This hidden gem nestled in Ontario’s Thousand Islands is a testament to love and community.
By: Victoria St. Michael
The first time I saw Kay’s Bridge, tucked into the landscape along Donevan Trail at the Landon Bay Centre just outside Gananoque, ON, I was almost too exhausted to notice its beauty.
I wasn’t much of a hiker back then. To make matters worse, I was being upstaged by a 90-year-old man. It was a hot day in August 2014. I was trailing behind my mom and younger brother as we hiked, trying (and failing) to hide my exhaustion.
Charlie Donevan, the trail’s namesake, was leaving all three of us in the dust.
“Come on, keep up!” he called over his shoulder, sauntering along the rocky trail like a man more than half his age. Although he must have walked this trail hundreds of times, Charlie looked at the unassuming stone bridge as if he were seeing it for the first time.
Although Kay’s Bridge was built in 2010, it represents a love story that goes back more than 50 years. A story about a man and his deep love for his family, as well as the history, the land and the community that raised him.
Charlie Frederick Donevan was one of the first people I met when my family and I moved to Gananoque in 2014. We met during a visit to his hardware store on the main street of Downtown Gananoque, or “Gan,” as it’s known to the locals. Charlie was sitting, as usual, in his chair by the front door next to the woodstove. If it had been winter there would likely have been a roaring fire going, so Charlie’s many visitors would have a friendly place to warm up. But it was summer, so the shop’s door was wide open and welcoming.
My younger brother Daniel, who had been about to start the 7th Grade at Gananoque Intermediate and Secondary School at the time, hit it off with Charlie instantly. He began volunteering at Donevan’s Hardware, and he soon became close to Charlie. In fact, Daniel still volunteers there today.
“Charlie has endless stories and so much to share about anything you’d need to know,” Daniel tells me. “At first it was just learning new things and having someone with endless knowledge to show me, but in no time Charlie and I were more like friends than anything else. Helping him at the store turned into helping him at home and just going for a bite to eat.”
Soon after, Charlie offered to give us a tour of the Landon Bay Centre, a 225-acre ecological reserve which is part of the Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve. It’s one of the largest bays in the Thousand Islands, extending nearly 2km inland. It’s also a key spawning area for fish and a refuge for many species of turtles, drawn to the bay because it’s so shallow where it opens onto the river. Charlie and his late wife Kay owned a plot of land on Landon Bay for more than 30 years, before donating the land to the federal government in 2000.
As I got to know Charlie, I quickly became aware that he’s a bit of a local celebrity.
Donevan’s Hardware is considered the heart of Downtown Gan, and it has been that way since Charlie’s grandfather, James, first opened the store in 1872. Charlie was born in Gananoque on July 31, 1924, and has lived in town all his life.
In the early days, Charlie says Gananoque felt like a different world. The sidewalks were made of wooden boards and there was no pavement on the main street. Factories lined the Gan River all the way down to the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Charlie recalls that it wasn’t unusual to see a team of horses coming up the main drag towing lumber, which was used for fuel by the steamboats that came up the St. Lawrence River before the Seaway was constructed in 1954.
As a boy, Charlie was a self-proclaimed “river rat.” He says the Gan River was wild back then, and the boys used to race down it inside homemade tin boats. This tradition birthed Gananoque’s Charlie Donevan Tin Boat Race Revival, which thrilled the local kids in August 2015. In 2017, 400 of the town’s residents came together as part of the Canada 150 celebrations to create an eight-foot tile mosaic depicting Charlie in his own tin boat, complete with his trademark beaver skin top hat.
Charlie began stocking shelves at his grandfather’s store at six years old, and by eight he was working as a delivery boy, carting hardware and groceries to customers around town on his bicycle. Later in life, after he inherited the store and bought the property at Landon Bay, Charlie would work at the store until noon, then spend each evening operating and maintaining the campground at Landon Bay. People came from all over to stop at Donevan’s, but as bigger box stores began opening up in town, Charlie’s customer base dwindled. Despite this, until very recently Charlie could be seen making the walk to work, six days a week, without fail.
He says, ‘No, this will do just fine,’ and pulls the rattiest old tube out of the trees and just passes out right there on the ground.
Charlie’s family owns a part of Stave Island near Gan, and Charlie says he was there to see with his own eyes when anthropologists uncovered evidence that Indigenous peoples had occupied the island 10,000 years ago. He says he’s had an avid interest in local history and geography since that day, and continues to visit his cottage on Stave Island frequently.
“Charlie’s favourite thing about going to the island is sitting on the point eating breakfast,” Daniel tells me. “A few years ago, we were over there chopping wood and cleaning out the cottage. He says to me ‘Dan, I need a nap.’ I said okay, are you going to nap on the swing out on the point? He says, ‘No, this will do just fine,’ and pulls the rattiest old tube out of the trees and just passes out right there on the ground.”
He married his wife Mary Kathryn (Kay) in 1956 and they remained together for nearly 60 years. The couple had a long and happy life together that was full of adventure. They worked together over the decades on various community and wildlife restoration initiatives, which were a testament to their love for each other, their community, and the earth itself.
Charlie and Kay now have two children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Kay died on Aug. 26, 2010 at 85 years old. “Charlie doesn’t talk about Kay very much,” Daniel says. “But when he does, it’s so obvious that they had a really loving marriage.”
Today, Charlie continues to run Donevan’s Hardware with his daughter, Mary. The store, which he now shares with a studio for local artists, continues to enjoy a steady flow of visitors.
Charlie’s love for local history was part of what drove him to purchase the Landon Bay property alongside five other men in 1965. They formed a charitable foundation named to honour missionary Barbara Heck, known as the “Mother of Methodism” in North America. The original stones from Heck’s homestead would be used many years later to build Kay’s Bridge.
The dry-stone bridge was built in Kay’s memory shortly after her death, named to honour her many contributions to the community and her dedication to maintaining and preserving the land for so many years. As Charlie explained to us while we hiked, dry-stone structures are made entirely without mortar. They use only gravity and physics to stay in place, thanks to a load-bearing façade of interlocking stones.
Kay’s Bridge spans 30 feet and stands eight feet high, crossing a small creek. The construction style dates back to the Neolithic age. Dry-stone bridges can last for hundreds of years and can hold astonishing amounts of weight. Because of the abundance of durable granite in the area, Charlie says he believes Kay’s Bridge will be standing strong for generations to come.
If you’re looking for a quiet, moderate hike along one of the largest bays in the Thousand Islands, you can get to Landon Bay by driving east from Gananoque or west from Brockville along the Thousand Islands Parkway. With everything there is to see, you could spend anywhere from an hour to a day exploring the park.
There are many picturesque spots for a break or a picnic along the way. To hike the full 5km loop, begin at the opening of Donevan Trail, marked by an unmistakable dry-stone arched gate. Those willing to take a quick detour from the main loop can follow the signs to The Lookout, a jutting granite cliff that overlooks the bay and offers a panoramic view of the Thousand Islands. There is also an alternate route that takes you along the water’s edge, around the edge of the bay itself. Don’t forget to bring your camera, because you’re sure to spot some local wildlife along the way.
Although I moved back to Ottawa in 2017, I think of Charlie often. This year he will be turning 97. Despite the fact that life has gotten busy, and they haven’t been able to spend time together since the onset of COVID-19, Daniel says his bond with Charlie remains strong.
“I hope it stays that way,” he tells me. “Charlie is one of the reasons I know what I know about life, business and taking the high road all through life. To live it the best way possible.”
Since that August day in 2014, I’ve hiked the trails at Landon Bay dozens of times; it has quickly become one of my favourite places in the world. If you’re looking for somewhere to escape this summer, it’s sure to become one of yours, too.
Update: An earlier version of this article stated that Charlie had owned the island. In fact, he owned part of the island with several others. It also stated that they had owned this land for more than 40 years. That has been updated to “more than 30 years.” Additionally, a section of this article miscalculated the amount of osprey conservation projects Charlie and Kay participated in. That section has been removed. Thanks to community members for their clarification notes.
Victoria St. Michael is a writer with bylines in various publications across Canada, as well as her own casual blog at www.vicstmichael.ca. She is a journalism graduate of both the University of Ottawa and Algonquin College. She enjoys photography and all things spooky/horror, and lives in Ottawa with her partner and their two spoiled cats. Follow Vic on Twitter or Instagram at @vicstmichael
All photo credits: Victoria St. Michael