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Retired as wilderness guide, local artist still one with nature

Tour guide, artist, musician Ellen Van Laar spending more time in town but maintains home at Old Mamainse Harbour, the inspiration for many of her paintings

Ellen Van Laar is still very connected with the outdoors.

Van Laar is known for guiding year-round tours of the wilderness from a retreat called Arts and Adventure at Old Mamainse Harbour, 80 km north of Sault Ste. Marie.      

She recently sold the retreat with an understanding that she can still live in her home on the property. The new owner is content to live in a nearby cabin that was used to accommodate tourists, Van Laar told SooToday in a recent interview.

“I’m kind of retiring from guided tours but I’m going to live here until I pass.”

At 71, Van Laar said the area "is almost like an identity once you’ve guided the tours. Because I know so much history of the area and so many cultural things, the geology of the area, people call me up a lot to ask those types of questions.”

The area has a long history including its days as a Hudson Bay Trading Post and a location for copper mines, and visitors led by Van Laar have explored winter ice caves, enjoyed snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, kayaking, hiking, art, photography or studying the area’s geology and history.

A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan with a Masters degree in Art and Music from Central Michigan University, Van Laar started visiting the area four decades ago and bought her home and visitors cottage at Old Mamainse Harbour 25 years ago.

“It would often relate to what they were interested in,” said Van Laar of her guided tours and clients.

“We would go kayaking or hiking, discuss the geology, the rocks, the vegetation of the area, the history of the area, Indigenous history. There were many different topics to communicate.”

Van Laar said visitors to Arts and Adventure would include people bicycling across Canada, politicians and older females looking for a quiet, safe environment to enjoy.

Photos of the ice caves in the area made it to the pages of various publications.

“That’s what caused some people to come from overseas,” Van Laar said.

“They were fascinated. For tourists and immigrants, the area epitomizes something about Canada that people are looking for.”

She also conducted tours for individuals working on PhDs, interested in Indigenous studies and the Northern Lights.

“It’s the lifestyle I chose,” Van Laar said.

“Nature’s underrated. I think we all ought to be outside more,” she laughed.

She also owns a home in the Sault and said she plans to spend more time getting involved in activities in town in her senior years.

A musician, Van Laar plays piano and violin, enjoying classical music, jazz and Indigenous songs.  

She is currently in the process of starting up a local network for female musicians.

“A lot of the women in the group are professional musicians but we want to integrate the younger musicians with them and start communication.”

An artist, her love of nature shows in her paintings.

“For me art is a way to process life and it helps me strengthen my connections with nature. It’s almost like I’m looking for another way of relating to nature, so I go for walks, play music and paint pictures about it.”

Van Laar’s paintings are currently available for viewing — and for sale — at the Algoma Conservatory of Music and are based on this area’s geography.

“I wanted to create a series of paintings about the area that integrate water and light. They’re pretty abstract too. They’re not just pretty pictures of the land. They’re an integration of various elements inside and outside of me.”

Ellen Van Laar can be contacted with questions related to guided tours of the Old Mamainse Harbour area, her music or art through social media or email.

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Darren Taylor

About the Author: Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor is a news reporter and photographer in Sault Ste Marie. He regularly covers community events, political announcements and numerous board meetings. With a background in broadcast journalism, Darren has worked in the media since 1996.
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