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House Beautiful: Realizing a lakefront dream

New owner restores Shawnigan Lake cabins into vintage, rustic retreat for vacationers

For more than a decade Netta Bos visited Shawnigan Lake and loved it so much she moved to the recreational cottage community 17 years ago from Ontario.

During those 30 years one thing has never changed for Bos. She has always dreamed of one day owning lakefront — specifically land on the west side of the lake that looks directly across the waters to Mt. Baldy. Her ideal property is located in front of her main residence, which is tucked away in the woods behind a country road lined with large cedars. Bos’ home, while close to the lake, doesn’t have lake access or an unobstructed waterfront view, while this preferred property has both.

Besides its great outlook the property has two small cabins on it, which were built during the early days of Shawnigan Lake’s cottage history. They were owned by a Victoria lawyer, who bought them in 1957 and only used them in summer.

“I used to walk down in the winter months to this spot and wish I could buy this place,” says Bos, standing near a picnic table with a gorgeous view of the lake and an arbutus tree near the water’s edge.

Getting to realize her dream of owning her “piece of paradise” didn’t come easy for Bos, who had to do it on her own as a single woman. She was separated in January, 2017 and finances were tight.

But she was determined. When Bos heard the owners planned to sell the property she was able to secure a private mortgage in order to make the deal happen quickly before it hit the MLS.

While many others would have torn down the humble cabins to build something modern that didn’t happen with Bos. “Necessity is the mother of invention I couldn’t afford to tear them down and rebuild so the only option was to fix them up. And then it became a story of ignorance is bliss and hindsight is 20/20. I’m not sure that I would do it again but then again, seeing the result, I can’t imagine not,” she says.

Bos took possession of her beloved lakefront property, becoming its third owner, in November, 2019. Although she finally had her lakefront a new desire was born. Bos wanted to create a unique vacation rental, which helps the property pay for itself.

As Shawnigan Lake continues to gain popularity, with many of the old-time cottages torn down and replaced by new builds, there are few opportunities for vacationers to experience life at the lake in the “good old days”- albeit with modern-day amenities, like wifi and air conditioning.

After acquiring the property Bos immediately began fixing up the cabins in order to welcome her first guests this summer on July 4th. Help came from many friends who Bos calls her “Shawnigan Angels.”

“Because of COVID no one could get away on vacation. I think for some I was entertainment value. They would come around to see what I was up to and offer help. Some would bring me food to keep me going, offer to paint furniture, fix items, bring me give gifts,” she says.

One friend, who wanted to be a professional water skier, gave Bos her wooden slalom water ski, dating back to 1950. It’s now on display in the larger cabin.

Since Bos’ background is in marketing, she put her skills to good use and created a vision for the cabins starting with the name, “Vintage Cabins, where life is, still.”

“Vintage Cabins also indicates that it is a place with history, not a 5-star accommodation but a place where you take your shoes off, a ‘muck-about’ space where you come in off the lake dripping wet and run into the cabin to grab a snack with the screen door banging behind you. The screen door was rebuilt and kept just for this reason,” she says.

Bos also drew on the history of the first home owners, calling the larger cabin, at 750 sq. ft., The Tailor’s Cabin since it was built by tailor William Cuzner in 1912. Her logo is a needle and thread in honor of the tailor.

According to his granddaughter, Cuzner came to Shawnigan Lake, by train, then rowed across the lake to this spot to build a home so his two sons could study at Shawnigan Lake School. He logged some of the trees on the property, to build the cabin then ran his business out of a small nook in one of the corners.

That nook was repurposed by Bos as a small games space, with a card table, vintage children’s book and toys, and in another nod to Cuzner, an old sewing box and wooden measuring stick. These are just a few of the curated vintage items in the cabin, adding to the cabin’s relaxed ambience.

The story goes Cuzner also wanted his two sons to learn construction so he taught them how to build the smaller of the two cabins in 1945. That cabin, called The Birdhouse, is appropriately decorated with vintage birdhouses and carved wooden birds. On its outdoor porch is a sheltered office with a display cabinet made from old water skis.

The decor of both cabins shows Bos’ keen eye and smart design choices.

“It’s easy to junk up a space so I’m trying hard not to have too much stuff,” she says.

Many of the pieces she has brought in are not only beautiful in their form but serve a function. For instance, Bos took an old suitcase and repurposed it as a side table, used a vintage, wooden shoe form as a doorstop and turned an old hat mould into a unique mirror.

But before she could have fun decorating the hard work needed to happen to get the cabins in good working order, since they were in rough shape after years of deferred maintenance.

“I had to gut the kitchen [of the Tailor’s Cabin]. When the ceiling was ripped out it snowed insulation and rat fees. The rafters were chewed from carpenter ants so it had to be all cleared out. I let it air out literally for a couple of months,” she says.

The kitchen now is full of country charm with bead board, vintage red cabinets and a gleaming white sink, from a kindergarten classroom and cleaned up. She was also able to reuse the appliances after giving them a good clean.

Another big task was ensuring the cabins were structurally sound. In the case of the Tailor’s Cabin one of its main corner posts rests on an old log stump. The cabin still stands on the stump, but its structural support has been reinforced. A happy result of shoring up the house was one of the original windows that didn’t open for decades now functions properly.

That cabin still has the original bottle glass, dating back to the early 1900s, so the lakeside windows here provide a charming “looking glass” view of the lake and Mt. Baldy beyond.

Other necessary property work that had to be done included a new septic field, new driveway, upgrading the plumbing and electrical and doing the landscaping, which meant removing decades of Salal, and rotten trees found on the property.

Then there was the business of building new decks to take advantage of the view, and bringing in two docks -one private for guests and the other Bos shares with them so she can continue to get out on the lake and enjoy water skiing.

“This has been my passion project. I just feel so blessed now that it’s done,” she says.

Or is it? Bos is considering converting an old shed on the property into either a sleeping cabana or a place of stillness.