How this cottager overcomes the challenges of a maturing cottage

Man repairing window frame on a maturing cottage. Photo by encierro/

In the third episode of the Cottage Life Podcast Season 3, we’ll listen to an essay that answers the question: is the cottage a lot of upkeep? Listen here or visit for access to all of the episodes.

Maturity is overtaking my haven on the Rideau at an unexpected pace. Just as we drove in the last nail to complete the project, the first piece of lumber rotted off and fell to the ground. 

As I said to the contractor, “The physical plant at my private recreational centre is deteriorating at a rate above and beyond the original engineering projections.”

Or, as I said to my wife, “Look, these darned steps are rotting away already!” 

“Well, so they are,” she said. “And so are we.”

This is not a philosophy on which to chew thoughtfully while holding a mouthful of galvanized nails during a repair job. 

A maturing cottage can age quickly. These vacation domiciles, crafted so carefully in the younger years of one’s life, are supposed to be holiday retreats that will last forever. And here I am, only a few years after rejoicing over my engineering triumph—I can build steps! I can build steps!—contemplating their replacement. Didn’t we use the best western cedar? Didn’t we stain and restain the wood to keep nature at bay? Didn’t we set the steps on concrete to break contact with the soil?

But nature triumphs. 

It is only natural that when dead trees (even in the refined form obtained at the lumber yard) are laid down in the forest, they will want to become part of the forest floor. A cottage is merely a structured compost pile that will quickly revert to rotting vegetation. It is nature’s way. 

Stone and brick and even wooden structures in cities, attacked by gas fumes and all sorts of acidic pollution, seem to last for centuries. You slap on a coat of paint every 10 years or so and the thing holds together forever. On the other hand a cottage, which knows only the natural elements of wind, rain, snow, and sunshine, will fall down in five years—guaranteedunless tended and nurtured carefully every summer weekend. 

This is a fact of life unappreciated by non-cottagers. I met a man recently who was contemplating buying a cottage. Explaining that he wasn’t much of a handyman, he asked, “Is there much upkeep in a cottage?”

Sir, it is a cottage. No more need be said. 

This natural decomposition rate of a cottage, when considered along with the decomposition rate of one’s body, is enough to turn one’s thoughts to other forms of holiday accommodations. Renting, for example. Sell the cottage, invest the money, use the interest to rent a cottage retreat. Let someone else repair the rotten steps. 

Or yachting. We could sell the decomposing cottage and buy a tidy plastic yacht that would be immune to all the ravages of nature save shoals and rocks. 

“Look at them,” I say, peering through binoculars at a pride of yachts wallowing up the Rideau. “In the fall the owners simply tie up at a dock, hand a wad of money to somebody else to look after their boats, and go away to Florida.”

My wife grabbed the binocs. “There’s a man on the bridge,” she says, “and he’s telling his wife he’s going to sell the yacht and buy a cottage. He’s saying, ‘Bet a cottage gets more than three miles to the gallon’.”

I’m amazed. I didn’t know she could lipread across the lake. I’ll have to be more careful in the future. 

Cottaging is a constant challenge to test our mettle. We have wrestled with boats through milfoil-choked channels and every spring we hire a stunt pilot to spray for moths. Next on nature’s list of promised plagues are zebra mussels, which will clog our water intake lines. If Pharaoh thought chasing Moses and the Israelites was frustrating, he should have tried cottaging in Canada. 

Perhaps cottages should be recognized and protected as endangered species, needing special treatment on account of their intrinsic frailty. You put them up and, with careful planning and engineering, you might be able to stretch their natural five-year life spans to 10, provided you don’t stomp around on the deck or slam the door. 

After a decade, you’ll be nothing left but a pile of mouldering lumber and rotting shingles. Future generations will have the opportunity to build again and enjoy the awesome sight of nature reducing their carpentry to forest rubble. But enough of this philosophizing. Pass the nails, please. I’ve got steps to mend. 

10 repairs every cottager can master

This article was originally published as “Rotting on the Rideau” in the April/May 1992 issue of Cottage Life. 

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