This cottage family has captivated 12,000 loyal YouTube subscribers

As the cards are dealt across the dining table, why does Sam Macklin hide her hand and keep looking over at the dealer? “Because, Mom, everyone knows you try to cheat,” she says, laughing. “They even caught you on YouTube.” Her mother, Tammy, feigns offence, with a mild grumble in protest, but she’s laughing too, and it’s clear this is established family canon. 

Since 2014, the Macklins—Tammy and her husband, Andrew, and their children, Samantha and Simon—have appeared in video diaries documenting their evolving cottage experience on Tangamong Lake in Ontario’s Kawartha region on their YouTube channel, “Ontario Lakeside.” As the family built their own cottage, an eclectic, off-grid structure, they also built a following of more than 12,000 subscribers. The audience provides a lot more than views, likes, or even the very modest ad revenue that the family earns; they’re more like frequent and familiar guests at the cottage. “Some have been with us from the beginning. They’ve watched the kids grow up,” Andrew says, proudly.

And when the audience watched Tammy hesitate—even if it was for just a moment—while dealing cards, they called her out in the comments.

The YouTube channel started as a natural extension of Andrew’s career—he heads the camera department on film and TV shoots in Toronto—and a parent’s habit of recording his children. “I’d learned so much from what other people uploaded, especially about installing solar power,” he says, “I wanted to give something back.”

Along with cottage fixes and projects, some dirt bike and quad riding, most of the videos follow the cottage build. The family built it carefully over several years, in stages, and with small changes along the way. “I didn’t want to rush it,” Andrew says. “I wanted to enjoy the process and, on a nice day, I wanted us to take a break and enjoy the lake.” 

Designing the cottage fed Andrew’s ongoing passion for architecture. As a student, he switched out of architecture to film, but he’s still a big fan. The T-shirt he’s wearing could be concert merch, except for the line drawing of Falling Water on the front. Is that iconic mid-century modern house built beside a stream in the woods south of Pittsburgh an inspiration for the cottage? “Frank Lloyd Wright is one of my heroes,” he says. 

Andrew’s careful process and unconventional design were sometimes at odds with another family member, Tammy’s late father, Jack. “He wanted to be working, always, when he was here. He kept us moving,” Andrew says. “If he had his way, the cottage would have been finished a lot sooner. It would be a more traditional box, but it would be done.”

The two began to jokingly refer to each other as “the architect” and “the builder,” trading jabs about their work. “I’d complain about the builder rushing things, and he’d complain about the architect’s crazy ideas,” Andrew recalls. 

If Andrew often favoured innovative solutions, Jack knew when a conventional option, implemented quickly, was the better answer. About half the family’s time and labour, Andrew estimates, went into ferrying building materials across the water from the shared dock—a five-minute boat ride away—and then, in small loads, up the hill. Borrowing an idea from West Coast logging, Andrew installed a “skyline,” a suspended zipline-like cable, to hoist loads from the waterfront to the building site. A pulley system made pulling loads by hand easy, but not easy enough for Jack’s liking. He mechanized the skyline with an electric winch, saving countless hours for the family. No consultation with the architect needed. 

After unloading materials for the build at the shore, the family split into two teams—Samantha and Andrew at the bottom of the hill, Simon and Tammy at the top. Sam, meticulous, a natural climber, and adept at solving puzzles, became the expert in quickly securing the loads with ratchet straps and ropes to the cable overhead. At the top, mother and son unloaded. “Simon and I used to fight a lot, so our parents were probably splitting us up too,” Sam says. Of course, the teens tried riding up the line, but the winch is too slow. It’s a boring ride, they say.

While plywood and 2x4s can take a straight-line trip up from the rocky shore, people and Iggy, the family’s high-energy Jack Russell, zigzag over a mix of stairs and meandering paths that connect flattish natural terraces on the way. With so many routes up and down—past the bunkie and the outhouse, solar panels, the wood-fired hot tub or the pizza oven—the hillside feels like a full-sized game of snakes and ladders. 

In the videos, Andrew is usually filming and providing intros and narration. Sam and Simon appear often, sometimes as guest hosts. Even in the earliest YouTube videos, when they were about 14 and 12, they don’t care about the camera—except when they’re hamming it up. Tammy comes in and out of frame; she always seems too busy to pay attention to her husband’s cinematography. And although her father appears often—always working—her mother, Heather, is almost never in the shots. “That’s because she was cooking for us and keeping us organized!” Tammy says. “She was doing everything behind the scenes.” 

The cottage sits on a nearly bare rocky clearing, at the crest of the ridge that defines the lake’s northern shoreline. The design is both constrained by the rock’s shape and makes the most of it. Out the front, there’s a wide view of the lake, its south shore, and the treed hills beyond. Out the back, through a bank of windows in the kitchen, the view, which includes a beaver pond about 30 metres away, is smaller and more intimate. The trees are mature but not grand, perhaps stunted like bonsai trees by the thin layer of soil over granite. “It’s secluded, like a backyard,” Tammy says. A good spot, she adds, to sit and read. 

The cottage has two asymmetric wings jutting off to each side, one for the bedrooms and the other for a combined kitchen, dining, and living space—the great room, as the Macklins call it, though it’s a modest 12 feet front to back and 30 feet long. A porch, screened on three sides and connected to the great room with a glass garage door, projects from the front. 

The original idea for the cottage, Andrew explains, was to build several small structures in a compound—the way old lumber camps kept the bunkhouse, the cookhouse, and the washhouse in separate quarters. But local zoning wouldn’t allow that many small structures on one property, so he rejigged the plans so that the individual components became one conjoined building.

“Andrew designed the cottage, but then when we ran into obstacles while building, we’d all come together to problem-solve,” Tammy says. For instance, the asymmetric roofline complicated the ceiling installation where the great room connects with the bedroom wing, so much so that they had to take down the first ceiling and redo it.“Like where the two main parts of the roof meet, the shapes are, well, odd,” she says. Simon remembers that collaborative process, and how even the kids had input. “We’d be working for hours on some problem, but then we’d just have to call time on it. During dinner, everyone would brainstorm,” he says, until they found a solution.

One solution they’re particularly proud of is how they minimized the building’s permanent impact. Positioning the cottage on solid rock allowed the Macklins to bolt most of the support posts in place, rather than excavating for a foundation or pouring massive concrete footings. Since the cottage was owner-designed and -built, they didn’t need an engineer or contractor to get building approval. But drilling into the rock wasn’t as easy as they thought. “We burned through a couple of hammer drills before we realized we needed a bigger tool,” says Simon. “Granite is really tough.”

Like campers who leave nothing behind, “we could dismantle the building,” Andrew says, “and the only evidence that we were here would be a few small holes drilled in the rock.” 

They also kept their impact on the forest light. “Sam especially wouldn’t let us cut down trees, even if we’d wanted to,” Tammy explains. “And we didn’t want to. We chose this property because of the trees.” Aside from pruning a few branches, they only needed to cut two small trees to build the cottage. Seven years or so later, Sam is finishing up her degree in environmental biology, recording photosynthesis readings for research projects, writing limnology papers using data from the lake, and generally continuing the environmental advocacy she started before the cottage’s first bolt hole was drilled. 

Tammy is happy the cottage has a small footprint, but her favourite design element is adjacent to the screened porch. It’s a large, round window that she insisted on including in the design. “I think the idea for it came ultimately from my First Nations heritage. Circles are important symbols of unity and togetherness,” she says. “And the family unit—that’s also a circle.” Originally, she proposed a circular tower, but Andrew balked at the complexity it would add to construction. “I compromised with a circle window.” 

Andrew found a round glass tabletop that he repurposed as Tammy’s window, and it’s not the only window with a story. When he was shooting the TV series 12 Monkeys in a Toronto back alley, he noticed a condo construction crew taking new windows out to the dumpster. The panes had small nicks on the edges, making them unusable in a high-rise building, but perfect for the cottage’s back wall. A quick conversation with the foreperson, and Andrew had three nearly new picture windows for nothing more than the effort of driving them home. 

These windows gave the family a clear view of the damage caused by the infestation of LDD moths that affected many parts of the province. At the height of last summer, almost all of the trees here were bare, leaves chewed away by the voracious caterpillars. Even the few conifers in the Macklins’ mixed forest were damaged—and conifers are a last resort, famine food for the larvae when there’s nothing else left to eat.

“Andrew and I didn’t grow up with family cottages, but we always camped a lot,” Tammy says, as she’s putting away a few dishes after lunch. Instead of pumping lake water all the way up the hill for dishes and washing, the family uses a rainwater collection system. The metal roof of the cottage directs rainflow through filters into a 500-gallon tank. Bottled water for drinking comes up the skyline. At first, the Macklins worried that they wouldn’t get enough rain or that the tank would develop algae, but there’s plenty of rainfall, even in midsummer, and keeping the tank shaded has prevented any problems. 

Electricity for the cottage comes from three stand-mounted solar panels in a clearing a short distance away. “We could rotate the panels to follow the sun,” Andrew says, “but we found we don’t need to.” It’s a recurring theme at every step of his tour of the off-grid system—he’s a little surprised at how easy off-grid living is.

The heart of the system is housed in one large drawer in the wall of kitchen cabinets—the lithium battery, inverter, and charge controller. The battery is one-quarter of a Chevy Volt battery pack, from a car that was in a collision, Andrew explains. Lithium batteries in electric cars need to be replaced after 10 to 20 years, as they lose the ability to deliver the quick burst of power a car occasionally needs. Even then, they have plenty of lifespan for other uses, and many of them are being repurposed as power storage for off-grid energy systems. 

The battery’s 4.2 kilowatt-hour capacity is plenty for lights, two small fridges, the water pump, and a computer for watching movies on Saturday nights. There are the usual phone chargers around—the chronically weak cell signal doesn’t stop Simon from checking his phone hopefully. And on sunny days, when the battery gets fully charged by about 10 a.m., the panels’ extra power is diverted to “Icey,” an electric ice maker and the only appliance that gets a nickname. 

By the end of the summer, the forest at the Macklins’ place had started, it seemed, to fight back against the damage caused by the LDD moths. Many of the deciduous trees produced a second set of leaves, which would gather as much energy from the sun as possible before winter. LDD egg cases, lumpy brown masses the moths deposit on trunks and branches, were much less common than the year before. “We only saw a few,” says Sam. “So we may be safe.” The moths aren’t gone, she knows, but perhaps the infestation’s peak is over.

In the afternoon, Tammy, Andrew, and Simon take a walk around the beaver pond, following a trail the father-son team made for dirt biking. The pond occupies a natural valley in the rock behind the cottage, dammed at one end, with a stream outflow down to the lake. They’re worried because they haven’t seen the beaver this season. Perhaps a predator got him, or perhaps the moth damage affected the food supply. 

Heavy rains a few days ago have temporarily added gusto to the water flowing out of the beaver pond. “We did consider a small hydroelectric system, but the stream usually dries up in the summer,” Andrew says. While the stream is intermittent, the pond is a permanent feature, home to generations of beavers. Even if the current tenant is gone, “another one will move in soon,” Andrew says hopefully. “Nature’s pretty resilient.”

The conversation turns to Simon’s career ambitions. The 19-year-old recently finished his training to be a firefighter. He draws a direct line from learning to build a cottage to firefighting—the physical nature of the job, for sure, as well as the quick problem-solving that could be needed at any time. “The cottage made me want to never sit still, to always push my skills and myself. With firefighting, you’re not sure what will happen next.” He doesn’t say it, but the family’s sense of responsibility to the landscape, the animals, the trees, and everything else here seems transferable to firefighting too. 

The return leg of the walk passes near the spot where Andrew and Simon are brainstorming another project that their subscribers can look forward to, a treehouse bunkie.  “My dad will want to design it,” Simon says later, “and then we can all build it together. That always makes it more fun.”

Tammy has her own idea of what will make it more fun. “The two of them haven’t put anything on paper, so I might be able to influence the treehouse,” she says, in confidence. Like the card shark the YouTube audience knows she is, Tammy is planning her strategy. “The treehouse, maybe, can be circular.”l

Martin Zibauer is the contributing editor for our Workshop section. He too references YouTube for how-to videos. This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of Cottage Life.

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