I was not “born in to” a cottage in Muskoka. Contrary to recent characterization, I have no idea what “birkenstock snobbery” might be. Anyone who knows my family and the real me, knows I am a newcomer to cottage life. (My reality is that I come from a very modest background, but that’s another post). I often say “I married a cottage”, as my first introduction to this unique Canadian lifestyle was when I married my husband. Boating, septic tanks, dock spiders…all brand new to me. I am often amazed at the fortitude and skill set of cottage “lifers” who know the lakes so intimately, who can dock their boats on a dime, who display a chest full of Regatta medals and who happily plunge into the dark frigid waters of the Ontario lakes, filled with squirmy things and snapping turtles, without giving it a second thought.
The first thing I learned about cottage life was when to travel there and when to stay home. For the weekend warrior, a term given to those who use their properties on the weekends, Friday and Sunday evenings are traffic-clogged freeway expeditions. In cottage speak, “90 minutes north of the city” is really 3 hours car time, 4 if it’s a long weekend. We don’t have a sea plane nor a helicopter so car time is our reality. Loads of snacks and dvds saved our bacon when the boys were young. Often times I felt more like a business class flight attendant than a front seat passenger as we crawled along the 400 Highway, “May I offer you a moist towelette? We’ll be serving snacks and beverages in a few moments.”
But travel time is simply the price one pays to be away from it all and at one with nature, right? I am a huge fan of nature, slowing to admiring a deer nibbling leaves by the roadside, as long as I can leave the scene in my car. At the cottage, nature will always want to co-exist on a much closer dimension. From minks on the beach, to black bear encounters on a run, crazed bats landing just inside the main house doorway, snapping turtles hanging out at the dock, confident beavers taking up residence in a boat slip and groundhogs popping into the living room through an open porch door, cottage life, I have learned, is all about living in harmony among the creatures of the great North.
To that end, cottage life is not for the faint of heart. Thunderstorms on the lake are magnificent but intense. Thunder sounds more like the dropping of a city building than a heavenly bowling game. Lightening ignites the open sky with the wattage of a brilliant meteor. The force and power of nature is incredible to witness…until the power literally goes out. The horror of no refrigeration is nothing compared to the reality of no toilets. The water pump runs on electricity so when the power goes out– if you need to go, you need to go to the woods.
Towards mid-summer cottagers usually unite as a community for a local regatta. This is a day of competitive races in the disciplines of rowing, canoeing, sailing, swimming and yes jousting. For those out of the know, as I was, jousting is when grown men stand on the bow of a canoe and attempt to swat one another off using a pole with a boxing glove at the end. The competitive spirit at a regatta is high (I once met a dad who started training with his kids in January – no joke) and the cottage lifers usually take home all the medals. That being said, my youngest and I medalled for the first time ever in this year’s mom and son rowing race.
Speaking of boats, the boating culture is a huge part of cottage life. In fact, boating is pretty much regarded as the raison-d’être for the cottage itself. The more you boat, the better a cottager you are. Too many times I’ve stood at a “docktail” party and overhead the query “did you boat here?”. Getting groceries, socializing with friends, going for ice cream, visiting the club for tennis, golf or lunch are deemed that much more enjoyable if accessed by boat. I learned to drive a boat from my husband on his antique and classic wooden Century Raven. Affectionately known as “the stinkpot” by myself and my boys, this craft maneuvers with the agility of a pig in water. My sweeties’ rationale was that if I could drive the Raven, I could drive anything. It worked, but not without a few tears and frustrated afternoons spent learning the “shot of reverse” is a life saver when wind blows you off your intended docking target.
Several years down the road and I’m still getting my cottage feet wet. I drive a boat, I waterski, I feed chipmunks out of my hand, and I’ve come to terms with the 84 hours per season I lose to the north/south commute. But every once in a while you will find me at the chicest Toronto restaurant on a summer Saturday night, sipping prosecco and winking at the other patrons who, like me, find the best way to get away from it all, is a long weekend in the city.