Is winter cottaging still a thing?

Published: March 7, 2019

muskoka-chair-lake-snow-ice Photo by MoJeeza/Shutterstock

Here’s a question for you: is winter cottaging really even a thing anymore? I know many people visit their lake places in the dark months, but does it really warrant any kind of special definition as a form of cottage-going? Back in the ancient times of my childhood, winter cottaging actually meant something. It was a specialty branch of regular cottaging that only the boldest masochists would dare attempt.

I guess I remember it as being fun, but the first time I went to our family place one cold winter was probably not a high point in outdoor merriment. With a north-facing frontage, the cottage was pretty much sunless and also open to icy gusts howling off Georgian Bay. The place was uninsulated, save for the layers of old newsprint under the wallpaper, so it was colder inside than out, which we discovered after digging a tunnel through drifted snow to get in the back door. We heated the place with a wood-burning cookstove and a big Norge space heater that ran on smelly stove oil. After two days of full thermal output from both appliances, you could take your coat off indoors. All in all, pretty comfy by winter camping standards.

For healthy recreation, we hauled water from a hole chopped in the ice with an axe (bad idea), and I spent most of my time burrowing a complex of Viet Cong–style tunnels under the snow, which were warmer than the cottage or the surface world above. As a diversion, my brother enticed me to go for an expedition to the marina store where we got pop and chips in the summer. Unaware that marina stores shut down completely during the winter, we set out with visions of Tahiti Treat and Hostess dill pickle chips driving us forward like Roald Amundsen on his trek to the South Pole. About halfway there, however, my cheap winter boots, too cold for their low price tag, cracked and fell off, leaving me to trudge back wearing just the felt liners. As near as I can recall, I spent the rest of the visit indoors, eating Alpha-Getti with my feet propped on the open door of the cookstove oven.

See what I mean? Back then winter cottaging meant adventure and hardship and self-sacrifice. Sometimes it also danced with danger, like the more recent time a bunch of us visited Friend Phil’s place. Water-access, non-insulated, and not heated by a pathetic Franklin stove, this cottage didn’t even have an outhouse for winter use. We almost ran out of firewood because someone (probably Phil’s younger brother) had burned most of the fuel on the previous weekend. Fortunately, one member of our polar expedition happened to be a farrier, otherwise known as a guy who puts shoes on horses for a living. Having winter-cottaged here before, our horseman had the forethought to bring along his portable propane forge, which we subsequently used to rapidly heat the cottage and turn empty beer cans into puddles of liquid aluminum. This was great fun until the unthinkable happened: after raising the interior temperature by 20 degrees in about 10 minutes, the forge’s heat caused the enormous windows—virtually the entire front of the cottage—to separate from their wooden frames with violent booming noises. Snow was whistling through the new spaces between glass and frame, so we remained calm, like proper expedition men, turning down the heat, plugging the gaps with wads of sodden toilet paper, and denying responsibility for years to come. Quite an achievement. And a powerful testimony to the high adventure that can result from true winter cottaging.

Today, I’m afraid this sort of derring-do just isn’t done because our cottages have become so accessible and so comfortable that regular civilians can now enjoy a winter experience formerly reserved for extreme adventurers and mad trappers. Last winter, a customer stopped by the store on the way to his cottage. Having noticed something amiss on one of the cottage security cameras he monitors from his office in the city, he’d come to investigate. One quick text to a plow guy opened his driveway, then he turned up the heat with a climate control app on his phone. Is this really progress? I am beginning to suspect that winter cottaging as we used to know it will disappear because cottagers will be unable to discern winter from any other season. In this horrible state of dystopia you will need to pay attention to subtle signals to keep up with each season. Hint: if it is winter, the garage may call to ask why you haven’t installed your snow tires. Charlie Brown will be on television. You will develop an inexplicable longing for gravy.

I recently returned to Friend Phil’s cottage after a multi-decade hiatus, and much has changed. There is now a road so you can drive in for three seasons. The place has been expanded and insulated, and those windows that someone ruined (probably Phil’s younger brother) have been replaced. There is an efficient woodstove and a proper residential furnace. On a cold winter weekend, we had two actual bathrooms with plenty of running water (including the hot kind!) and a lovely shower. Some sports murmured on a TV in the background as we enjoyed warming food and drink and relaxed on comfortable furniture. With no water to haul or wood to gather, we considered some kind of epic adventure. Take the sleds to Ardbeg? Hit those back lakes for some trout? We mulled this over. Then Phil found a good cigar, and I found some old Scotch, and this got me to thinking. Roald Amundsen died at the age of 55 on an Arctic rescue mission. Captain Robert Scott died at 43 on the return leg of an expedition to the South Pole. And Sir Ernest Shackleton died at 47 at the very start of a planned Antarctic journey. Having just turned 50, I now see clearly that both polar exploration and old-school winter cottaging—with its chills and inconveniences—are best left to a younger generation of crazy adventure seekers. I salute their courage, fortitude, and fierce determination from the depths of my comfy chair.

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