Escape to the country

Rick and Susan Brooks built their net-zero home on land once owned by Rick’s great grandfather, and it’s there the couple live out their retirement dream, without the retirement.

Rick and Susan Brooks enjoy the rural lifestyle that their Muskoka home offers.

by Gale Beeby | photography by Danielle Meredith

When Rick and Susan Brooks broke ground to build their retirement dream home in Muskoka, they knew they would be digging up a lot of family history in the process.

That’s because the property on which they decided to build their net-zero home has a long connection with the Brooks family, dating back to Rick’s great grandfather, Edgar Joseph Brooks.

“An aspect of my life that has been known to ‘eat’ a lot of my time is family history,” says Rick, a Township of Lake of Bays councillor representing Sinclair Finlayson. “My (family) tree has over 2,400 names and holds memories of the Mayflower, United Empire Loyalists, British Home Children and so many interesting stories.”

One of those “interesting” stories involved his pioneering great grandfather.

“In 1881, Edgar Joseph Brooks moved to Novar (just north of Huntsville) to stay with his brother Francis,” Rick tells me. “He met and married Elizabeth Jane May the following year and they – along with George May, her brother – laid claim to several land grant parcels in the un-surveyed lands, later to be known as Sinclair.

“One of those they eventually patented and began to homestead. That was on what became known as Brooks Lake. The location of their original house and barn is where Susan and I now live,” he smiles.

“Previous owners of the land took apart Edgar and Elizabeth’s original square-hewn log home and relocated it on land between Brooks Lake and Dotty Lake. It is still there, even surviving a recent tornado when other buildings on the property did not.

The square-hewn log home was Rick’s great grandfather’s cabin, built about 1882. (Rick Brooks photograph)

Net Zero

Rick, 69, an architectural technologist, and Susan, 64, the office manager at Taylor Carpet One, married in 2006 and lived in Port Hope, where Rick set up his architectural practice.

Three years later, they bought the land on Brooks Lake, taking possession on March 8, 2009, and started planning their retirement dream home. They designed the home themselves, keeping the future in mind and constructing it to accessible standards. There is even a future option of installing an elevator.

“There is a step-down to the great room, but we can easily install a ramp if needed,” Susan says.

During the building of the house, Rick and Susan kept a photo journal of their progress and would spend weekends camped out on the property. The home was completed in 2013.

Power at the home on Brooks Lake is generated by solar panels and stored in batteries.

The decision to take the home off the electrical grid was easy to make after they priced the cost to bring hydro on to the property.

“It would cost $75,000 to bring hydro to the house, or $50,000 to install a solar network. Plus, there are long-term savings to operating on solar power,” says Rick.

The solar array generates enough power and there is lots of capacity, Susan adds.

“We don’t want for anything,” Rick concurs.

In the winter, though, when the daylight hours are shorter, they sometimes have to supplement their power with a propane-fuelled generator.

Susan was the first to move into the new home in 2014, with Rick spending weekends at their country paradise while still working and fulfilling his volunteer commitments in Oshawa.

Susan started a vegetable garden – “we grow enough potatoes to get us through winter” – and hopes soon to get chickens and goats, and “maybe even sheep.”

For now, Rick and Susan will enjoy the maple syrup they harvest every year in their sugar shack.

“Our maple syrup production is small scale,” Rick says, “with 70 taps producing about 37 litres of syrup.”

But that syrup isn’t just for pancakes. Susan has been learning to cook and bake with the sweet sap and her cheddar, bacon and maple syrup shortbreads are her signature dish. She has several recipes, but while reading her recipe for sage, apple and maple rack of wild boar made my mouth water.

Community building

Rick has been volunteering with the Kiwanis Club for over 30 years. His commitment to the work, as well as the amount of time he spends doing it, is astounding.

“I am a doer, not just a joiner, so when my neighbour approached me about getting involved in Kiwanis, he caught my interest as Kiwanis sponsored our major midget hockey team. At that time, I was involved with the Oshawa Generals hockey club. That was the hook.”

Kiwanis is known as the No. 1 service club supporting children and its school-based programs are second to none – its back-to-school program, in fact, has been adopted nationally. The Kiwanis’ programs not only develop young leaders, they also reinforce their self-confidence, self-esteem and awaken an interest in them to do good for others, Rick tells me.

Even after moving to Muskoka from Port Hope, he continued to make the drive south to attend events and meetings.

“My passion for Kiwanis and the work that we do is such that, even in relocation, I spent the next year travelling back and forth until finally realizing it was up to me to start a new club locally here in Huntsville. That became a reality in August, 2017.

“The feeling of accomplishment and fulfilment, along with the satisfaction of knowing our service work is meaningful and helping our neighbours is a powerful motivator,” he says.

“Life is what you make of it and who you share it with along the way. Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers dedicated to improving the world, one child and one community at a time, and, for me, that community is Muskoka.”