Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Hidden World of Huckleberry Rock

Bev McMullen.
I admired her long before I started working with her. I was working on the magazine Sideroads of Muskoka, in the Huntsville office, and Bev worked in Bracebridge, and even though the two towns are only 25 minutes apart and we worked for the same company, we never met. I think I saw her at a Christmas party once. She was as loud and gregarious as she was tiny. Like a little blonde blazing ball of personality.

Photographers from all over would submit photos to Sideroads and the best of them came from this woman named Bev McMullen. She had such an eye for it. Her pictures were always painted with rich, strong colour and other photos paled beside hers. I remember wondering who this Bev person was and, when we finally met, I was a little bit starstruck. 

Andrew Wagner-Chazalon. 
Omgawd, I never get his last name straight. For some reason I want to put a Chase in there. Like, Andrew Chase-Wazalon. Even now, as I write this, I am double-checking the spelling of his name. As with Bev, I knew of Andrew’s work with the glossy Muskoka magazine Beyond the City long before we met. Glossy makes it sound hard and unapproachable so maybe glossy isn’t the right word because everything Andrew does is approachable, like the man himself. When I started in Bracebridge, Andrew was away on a leave of absence, living in Australia with his wife and their children. He showed up one day with a big smile on his face and the trace of an accent. Bev describes him as an English professor and he does have that way about him. Bespectacled, bearded. Tousled curly hair. Khaki shorts and sandals, I think. Professorial, yes, but sweet, too. Always takes time to listen, no matter how imminent the approaching deadline. 

Tomorrow Bev and Andrew will launch the latest book they have published together. The Hidden World of Huckleberry Rock is a purse-sized treasure of short stories written by Andrew with drop dead gorgeous photos by Bev, all about one rather ordinary place in Muskoka, the heart of Ontario’s cottage country. The launch takes place from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in the Rock Grill at Red Leaves Resort in Minett. If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop by and and pick up an autographed copy. Because the book is tiny in stature (kind of like Bev), it’s also not expensive. I think it retails for under 20 bucks – forgive me if I’m wrong, guys. But it is a sweet bargain at that price. For anyone who lives in or loves Muskoka, it’s a perfect gift; a perfect microcosm of one seemingly inconsequential place that harbours a ridiculous wealth of fascinating stories and, until now, hidden secrets.

“It’s really clear that this is a special place to many people,” says Andrew. “One guy told me he proposed to his wife up there. Someone else was married there. Another person has a stained glass art image of the place, which his parents gave him as a wedding present. People have scattered ashes up there. While I don’t know of any births, I’m pretty sure some babies have been conceived up there. It’s just a remarkable bit of landscape that so many people call their own.

“I was thinking about my favourite places in the world, and realized something: they're almost all rocky places. The Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand (an amazing hike around the mountain that played Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings); Gros Morne in Newfoundland; Peggy's Cove in Nova Scotia; Mount Wellington in Tasmania; Uluru (aka Ayers Rock) in the Australian outback. And most of them have the added beauty of rock meeting water, a feature they share with Huckleberry Rock, as well as the added bonus of being able to sit up high and look down low. I think that's one of the reason Huckleberry Rock is so treasured, because it's one of the few places in Muskoka that allows that. Lots of rocky places, lots of water, but not that many places where you can climb up on a rock and sit high and look out over water far below you. It's also got the bonus of being a place where your view transforms dramatically as you climb. You start out in woods, and in a very short time enter a place where there are almost no trees. That makes it a more interesting place, too.”

If anyone knows an interesting place when they see it, it’s Andrew and Bev. They’ve done more traveling than anyone I know. Bev just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime journey with headhunters – and not the kind who find you employment!

Bev says, “Andrew and I are born adventurers and explorers, we quest to see new things and simply go to the ends of the world to have this wow effect. He to Australasia and me to the Orient and South Pacific and South China Sea. We have both travelled further and to other places but the itchy feet and need to escape is always there. Muskoka offers both of us the escape appeal as simply around the corner is something to marvel at; if that isn’t enough a two hour ride will take you to a ghost town, or a great mining town, or waterfall. We both love kayaking and canoeing.

“We were offered the project of doing the book on Huckleberry Rock last year. We worked on it diligently and Andrew did the writing and I did the photography and found stories as well. We both do everything to make the book happen. The fresh new idea of new size, great little stories and lots of pretty pictures with an affordable price point should be a hit. The traditional coffee table books sold for $50 to $60 and now people can’t afford them. Our books are a series and are great cottage and hostess gifts. We no sooner finish one book when we are on about the next. Both Andrew and I are obsessive about the need to create. We both, when time permits, will be writing about our travels. I have chapters finished and my publisher Yellow Toadstool has agreed to make it into an e-book so I will have some writing ahead of me this winter.”

Bev and Andrew seem an unlikely pairing. They don’t hobnob around the office and if you didn’t know they produced books together, you’d never even guess there was a connection. But people who know them, people who see them together professionally, or see and appreciate their work, say they carry on like an old married couple.

Andrew agrees. “Yes, we work well together. And there is a marriage-like element to it, as we learn to put up with each other’s idiosyncracies and draw on each other's strengths. We've laughed at the fact that many people don't know what to make of our relationship, particularly those who have seen Bev and me together but have never seen me with my real wife, Sharon.

“Bev and I started working together around 2002. She came into the office as a would-be freelancer – I thought she was another crazy photographer, until I saw her work. Then I knew she was a really talented crazy photographer. I soon had her shooting freelance assignments, then got her doing a column once I realized she had a real knack for finding interesting stories. Her columns – Chasing the Light, later renamed to Worth a Thousand Words – were very popular additions to the Muskokan (a local summer newspaper).

“We soon started going to stories together, because Bev can’t write and I can’t shoot! (Well, neither of us does the other’s job as well, at least). We started talking about doing a book, which resulted in Muskoka Traditions, which Boston Mills Press published in 2005. We then started work on a second, called Forgotten Muskoka, but that ended up getting left by the wayside while we worked on other projects. It will probably be revived, because there are too many good stories there to leave behind. I did a book without Bev (Grace and Speed, with painter Doug Dunford) while Bev worked on Carve Your Own Totem Pole (Firefly books). I was brought into that project as an editor and ghost writer, which was a lot of fun,” Andrew says. “When I came back from Australia, we started talking about doing another book together, which became The Hidden World of Huckleberry Rock. The topic was suggested by a mutual friend who had a great love of the place. Bev had been shooting there for years, and had a great store of photos, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to get stories. But the more people I talked to about it, the more I realized how special it was to so many people. Nobody had any big stories – no epic tales of adventure – but everyone has a little story. That just seemed to be the way to do the book – gathering those little stories, those anecdotes together. 

“I started out just mentioning the project to people, and soon found people telling me their stories, or telling me about people who had stories. Many of the didn’t make it into the book, partly because they’re still coming in. I’m planning to set up a facebook page, so people can go online and share those stories with each other.”

Stories .. it’s all about the stories, this book. Wonderful short real-life stories, all written with Andrew’s classic style. I’m not the only one who appreciates Andrew’s natural storytelling abilities. Bev happens to be one of his biggest fans.

“Andrew is a great writer, I compare him to Pierre Berton and Roy MacGregor. I truly love Andrew as a mentor and best friend, he is genuinely that nice, he never gets mad at me which is hard to believe.”

Andrew says his favourite story isn’t even in the book. “It's the story I was told by one of the guys who owned the property, and who ended up donating it to the township to make it into a park. He bought it as part of a package of land, and didn't really know what he had until someone took him up there. He looked out and said, ‘This is gorgeous. Too nice to belong to one person – it should be a park.’ That's such a marvellous sentiment, followed by terrific actions. I love the spirit of the place that inspired him to do that, and to then convince two other owners to sell or give away their land up there as well.”

Bev has hundreds of photos of Huckleberry Rock and it wasn’t easy for her to choose which of her babies to publish.

“Trying to sort the pictures for the book was hard for me,” she says. “Each image has a story or a tail, it was hard but Andrew was great and in the end I got what I wanted. However I did lose a disc and I was so upset because it was my best stuff. We found the disc when the book was on the press and was able to get a couple of those images of timed exposures into the final copy.”

Thank goodness for that. Already people have commented on how beautiful the cover photography by Bev is. The inside pages are just as beautiful.

I asked them, how do they do it? Have busy jobs and busy lives and manage to produce such exceptional books?

Andrew says it best. “Why do we keep writing books? I think it's because there are always more tales to tell. Bev keeps shooting, I keep hearing stories, and eventually we look around and realize we've got something that should be put into a book.”

Best of luck with The Hidden World of Huckleberry Rock, Bev and Andrew. And best wishes also for all the projects you two talented folk produce in the future. Knowing you guys, there will be many more. It’s a pleasure for me to write about your latest book, and to see you in the kitchen, heating up coffee or putting a lunch salad together or talking about plans for the weekend. You’re one of the reasons I love getting up in the morning and going to work.

See you at the launch!


  1. Wow, Cathy! I'm blushing.

    Thanks so much for your kind words. Look forward to seeing you at the launch tomorrow.


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