Your guide to cleaning just about everything at the cottage

Updated: May 16, 2019

A pink bucket and a scrub brush on a dirty wooden deck. JRJfin/shutterstock

Tolerating filth and overlooking work was one of my family’s long-cherished cottage traditions. We were there for the sand and the sunsets, not to scour and scrub. And yet, each spring, as we would arrive at our shuttered cottage, we’d be greeted by dead bugs littering the window ledges, teensy trails of mouse poop lining the baseboards, beds that smelled like the ghost of summers past, and a deck dotted with sticky buds from the poplar trees, sticking to our feet and getting tracked onto the cottage floor where they left a yellow stain. Like it or not (and we decidedly fell in the “not” camp), it was time to clean. Reluctantly, I set out to learn how to clean anything at the cottage. Here are the most common culprits:

Tree sap on my car/clothes/feet/dog…

Call it the crazy glue of the forest world—tree sap sticks to everything, including clothes, pets, skin, and vehicles. The solution, however, is surprisingly simple, says Rob Davis, the founder of EcoEthic, a wastewater treatment company that also sells eco-friendly cleaners. Head to the pantry for the olive or vegetable oil. Pour a teensy bit onto your skin, your hair, or the fur of your pet, and massage it in until the sap dissolves. Then rinse the oily spots with some hand soap and water, and you won’t smell like the Mediterranean diet.

If you have a tree dripping sap or dropping its sticky buds on your car or boat exterior, alcohol-based hand sanitizer will do the trick of removing it, says Bob Sorokanich, the deputy online editor for Road & Track magazine. (“Just make sure it doesn’t have any microbeads or any other abrasives in it,” says Dave Grainger of the Guild of Automotive Restorers. Though the Canadian government is phasing out microbeads in toiletries, offending products won’t be completely off the shelves until July 2019.) Squeeze a drop or two onto the sap, rub it in with your finger until the sap loosens, and voila. With water, rinse any spots where you’ve used the sanitizer. (This trick also works on furniture or clothing, says Davis, but first remove as much sap as you can. If it fits, put the item into the freezer.) Then take a cotton ball soaked in sanitizer and gently rub until the sap disappears. Sorokanich follows this up with a detailing spray, such as Mother’s Showtime.

Gasoline/grease/motor oil on lifejackets/clothes/cushions…

The key to getting rid of engine oil on fabric (including lifejackets) is to blot the oil with a dry rag to remove as much as possible, then sprinkle the area with cornstarch, baby powder, or salt, says Melissa Maker, a Toronto-based cleaning expert, YouTube star, and the author of Clean My Space. Let it sit to absorb the oil—it will likely become chunky. Scrape it off, add a few drops of dish soap or laundry detergent and a bit of water, and scrub with a nylon bristle brush. Repeat if necessary. But, Shane “Spike” DesLoges, whose company, Spike on the Water, cleans and preps boats for storage or use, says that if it’s gasoline on your PFDs, you should toss them since the foam inside can be compromised and break down.

Moss on roof/patio/deck…

Moss grows where there’s organic matter. If moss on your roof is a problem, it’s important to keep it free of tree and plant debris by giving your roof a gentle sweep with a stiff bristle broom, taking care not to damage shingles, especially if they are asphalt. “Moisture will deteriorate your shingles,” says Wendy Fraser, the technical director at the Canadian Roofing Contractors’ Association. She says to follow your manufacturer’s maintenance suggestions and to inspect your roof in the spring. How often you clear the roof depends on how much of this organic material it collects, but expect to do this at least twice a year.

There are cottagers for whom moss or other plant growth between patio stones is a problem. I am not one of those people myself and am easily distracted from weeds by a hammock and a good novel. But, if you can’t let it be, Melissa Maker suggests using a spray bottle filled with vinegar. Davis uses vinegar with 10 per cent acetic acid found in the cleaning aisle. Direct the nozzle at what you want to kill. No need to rinse. Repeat as necessary. Davis also says you can apply salt first for an even stronger weed treatment.

As for a mossy deck, Davis simply uses his pressure washer on a low setting. 

Mould/mildew on our lifejackets/and in our birdfeeder/fridge…

Steve Maxwell, a resident of Manitoulin Island and the author of Mold Buster: How to Fight Mold and Win, goes straight to the environmentally safe Concrobium line of mould-busting products for bathrooms, fridges, windows, and anywhere else it shows up. Use this oxygen bleach product to fight mould or mildew on your lifejackets or your boat tarp or on anything else made of fabric, using a good scrub brush to work it in. Once it dries, just brush it off. It’s available at most big box stores.

Nathan Clements, a wildlife biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation and a cottager on Lumsden Beach, Sask., recommends a simple solution to the mould that often grows in birdfeeders. Warm water with a few drops of unscented dish soap (scent can either attract or turn off birds, so better to avoid, says Clements) and a stiff-bristled brush will usually dislodge the bits of mould and old seed. If the feeder is metal and your cottage has a dishwasher, run it through without detergent every couple of months, he says.

Bird/mouse/bat/spider/raccoon poop on my dock/on my boat/dripping down the walls of our sleep cabin…

The problem with poop, says Rob Davis, is that it often contains a whole lot of pathogens that can pose a danger to our health. If you’re like me, you’re rolling your eyes already at the “can pose” part of that sentence. If you’re like me, you don’t have a haz-mat suit at the ready for the express purpose of eliminating (ha!) poop. But read on. These experts and their exasperating—but admittedly accurate—health info just might convince you. Poop, as it turns out, is nothing to sniff at.

No matter the feces you encounter, avoid inhaling potential pathogens by spraying it with water, leaving for 10 minutes, then, wearing gloves and a mask, wiping it up with a cloth or scrubbing it off with a bristle brush (never sweep!). Md Azad, a public health inspector at the KHPR District Health Unit in Port Hope, Ont., takes it a step further and recommends first soaking the area where the poop is with a solution of one teaspoon of bleach per cup of water for at least 10 minutes (though be careful with bleach solutions on fabrics). We tend to frown on using bleach, but in this case it might be warranted.

Wearing gloves, wipe up the area with paper towels or a wet mop. Then thoroughly wash gloves and the mop with hot water and disinfectant, and scrub hands.

If you’re ignoring our simple and wise advice to spray feces with water (or bleach solution), and you insist on dealing with dry feces, especially in a confined space like an attic, Davis says always wear gloves and a HEPA-filtered mask. Steve Ball, Sr., who owns Bug Master Pest Control in the Okanagan Valley, B.C., further recommends using a HEPA-filter-equipped vacuum, especially with dry rodent feces, in case it contains hantavirus spores, which become airborne when disturbed.

Raccoon feces often harbours not only giardia and salmonella, but can contain a dangerous roundworm—Bay­lisascaris procyonis, for you armchair pathologists—that can lead to blindness, organ failure, even death. For any significant amount, Bill Dowd, the president and CEO of Skedaddle Humane Wildlife Control, in Ancaster, Ont., says “call a professional,” offering advice that I’m increasingly tempted to follow. When pressed, he acknowledges that intrepid cottagers might not wait for the pros, in which case, he says, they should “be very, very careful.” Cover your nose and mouth with a particle mask for outdoor jobs, especially if you’re dealing with a large amount (bacteria in the feces can become airborne and inhaled). In an enclosed space, use a more hefty HEPA-filter mask, and wear gloves and washable rubber boots, even a jumpsuit over your clothes. Burn the poop or bury it in the ground, advises Azad, or, even better, use an inverted plastic bag to remove the deposit and any contaminated items, double bag, and dispose of it all in the landfill. Drying or freezing, sadly, doesn’t kill the roundworm eggs. Once you’re done, clean your hands with soap and warm running water, and wash the clothes you were wearing in hot water and detergent.

To clean a deck, your shovel, and other hard surfaces, Azad says most chemicals won’t work; instead, use boiling water to disinfect them. One bright note: it takes two to four weeks for the eggs to hatch, so if you know, really know, the feces is fresh—say, it wasn’t there last weekend—the eggs won’t cause infection, so you only need to protect against standard pathogens.

Bat guano (which looks like mouse poop, but rather than being distributed mouse-style, it’s all in one spot, in bat hangouts such as attics, chimneys, and, presumably, belfries) and bird poop can also contain pathogens, so best practice is to avoid direct contact, and, that’s right, wet it to avoid inhalation. If you’ve got a big cleanup job, especially one in an enclosed space, don a biohazard suit, mask, gloves, and safety glasses, and use the same precautions as when cleaning up after raccoons, or just call in a pro.

Spider poop, or “spider spots” as DesLoges quaintly puts it, isn’t dangerous, but it can be infuriatingly hard to remove because it’s acidic. He says an all-purpose soap and a whole lotta elbow grease should do the job. And, in case you missed it the first bazillion times we said it: never wash soap—biodegradable or not—into the lake. Never ever.

Smelly mattresses…

Strip the sheets. Take a colander filled with baking soda, and sprinkle it all over the exposed mattress, like you’re dusting a cake with icing sugar. Open windows. Leave for a minimum of 30 minutes before vacuuming up the baking soda. Prevention is the best solution, says Maker, who advises cottagers to buy a waterproof full-enclosure mattress cover that zips all the way around. That will prevent humidity from seeping in, which is what causes the musty smell, and will also protect against stains, water damage, dust mites, and animal urine.

Food/rust stuck to cast iron cookware/stove…

Well-seasoned cast iron works like non-stick cookware and should clean up easily with warm water and a plastic mesh scrubber. But if stubborn food sometimes sticks to your pan, salt is your saviour, says Mark Kelly, a spokesperson for Lodge Cast Iron in Tennessee. Make a paste of coarse salt and water. It acts as an abrasive to dislodge food bits without stripping your cookware’s seasoning. If that doesn’t work, remove the paste, fill the pan up with water, and bring it to a boil. This same paste will work on any debris stuck to a cast iron stove. If rust is a problem, however, Kelly says, you may need a professional to strip it away.

Screens/outdoor furniture covered in dust/pollen…

Remove screens, and hose them down. Fill a bucket with four litres of warm water, half a cup of Borax, and two tablespoons of dish soap, says Melissa Maker. Using a nylon bristled brush dipped in your cleaning solution, scrub the screens to remove dust, pollen, spiderwebs, and whatever other bits of gunk or bug debris are getting in the way of your view of the lake. Rinse with a hose or pressure washer, and stand upright to dry.

Kettle full of flakey floaty stuff…

That, my friends, is what people who care about this stuff call “scale” or “lime­scale,” and it’s a particularly pesky problem at the lake, according to Rob Davis, who gets asked about how to treat this more than anything else. Naturally occurring water “hardness” comes from groundwater containing lots of minerals, such as calcium and magnesium. What you need, says Davis, is an acid to break it down. Vinegar will do the job. Just fill your kettle about a quarter full with white vinegar or lemon juice, and then fill to the brim with water. Leave it for an hour or overnight. Give it a good rinse or two with water before you use it.

Davis is also a fan of citric acid to remove limescale buildup, but food-grade citric acid is hard to find, he says, which is why he sells a Rust + Mineral Buildup Remover under his EcoEthic label. For mineral buildup on taps or spouts, cut a lemon in half, and twist it on. Leave it for a half-hour or overnight, and let the acid do its thing. (Tie it on if it won’t stay.)

Citric acid from lemons works in grotty toilets too, says Davis, who once tossed some chunky lemonade powder into a toilet in order to dispose of the powder and returned the next morning to a sparkling commode.