The cottage country
Closeup / Lifestyles
Dun Roannin, Canada? Dew Drop Inn and Bide-A-Wee
On the Victoria Day weekend, as predictable as springtime floods and black flies in June, the great Canadian urban exodus began. By 4 p.m. Friday, as if driven by some primal urge, thousands of Canadians had loaded themselves, their families and their summertime playthings into automobiles. An hour later, the major exit highways from the country’s large cities were jammed, while traffic helicopters hovered above, beaming down the obvious news:
Canada was on its way to the cottage.
In a land where winter hangs in as relentlessly as a chaperone at a teen-age dance, the coming of summer seems to bring on a kind of national madness. Like giddy children finally let loose after the long school year, Canadians are ready to play. Parks and recreation areas suddenly overflow and camp grounds sprout tents like a circus. Canadians picnic with a passion and sunbathe as if the rays will cure all their winter ills. We have learned to exact every last measure of enjoyment from our short but spectacular summers.
And nowhere have we brought the science of summering to such ritualistic heights as at the summer cottage. Almost a million Canadians own some kind of shelter outside urban areas, which probably means, with participation of family and friends, that more than half the country’s population has some cottage experience.
No other country has refined cottage life the way Canada has. The British love their week by the seaside, but they settle in at guest houses and tourist camps. In most European countries, the private holding of
waterfront land is almost unheard of, and even in the United States the summer place is still mostly the preserve of the rich. If there is one culture trait peculiar to Canadians, life at the cottage is it.
It is Canada with its hair down. One of the more staid and proper peoples of the world going barefoot, in Bermuda shorts and JAWS T-shirts, digging for worms and wiping charcoal dust off their hands. It is buttoned-down Canada cracking open a cold beer before noon, eager to shuck off the weight of a winter of responsibility.
Cottage country presents Canadians at their least pretentious. It is where the eating spots are called Dew Drop Inn and Cozy Corners instead of Le Provençal, and the waiters are young, tanned university kids who offer advice about the weather
and driving conditions along with the burgers and French fries. Where the cottage bedrooms are wallpapered with Five Star whiskey labels and the wall-mounted bottle openers have rusty tin cans attached to catch the falling beer caps. Where nobody apologizes for corny little handpainted signs that say things like, “The difficult age/has come and lit/Tm too tired to work/and too poor to quit.”
This is the land with the liquor stores boasting not parking lots but docks big enough to accommodate 30 boats; where the sporting goods stores hang life jackets in their windows instead of golf bags and the neighbors come to visit in their bathing suits, by canoe. And surely it is the only place in the world where the bathrooms display inspired but dreadful poetry advising you on what you can and what you cannot flush down the toilet.
“It is,” says Glen Crockford, an Ontario lawyer and cottage country habitué, “the only place where the rich have nothing on the poor. One can build a castle in Muskoka [Ontario’s premier cottage area] and it wouldn’t matter. Because what is important is the water and the air and trees and no one can take that from you.”
Canada’s most famous cottage, of course, is the Prime Minister’s official summer place on Harrington Lake outside Ottawa. During happier times, Pierre and Margaret and the Trudeau kids spent as much of the summer there as possible when the House of Commons was not sitting. Margaret, like most Canadian wives and mothers, took to the informality of cottage life and apparently delighted in the absence of maids and staff. Meals were simple—barbecued steaks, burgers and hotdogs. A photo spread by Margaret in Chatelaine showed the family engaged in typical cottage activities—canning vegetables, shooting some small white-water rapids and generally romping about.
Lester Pearson popularized the Harrington Lake retreat with his habit of telling stories of life there. He liked to claim thatwhen John Diefenbaker had use of the cottage he would leave, laden with expensive fishing gear, for his favorite fishing hole at 4 a.m. and return hours later with nothing. Pearson, according to Pearson, would often amble down to the dock around ten in the morning with a cold drink and a copy of The New York Times and return before lunch, loaded down, of course, with a mess of big ones.
Currently, External Affairs Minister Don Jamieson keeps the security people on their toes with visits to his island cottage in Placentia Bay off the coast of Newfoundland. The cottage is a white clapboard affair of modest proportions where Jamieson claims to haul in cod and sea trout. The locals from the bay often drop in to share a big catch and sometimes
Jamieson joins the fishermen on the beach for a lobster cookout.
Agriculture Minister Eugene Whelan has a small prefab cottage on Cedar Lake in Ontario where he sometimes rises before anyone else is about so he can skinny dip. Justice Minister Ron Basford is fond of retreating to a cottage property deep in the British Columbia rain forest where he lives in an old trailer, frustrating his office because’s he’s virtually unreachable there.
But cottages, according to Gordon Mewhiney, president of the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations, are not limited to the rich or famous in Canada. “They pretty well range from rundown log cabins to expensive homes,” he says. “It’s not a matter of being rich anymore. If you decide that’s the way you want to spend your entertainment money, you can own something.”
The problem now is finding something to own. Even on Canada’s coastal extremities—British Columbia and the Maritimes, where much of the population is housed permanently in cottage-type areas—choice waterfront property is grabbed off as fast as it becomes available. In Alberta, where good cottage land is scarce, the fierce demand has pushed unserviced lot prices to dizzying heights. Some half-acre lots sell for as much as $35,000.
Even Manitoba, with 100,000 lakes and miles of sandy beach along the shores of Lake Winnipeg, cannot stay ahead of the demand. Winnipeg newspapers rarely list cottages for resale and the 6,000 government-leased properties are long gone. In Quebec, where Montrealers watched horrified while the Parti Québécois victory drove their house prices down even further, cottage prices have risen steadily. Stan Litwin, general supervisor of real estate for Royal Trust, says average prices in the Laurentians and the Eastern Townships are between $35,000 and $40,000 and can go as high as $250,000.
In Ontario, with its 250,000 lakes, urbanites have been buying up cottage property as if their cities were on fire. In 1948, there were fewer than 34,000 summer places in use in the province. By 1971, that figure had grown to almost 200,000 and today there are more than 500,000 registered recreational properties—including ski chalets and hobby farms—making Ontario the leading cottage area in the world. The province has more weekend homes than any state in the United States and an average 10,000 cottages are added each year. Lakefront property is in such demand that in some areas values have increased 500% in the last decade.
In Kenora, a town near the Manitoba border surrounded by more water than the Ancient Mariner, an Ontario government questionnaire showed that 82% of the town’s population wanted to own a waterfront cottage. The Ontario land use department is frantically studying dozens of lakes in an effort to open new territory and stay ahead of the increasing demand.
But the real crunch, says Frank MacIntyre, head of one of the country’s oldest real estate firms dealing in cottages, is still to come. He says children born in the Canadian baby boom are just coming to cottage buying age (the thirties). “Ten years from now,” he warns, “you’ll have to go twice as far and pay twice as much.”
Under present conditions Canadian cottagers are willing to drive up to three-anda-half hours to reach their weekend homes. Beyond that range (from major cities) cottage prices drop dramatically.
Cottage life can be addictive. Having experienced the Huckleberry Finn sort of existence that is childhood at the cottage, when the biggest problem was deciding whether to swim, fish or laze around the beach, it is a rare Canadian who does not
yearn in later life for a place on a lake.
Mewhiney says his passion for cottage life comes from the 15 summers he spent at his parents’ cottage just outside Peterborough, Ontario.
“In my early teens,” Mewhiney says, “when I became aware of the social pressures of growing up in the city, when I got fed up with it, I would just think of that lake, with all its trees. And I would think of my friends there waiting. When I wasn’t at the cottage, I thought of the cottage.”
Now Mewhiney and his wife, Sandra, have their own place on the same lake and he says simply: “I would give up my apartment in Toronto, one of the cars and some of my stock investments before I would give up the cottage. In the city you exist, in the country you live.”
It’s not that Mewhiney’s life at the cottage is all that exciting. Indeed, life at the cottage for most Canadians is purposely kept low-key and casual. Mewhiney expresses his passion for lake life in terms that are repeated by cottagers everywhere. “There is a sense of community,” he says. “The cities have lost that sense and to recapture it, I go to the lake. I help my neighbor repair his dock, he helps me fix my pump. In the city, I don’t even know my neighbor.”
“It’s almost an old-fashioned thing,” says lawyer John Reid, who has been cottaging on Go Home Lake near Georgian Bay since 1935. “It’s good home and family
entertainment. The lake is my social life. It’s the rallying point for my family. Here I see my three daughters and my 10 grandchildren.”
Reid and his wife, Adele, will retire to the cottage some day and like thousands of Canadian cottages the property will stay in the family. Many cottages in established cottage country have remained in the same families for five and six generations. Indeed, within 125 miles of major Canadian cities, few properties find their way into the real estate listings. When there are no children hooked on the cottage traditions, most owners need not go outside a small group of friends who have shared the cottage experience to find a buyer.
Don and Gladys Fish have cottaged at Mill Bay, 26 miles north of Victoria, for the last 30 years. Fish likes to talk about the early days when he fetched water in buckets from the neighboring Indian reserve and read at night by oil lamp. The Fish cottage is insulated now and boasts all the modern conveniences. He speaks with pride of his 30 years of work, making a dream come true, and says: “It will never be sold.” His two sons will carry on life at the cottage.
If Canadians of every description seem to yearn for life at a lake, sometimes one wonders why. Cottage lore is a litany of woe. Dockside conversation revolves more
often than not around seeping septic tanks, failing foundations, marauding mice, bloodthirsty black flies and enough tragedies, minor and major, to discourage even the most stouthearted of pioneers.
With hardly any prompting, you can hear:
• About the young couple in the Bruce Peninsula who, after happily signing the final papers, packed a picnic lunch and took friends to view their new “place in the country.” When they arrived, only the cedar hedge that had once surrounded the small cottage remained. The building itself had been swept away by spring floods and deposited two miles away, somewhat the worse for wear.
• About Mr. and Mrs. Gus Lafrenaye, who arrived four years ago at their Quebec cottage to find a rainstorm had blown away the roof, flooding the building with six inches of water and causing extensive damage. That year, the road was also washed out. Last year, raccoons ate the seats out of the Lafrenaye boat and devoured a goodly portion of the boathouse as well.
• About cottagers at Vancouver Island’s Gordon Beach who must be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice when RCMP officers give the warning that tidal waves are on the way.
• About Maurice Cutler, special assistant to Finance Minister Donald Macdonald, whose cottage, 20 miles outside Ottawa,
has been vandalized and broken into and who claims the area is so built up now the only wildlife he ever sees are the dead mice he must clean out each spring when he opens it. Furthermore, says Cutler, the black flies in June are so bad it is impossible to sit outdoors.
• About Irving Rosenthal, who woke to find a moose trampling his lawn and flower beds in the Eastern Townships, and about Mrs. Barbara Loftquist, not far down the shore, who found that a mouse had made a home in her apple pie.
• And about the areas in Ontario where taxes have risen from $50 a year to $ 1,500 a year over the past 10 years with no noticeable increase in services.
The list of complaints is endless. This year, as in years past, irate cottagers will be telling their associations (almost every lake has one) that they are tired of being treated like second-class citizens and they will not stand for it. Cottage newsletters, of which there are thousands, will dispense remedies for purifying water and getting rid of tent caterpillars and cottagers will sign petitions by the score demanding an end to rising taxes. Sitting around their hibachis, sipping gins and tonic, thousands of Canadians will complain about the unreliability of floating docks, the high price of life jackets and the weather. All the little
things that somehow make cottaging an essential part of their lives.
On tiny Lake Rosalind, just outside the little Ontario town of Hanover, the evening is drawing to a close. The guests from across the lake, Wayne Goetz and his wife, Andy, Keith and Raeanne Stein and their second oldest boy Steve, are helping to fold the unmatched lawn chairs and take the glasses and bottles inside. The evening has been mild, the drinks cold, and the conversation (about septic tanks, water pumps and the formidable cost of life jackets) has been unhurried and unimportant. The moon is full, the stars bright, the lake still. The swimming has been fine.
The guests have gathered up their belongings—wet towels, tote bags, a piece of wood discovered to be just the right size for repairing the Stein dock, and a borrowed chipping wedge. They clamber into the Steins’ old cedar-strip boat and young Steve leaps in last after pushing them off. They shout their thanks and good-byes and promises for tomorrow across the water and the red and green lights disappear into the darkness.
We stand on the dock for a few minutes, sharing a cigarette. Then my wife says the mosquitoes are bothering her, so we go inside.
Some of the photographs in this article were taken by Dudley Witney for the book A Summer Place, to be published by McClelland and Stewart