Off-season? Not for the locals in cottage-land

a snowy trail through the woods Photo by NelzTabcharani316 / Shutterstock

This essay about living in the off-season was originally published “Life in a northern town” in the Winter 2020 issue of Cottage Life.

As a kid who spent all summer at the cottage, the annual arrival of the Canadian National Exhibition carried double-edged significance. On one hand, it promised fun and excitement, unchecked gluttony at the food hall, and the terrifying possibility of vomiting on one of the loud and violent rides.

But it also meant summer was officially over and soon it would be time for the drudgery of school. When the CNE opened, cottage-land—the best amusement park ever invented—closed for the season.

I have now lived full-time in cottage-land for a little over 20 years, much of that working at a small business where cottagers were our regular customers, along with local neighbours, travellers, and tourists from all points on the map. This year it was a COVID-19 bust, but normally, when I hear that the CNE will be opening soon, my heart gives a little pitty-pat of joy, because it means that very shortly my town and the everyday routines of the people who live year-round in cottage country will return to normalcy.

I consider it a rare blessing to be able to live in this place of water and rocks and trees. Every season has a special beauty, and there is plenty of wilderness, space, and solitude. Which is why so many cottagers have made it, or hope to make it, their year-round home. That’s the wrinkle to living in an attractive locale; everybody else wants to share the experience, and who could possibly blame them? The downside for small towns, and the people who live in them, is a dramatic seasonal population explosion that at times can seem overwhelming. In the District of Muskoka, seasonal residents represent more than 57 per cent of the population. That varies town by town, of course. In Huntsville, where I live, permanent people outnumber seasonals almost 3:1. But in smaller townships such as Georgian Bay, where seasonal residents constitute almost 87 per cent of the population, those numbers are powerfully reversed. When you consider that these figures don’t include tourists and travellers and leaf-lookers, never mind the organized mayhem of triathlons and craft beer festivals, it’s easy to see how small places quickly fill to bursting in peak season.

This uptick in population obviously has pros and cons in a small-town economy. For those of us who work in businesses that rely on seasonal tourism—which is most everybody—boom time means business time and money in the bank. But it also means long hours, little time off, and a sense of sweeping invasion as traffic snarls and parking spots disappear. Banks and stores are jammed and local restaurants and watering holes are crowded to capacity. That scene, of course, was pre–pandemic. But it will return again, when things get back to normal. When a few routine errands that would normally take an hour will devour the best part of a day, if they can be completed at all. And sometimes patience wears thin. Sometimes tempers flare. It’s at these moments of maximum summer that my little town starts to exhibit the crappier aspects of the city I escaped from many years ago. This is when I sometimes curse summer tourists, in all their various guises, as “those goddamn ice-cream eaters.”

But it’s not as if this phenomenon is new. Summer in cottage country has probably been this way since well-heeled people wearing boiled wool suits started coming here on trains and steamboats. It’s all part of the rhythm of the seasons, and the overheated, overcrowded, overly busy summer is but one part of the tourist town equation. The other part, and maybe the better one for locals at least, starts to show its face when traffic in cottage places starts to thin out a bit. Traditionally, Labour Day signalled the end of summer and a drastic decline in tourism. Some cottagers would return for closing-up and the ritual of Thanksgiving by the lake, but by mid-September the high season was pretty much over. Like someone flipped a switch. In normal, non-pandemic years, the subtle slide into off-season calm is more drawn out—and busier later into the year—as European tourists arrive to enjoy fine autumn weather, and the population features more retired people, who are masters of their own schedules. More like a dimmer than an on/off switch.

Still, it is quieter. And my first luxury of the dimmer season is to be able to visit my own cottage for more than the night or two I usually manage in July and August. Not long ago, before we sold our store, my summers were spent serving cottage customers, and when I can finally get to my own place, I truly appreciate the experience. It might be too cold for swimming and broiling in the sun, but it feels like an exotic vacation for me. Just doing normal cottage chores is a welcome respite from grinding it out for six days a week, because working on cottage projects, as we all know, is not the same as real work. Leaving the town you live in every day can make four nights up at the lake seem like a two-week vacation, and with a little rest and relaxation, the sweaty hustle of maximum summer eventually slips into the rearview mirror. The return to relative normalcy also means getting to do touristy stuff like going for a hike in Algonquin Provincial Park or improvising a road trip from town to town, cruising for junk store treasure and maybe even, miracle of miracles, stopping at some rinky-dink place to eat an ice cream cone.

For people who live in cottage country and work in businesses defined by summer tourism, fall and winter give opportunities to reconnect with friends and neighbours, people you don’t see all summer, especially if they too are part of the intense tourist economy. In the fall, regularity returns for everyone as kids head back to school and the routines of work life, hockey leagues, and dance class kick in. Still busy, but a more measured tempo.

Grocery shopping or cruising the aisles at Canadian Tire can once again be a mildly pleasurable activity. The global pandemic has thrown a wrench into the works, of course, but in a normal year this is the time to meet friends for wings and beer, host a dinner party, or just hang out in someone’s garage working on a four-wheeler, without having to be anyplace in a screaming hurry.

The first broken spoke on the Ferris wheel of cottage-land shows up in late November, when the weather usually turns abysmal, and pretty much runs until Christmas. Dark and cold and sullen, it’s no longer autumn, nor is it proper winter by a long shot. A good time for many to fly somewhere warm. For me it’s a time of making and mending, starting new projects and trying to finish others.

The high point of this period is hunting season, moose first then whitetail deer, as solo hunters get some bush time, and the big family camps hit full stride, carrying on traditions that are as precious to them as any cottager’s hard-earned summer stint at the lake. For many people who work without cease all summer, hunting season is their most cherished and inviolable vacation. It’s a tradition that many cottagers don’t get, and it’s hard not to laugh when I hear from someone who can’t understand why they aren’t getting call-backs from their plumber during the first week of deer season.

When you are a local, the sometimes bizarre behaviour of tourists can be hilarious, like trying to make a U-turn on main street on a summer Saturday (impossible) or seeing a troop of urban hipsters with matching beards and slim-fit bush jackets get carded at the pub. One year, a lady drove her car over the edge at the waste transfer station and landed inside a dumpster.

At our store we’d regularly chuckle at the sight of keen survivalists strapped with 10″ Bowie knives, ready for their weekend of provincial park camping. Not hilarious is the off-hand rudeness offered to servers at restaurants and high-speed dangerous driving on cottage roads. Garbage is a problem, whether it’s regular litter or full bags of trash left by my driveway, in the parking lot of our store, or tossed on the side of the highway. There are a lot of people trying to squeeze into cottage country during the summer. And it stands to reason that a small percentage of them will be irresponsible jerks.

When I first moved to cottage country, I was surprised to find an us-versus-them attitude, at times quite ugly, held by some locals. They are a minority of people who complain bitterly about “citiots” and “tourrorists,” those non-specific ignorant visitors who, as certain vocal locals see it, have all joined together to make local lives a misery. Taking a page from the racist playbook, they think outsiders should just go back to where they came from. Everybody has heard commentary from these yobs before, and most just dismiss the moron minority. But I know many cottage people who are deeply hurt by this kind of talk, surprised to hear it because they consider themselves part of the community, many having come here for generations. They shop in town, support local hospitals and charities, and have made long-lasting ties within the community. And this is the response? With the first pandemic’s first spring came even more small-town small mind, as each little jurisdiction wagged frightened fingers at their nearest neighbour, all of them decrying the imminent hordes of big city cottagers charging north to gobble up food and supplies, spread disease, and congest hospitals. Which as we know, simply did not happen. The reality is that anyone involved in a small-town, tourist-based economy, especially the business owners, builders, trades, retailers, and service providers who cater to cottage customers, knows that without support from “outsiders,” there would be no local economy whatsoever. But just like everywhere else it is found, this chronic resentment toward “rich and privileged” visitors is driven by economic inequity. A summer snapshot of cottage country might depict shiny happy people having fun, but in the District of Muskoka, just 28 per cent of permanent households earn more than $100,000 annually, compared to 76 per cent for seasonal residents—a situation that would grow exponentially more dire if cottagers and visitors stopped spending money in cottage towns and “just went back where they came from.”

Winter in cottage country is, obviously, simply amazing. I’ve always liked the cold season, but up here its best parts are magnified and more exceptional, the silence above all, as the whole world gets blanketed in a sound-absorbing mantle of snow. It’s also at this time, but only when the ice is good and thick, that I can revisit my island cottage, hauling in weeks’ worth of supplies with a snowmobile.

A few years ago, I made a simple groomer for the trails around my property at home, so now there is a network of smooth winter boulevards for snowshoeing, skiing, and cutting firewood to heat the house. It’s important to get outside. Hunkering down indoors with Netflix and a stack of cookbooks is the surest path to an interminable and miserable four months. Do I get frustrated by January thaws that make everything melt and reset the fun odometer? Sure I do. And does moving mountains of snow from my driveway get a bit tired by March? Absolutely. But there’s nowhere I would rather live, especially in January and February when cottage country is mostly left to locals.

After my move north, it was always fun to make occasional random trips back to the big city for food and shopping and nightlife. But as the years went by, and my age advanced with them, those trips became less interesting to me and more infrequent. These days, my preferred direction of travel is due north, to my new version of cottage-land. There are no hot-and-bothered crowds on my island, no sense of invasion even on the busiest summer days, and it’s the place I like to be and think about all the time.

No matter where they live, I’m pretty sure this is something all cottagers share. At our store, during the boiling panic of summer, I would routinely ask Friday afternoon cottage road warriors about the traffic on the way up, especially if I’d heard of an accident or a lane closure on the radio. Without fail, rather than grumble or complain about the worst-drive-ever, most people would simply give a tired smile and say: “I’m just happy to be here.”

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