‘We shook our heads and said, we made it’ – A Life on ‘This side of the lake’ with Michelle and Leo Persia
Former hockey-mom Michelle Persia-Campbell transitioned from a life of 5 am wake-up calls, running her own business and renovating houses with husband Leo in her spare time, to living a retired lifestyle on a quiet lake in a remote town in Northern Ontario. She and Leo are the epitome of hard work, planning and stick-to-it-ness, and now they’re living the cottage dream, year-round.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your retired lifestyle.
I retired with my husband Leo in 2009 and we made the move from the Niagara Region to Northern Ontario in October of that year. We live on a lake in the small town of Iron Bridge, which is near Blind River, on 17 acres which was mostly forest when we bought the place. We’ve managed to clear two acres and we can see a view of the lake from any area in the house.
Our home is a one room chalet with a loft and we added three bedrooms for company. We use a wood stove for heat year round and all of the wood is from our property, cut by Leo. That’s his new job, he works our land and cuts wood, and he loves it. We still call this the cottage but really it’s our home.
The road we live on has just a few cottages and we call it ‘this side of the lake’. Pretty much everyone has to drive by our property to go in and out of town, so if they see us outside, or see our car in the driveway…they stop and pop in. We’ve made great friends and everyone is so sincere and looks out for everyone else. For example, I hurt a rib recently and got so many phone calls from people wanting to help out in any way. We have true, true friends here. They’re such amazing people.
It’s funny because we have this reputation for flipping houses every five years and I was saying to a friend recently, ‘it’s been 5 years now, if we go by our track record I’ll have the for sale sign up next week!’. We had a good laugh about it.
We always have people around. I feel like we run a B&B, we have so much company from out of town, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
What’s your favorite thing to serve?
Well I have a rule, no coffee after 11am. I keep a box of red wine close by and guests can help themselves. I love all the drop-in’s but sometimes when we have out of town company staying for a few days I ask our friends for a bit of space. It’s a nice balance.
What do you do with your time?
In the winters we go ice-fishing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, walking…and in the summer we’re always outside boating, fishing, hiking, riding the quads…we are always on the go. We have a tradition on Christmas Eve now where in the evening we pack up and head out with a bunch of friends on our snowmobiles or quads, depending on the weather, and go deep into the trails in the forest. We stop and set up a little picnic with wine and snacks amongst the moon and stars, it’s beautiful. Then we go back and have a bonfire, it’s a blast.
We get together with friends a lot and have card nights, wine nights, I work out at a gym (sometimes, although it’s my goal to do more of that!) and I also have a couple of part-time jobs. I started taking art classes which has been a lot of fun. I work at a local store a few hours a week and I’m a substitute teacher at a French Immersion school a couple of days a month. I really enjoy it.
What was life like before?
When I look back at my life I see now that I felt like a bit like a robot going through the motions. Working full-time, stress, commitments, buying and renovating six homes, starting up a restaurant, trying to get out of debt, saving for retirement…it was a lot to juggle. Nature and wildlife weren’t a part of my life before and I now appreciate these things on a new level.
How does nature reflect who you are?
I appreciate nature more since being here and so does Leo. I notice things more, right down to the Monarch butterflies, different types of birds, everything. It’s more a part of me now. Leo too…for example, if he is out on the tractor and sees a frog on his path he gets off to move it out of the way. We’ve both found another sense of appreciating nature more than before.
How did you save for retirement?
Leo and I had good jobs which was a start but we took that further. We had big goals so we worked hard and bought and renovated six homes in total. We did all of the labour ourselves while we held our full-time jobs, and sold each house at a good profit.
Tell us about your journey.
Originally I’m from Timmons, Ontario. Back in 2001 when we lived in Niagara we knew we wanted to retire in Northern Ontario so we bought some properly up here with hopes to build on it one day. We spent many weekends driving 600 km, slept in a trailer with a generator, and worked the land by leveling it and removing trees. We ended up deciding not to build and sold it at a profit, then found the property we live on today. It was only three years old at the time and the inside needed finishing, which we did ourselves.
A lot of people are amazed at what we’ve accomplished here on the property and in our past. I’m not even sure they believed us at first…our jobs, the restaurant business, we renovated a tour bus, fixed up six homes…then after two years and seeing what we’ve done here with the property they started to believe it.
We’re like beavers working all the time. We put in a dock, boardwalk, gazebo, deck, shelter for wood. I feel we’re living the dream and now we play it day by day. Hopefully we’re still around in 20 years and still making things better but if not we will scale down as needed, it’s all good.
What has been the hardest part?
There haven’t been real low points but there was a lot of stress, especially around timelines with buying, renovating and selling houses. We did this while living in the homes and had the added pressures of working, kids and living in the country. It was tough at times for sure.
Tell us a story from along the way.
At one point we wanted to retire and travel North America on a tour bus so we bought an old tour bus and started to fix it up. To fund it I opened a restaurant and set a goal to earn the money and have the bus ready within three years.
I opened a fish & chips restaurant in the town of Thorold, Ontario that I called ‘Solitudes’, because of my love of nature. Solitudes was also the theme of the restaurant with the décor and nature music playing in the background. At lunch time the office workers would come in for food and also to relax, they would have a calm lunch hour listening to Solitudes music and then go back to their workdays.
I didn’t do any formal market research, I had no experience other than waiting tables when I was younger…I just gambled and opened it up and figured the rest out. Thorold had a fish and chips place that had closed a few years earlier and I knew people wanted fish and chips, especially on Fridays, so it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I owned it from 1997-2000. I leased the building for the first three years and then bought it. Eventually I sold the building and the business at a profit. It’s still operating today, although they changed the name.
Where is the bus now?
It’s in our driveway with the Harley. We took it on a trip to Nashville just last year, we’ve been to Branson, Missouri and Nashville, Tennessee. We’re planning a trip along Route 66 next year from Chicago to Santa Monica which should be a lot of fun. We’re also looking for another couple to come with us on a bike trip to Alaska, I’ve always wanted to go there. If not on the Harley we could take the tour bus.
What are some of the things you’ve learned?
I learn every day, we get up with an idea and we just go with it. We learn through our mistakes. We know now how to be frugal more than we were. If something works well and isn’t broken, I don’t fix it. I’m more careful with spending and I conserve more….money, water, everything. I don’t take anything for granted.
My only regret – we did a lot of dumb spending in the past. We didn’t need a new couch and fridge every few years, we were in a vicious circle, going shopping, buying things we didn’t need. We’re now so minimal. We don’t need anything except warm clothes, firewood, food, gas for vehicles…there’s really not much spending anymore. Clothes, shoes, purses…none of that matters now. I adapted right away. I appreciate what I have more than I did. You have to know when to say no.
What surprised you?
The only real surprise is that it turned out as well as it did! There was a health scare with Leo’s surgery a few years ago which was a low point, but after that it was like he was reborn, he has so much energy now after his heart operation.
You know, I had a bank manager for close to 15 years who said, ‘You and Leo are doers, everything you said you were going to do, you did. Very few people start a project and follow it through to the end’. She sent a letter to us after 25 years with the branch and mentioned how proud she was to have served us. We shook our heads and said ‘we made it’. It still feels like we’re on vacation. It’s such a different way of life, so laid back. And we’ve made such good friends here. We were in Thorold for over 30 years and we have more friends here than back in Thorold.
What’s your key to success?
I appreciate each moment because from day to day you don’t know what’s going to happen. I believe what Leo always says, the happiest part of each day is waking up and putting two feet on the ground. When that happens you know it’s going to be a great day.
What advice would you give to someone else considering a new or similar lifestyle?
A lot of people when they retire don’t have goals. They just sit around and think it’s going to be great. We both have goals and keep busy. Leo keeps his routine, he works outside all day and comes in for lunch, he hasn’t changed his style very much and he feels great. I also keep busy with my part-time jobs and everything else I have going on.
Some advice I would give is:
- Make sure to have goals to keep busy, and stay active
- Have a vision and a plan
- Study any new lifestyle, don’t just jump into things
- Test it out first, go camping, take in the surroundings before making a big move
- If moving to a new location, talk to people in the area first, find out what they do each season
- If you have a partner, you have to realize you are going to be with them 24-7 and you need an arrangement to keep yourselves occupied to have some distance during the day
- Put in the hard work when needed
- Don’t be afraid to try new things
- Don’t procrastinate
- Follow your gut and go for it
What’s next for you?
Lunch! We’ve pretty much done it all. We sit here and shake our heads all the time.
If you were an animal, what would you be?
I would be a horse….I’m a horse fanatic. They are such amazing animals and they give out such great energy.
Is a horse in your future?
Well, it’s a big commitment, very expensive…hmmm.