I spent my winter break with my family in a cottage we rented in Muskoka. It was absolutely beautiful, stunning — even more so than Muskoka in the summer. The frozen lakes, the snow-covered trees and paths — it was magical!
Living in downtown Toronto, we don’t own a car; instead, we have a car-sharing membership that we use whenever needed, as in this case, for example.
For this winter getaway, knowing there would be higher demand, we booked a car a few weeks in advance. The car we received wasn't exactly what we had booked, so it didn’t have enough room for 3 adults, 2 toddlers, a stroller, a folding baby bed, and one suitcase. But hey, that didn’t stress me. What stressed me a lot was when we started driving in bad weather conditions. Worryingly hoping that the weather wouldn’t get worse, I questioned our choice of taking such a trip in the winter — a question hard to answer while admiring the amazing winter scenery of the area.
All this — the car, the space, the weather, and, most importantly, the ability to visit the area more often — would have been a non-issue had we been able to take a train to Muskoka.
So, you can probably imagine my excitement when I heard the Province's announcement that Ontario's Northlander train service will be making a comeback. A comeback that would redefine travel possibilities in the region, especially for those who want to explore the incredible scenic landscapes of Muskoka but can't afford to own a cottage or find driving there too intimidating or too much of a hassle — practically making it impossible for them.
The return of Ontario's Northlander train service means more than just transportation. By reducing reliance on cars, this proposed 16-stop route from Union Station to Timmins and Cochrane represents a small yet significant step toward greater accessibility and affordability. It turns quick escapes from daily hassles and reconnecting with nature — currently a privilege enjoyed by only a few — into an accessible opportunity for people from all walks of life.
It could also be a game-changer for the entire Muskoka area. With transit comes more economic opportunities and growth. As Muskoka’s allure becomes more accessible, further developments in the area are not only inevitable, but are the right path to take. The question should not be whether or not we should allow it. Similar to urban infrastructure and opportunities that should be accessible to all – not just those lucky enough to get there first – the chance to enjoy nature should also be available to everyone who wants it. The question we should be asking is how we can pursue these developments sustainably and responsibly.
Just imagine taking a relaxed train ride with your family or friends from Union Station straight to the starting point of a stunning hiking trail or a shuttle pick-up location. A convenient shuttle takes you to designated cottage areas, where you get to enjoy your nature getaway without worrying about your car or the drive back to the city in bad weather conditions (or traffic in the summer).
Muskoka has the potential to welcome much more diverse communities, and responsible, environmentally friendly tourism strategies can play a crucial role in establishing a solid economic foundation for the future of these communities and the region as a whole. It could reimagine what an affordable and inclusive vacation in Ontario could look like.
When the Northlander train service stopped running in 2012, it had been connecting Toronto and the beauty of Northern Ontario for over a century. Back then, the government deemed the line not feasible enough and replaced it with the Barrie GO and a bus service. I don't need to get into whether that was the best decision back then. What I want to emphasize is that, right now, having this line is better than ever. With the right planning and approach, it can introduce a unique development opportunity to encourage new sustainable, affordable, and inclusive models of hospitality and tourism for everyone, regardless of their life choices or social and economic backgrounds.