ANOTHER VIEW

The calm before the summer storm

On a chilly weekend in May, the cottage people who truly love the lake, no matter what the weather, have it more or less to themselves

CHARLES GORDON June 4 1990
ANOTHER VIEW

The calm before the summer storm

On a chilly weekend in May, the cottage people who truly love the lake, no matter what the weather, have it more or less to themselves

CHARLES GORDON June 4 1990

The calm before the summer storm

ANOTHER VIEW

On a chilly weekend in May, the cottage people who truly love the lake, no matter what the weather, have it more or less to themselves

CHARLES GORDON

It was a cloudy, chilly day in a Group of Seven kind of landscape when the realization of what it means to be a Canadian struck again. Some people were sweeping out a cabin by the shoreline. They heard a noise, looked up and saw a boat go by, one of those inboard-outboard jobs so popular in cottage country. Its driver was wearing a red tuque.

You can’t get much more Canadian than that—desperate for the out-of-doors, anxious to get the summer going; yet dressed properly for the cold.

In Central Canada, the long weekend was like that. Not the hot long weekend of which beer commercials sing, but a chilly, rainy, windy one, in which each appearance of the sun is greeted by small cheers from those few gathered under it.

Strangely enough, not everyone is distressed by bad weather. Some like the privacy of it, the absence of fair-weather friends. In the good weather, everybody heads for the lake. On a chilly weekend in May, only true cottage people and true campers do. There are no triflers. Those who truly love the lake, no matter what the weather, have it more or less to themselves.

Later, when the hot weather hits, it will be different. Within range of the large cities, all manner and variety of Canadians will swarm to every available body of water, bringing their beer, their music, their noisy toys. This year, as in other years, the tension will grow—between those who want to escape the racket and excitement of the city and those who want to bring it with them. It will be worse this year, because there will be more of us at the lake, on the water, on the highways leading to it.

And this year more and more people will come to the conclusion that a great Canadian experience—going to the cottage, going to the lake—is threatened,

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.

that left to our own devices, we will ruin it.

The problem is not just that there are more of us. The problem is also that each of us takes up so much room. Much more than we used to: technology has given us the ability to travel faster and farther and to make more noise. One person, with a chain saw, a portable tape deck and a powerful boat, can be a greater nuisance than a dozen people could be 50, or even 20, years ago. Newer, faster and louder inventions join us every year—the Jet Ski being a recent and particularly hideous example—and still more are on the horizon.

Unmindful of the harm they are inflicting upon the summer environment, the manufacturers and vendors of such machines hawk their wares on television, joining the brewers, who—shrieking “it’s the way we play”—dream of making Canada an outdoor pub. Magazine ads preach speed and power. Speed, power, noise and the people who bring them to the lake are doing as much damage as mosquitoes, blackflies and even acid rain. We worry about acid rain, we seek laws to eliminate it, but we are not doing much to control the threats that summer people bring to the lake each summer.

There are laws, of course, but the laws have

been outdistanced by the technology. Boaters are familiar with, and scoff at, those “9 km/h” signs. They wonder how the authorities came up with nine, and they complain, with some justification, that their boats, doing nine kilometres per hour, burn more gasoline and churn up more wake than they would at higher speeds. There are laws against speeding and impaired boating, of course, but there are far fewer police boats than lakes.

The police will never abolish the problem, found on almost every settled lake, of the boats with million-horsepower engines that sound like jet planes, each generating pleasure for those who own them, and pain for those who don’t Only legislation can do it, strict licensing requirements enacted by governments with the courage to bite the bullet risk the wrath of boaters and begin deciding what types of engines, and with what decibel levels, may or may not be allowed in particular areas.

Without such action, the marketplace will continue to produce new ecological horrors and Canadians will continue to purchase them and put them on the water. Without some intervention by government, the noise levels will rise, and so will the population density and probably the blood alcohol level too.

Overcrowding and noise are not the only threats to our summer way of life. Elitism and inflation can be a deadly combination too, leading to a situation in which the lake becomes the playpen of the privileged few. We have seen what happens in large cities when the real estate market overheats. The same thing is already happening in cottage country, with prices rising so high that soon only the very rich will be able to afford a small piece of lakefront Just as the poor have been driven out of the urban downtown, the non-wealthy could be excluded from the summer life to which they thought, as Canadians, they were entitled. Controlling the noise and the pollution will be of little use if we cannot control the speculators as well.

The trick, on the one hand, is to make sure that all Canadians can have access to the summer landscape. Already there is tension—evident in the wars between the cottagers and the houseboaters—between those fortunate enough to be established on the lake and those who come later.

The trick, on the other hand, is not to allow it to turn into a watery replica of an amusement park. It won’t be easy. Perhaps appeals to reason will help: an education program aimed at teaching Canadians to enjoy and preserve the outdoors at the same time; a not-too-gentle reminder to advertisers that they should consider the social and environmental consequences of the sales pitches they make.

If reason doesn’t work, the law will have to move in—to curb speculation, reduce speed and noise. Too bad: the thought of the state having business in the cottages of the nation is not pleasant. But inaction has brought us to where we are today, with an essential, living part of our heritage threatened. We should, all of us, be able to enjoy our lakes and not have them reduced to memories, their best days visible only in museums, along with the Group of Sevens.