Flip Flops in the Snow: how one family embraced our favourite pastime

Only the toughest Canadians swim in the lake and shovel it, all in a single day. When winter comes to the cottage, this family jumps right in.

Photography by Paul Orenstein

This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Photography by Paul Orenstein

This is the scene that greets me when I arrive at the Jain cottage, where the three-generation family with Indian roots has gathered to celebrate the February Family Day weekend: adults huddled close to the living-room fireplace, wearing toques and ski coats and clutching wool blankets about their shoulders.

“Hey, Mom, it’s just like back home, isn’t it?” teases Prish Jain as he serves her chai, making light of the cottage’s new geothermal heating system conking out on the worst possible weekend.

His mother, 81-year-old Chandra, raises a wry eyebrow to her husband of 54 years, Amar, as if to say, how is any of this like our homeland in India? Surely not the Canadian vista outside: grandchildren clad in an array of hockey shirts shovelling snow off a frozen lake in anticipation of the annual family hockey tournament and polar bear dip. And surely not the grand vista inside? Chandra raises her right hand, which is sheathed in a black ski mitt to warm the splinted fingers broken in a recent fall, and with that mitt-clad hand gestures to the 1,000 sq. ft. great room with its 15-foot-high ceiling, 40-foot-long wall of windows overlooking the lake, and dramatic ledge stone fireplace, all housed in this sprawling cottage built by her three sons to accommodate their families, who gather here every long weekend.

Surely he could not mean all this? Is there even a word in Hindi for cottage? We discuss various synonyms, but eventually Chandra and Amar shake their heads, determining that Hindi simply doesn’t have a word that captures the Canadian meaning of “cottage.”

The Jain brothers—Darshan, 53; Prishram, 50; and Himalaya, 48—clearly did not let the lack of a cottaging tradition deter them. The three of them immigrated to Canada with their mother and older sister when the youngest was just one, joining their father, who had arrived earlier and found work as a security guard. The family settled into a two bedroom apartment in the Parkdale area of downtown Toronto. With little money for excursions beyond the city, Amar, who had earned a graduate degree in history in India, took his family to see the world by going to the movies. Prish remembers spending entire Saturdays at the first Indian cinema to open in Toronto, often bringing homemade samosas to sell at the theatre and sometimes watching three or four films in a row. “Watching Indian films connected us to our Indian culture. Western movies helped me figure out how to fit in and told me what was expected of me here.”

As the brothers began juggling summer and part-time jobs to get through university, Darshan, who had taken a weekend canoe trip, suggested such a trip as an affordable way to spend time together—and so they did, sometimes with a dozen or more cousins and friends along. Exhilarated by the challenges and the Ontario north, they made the trip an annual affair. “We all have Type-A personalities,” says Darshan, admitting that they’re competitive but ultimately have each other’s backs—growing up as the only Indian kids at their schools helped forge their bond. Himalaya jokes that they worked out their differences on those trips. “Darshan and Prish tried to outdo each other taking risks. I was just trying to stay alive.”

After starting busy careers, marrying, and having children, the brothers came up with another affordable, albeit less risky, way to spend time together in the outdoors. Himalaya and his wife, Sonali, had rented a cottage in Collingwood for a few summers, and, after getting together there and on a winter cottage holiday, they were hooked. The three families pooled their money and bought a place on Kashagawigamog Lake in Haliburton, putting in an offer in December 2004.

The point was not just to share costs, but also to enjoy a shared space where the three families could spend long weekends, often with parents Chandra and Amar along. Turns out that those weekends reminded the brothers quite a lot of their Indian culture—and that tiny Parkdale apartment and later a house nearby where extended family immigrating to Canada received a warm welcome and an offer to stay until they got established. “There’s a tradition in India of extended families living together,” says Prish, an architect. “This was a way for us to do that, if only on weekends.”

Eight years into that first experiment in cottaging, with their growing families fairly bursting the seams of that three bedroom cottage, the brothers began dreaming of building a place to accommodate their extended family and multiple cultural traditions—Darshan’s wife, Valerie, and Prish’s wife, Martine, are both French-Canadian; Himalaya met Sonali in India. (Many of the brothers’ nine children are fluent in Hindi, French, and English.)

They spent two years searching for land and finally found the perfect spot: two acres on nearby Soyers Lake, along 300 feet of waterfront and studded with towering pine trees that would give the cottage its name, Tallpines. The new cottage was an expansion not only in sizebut also in importance to the family—as a place to strengthen family bonds, to nurture cultural traditions and transfer them to the next generation, and also to partake in serious Canuck craziness, such as polar dipping and outdoor hot tubbing in winter. When a school project asked “What is the one thing you can’t live without?” Shaan, Himalaya’s eldest son, said simply, “The cottage.”

Prish offers me a tour, which requiresprying myself away from that roaring fire. The owner of TACT Architecture, he spearheaded the design. He says trying to please three couples was challenging, but it helped that they had the same vision: a modernist structure clad in natural materials and with expansive windows so that it blends into the northern landscape, seeming to invite that wilderness inside.

We pause in that oversized great room to take in a view of the lake. On this unseasonably warm day—at least outside—the blazing sun has turned the ice to slush, nixing the hockey tournament. Last year, this shinny-mad family made up two teams and played for nine hours. My head buzzes at the thought of all those kids indoors, trying to fill the time.

Prish appears unconcerned. At night, he says, a 15-by-20-foot screen unfurls over the wall of windows, transforming the great room into a movie theatre. By day, I soon discover the room’s soaring ceilings can absorb noise from kids playing board and card games and from multiple conversations in a multitude of languages, leaving the space tranquil enough for reading or daydreaming. The grandparents’ favourite spot—when it’s warm—is not by the fire, but on a couch in the middle of the room, where their grandkids wander over for impromptu chats and hugs—not unlike the way this giant room wraps itself around the extended family.

As we head towards the bedrooms, Prish tells me that Himalaya, an investment portfolio manager, poured his passion for woodworking into many of the finishing details—such as the mud room. It features 26 cubbies, hooks for coats, and a wrap-around bench—plus, I note, an electric heater, blissfully working. “To dry wet gear,” Prish says.

Prish designed one large bedroom for each family, complete with bunk beds for the kids on the interior wall, a double bed for the parents by windows overlooking the lake, and an ensuite bath. A fourth bedroom—for the grandparents or guests—also has an ensuite.

We head downstairs just as Darshan comes in from filling the hot tub, on his way to check on the technician working on the heating. Ever the big brother, Darshan proudly tells me how the brothers pulled together to accomplish this complex—and costly—project. “None of us could have pulled this off alone,” he says. They managed it by practising “situational leadership”—leading in areas of their particular expertise. As a partner in a consulting firm, and having an MBA, he took the lead in arranging financing and kept an eagle eye on the budget.

Prish says he designed the cottage to be as “maintenance free as possible,” to dissuade Darshan, who has dashed on to the next job, from working all the time. “The rule is, any project we take on must be able to be done with a beer in hand.”

We enter the basement rec room to shouts of “Quiet!” from the kids shushing us. Half the room, given over to bunk beds, looks like a backpacker’s hostel while the other half, a rec room, has been transformed into a movie set. Friends and cousins bunk here and sometimes so do the teens. In all, Prish tells me, the cottage can sleep 30.

“Quiet, please!” the kids order.

“The heating’s fixed!” Darshan calls from the adjoining mechanical room.

“Seriously, adults! Quiet on the set!” The kids shoo us back upstairs.

Our tour ends in the combined kitchen and dining area. The dining table is long enough to seat 18 and seems to perch in a pine forest, with floor-to-ceiling windows around three sides. Anchoring the kitchen wall is serious work space and equipment—two dishwashers, side- by-side fridge and freezer, and two bar fridges—and there’s an 18-foot island. At one end, Darshan, in an apron, is rolling out dough for naan bread; at the other, Prish sets up a blender for cocktails. In the middle, Chandra holds court, as she orchestrates the preparation for dinner, which involves cooking up two versions of a parade of favourite Indian dishes—one warmly spiced for the kids, to take the chill off on a winter day, the other, for the adults, spiced to melt the snow off the roof.

When the grandparents are here, the family adheres to a vegetarian diet based on Jainism, which, Amar explains, espouses non-violence—to birds, fish, animals, and insects, even mosquitoes. “That must make dining outside tricky,” I say, peering out at the outdoor table. Amar nods. “It’s good to eat in daylight.”

“Who wants a cocktail?” asks Prish. The wives, deep in conversation, as they often are, shoot up their arms. The three women take credit for making this whole “cottaging-together thing” work, as they genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

“We’re all pieces of the puzzle,” explains Sonali, Himalaya’s wife, an artist who painted many of the pieces in the cottage. “We’re all trying to figure out how we fit in to the family.” Valerie says there’s no competition between them, so they can form a united front—as when the brothers thought a laundry room would be a waste of space. “We’re all good friends,” adds Martine, Prish’s wife, who says the running joke between them is that she’s blamed for everything.

“We’re low on vodka,” says Prish. Valerie is quick to respond. “Martine’s fault,” she says with a shrug.

To enjoy lots of guilt-free relaxation, each couple takes responsibility for buying groceries and cooking a meal, while the kids set and clear the table. Tonight, it’s Valerie and Darshan enduring Chandra’s scrutiny, as they dice and spice according to her exacting demands—naan from scratch, cholay, sukhay aloo, pakora, khurry. She waves her mittened hand as if to say that they had better get her recipes right, as they’re all in her head and she won’t be around forever. When I ask for quantities of ingredients so that I might replicate a dish, Chandra dips a spoon into a broth, offers a taste,and says, “That’s how much.”

Many are regional dishes she learned growing up—and they tell a story, like the khurry, which Darshan tells me is a simple but tasty soup-like meal that’s near impossible to find in Indian restaurants.

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“Our region cooked it in the rainy season,” says Chandra, “when there were no green vegetables.”

“Oh,” Darshan says. “I didn’t know that.” Chandra’s eyebrow shoots up as if to say, when will my work here be done?

In the evening, the family gathers for movie time. Adults nab seats on one of three long leather couches, while kids grab pillows and sprawl on the floor in a heap of interweaving arms and legs that speaks to how close they are, thanks to growing up together at the cottage.

Film is beyond a passion for the Jains, more like a fourth language they’ve passed on to their kids. The films can’t be too racy, on account of the younger kids,but they can be intellectually demanding, such as the sci-fi thriller Arrival, in which time spools backwards, or Lion, about an Indian street kid who gets separated from his mom and grows up in Australia. “We’ll spend most of the drive home discussing them,” says Prish.

Before the feature film, they show videos of family celebrations or travels, or, in tonight’s case, a short film scripted, acted, shot, and edited on site over the hockeyless afternoon. It’s a hilarious take on the close quarters and a classic case of mistaken identity. I roared at the slapstick (and perhaps out of relief that the only squabbles all weekend were on film).

The next day dawns too warm for the slush on the ice rink to freeze, so the kids toboggan and make snow sculptures and forts on the lake. The three brothers are also hard at play—cutting a hole in the ice for that afternoon’s polar bear dip. This provides a good hour’s entertainment, with the wives gathered at a distance, providing voice-over.

Oh, there’s Darshan, they note, the risk-taker, taking first crack with the chainsaw—cutting a square around himself, à la Wile E. Coyote, while Himalaya, the cautious one, shakes his head in disbelief. Prish, whom the wives place midway between the brothers on the risk-taking scale, suggests that they check where the snow-covered dock ends, lest they cut through ice and wood.

Mercifully, Himalaya takes over, standing on the right side of the cut as he saws
through the last few inches.

Darshan darts to the cottage to change, determined to be the first in the icy water. When he returns, he leaps in without a moment’s hemming or hawing.

“I’m alive, and now I’m Zen!” he screams when he pops back up. Never mind grabbing a towel—he stands barefoot in the snow and wearing just his bathing trunks, while he cajoles everyone to change into suits and take the plunge. Then he hops from foot to foot during the
hour-long procession of human penguins to the ice hole, where they hover in flip flops or snow boots, mustering up courage, then hop, bare feet first, into about four feet of frigid water.

After, they race to the hot tub housed in the boathouse, which has garage-style doors that roll up to yield the views of the lake. At one point, I count five adults and seven kids bobbing in the steaming water, laughter spilling out over the ice.

When the kids depart for more filming, I bravely plunge into the hot tub. Here,
in this embrace of hot water, the conversation drifts to the other joint project in their lives—parenting. They discuss when the kids should be allowed to drive, to come to the cottage on their own, and to bring girlfriends and boyfriends up (never, jokes Prish).

The brothers revere their own parents for the sacrifices they made in moving to Canada, which gave the brothers so many opportunities. Darshan admits that it wasn’t easy growing up as first-generation immigrants before Toronto became the cultural mosaic it is today. They turned to each other for support. Proving themselves, adds Prish, and making their parents’ sacrifices worthwhile, is what fuels their ambition. But what will motivate their kids? Are the brothers making things too easy for them? Sonali laughs off their anxiety. “The kids will find their own purpose.” I tend to agree: the kids will be all right. This joint adventure in cottaging has created deep bonds between the cousins, extending the support the brothers have given each other into the next generation.

But, as I weigh the snowy walk back to the cottage against the offer of a cold beer and more time in the heat, I think, These things do take time.