EDITOR’S NOTE: Manitoulin is being transformed with the influx of new residents and business owners who bring with them fresh ideas, experiences and perspectives that are enriching the area. Some individuals and families are still unpacking boxes, having only moved in the past month or two, while others made the over the last few years and are now comfortably established in their new communities. Here are some of their stories.
by Heather Marshall
To say that Darlene Nicholson is an animal lover is an understatement. “My mother often told me as a child that I didn’t always come home with my shoes, but I usually had a stray cat or dog in my arms or trailing behind me,” she laughs.
Darlene’s childhood, like almost all her adult life, was spent in the Greater Sudbury Area. Her parents moved frequently, changing houses and communities as she grew up, but they rarely strayed from Sudbury. The only time she left the region until recently was in her late teens when she moved to Kingston to help a close friend whose husband had died and who needed support raising small children. After several years there, she returned to Sudbury, initially working in retail and eventually meeting her husband, Nathan.
Another near constant in Darlene’s life has been having family pets. One of the most memorable, a German Shepherd trained as a police dog, dates to her childhood. It taught her much about animal comportment and care, which nurtured her respect and passion for dogs—a love affair that became the way she makes a living.
The other great love in her life is her husband and now business partner, Nathan, whom she married in 1989. Soon after they began a family and became parents of a son and a daughter. Nathan also was originally from Northern Ontario, born and raised on the 10th Line in Ice Lake. He left Manitoulin after high school in the mid- 1980s to attend Conestoga College in Guelph where he studied business administration. His first job was as a purchasing agent, a role that coincided with the transformation of his occupation as it quickly evolved to revolve around new technologies. Technology soon became Nathan’s career.
While he started out in Southern Ontario, he too soon migrated back to the North, working in technology with several private sector firms before starting his own tech business in the Sudbury area. At one time, Nathan installed almost every smart board in all the regional school boards when he specialized in audio/video installations.
The couple settled on a large property near Lively that gave them space for their growing children and lots of animals, including chickens, goats, turkeys and horses, as well as dogs, both as family pets and poodles and cocker spaniels bred for sale. Being a nature lover as much as an animal lover, Darlene yearned for even more land where she could have vegetable and flower gardens and plant orchards of fruit trees—a dream that would see them living on Manitoulin in later life.
“I always knew I would make it back to the Island eventually, like a salmon returning to the stream,” chuckles Nathan. Until that long-term goal could be met, the couple made do with trips to Manitoulin to visit his parents still living in Ice Lake.
In 2001 Darlene and Nathan took the first step toward their retirement plans, building a small simple cabin in the forest on his parents’ lakeshore property for family get-aways where they could spend summer holidays and weekends. “We made it as maintenance free as possible so we could just come and rest, be in nature and do nothing beyond soaking up this beautiful place,” explains Nathan.
The couple’s life took a major turn in 2014 when Darlene was involved in a frightening car accident while working as a driving instructor. A student driver she was accompanying had a head-on collusion that left her injured. The incident made her realize she needed to find a new occupation that was safer for her physical and mental health. That led to the decision to follow her heart and set up a doggie daycare and boarding kennel.
“We visited kennels throughout Northern Ontario from Markstay to Massey and were disappointed by most of them. There were so many dirty dungeons where animals were simply caged, with no place to play outside,” laments Darlene. “We were determined to offer a humane and happy environment for animals to stay when their families needed a home away from home for them.”
As the new business took off, Nathan joined her in running the Friends Fur Ever Pet Resort. He brought his technical skills to the task, establishing the first dog kennel in Ontario providing video access for pet owners to see their dogs while in Darlene’s care.
Their business was very successful, and they probably would have stayed in the city for at least a few more years until ready to retire. “However, the pandemic made us realize we could combine our love for animals with our love for Manitoulin. So, last year, we converted our former small cabin into our house and built a big new dog kennel with both indoor and outdoor play areas—all the things we always wanted to offer but never had enough room to provide before.”
All the extra land has also enabled Darlene to plant an orchard—fenced to keep the deer out—with several nut trees along with apples, pears, plums, grapes and even peaches. Nathan is a perpetual handyman finding lots of jobs to do when not caring for animals and reacquainting himself with the area he left 35 years ago as a teenager, which he says has changed tremendously since then.
The couple now breeds LUA (low uric acid) Dalmatian dogs, a rare type of Dalmatians in Canada, that are not afflicted with the kidney stone problems associated with the breed. These days the couple has their hands full caring for the latest litter of seven sweet puppies that also will make Manitoulin their new home.
Heather Marshall and her husband worked as journalists and consultants in the National Capital Region for more decades than they care to admit before making their Sandfield cottage their permanent home. A lifelong learner, Heather loves discovering new things and people and relishes the opportunity to write about newcomers to the Manitoulin. If you would like to share your story or know of recent arrivals we should meet, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.