Finding home in Ontario cottage country

Muskoka cottage country, lake in the foreground continuing past trees on the left and right Photo by Gus Garcia/Shutterstock

In season 4, episode 2 of the Cottage Life Podcast, we explore how cottage communities are adapting to the influx of both part-time and full-time cottagers. Then, we listen to an essay that reflects on cottage life at the time of Canada’s 150th anniversary that will take you right to your piece of paradise. You can listen to all of the episodes here.

As a kid, I understood early: cottages were something other people had. Not just for a summer escape, but as a passport to belonging, firmly beyond the reach of a bookish girl from a fractured family growing up amid the orchards flanking Lake Ontario.

Later, at a girls’ camp on Lake of Bays, the wilderness tattooed itself onto my psyche, but I did my best to ignore it. Even as a teenaged camper, then as a counsellor, I preferred to think of myself as a thwarted urbanite who was merely putting in time until I was allowed to hit the big city, where I would lead an impossibly romantic intellectual life.

It wasn’t until decades later, as a foreign correspondent in Paris, staring out the window of my first-arrondissement walk-up on a listless July afternoon, that I realized I was starved for something beyond that unrelenting cityscape.

“I think I’m homesick,” I ventured to a friend.

She asked what I was missing, expecting a litany of family ties or old flames.

“The rocks and trees,” I found myself saying, to even my own astonishment.

It would be years and a posting to Washington, D.C., before I got the chance to put that longing to the test. One of my closest friends asked if I wanted to co-rent a cottage with her for two weeks on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park. I didn’t hesitate.

To me, it was a destination as exotic as any assignment in Jerusalem or Tehran. The ancient green house with its swooping screened porch sat on Gilmour Island at the southern end of a lake rife with history. Barely a kilometre from our front dock, the body of the painter Tom Thomson had been found, inexplicably trussed in fishing twine. Dubbed Loon’s Retreat, that cottage seemed to me the very essence of the country I’d left behind.

Its two storeys of chintz-decked bedrooms slept a dozen and, over those two weeks, became a hub for the network of family and friends I barely had time to see on visits back to Toronto. One weekend so many guests showed up that we converted the verandah’s sagging Ping-Pong table into dining space for 20, the latest gossip served up with the stuffed salmon. For that and many summers to come, Loon’s Retreat was one of the ties that bound me to Canada.

Years later, long after the cottage had been reclaimed by its owners, I was about to take a new job in Washington when a one-time boyfriend asked me to join him on a boat trip from the North Channel of Georgian Bay to his family’s island on the southeastern shore. I said yes and instantly regretted it. I was running out of time to pack for the States, where I felt my career lay, and, besides, what was the point? Our romance had been over for years.

But, as it turned out, I was wrong on both counts. Somewhere between the soaring fjords of Killarney and the veins of pink quartz swirling across his ancestral chunk of rock, I realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this man.

That also meant being wedded to the place where he felt the deepest roots—an airy grey cottage that his maternal grandfather had erected in the 1930s just south of Go Home Bay—but this second capitulation was not quite as swift. Georgian Bay terrified me—its topography so stark and unforgiving, its fabled storms sweeping in on a dime, toppling lordly pines and whipping up ocean-worthy breakers that obliterated deadlines for the boat trip back to the marina.

And then there were the snakes. My future husband swore nobody had seen a massasauga rattler on the island for years, a reassurance undercut by the two snakeskins that his late father had mounted by the living room door. Sometimes, strolling warily across the mottled rock, I longed for the blithe greenery of Algonquin Park.

In the end, it was the beauty that won me over. The flare of purple from the tiny, brave wild irises that sprang from mossy puddles to greet us each May, and the sunsets, each more glorious than the last, all demanding a ritual evening toast. On the chilly fall night I looked up to see the aurora borealis performing a ghostly dance of green veils across the northern sky, I knew I was a goner.

For five years we negotiated a crossborder relationship, centred on that acreage of rock, some of the oldest on the planet. Then one September morning, on assignment in New York City, I watched as the second tower of the World Trade Center crumpled in a whoosh of breathstopping dust and realized it was time to go back to that bedrock, my own personal Ground Zero.

On every trip up from the marina, a stone cairn reminds us that Samuel de Champlain paddled these waters four centuries ago, and a framed print on the dining room wall testifies to the fact that A.Y. Jackson once stopped by to paint the island. But beneath the pine rafters strung with the memorabilia of four generations, we are writing some new chapters of our own.

My old Canoe Lake pals now count a visit to this island a mandatory annual ritual, and every summer my husband’s accomplished niece, nephew, and far-flung cousins still fly back from across the continent to hurl themselves into the channel where their parents and grandparents once skinny-dipped. They finger old regatta ribbons, explaining the family lore to new mates, and I have come to understand that no renovation urges can ever trifle too much with that fiercely cherished thread of memory and belonging.

On July 1, we will get out the dimestore flags to deck the dining table on the old screened porch and light some candles to mark the country’s 150th. We are not very good at patriotism, but for each of us, it seems clear: this cottage is what it means to be Canadian, to be home.

Marci McDonald has written two books and won nine National Magazine Awards.

This essay appeared in the Early Summer 2017 issue of Cottage Life.

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