BY LINDA MONDOUX
When it comes to tourism, big often triumphs over small. Thousands upon thousands of tourists have travelled to Sudbury for one reason only: to get a look at the Big Nickel, a 30-foot replica of a 1951 Canadian five-cent piece.
They’ve travelled to Cochrane to see a giant polar bear, to Iroquois Falls to gaze at a giant lumberjack, and to Hearst to ponder a giant saw. In Sault Ste. Marie, sports fans have photographed a giant baseball — at 2,000 times the size of a regular baseball, it’s an impressive sight! And let’s not forget the giant Canada Goose in Wawa. If you travel west to Kenora, you’ll meet Husky the Muskie, a sculpture of a 40-foot fish with pride of place on the city’s harbourfont.
But northern Ontario isn’t the only part of this vast province that likes things big.
In Wiarton, there’s the giant sculpture of Wiarton Willie, the famous groundhog prognosticator. It, too, sits proudly on the waterfront. In Innisfil, a 20-foot-high rocking horse — you’ll find it at Munro’s Furnishings — has been recorded in the Guinness World Records book as the world’s largest, weighing in at 5,500 pounds. Campbellford boasts a 20-foot twoonie, designed by Canadian wildlife artist Brent Townsend. Nearby Colborne has a giant apple — you can climb 35 feet to the observation tower for grand views of Lake Ontario and the Northumberland hills.
Then there are all those giant chairs: The bright blue chairs on the beach in Kincardine; the large Muskoka-type chair in Cloyne; the big Muskoka chair in Huntsville; and the really big Muskoka chair at the Home Hardware in Gravenhurst. Dubbed the world’s largest, the bright yellow chair is a replacement for the one that was destroyed in a tornado in 2009.
The biggest roadside attraction of them all, however, is Muddy the Mudcat in Dunnville. You’ll find this giant ode to Dunnville’s most famous fish in Centennial Park off Highway 3. At 52-feet long and 27 feet high, it was designed to become the world’s largest fish, rivalling the sculpture in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where a catfish measuring 40 feet long and 12 feet tall is known to residents as “The Wahpper.”
Where the Grand River meets Lake Erie
Dunnville, a historic community located at the lower end of the Grand River, just up from the hamlet of Port Maitland, where the Grand meets Lake Erie, has had a long love affair with the catfish, or mudcat as it’s known around here. At Dunnville, part of the amalgamated municipality of Haldimand County, the channel catfish is in abundant supply and renowned for its size — it’s not unusual to land a 15- or 20-pounder.
The “Mudcat” name has been proudly associated with the community’s baseball and hockey teams, whose players have helped to get the message out about this feisty town at the end of the Grand. There’s even a Mudcat Festival, held each June to celebrate the Grand’s beloved fish.
And so it was just a matter of time before someone put mudcat and big together. Muddy was officially unveiled on Nov. 14, 2009, following three years of work. There were approvals to get. And fundraising to accomplish. Most important, there was a larger-than-life fish to create, one that would be big enough to make it into the Guinness World Records and put Dunnville on the tourist map in grand style. “It captures the spirit of the town,” The Sachem News
quoted resident Mike Lingaitis, who was there with his children to greet Muddy. Perhaps no one was more proud that day to be a Mudcat than Dunnville booster Mike Walker, the 59-year-old man responsible for the sculpture’s creation.
Walker, who owns Mohawk Marina with wife Susan, toiled for hours in the backyard of his home across the street in Lowbanks — a Lake Erie hamlet that is also part of Haldimand — measuring and sawing and measuring again, determined to create a larger-than-life mudcat not only to scale, but with a glint in its eye.
“Technically, it’s the biggest in the world,” Walker tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com, referring to the much smaller North Dakota Wahpper, which he describes as “a cute little fish, but not much personality.” For now, “technically” the world’s largest will have to do, as the Guinness people continue to be their usual exasperating selves, insisting they don’t have a category in which to place Muddy.
Walker, who added two feet to the original 50-foot length in case word got out about his backyard endeavour and someone beat him to the punch with a world’s record of their own, was volunteered for the job. While his only previous model work was a miniature of nearby Mohawk Island and its old stone lighthouse, Walker figured he had what it would take, including the all-important math skills, to succeed.
Real thing used as model for Muddy
To get Muddy just right, Walker got his hands on a pail full of catfish for models. “I took a catfish, suspended it with wires in the shape I wanted, then froze it,” he says. After that, it was a matter of calculating what he would need to make a 52-foot fish to scale. “I did a cross-section of fish on the computer,” Walker says, making it all sound so simple. In the construction stage, Walker admits the eyes, made from epoxy polymer, gave him some trouble — “I had to make eyeballs four times.”
Walker says the fact the fish has an official name has helped to give the sculpture “a persona.” Since Muddy’s unveiling, Walker says he is proud of the fact the sculpture, sitting in a park on the edge of Dunnville, has not been damaged by vandals, as other public works of art often are. He credits a fundraising program that publicly recognized donors and a contest with schools to name the fish for creating a sense of ownership around Muddy. “It belongs to the community,” Walker says.
While Walker joked that Muddy’s completion had finally given his wife her clothesline back, that could all be changing soon. “You can’t stop once you’ve done something like that,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.
It seems Walker has caught the roadside attraction bug, big time. Beginning this summer, he plans to create “the world’s largest working duck decoy,” which will honour Dunnville duck carver Ken Anger, whose rasped surfaces made him famous. In fact, Anger’s now-antique duck carvings are in demand worldwide since his death in 1961.
While approvals will be needed from the Grand River Conservation Authority, Walker envisions his giant duck, probably a mallard, floating in the Grand River above the dam in the middle of Dunnville. “It will be about seven feet long and five feet high,” he says, adding that the attraction will be seasonal, with the duck removed from its anchor for winter.
Perch postcard on the way
Walker said he was sitting having a glass of wine with the local MPP when talk turned to museums, and the fact that Dunnville didn’t have one. Anger’s name came up when talk turned to a name and a theme for a museum. Talk of ducks, of course, turned to talk of another roadside tourist attraction for Dunnville.
While the duck idea is still in the preliminary stages, Walker has one other big tourist attraction up his sleeve, this one closer to his own home in Lowbanks. To the marina and fast food business (the couple operates the Hippo’s stand onsite), he plans to add a postcard venture with a fish theme. This time perch, based on the little-known fact that “we have had three consecutive records for yellow perch.”
His vision? Walker sees three perch — seven feet, five feet and four feet in length — which he will gather on a stringer, with a davit built for support. People who drop by can get their photo taken with the fish. The photo will then be turned into a postcard on Walker’s computer, complete with a funny fish saying. “I’m also the post office, so I can sell them the stamps,” he laughs.
When it comes to thinking big, no one does it better than Mike Walker.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — January 2011