'Muskoka Hospital from the Air' Postcard. Unknown date. Image found online.
Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium Postcard circa 1910. Image found online.
Drip, drip, drip, drips echoed all around us. The sound of bass-filled bloop bloop bloops bounced up the center of the stairwells and provided a beat for the dripping icicles and trickling icy stairs to melt to. It was a song. It was the aquatic sound of nature reclaiming The Muskoka Sanitorium, which was flooded and frozen to varying degrees on this mid-March day. The basement and first floor mostly frozen solid, the crunching of dry ice beneath our feet was deafening at times. The higher floors had up to an inch of ice and an inch of water either under or over the ice. Sometimes, as we stepped into a room, the water would burst up at the edges of the walls and approach our feet like Katrina engulfing New Orleans in slow motion, from every side. The fifth floor was completely flooded, the staircases melting from top to frozen bottom, where a colony of icicles laid claim to the railings and stairs on the lower floors. Thanks to a tip from Logtec, we were wearing ice cleats, which made traversing this slippery and soaked terrain comparatively easy.
Mould is the current resident and it is living throughout the entire 5 story, 3 winged facility that was Canada's first Tuberculosis Sanitorium.
Between 1897 and the age of modern tuberculosis medicine, Muskoka Sanitorium housed patients in the early stages of TB. Those in latter stages were sent home. By the early 1900s the facility housed 444 live-in residents. The city of Gravenhurst offered $10,000 to a Toronto philanthropist to build the sanitorium in or around the city, trumping a proposal from a Kamloops BC businessman offering free train rides to the facility for TB patients anywhere in Canada, if it were built in Kamloops. The site on the shore of Lake Muskoka was reportedly chosen because of the clear fresh air. Treatment at the time required residents to spend 10-12 hours outdoors on the premises per day, despite weather conditions, which are scorching summers and bone-chillingly bitter winters in this part of Ontario. The average length of stay for a TB patient was between 1 and 3 years and segregation was viewed as the only recourse against TB at that time.
Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium Advert. Image found online.
Sanitarium Association, Muskoka Cottage Sanitarium Patient Record. Image found online.
As the disease was brought under control with vaccinations and advancements in treatment between the 40s and 60s, the government changed it's tune in favour of de-institutionalization and TB patients were gradually released. From then on, until it's doors were closed in the mid 1990s, the facility operated as a residential hospital for the mentally handicapped. Currently, while the Sanitorium succumbs to nature's wrath, the rest of the property is being used by the Ontario Provincial Police for SWAT and K9 training. Security is also on site.
On this day, the early morning sun shone through the windows and reflected upon still waters and ice. Endless colours and patterns of curtains and drapes decorated rooms throughout the building. Layers of peeling paint bloomed and curled like flower pedals in staircases and patient rooms, littering the floor, both on and in the ice, or floating on the water. The reflections of the walls and ceilings of the Sanitorium always staring up at us from the floor. Still, aside from the constant and ubiquitous drip drip drips echoing all around us, and the rippling from the storm of our footsteps in the still waters.
We stopped in a large classroom and kissed.
We stood on patches of ice in adjacent rooms, each with a chalkboard in it, both covered with the names of fellow explorers, and then we switched rooms. We splashed into room after empty room and discussed how hard it must have been, to be stripped from your loved ones and your beloved freedoms not by your own actions, but by disease or fate. We discussed the empty old suitcases that were scattered throughout the Sanitorium and what they represented. We discussed loneliness and my core belief that pain is strength. Our whispered dialogue provided the lyrical content to the song.
I pointed the camera at the D.T.C.I. door and snapped the shot below. And just then, a thin slab of soggy concrete fell from the ceiling above the door frame and thudded to the dry mouldy floor. Scare. Heart-rate skyrockets. Laugh. Continue.
The staircases were all in different states of spring thaw. Some frozen over completely, some cascading like a gentle stream feeding into Lake Muskoka. All of the staircases were well lit, which isn't always the case in abandoned places.
Asbestos wrapped ducts snaked through the hallways from ceiling to floor, in a constant state of collapse.
In the Bistro cafeteria we remained silent. Chipmunk and rat carcasses made an appearance along the cold shiny aluminum serving counter. Again, there were suitcases and chairs strewn about. In the back of the kichen and dark basement staff areas we were silent. The first floor hallways and basement hallways, silent. Silent, but for the loud crunching of the dry ice floor beneath our cleats, in some places.
Some of the rooms still had patient's and doctor's names on the doors. And some of the rooms had cages.
And there we were, amongst the walls of black mould and the abandoned suitcases, standing on a frozen glacier of ice and peeled paint chips. With P100 respirators spun to the sides of our heads and nature's orchestra playing 'The Aquatic Song of the Sanitorium', we were kissing and celebrating our 15th anniversary. We continued to wander, passing the camera back and forth.
And just like that we were gone, driving south toward the Sundial Inn.
A remarkable 15th anniversary continued.
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