The unforgettable cottage sound that triggers nostalgia

Screen door Photo by SOORACHET KHEAWHOM/Shutterstock

In episode 6 of the Cottage Life Podcast Season 3, we’ll listen to a piece about the sound of the cottage screen door slamming, which first appeared in our September/October 1998 issue. Listen here or visit for access to all of the episodes.

Much has been written about the properties of sound at the cottage; how the smallest noises can carry a long way on a quiet night. Of those sounds, the slam of the screen door ranks right up there with the warble of the loon as a quintessential sound of summer. At our place, a rambling ex-fishing lodge with eight screen doors at last count, the quintessential doors easily outnumber the quintessential waterbirds. Not surprisingly, my family’s ability to deduce the sound of one screen door from another has been raised to a high art, a skill that lets us know who’s doing what even when we’re tucked in bed or reading on the porch.

The two easiest doors to identify are the aluminum storm doors that swoosh out on spring-loaded chains then swing back in measured time on their hydraulic arms. On a quiet night their hiss, pause, hiss, pause… smash! travels all the way to the dock and probably a mile upriver.

The wooden slammer on the front porch has a different voice. A DIY special that doesn’t quite compensate for the porch floor’s eccentricities, it opens with a sticky scrape—and stays open until forcibly closed. Listening from the hill cabin, you hear the ker-plonk of the slammer mechanism opening, the scrape of the door on the floor, then the bomp-de-bomp of footsteps down the stairs. Pause. Muffled curse. Footsteps back up the stairs, another scrape, a closing ker-plonk, and a final trot down the steps.

The screen door on the back shed off our kitchen behaves like a cross between a wooden slammer and an aluminum eyesore. It ker-plonks just like a real door, but its springy chain stretches taut and whips the door back again. In the quiet of the night it can be identified by its dead-sounding slam. Ker-plonk… the guitar-tuning noises of the spring stretching… then ka-THUMP as it thuds shut, followed by the rattling of basins and washtubs against the shed walls.
Years ago, we used to have another screen door, leading off the other side of the front porch down towards the lower cabin, a slouching piece of cottage architecture whose wobbly door needs two spring slammers, a swift kick, and a cuss-word just to close properly. You could actually follow the audible trail of someone leaving the lower cabin, entering the old front-porch door, heading into the cottage, and exiting out the back shed by the cacophony of ker-plonks, scrapes, hisses, smashes, ka-THUMPs and wash-basin rattles as they passed through a series of four screen doors.

Our cover story this issue is “Grand Slam!,” Charles Long’s instructive article on how to build your own classic cedar screen door. In fact, it’s such a fine door that I actually toyed with the idea of replacing some of our geriatric slammers with nice new models. But Charles’ article makes no mention of the door’s particular intonation. Is it a high and hollow whap! like the door on our hilltop cabin? Or more of a back-shed ka-THUMP? Could a brand-new mechanism possibly reproduce the rusty ka-tank of my own cabin door being opened? Would it scrape just so, letting us know someone has gone to read on the porch?
A bunch of new screen doors would probably just keep me awake all summer as I tried to figure out their individual voices. Or, worse yet, what if they made no noises at all? Without the reassuring sounds of familiar screen doors, I’d be lost in the woods.

This essay originally appeared as the Editor’s Note in the September/October ’98 issue of Cottage Life.

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