This is a crazy thing to admit on the pages of this magazine, but we never really saw ourselves as cottagers. Too much work, we told ourselves. The city is great in the summer! Plus, we love to travel. For years—no, decades—we were such reliable guests at our friends’ cottage on Lake Huron that the tent they pitched every summer in the dunes had become known as the von Yurt.
That was until our two kids had grown to the point where they no longer had long summer vacations to travel with us. And the notion of travelling in the summer to increasingly hot and crowded European capitals started to seem less appealing than the prospect of chilling out with a good book by a lake. And then, in March of 2018, while my husband, Thomas, and I were, in fact, travelling, we learned that an old-style cedar log cabin just down the lake, one of the original ones built in the ’40s by southwestern Ontario’s early influx of cottagers—had become available. A week later, we were tromping through the melting snow to check it out.
It was a real old cabin, alright. The place was tiny: only 700 sq. ft. with two absurdly small bedrooms and a cheap-looking bathroom that must have been a later, not particularly thoughtful addition. The lot was in shambles while the log structure itself was a mess: it was obvious that neither had been maintained, to the point where the cabin’s living room floor had actually caved in. But the views of the big blue lake from its two jumbo picture windows were insane. Indeed the whole cabin was just so magical, being in it felt like we had been shrunken down in some fairy story set in an enchanted forest, and, searching for shelter, had stepped inside a giant wicker basket. One that smelled all woodsy and spicy, with views out its flaps of a majestic great lake that were so vivid, the waves almost leapt inside the living room.
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We didn’t sign on the dotted line right then and there, as there were still obvious drawbacks, beyond even the money and effort that would clearly be required to restore the place. Though the lot was pleasantly wooded and quiet, and the little beach sandy and swimmable, it wasn’t totally private. You could still glimpse the neighbours through the trees, which had never been a part of my particular getaway fantasy. Everybody, even devoted urbanites, have one, and mine was always situated somewhere so remote that the two of us would be like castaways, sunbathing naked, having to fashion a lean-to for shade from branches with our teeth.
This was not that place. We were five minutes from the LCBO and a lovely old main street with several good restaurants, which had its advantages. And of course we had great friends just down the lake. Mostly, I couldn’t stop thinking about the special magic of the old cabin itself: how it was handmade, like a beautiful decorative object; the delicious smell and warm glow of its surfaces; the roar of the waves outside that filled the space once you pried open its lovely old wooden windows, as if you were on a boat. And how the sun peeking through the log walls threw golden shafts of light that lit it up like a tiny chapel in the woods. Yes, we were smitten. And when you’re in love, you do crazy things. Like embarking on a long and rather costly year of renovations during which it became clear that every single corner of the place desperately needed attention, from the roof to the foundation with the plumbing and electrical in between.
After we did, finally, buy in, our new neighbours kindly shared a copy of a remarkable black-and-white film. Shot by the original owners, the Gordon Brown family from Stratford, Ont., the film documents the cabins being built back in 1946, when the Browns hired builders from what is now known as the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation band to erect a pair of structures on the bluff from cedar logs shipped from nearby Southampton. Watching the film, it’s striking how casual this process was. None of the builders, wielding axes while balancing on the logs, are wearing protective gear of any kind. Also how much this cabin, tiny and worn as it may be, is a piece of history that is worthy of preservation.
Seventy-plus years of lashing winds and rain off the lake later, the restoration of what was originally a simple construction turned out to be quite complex. Thankfully our local contractor, Terry Heard, a patient man with a penchant for old buildings, was up for a project. First came the surprises that, in hindsight, shouldn’t have been all that surprising: along with almost all the doors and window casings, the foundation, such as it was, was rotted and needed to be replaced. Original features like the adorable old kitchen cabinets sadly couldn’t be saved but would have to be replicated, unless we wanted to spoil our vintage cabin fantasy with a brand new 21st century kitchen. The local peach farmer who moonlights in masonry that Terry brought in to “have a look” at the fireplace couldn’t believe the whole deal hadn’t burned to the ground years ago. And then came the challenge of updating the infrastructure in a virtually see-through home without any interior framing, where you can’t hide all the bells and whistles required for life in the 21st century. Every wire shows unless you meticulously cover your tracks.
Signing the last of the many cheques we handed over to Terry for his painstaking efforts, we couldn’t help but marvel at our madness. After all that time—and our quick decision to take down the partial wall that stood between the two cramped bedrooms in order to create one comfortable one—there we were with a very basic, 700 sq. ft., one-bedroom cabin that could only be enjoyed in the summer and wasn’t ever going to be particularly spacious.
But small can be so beautiful, as we discovered over our first summer at the cottage. And so much fun to set up and play house in that it should have been illegal. (One hidden delight of a second home? It comes with permission to shop.) In this case, I got to shop for an exquisite found object (i.e. the cabin), the pre-existing energy, style, and vibe of which would determine my direction.
With this vision in my head of what the cabin might become if I re-imagined its warm, woodsy insides as a sort of tiki surf shack, but circa midcentury, the entire winter leading up to our move-in date I scoured flea markets and antique dealers, searching like Goldilocks for just the right chair, carpet, and bedside table. Other found objects, either handmade, or in some essential or material way inspired or derived from nature, when placed into the mix, only enhanced the vibe. No random cast-offs from our basement in the city would do. With quite literally no room for error, every single piece of this design puzzle had to fit within my vision—and the limited space of our cabin.
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As I searched the wilds of the Internet for the Platonic ideal of indigo textile, Thomas’ particular design obsession was a canvas tent for guests. Inspired by his student-era summers working on a fire crew in the wilds of B.C. (and our footloose years as freeloaders in the von Yurt), he sourced a classic prospector’s model from the old-school purveyor Woods, which is still stitching them up to order in their Scarborough, Ont., factory. With Terry’s assistance, he built a wooden platform cantilevered out from the bluff, and then, using driftwood poles hauled up from the beach as supports, pitched the entire folly under the trees overlooking the lake. Once it was furnished with an old Persian rug, a solar-powered light, and a proper mattress, our kids (and even some of our more adventurous guests) were enthralled.
More than a full calendar year had passed until we finally got to move into our little tiki hut, but it didn’t take us long to learn the ropes. If we skipped off early enough on Fridays we would not only avoid the worst traffic out of the city, but make it to the farmers market in Bayfield’s main square in time to pick up some delicious greens and a fresh local trout for dinner. Mornings started with yoga on the deck followed by a brisk swim. Saturdays, Thomas would make a quick pilgrimage to the Mennonites down the road for their dangerously addictive sticky buns, which we devoured with our coffee by the fire. And then we would while away the afternoons on the deck, reading, playing backgammon, sipping Campari-and-soda under our new Campari umbrella (another Wayfair find), and dipping in and out of the cool blue lake. (Another hidden benefit of a small cottage? Once we were in and reasonably set up, keeping house wasn’t going to be particularly demanding.)
Of course there were other, less welcome lessons yet to come. After a jam-making episode resulted in a pot of boiling water poured rather uncomfortably down my front, we learned that our little dollhouse of a kitchen might not be ideally suited for large-scale cooking projects. And one morning, out for a walk, we crossed paths with a mother deer and her fawn on their way to breakfast in a neighbouring farmer’s field. Unperturbed by our human presence, her hind legs tucked underneath like a ballerina’s as she jêtéed into the rows, baby leaping behind—presumably the same culprits who’d successfully beheaded all the day lilies I had only just planted under the cabin windows. Long held plans for a vegetable garden now crossed off our list.
Perhaps the biggest of these discoveries was that as much as travel to new and exciting places is wonderfully stimulating—and I still hope we get to do as much of it as possible—it’s never quite as restorative as being allowed to do a whole lot of nothing except swim, nap, and stare off into the lake. Perhaps our little fit of madness was actually a stroke of brilliance? It was thrilling, after we spent a full week in residence, to see Thomas, usually too distracted to focus on fiction, starting in on his second book.
The very first weekend at the cabin without it being a construction site/work gulag, we arrive early. It’s incredibly hot, a real scorcher of a midsummer afternoon, so we rip off our city clothes, slip on our suits, and take our (brand new, finally finished!) stairs down the bluff to the beach. The lake is like glass, incredibly still but for these quick, silvery glinting bits all around us like glitter at a Pride parade. It takes me a moment to realize that these are actually fish, and just like in the old song they really are jumping. Down the beach, the Mennonites, too, are wading into the water, but fully dressed, bonnet-to-toe. That night the sunset is incredible, moving from a Fragonard blue with peach into a vivid pink glow. As the stars are revealed and the fireflies come out with their little lanterns, Thomas turns to me and asks with a smile, “What took us so long?”
Karen von Hahn is a former style columnist for The Globe and Mail and House & Home, as well as the author of a memoir, What Remains: Object Lessons in Love and Loss. This story originally appeared in the March/April ’21 issue of Cottage Life.
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