A Home on Foley Mountain

Living an unexpected life in a public park

Foley Mountain is home to so many creatures: the chipmunks and beavers, the dragonflies and salamanders, the famous grey rat snakes, the red-tailed hawks.

It's home for the Forest School students who, after just a few weeks, feel like part of the ecosystem. It's home for the locals who routinely traverse the same old trails, somehow always finding something new.

But for Peri McQuay, Foley Mountain has been more than a home, more than the place she lived for 30 years, writing and raising her children.

For Peri McQuay, Foley Mountain has been an unexpected and miraculous gift.

A young Peri McQuay sits near the beaver pond at Foley Mountain. (Credit: Alan Clark)

Finding Foley

It happened over lunch one day. Peri and Barry McQuay were new to Westport and dining with some new friends, RVCA chairman Pat McManus and his wife Dorene. Peri asked where she might explore some old-growth trees in the area.

"Well, he got kind of a funny smile and he said you might want to go over and see Foley Mountain," Peri recalled. "It was a new conservation area they were trying to develop. So, Barry and I went over to the mountain. It was the end of winter and it was hard to walk, but when we got there, that was it."

They were hooked by the raw beauty of the place - the thundering early spring waterfall, the swaying pines, the endless forest. They moved into the old McCann House in 1975 to become the conservation area's first caretakers.

That decision would change their lives. Barry, a high school English teacher commuting to Kingston, and Peri, a bourgeoning writer with two young kids at home, were leaping into a wild life very few were living.

"I've often thought what a magical thing it was, that you simply can't plan," Peri said. "Often what you're given is more of a gift than anything you could have ever imagined." 

Foley Mountain officially opened as a conservation area in 1973.

Life on the mountain

The McQuays had pictured their new role as a quiet one: Peri could write in peace while Barry, with only his caretaking duties, could explore his own writing, too. But it didn't take long for Pat McManus to suggest Barry run some outdoor education programs, as well.

Soon Barry was back to teaching, this time immersing kids in the wonders of the natural world.

"It was just so successful," Peri said. "Kids really care about these programs and they learn from them. Having had his experience in schools, Barry could see the difference."

And the kids adored charismatic, enthusiastic Barry.

"He was passionate about what he was sharing. Coming from teaching Shakespeare to teenagers, it was a wonderful gift," Peri laughed. 

Barry McQuay teaches a group of students at Foley Mountain.

While Peri had grown up around nature, she had never had 800 wild acres to roam – and Barry had spent his childhood in Toronto. Their two boys were so young they adjusted to life in the forest right away, although as they grew up, seeing friends became a challenge.

And they had little privacy.

"There were no cell phones, so when groups at the campground had a problem, they ended up at the house," Peri said.

Once, a French-Canadian film crew's van got stuck in the snow by the interpretive centre, so they spent the night partying in Peri's kitchen.

"It was like a revolving door," she said.

Summer students would bunk in the interpretive centre, showing up at the house when they needed a shower. In return they'd watch the kids or help out around the house, becoming part of the family for the summer - or longer.

"We followed them over the years and many of them went on to careers in conservation," Peri said. "They'd be the first to say it was because of this place."

Peri and Barry at Foley Mountain's beach.

It wasn't perfect. Finding babysitters was tricky, and they had no family nearby. The kids couldn't just bike to their friends' houses, as it involved careening down the big hill – and then climbing back up.

But Peri's parents came to visit as often as possible. And every summer their friends would make the trek, having little access to such undisturbed wilderness in Toronto.

Tourists would tell them again and again how lucky they were to live this life. And for the most part, Peri agreed. 

Peri holds a copy of her first book, The View From Foley Mountain, in her home near Bobs Lake.

The View from Foley Mountain

Peri's writing career took off, inspired by the daily wonders she witnessed around her.

She began to feel truly at home: with herself, with her life, with the natural world.

"In winter I would go out on the beaver ponds and stretch myself over the lodge and you could hear the beaver talking inside. And I thought, this is just exactly where I want to be. This means everything to me," Peri recalled.

Her first book, The View From Foley Mountain, was released in 1987 and brought more attention to the conservation area, attracting bus tours of visitors from across the province.

While some residents grumbled at how busy their secret paradise was getting, Peri recognized the importance of letting people share in the mountain's glory. She knew that by experiencing nature, people would care more about its protection and conservation. 

Her own children have taken that to heart. Her oldest son, Morgan, has followed his father's teaching footsteps and takes his young students outside as much as possible. Jeremy lives near Toronto but seeks out local conservation areas with his own children, bringing them back to Foley Mountain every chance he can.

Peri's son Morgan does a pond study with his children at Foley Mountain, his childhood home.

Barry retired in 2005, and they left their 30-year life on the mountain to build in a clearing they named Singing Meadow. Tragically, Barry passed away of cancer in 2016.

At 77, Peri still writes her blog Small, With Great Love and still wonders at the world outside her window. And she is still thankful for her unexpected life - a life that Foley Mountain's current site supervisor Rebecca Whitman now leads with her own family.

"It wasn't always easy, but I did feel like I was living a dream," Peri said. "And I know Barry did, too."

Foley Mountain Conservation Area is an 800-acre public wilderness in Westport, ON. Overlooking Upper Rideau Lake, its unique ridges, lookouts and habitats create a thriving ecosystem that supports a huge range of aquatic and terrestrial species, including species at risk. Follow along as we celebrate Foley Mountain's 50th anniversary in 2023. The RVCA is posting facts and stories about Foley Mountain every Friday on its social media pages, and will host a community celebration later this year.

Learn more about Peri McQuay at www.perimcquay.ca. 

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Thursday, 30 May 2024

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