old. He and his wife, Canadian sculptor Hilary Clark Cole, decided to spend a weekend with my wife and me in Ontario’s Sunset Country at my Sioux Narrows cottage on Lake of the Woods.

Not your typical Cottage Country

Tilley also has a cottage; his is in the Lake Muskoka district in Ontario. And though the Muskoka region is equally as impressive, both Alex and Hilary enjoyed experiencing the different kind of environment that Lake of the Woods presented them with.

One of the things they told us really stood out for them was the hugeness of Lake of the Woods, next in size to the Great Lakes, with 105,000 km of shoreline and over 14,000 islands. “Compared to Muskoka, Lake of the Woods is a wilderness,” Alex would say, and that it resembles what Muskoka must have looked like a century ago. 

On a heavily populated stretch of Lake Muskoka, he told us, there would be a cottage about every hundred feet, the area especially active over the summer. “While ours is cottage country,” he once said, “yours certainly doesn’t appear so—I know that alone, I would have gotten lost on the water quickly.”

Sunsets, wildlife, and vast waters 

A long boat trip to experience the evolving beauty of this magnificent body of water is always on the itinerary when we have people visiting Lake of the Woods—it’s a tradition we never tire of. And I could not have asked for two more appreciative guests to join us on our ad-hoc guided tour of the inlets and islands of this massive lake. It’s an expedition on which I know we’ll always spot a few bald eagles, flocks of cormorants, and pelicans—and often the appearance of a black bear or deer along the shoreline.

Photo by Alex Tilley

The loons are too plentiful to count, but we can always be sure that visitors will be entertained by the haunting and eerie calls that echo across the water from the pairs that have chosen our bay as their summer home. Lake of the Woods is home to some of the finest fishing grounds for a multitude of species, especially walleye pickerel. In the evenings, as the sun would begin to set, we would head out for a short fishing adventure with Alex and Hilary. As a regular fisher on this lake, I’m only a little jealous that Hilary caught the biggest one by far. It was a catch and release excursion, but we did save enough for a final departing breakfast before our guests headed off to their own cottage on Lake Muskoka. 

Photo by Alex Tilley

A trip to remember

Both lakes of Muskoka and the Lake of the Woods area are gifts to Canadians, the likes of which few other countries have at their disposal. Alex Tilley—famed for his hats, and a man I’m proud to call a friend— summed it up best when he said, “I feel so blessed to have been born in our splendid country! And to have visited this part of it.” I feel the same about the time I’ve spent on Lake of the Woods and the people I’ve had the pleasure of introducing it to.

About Ron Pradinuk

Ron is a dedicated traveller, exploring 65 countries around the world as well as all but one province in Canada (Newfoundland). He is a writer and a broadcaster with a weekly travel column in the Winnipeg Free Press. His podcasts can be heard on iTunes or his blog That Travel Guy. He loves boating and fishing and has explored hundreds of kilometres of the Lake of the Woods body of water. Ron has owned a travel agency and larger retail speciality travel store in the past.


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