35th anniversary celebration: I can’t imagine the cottage without Google Maps

a character dressed in hiking gear appearing to walk into a phone with a map pulled up of presqu'ile point on lake ontario Illustration by Katie Hicks

Into the early 2000s, we published a series of “Classics.” The writer would argue for something that you could not live at the lake without—watermelon, beach towels, a beloved web chair. Twenty years on, we’re asking, what are the new cottage classics?

Every so often, I’ll find my cottage on Google Maps, go into satellite mode, and then float around like a ghost, observing things from above.

It’s a strange way to visit nature, isn’t it? I’m using technology that is literally out of this world—multi-million-dollar orbital cameras. It’s an alien’s-eye view of the landscape. Yet this is precisely what makes it so wonderfully revealing: looking down from space, you behold cottage country like a minor god.

My cottage sits near the tip of Presqu’ile Point, a peninsula that juts into the northeast corner of Lake Ontario. I grew up hunting for snakes in the woods and watching herons with wings the size of car doors take flight.

My older neighbours, one cottage over, would explain to us kids how Presqu’ile contained critical and endangered wetlands; it was why nobody was allowed to go deep into the marshes behind the trees, for fear of upsetting the ecological balance. I was a dutifully environmental kid, so I obeyed. Peering down from space now, I can see in a fresh way the beauty and fragility of those wetlands—the tendrils of bullrush-thick marsh reaching out into the lake like graceful fingers, the gothic darkness of the murky water just offshore.

Satellites show you secrets. Looking at your cottage from above, you realize how much of the surrounding land you’ve never really visited. You couldn’t have; it’s dense forest, which—as the deer know—is great for concealing things.

From space, the woods cough up their mysteries. I’ve met cottagers who were startled to discover, on Google Maps, entire dwellings they were previously unaware of, not far from theirs. One found a small gravesite deep in the forest; another, a hidden stream. And satellite vision can be a way to spy on your neighbours, like a low-rent James Bond: Hmmm, those folks across the lake added one heck of a deck.
Peering down from above, you also grasp just how damn huge is the Canadian wilderness, and how tiny, comparatively, are the parts we occupy. I’ve gone on virtual “hikes,” zooming down close on my cottage then slowly scrolling farther and farther north, until—15 minutes later—I’ve travelled so deep into the Ontario north, I haven’t seen even a dirt road for miles and miles. You can feel lost, pleasantly so, in a digital map.

These days, when you visit the cottage, go stargazing. You’ll see some of the lights zipping across the sky. Wave at them: those are your eyes now, looking down.

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