Hello World!

My dad would wander out on the front porch of the cottage and shout out “Hello World!” at the top of his lungs. The bellow would break the silence of a summer’s evening, and echo across the still lake waters. I am not sure if anyone across on shore ever heard him, but they certainly didn’t bother to holler back with “Hello, Mr. Ross.” Maybe they just heard it and muttered amongst themselves, “there’s that lunatic again.”

We would have just finished up our dinner, when he’d get up and step outside to let go with his familiar salutation. Or, we might be playing a family board game on the big pine harvest table in the evening, when he would head out to the loo, pausing on the porch to shout.

Sometimes, we kids would have settled in for the night in the boathouse bunkie. We would be telling ghost stories or shining our flashlights around on the ceiling like spotlights. We would be giggling and talking and, sometimes, we would be getting yelled at to “be quiet and get to sleep and quit wasting the batteries in the flashlights!” much the same things we might chastise our kids for now. When we had settled down and were drifting off to a sweet sleep, lulled by the sounds of waves lapping on shore, the wind in the trees or the distant call of a loon, comforted even by the sounds of adult voices and laughter coming from the cottage, suddenly the front door of the cabin would swing open and we would hear the familiar refrain, “Hello World!”

When we were young we would giggle at his antics. What a silly thing for a dad to be doing. In our teenage years we would roll our eyes and think, “How geeky!” As we grew older and would visit the cottage with our friends, we would wince every time he stepped outside, and then let out a sigh of relief if nothing happened. Then, there it was, the shout. He seemed curiously incapable of being embarrassed, which was all right because I felt enough for both of us. Red faced, I’d would cast an eye on my comrades for their reaction.

In retrospect, though his antics might have embarrassed me in front of my good friends, I don’t think his inane shouting from the cottage’s front porch elicited any such response from them. Perhaps their own fathers had similar unusual traits. Perhaps they had become hardened to such behaviour over time.

When I started visiting the cottage with my own family, Grandpa would still wander out to the front porch and shout his greeting. The kids would giggle, what a funny thing for a Grandpa to be doing. I was all right with it by then too. In fact, his shouted greeting had become a part of the place, a part of what I felt at home and comfortable with, and what made the cottage such a familiar and fun place to visit.

We bought the cottage from my folks and a funny thing happened. I would step outside in the evening, and I’d have this overpowering desire to shout to the world. At first I’d send out the familiar phrase in a hoarse whisper. Sometimes I’d yell it a little louder, much to my children’s chagrin and my wife’s displeasure. She’d give me that look, “see, you’re turning into your dad, you’re picking up all his silly habits. Do you want me to start acting like my mom?” Well no, but that’s another whole story.

We opened up the cottage on a beautiful weekend in April this year. We had made our way through the opening checklist, completed our chores and then sat down for a nice steak dinner. We cleaned up afterwards, together, and then I stepped out on the porch, stretched, and couldn’t resist the urge … “Hello World!” I shouted.

My wife stepped out behind me, but rather than giving me heck, she gave me a little hug and said, “Yes, it’s great to be back here.”

Looking back, I realize that my dad’s greeting, offered out to the lake, was simply a statement to anyone who was listening and to nobody in particular. My dad was saying, “I’m happy to be here!” Or perhaps, “I love this place!” After all, he never did it anywhere else. It was something only for the cottage. “Hello World!”

Move Over Dear Abby – Cottage Daze has Some Cottage Advice!

“Dear Cottage Daze, Dear Cottage Daze, I can’t believe summer is done – No more swims in the lake, no more time in the sun. Can you not give us cottage days that always will last, instead of a season that goes by so fast?”
Signed, Unhappy Cottager.

Unhappy, Unhappy, you have no complaints. Summer is what it is and it ain’t what it ain’t. Instead of complaining, make the most of each day, and visit in winter instead of waiting till May.

Dear Cottage Daze – When my daughter-in-law visits the cottage she insists on putting the beer in the lake to stay cold. I have dipped a thermometer into the lake to show her that the water temperature is actually warmer than the air, but of course she doesn’t listen and keeps storing the lager there anyway. Sincerely, Why Won’t She Listen?

Dear Why Won’t She Listen? – You are going about it the wrong way. Drink the beer, pierce the cans and put them back in the lake. Blame the thievery on snapping turtles. If you would feel bad being such a sneak, then get rid of the leftovers in the fridge and give the poor girl some room for the beer there. After-all, the beer is more important than a Tupperware container full of old rice pilaf. CD

Dear Cottage Daze – The young fellow from across the lake has one of those jet skis, and likes to come into our bay and do figure eights all afternoon long. How can I get rid of the menace? Sincerely, My Peaceful Place is Ruined!

Dear My Peaceful Place – Next time he comes over, tell your wife and daughters to cover up, while you put on a speedo and hang out on the dock. CD

Dear Cottage Daze – A family member likes to visit our cottage, but he is a smoker. He tends to leave butts all around that I pick up for weeks afterwards. Not only is it a mess, but I worry about a fire. Sincerely, Gives Me a Butt Ache

Dear Butt Ache – We used to have an uncle visit our place and do the same thing. My mother tied a tin can around his neck with a shoelace and told him that all the cigarette butts were to go in there. It kept the island clean, prevented any fires and he made some extra money when other visitors would toss spare coin into the can. Otherwise, just talk to him, and ask him to dispose of the butts in a proper place – sometimes that works. CD

Dear Cottage Daze – I love escaping to our beautiful cottage each summer, but I could do without the mosquitoes, black flies, wasps, bees and deer flies. Is there a way to get rid of them all? Sincerely, I Hate Pests

Dear I Hate Pests – No. CD
In fact, “Dear Pest Hater, Dear Pest Hater, you have no complaints – your cottage is what it is and it ain’t what it ain’t. So listen up buster, I don’t mean to be rude. Cottage life includes nature and nature is good!”

“Dear Cottage Daze, Dear Cottage Daze, please don’t take this wrong. I pay you for columns not for new words to a song. In the future let Dear Abby give the advice – and if you stick to cottage stories, that sure would be nice.”
Signed ………Your Editor

(With apologies to folk singer John Prine and Dear Abby!)

“James Ross is the author of the books “Cottage Daze” and “Still in a Daze at the Cottage” (Dundurn Press) available in your favourite bookstore. The books feature the best of his cottage stories. Visit www.cottagedaze.ca, email cottagedaze@vianet.ca, or follow @cottagedaze.”

Boats and the Cottage

Our arrival at the lake follows a long-practiced routine. I jump out at the resort where our eighty horse runabout is stored in a sheltered berth. My wife jumps into the driver’s seat of the truck and heads to the public landing with kids, dogs and gear. The moment of truth comes when I turn the key in the Bowrider and, after its standard moment of hesitation, it sputters to life.

I idle slowly out of the bay and into the main lake, and then I push the throttle down. Peering over the wind screen, I aim for the island and skip the family runabout across the blue lake waters. Once there, I park the boat on the left side of the dock, and ready “Big Red,” our pontoon boat, which is moored on the right. After un-doming its canvas cover and untying the spring lines, ropes and safety lines, I head back over to the mainland a mile distant to ferry clan and provisions to the cottage. Then, when all has been transported, unloaded, and carried into the cottage, I hoist the Canadian flag up the pole by the dock – a signal to all on the lake that the Ross clan is here. I imagine that most on the lake already know this, just by our habitual arrival routine.

Up and down the lake, you relate the boats with the owners, and their habits and preferred activities. More-so even than cars in the home neighbourhood, boats distinctively represent the cottager. We know the sound of our neighbour’s outboard. The Hobbs live on the island two kilometres east of ours. As we relax on the dock reading, we hear the distant buzz of the engine. I stand and look up the lake. I recognize the distant silhouette. Harvey sits in the stern of the fishing skiff, operating the motor handle, while his wife Vera sits up front on a padded swivel seat, body facing the rear, head turned to the front. We know if they are coming to visit by the course Harvey sets from the outset.

The former owner of their cottage was the same. If he headed out from his cottage and meandered through the shoals on the north shore, we knew he was coming our way, if he turned south and headed directly across the open lake to shore, he was not. He had a sixteen foot metal fishing boat, similar to Harvey’s. He also had a metal Grumman canoe. He painted all his boats chocolate brown, and adorned them with the same native motif on their bow, as a symbol of ownership. We suspected that, perhaps, his darling wife had the same logo tattooed on her stern.

George, the resort manager, heads out at the same early hour each morning to his secret fishing holes. We recognize his Boston Whaler with its flapping canvas Bimini top. We know the Lewis’s are up at the cottage because Toby’s heavy, v-haul runabout is parked at the dock. Dan’s boat always has fishing poles and long handled nets sticking up from it like a porcupine. We know the Fullerton clan is visiting without even looking off the backside of our island, because we hear the whir of their circling boat as they take their grandkids tubing. We see kayaks exploring the islands east of us and know the Morris family is at the lake.

The family boat is an integral part of cottage living. Whether you prefer the tranquillity of an early morning paddle or the exhilaration of water-skiing behind a high-powered runabout, getting out on the water is one of the best things about life at the lake. At the cottage, boats mean freedom. They allow us to explore beyond our own shores, to claim the whole lake as our own, to expand our personal boundaries of island or lakefront lot. The lake is ours to discover. It is our personal playground.

One sees all manner of vessels out on the lakes; fishing boats, runabouts, speedboats, jet skis, sailboats, canoes, kayaks, windsurfers, paddle boards and rowboats. The kinds of boats that are tied up to the cottage dock say a lot about the cottager. We have been a family of canoeists, and have four canoes set on a log canoe-rack – aluminum, fibreglass, plastic white-water, and cedar-strip. Two kayaks are drawn up nearby.

There are also floating tubes, leaky air mattresses, clumsily crafted log rafts and knee boards. On any summer afternoon, this odd assortment of line-of-battle ships join the kayaks and a canoe in our bay in what would appear to an outsider to be a re-enactment of the Battle of Trafalgar. Boats are flipped and scuttled and boarded – sailors, pirates, soldiers and navy cadets are tossed overboard. There is much hollering, splashing, laughing and screeching, and in the end, all claim victory.

Boats are synonymous with cottage life. The cottager’s passion for boating can’t be measured in vessel type, horsepower, length, width, brand or colour. It is found in embracing the experience of being on the water and in memories created. From cruises around the lake, to marathon skiing sessions, to a picnic at Sandy Bay, the boat offers a unique means of spending time together as a family.

Cottage Bonfire on the Beach

An Evening Cruise

Often after dinner, on a pleasant summer’s night, we like to jump onto the pontoon boat and head out for an evening cruise. The sun is low in the sky, the light is perfect, the air has cooled and the water is calm. The whole family climbs aboard, (except the dog – who thinks that anything done in or on the water is an act of supreme folly), and we tour along the south shore of are lake to do some cottage watching.

I love to see what people are doing at their places, the projects that they are working on; the new docks, swim rafts, gazebos and in-law suites that are being built. Cottagers who are enjoying the last of the day’s sun out on their dock will give us a wave, and we return the gesture. After cruising along the shoreline for some time I will rev up the motor and circle back amongst the islands, checking to see what friends and neighbours are up at their cottages. We might take a little detour up the uninhabited north arm, perhaps shutting down the engine and drifting awhile with a fishing line in the water. Then we will head back home along the north shore before circling back to our place. What a wonderful way to spend an evening.

In the spring and fall, when Big Red is not in use at the cottage, we often take the boat out to investigate Muskoka lakes or the local canals and waterways. We have a small barbecue on board for shore lunches, and attach our kayaks or bikes on hooks off the bow for exploring on route.

Yes, that is me, drifting past in “Big Red” staring in at you – doing the same thing that sometimes annoys me at our place.

“You’ve gone and bought a party boat!” my dad says accusingly.

My dad doesn’t like change at the best of times. This is especially true at the cottage, which my folks had owned for some 30 years before we purchased it from them. If a Bowrider runabout and a leaky canoe had been good enough for him for all those years, what need did I have for this pontoon monstrosity? I had thought that this boat would be better for my aging parents to get on and off, better than stepping in and out of the deep, low-riding v-haul Invader. I don’t think I have to tell you that it is a mistake to mention this though.

“We aren’t cripples you know,” says my dad. No, this is certainly true; my folks are really quite agile for individuals in their 80’s … but really? I notice that my mother is not complaining. Rather she seems to be admiring the cushy lounge area at the stern of the boat; much like my wife and daughters had done earlier.

I had meant this purchase, our first major one since buying the cottage, to be a surprise for my parents. They were coming to the cottage for a visit, and I had proudly headed over to the landing to retrieve them behind the wheel of “Big Red,” my shiny new pontoon boat. I’m not sure I had expected praise, but neither was I prepared to get admonished.

Through that summer, the pontoon boat proves its worth time and time again, especially when the cottage becomes a busy place. It is particularly valuable because our cabin sits a kilometre and a half offshore on a three acre island. It simplifies ferrying people and gear back and forth from the mainland. A family of six and their provisions can be hauled in one trip. When we have a cottage project on the go, it helps transport lumber and supplies. The large vessel adds extra outdoor living space when attached to the dock, a comfortable sitting area for lunch or for the revelry of the cocktail hour. When we zip in the half enclosure, the boat becomes a bunkie, an added sleeping space for extra guests.

Quite often we run up the lake at midday, beaching the boat on the beautiful crescent of sand that rings a bay on our lake’s north shore. The kids frolic around in the shallow waters, build castles in the fine pink sand, or snorkel around the rocky outcrops that protect the beach. We start a driftwood bonfire and roast hot dogs on willow sticks.

It is the end of the cottage season and the extended family is at the lake. I plan to haul the pontoon boat home after this Labour Day long weekend. During our last night, we are surprised to hear music echoing across the water from the resort on the South shore. Not totally happy that our evening’s peace and quiet is being compromised, but also intrigued, we decide to hop on the boat and cruise over to investigate. I navigate our vessel into the bay where a river outlets our lake, and where the local resort is hidden and protected. We are surprised to see a live band playing on the large wooden front deck of the lodge, and a throng of people milling about under patio lanterns.

I shut down the engine and we drift in the bay with our deck lights reflecting softly off the still water. The band is unexpected, but good, and we find ourselves singing along to the familiar tunes, tapping our feet and clapping and hooting after each song. The band acknowledges us – the boaters in the bay, and I toot the horn in response. Suddenly, as they break into a slow, fifties love song, my dad and mom stand and begin a slow waltz around the deck. It is a beautiful scene, under a canopy of stars, with the sparkling lake water shimmering around us. Loud applause comes from the people on shore.

As we return to our cottage at the end of what was a pleasant evening, my father smiles and says, “Nice boat – I don’t know how we managed for so long without one.”

“Out of my element and out of my clothes in the Dominican Republic!”

THE MELIA CARIBE TROPICAL, PUNTA CANA – The slippers didn’t fit. They were more like toe warmers on my size 12 flippers. My feet hung over the ends, heels dragging along the cool marble tiles as I shuffled my way down to the waiting area. Speaking of fit, I’m not sure the little, white, terry-cloth bath robe fared much better than the footwear. On my 6’2” frame it appeared kind of mini, and I felt it ride up my backside with each step I took. I was beginning to regret this.

“Whatever you do,” my colleagues had advised me over drinks the previous evening, “lose the underpants when you go for the massage – naked is the thing.” They had convinced me that Joe Boxers were the ultimate SPA faux pas, the supreme insult to the professional masseuse. Now, as I settled into the stark, cold on the butt leather arm chair in the lobby, waiting to be summoned, crossing my legs and adjusting my inadequate apparel, a thought suddenly struck me like the snap of a damp pool towel; perhaps they had been pulling my leg?

I had finally succumbed to peer pressure during a media trip to the Dominican Republic and was headed in for my first Spa massage. I was a Yellowtail Parrotfish out of water: a shy, clumsy man, totally out of his element and completely out of his clothes.

The pretty, young Dominican masseuse grinned at me through silvery braces, and beckoned me to the table. I fidgeted around the parlour whilst asking a variety of inane questions, (“How long have you worked here? Did you go to a massage school? Would you think less of me if I had left my baggy boxers on?”) Especially silly queries as I don’t think the girl spoke a word of English. Maneeta, as her nametag said, was happy, though, nodding and smiling. She was also astute – wise beyond her years. She discreetly popped out the door, giving me the brief window of privacy I needed to drop the robe, leap upon the gurney, and slip under the tiny towel provided.

I rested my head in my folded arms, hanging over the end of the bed, and stared at the floor in silent reflection. The room smelt of burning potpourri, while the soothing, calming, meditative music of Zamfir on his pan flute lilted down from speakers on the ceiling, interspersed with the sounds of ocean waves and birds tweeting. The dainty masseuse re-entered, and immediately grabbed my ankles and yanked me backward, my face bumping over the head of the bed and settling into its proper spot, in a padded donut shaped hole – yes, of course. “Ah, thank you,” I muttered. “You’re very strong!” My tiny slippers slipped off my overhanging feet and fell to the floor. I now wore nothing but a look of supreme embarrassment, and a towel over my midsection like a fig leaf.

She slathered me with some stinky, flowery slime and went to work, kneading and probing my calves and thighs, before attacking the muscles on my shoulders. I didn’t know whether to scream in agony, or moan with delight. The feeling was balanced somewhere upon the precipice between the two.

As her expert hands worked away at my aching muscles, my inhibitions began to drift away. I was feeling relaxed, even sleepy. I was worried that I might start involuntarily purring like a kitten. I think I was falling in love. I was getting sick of flute music, perhaps I would request some Springsteen. Maybe I should burn some of this incense in my bathroom back home. I was awakened by a harsh snorting snore, and watched in amazement as a string of drool stretched from the corner of my gaping mouth downwards to the floor, without breaking. I now understood the need for this porthole for one’s head. Otherwise, I might well have drowned in my own slobber.

No longer will I pooh-pooh the SPA experience. I am a convert feeling revitalized and refreshed. I feel like a new man. I have a new girlfriend – and want to give her a big tip, but realize I have left my wallet in a distant locker. So I scurry, as quickly as my miniature terry slippers will allow, to the change-room and come back holding a few bills – but Maneeta has moved on. She is with someone else. Sadly, I leave my tip at the front desk with a flowery note of thanks and an emotional goodbye.

I shuffle along the stone walkway from the YHI Wellness SPA back to my suite, skirting the big pool, past the swim up bar, through the lounge chairs and thatched shelters. People seem to be staring. Do I look that forlorn? That lovesick? Or, (and this thought only strikes me as I search amongst my scanty clothing for my room key), do I just look like a greased-up man in a kid’s housecoat and slippers? Oh my.

If You Go to the Dominican Republic …

In Punta Cana is the newly launched “Level” at the Melia Caribe Tropical, where you can enjoy a holiday that can be romantic, active, or focused on well-needed rest and relaxation. Once you’ve arrived, you can stash your wallet in the safe and settle in. The only decisions you’ll have to make are at the buffet or at the door of your room, where the stone walkway takes you through immaculate grounds and gardens either to the pool or to the palm fringed private beach.

On the food side, the buffets are varied and splendid, and there are also the Asian, Italian and Mediterranean restaurants of Cuatro. This new establishment is divided into four different dining experiences, including Uno, traditional steakhouse; Dos, a Gastro Pub; Tres, a fusion of Peruvian fare with Japanese and Cantonese cuisine; and Cuatro, a beachside buffet serving international cuisine. As a former Spanish Colony, many of the local dishes carry a familiar Latin American feel, with an unlikely mixture of influences; European, African, and native Taíno Indian cultures.

If you want to get a little active, the resort has a water sports centre with kayaks, windsurfers, paddle boards and sailboats. You can book a dive or snorkel excursion, para-sailing, or a catamaran tour. Guests are able to indulge in the resort’s “Experiences Menu,” featuring special workshops, dinners on the beach, romantic private breakfasts, and Energy for Life activities like Body Balance – a mix of yoga and Tai Chi. If you are travelling with children, the “Kids’ Zone” will occupy the little ones, while the adventure park and rock climbing wall entertain those a bit older. My ground level room features a Jacuzzi, spa shower, and something called a pillow and fragrance menu. The service is impressive, and the kindness of the Dominicans is wonderfully authentic.

Yhi Wellness …

The Yhi Wellness SPA at the Melia Caribe Tropical is built to carry you away from the cares of the world. May I recommend a massage treatment, where you can lose your clothes and fall in love.

For more information: www.meliacaribetropical.com

The Reading

It’s two o’clock on a Saturday as the regular crowd settles in. There is an elderly couple sitting next to me, waiting for the show to begin. They say, “Son can you recite me a memory, we’re not really sure how it goes, but it’s funny and sweet and we both knew it complete, when we were in our cottaging clothes.”

“Tell us a story Mr. Cottage Daze, weave us a tale today, we’re all in the mood for some silliness, so make sure you get us feeling happy and gay!”

I suddenly realize I have zoned out in the middle of my book reading. A restaurant full of diners stare at me, probably wondering what I’m doing standing up here. Silence has fallen over the place – unlike the general ruckus that was going on as I was trying to read. I wonder how long I’ve been lost in my daze. I think I was in the middle of a story about frogs, when I started daydreaming, picturing myself as the supreme entertainer, a crowd full of patrons hanging on my every word, greeting me with thunderous applause as each witty tale drew to its brilliant conclusion.

I’m thinking, “How do I get talked into these things?” It’s the Art in the Heart festival in Bracebridge, and somehow I’ve been coerced into reading some cottage stories in a crowded downtown restaurant. At most fine dining establishments around the world you might have some soft piano music playing in the background, a guy named ‘Sam’ on the keyboard, or some French guy hovering about the table playing some romantic tunes on his violin. Heck, in Mexico you might have some mariachi band bothering you as you eat. Here in Muskoka, as you savour your chicken Caesar salad and sip a pint of local brew, you have some guy in the corner rambling on about his cottage.

Then I hear the table in the back chanting at me, “Tell the wiener story! Tell the wiener story!” Oh, nice, I am thinking, some adoring fans familiar with my writing. Then I recognize it as a table of family and friends. They’re eating and drinking and having fun heckling me – and I’m sure I will pick up the tab. Well, I had wanted to make sure somebody was here to listen to me! I read the story about setting my shirt afire, so that they can have a good laugh at my expense.

I can’t help but notice the group of men sitting around the bar in the back, notebooks at the ready. I recognize them as dads, all of them … fathers of teenage daughters who have come to hear my story about how to rid the cottage of pesky boyfriends. I give them what they want and they scribble down ideas. I feel a little like Cottage Daze is Muskoka’s Dear Abby!

I am forced to shout as I read, and avoid waitresses who spin here and there, trays laden with lunches and drinks. A table of people from England seem to be enjoying themselves, likely thinking that this is a regular occurrence at Canadian eateries during the lunch rush. Fellow Muskoka writer, the talented Bracebridge historian Gary Denniss, hides in the dark shadows of a corner table chirping me: “Do you know the history of this place?” he shouts.

The usual questions come my way.

“Where is your cottage?” (Why, are you a stalker? I’ve always wanted to have a stalker, but actually I pictured someone a bit younger and sexier. Oops, bye, have a good day!)

“How do you get over writer’s block?” (I have a deadline.)

“Where do you get your ideas?” (I’m getting one now – I feel like Billy Joel’s The Piano Man …)

It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday, and the owner gives me a smile, because he knows that it’s me they’ve come here to see, to laugh about life for a while.

And the restaurant has the feel of a carnival, and the microphone smells like a beer, (because it actually is a beer – I’m just pretending it’s a microphone),

And they sit in their nooks and buy all my books, and say “Man what are you doing here?”

“Mr. Ross,” the waitress is shaking my arm, waking me from my daze. “Mr. Ross! Everybody has left; it’s time to go home.”

SIDEBAR

Cottage Daze Lists the Good the Bad and the Ugly of Doing a Reading at a busy downtown restaurant!

The Good

3. A beer microphone.
2. Patrons drinking many pints of local brew – laugh at all my stories, including the sad ones.
1. My 93 year-old Aunt from Whitby shows up to hear my stories, and I didn’t know she was coming – Doesn’t even heckle me!

The Bad

3. Had to shout to be heard – but, thankfully, have been well tutored in voice projection by my darling wife during face to face lessons.
2. Food Fight! Child at closest table flings food at me during reading.
1. My own family sits in the back and chirps me, while at the same time leaving me with the lunch bill!

The Ugly

1. I steal fries off plates when waitresses drift to close – then read with mouth full!

A special thanks to the staff of The Old Station House in downtown Bracebridge!

My Friend Danny

We were never quite sure whether Danny could swim. He had lived in the Falkland Islands for some forty years, where swimming in the frigid South Atlantic was probably not a priority.

“Danny, can you swim?” we would ask him, to which he would never really give us a straight answer.

“I’ve lived around water all my life,” he would reply. “I’ve lived on and off the sea. When I was but 18, I jumped a boat from Wales to the Falklands.” And, as if to settle it once-and-for-all, “I used to go to the pool when I was a kid.”

I took Danny up to our island cottage for the first time in May, he was going to help me open up the place. We carried a big 100 pound propane tank down to the dock to load it into the boat. Danny took a step backwards, when he should really have taken a step sideways. My swimming question was quickly answered when he sank like a stone. I heard the splash, and then saw his cap floating on the lake surface.

I darted over to the edge of the dock, and looked in the clear water. I saw Danny’s shiny noggin, now bare, some twelve feet down. He was thrashing about on the bottom of the lake. I thought for a minute or two about jumping in to help, but hesitated from being heroic, knowing that the ice had only recently left the lake, and the May waters would be quite frigid.

Finally, he bobbed up to the surface with a huge excel of breath, “Haaaaaaaa!” I grabbed his soggy coat by the shoulders and flung him onto the dock. Danny loves his tea, usually consuming some 16 cups a day. He needed one now – that, and a seat by the wood stove.

Danny is, what you would call, a colourful character. Give him his cup of tea, and sit him by the wood stove at the cottage, and he will keep you entertained for hours, spinning yarns of his days on the Falkland sheep stations, sheering, gathering, and riding the barren, rocky, desolate landscape. He has an uncanny memory for people and events, and a wonderful way of making the ordinary seem quite extraordinary. The children also love his tales, especially when he tells his Falkland ghost stories around the evening bonfire. These tales of the macabre are all the more spooky and sinister, because Danny believes them to be true.

I met Danny shortly after I was married, 16 years ago. I guided him on a horse trip through the Canadian Rockies. We became friends, and he has returned many times since, firstly to our BC ranch, and now to our Muskoka home and cottage. He is like the hero of an old western novel or movie, a lonesome cowboy, riding into town, helping around the homestead, and then riding off into the sunset when his good deeds are done.

We work side by side, bucking, splitting and stacking wood for the cottage stove. He demonstrates his English touch in the garden, coaxing the impossible to grow in the rocky soil. We replace some dock boards and shingle the porch roof. We work ourselves into a grimy sweat, and then take a break, sitting back on the steep pitch, he with his tea and me with a cold beer. Ink-black clouds are looming over the lake, and the wind is whipping the water up. It reminds Danny of a story, a sudden deranged squalor that he faced while riding the range in the Falklands, a storm that has him sheltering at a haunted, old, ocean-side shanty. Everything seems to remind Danny of a story.

Danny left Muskoka recently, flying off to Australia. in search of new adventures, new stories to tell, and a new audience. It is a little quieter, and a little less interesting with him absent. He is a colourful eccentric who, through happen-stance, has threaded his life into ours. He has visited the cottage, and his early Spring dip has granted him an important place in our cottage lore. And I know he will put a much different spin on his swim when he tells the tale during his travels.

Another cottage guest who will no doubt return … my friend Danny.

Cottage Dreaming at the Cottage Life Show

Men never grow up. They think and act like children. That is my conclusion, having conducted recent research.

The Spring Cottage Life show at the end of March is the stage for my investigations. In the midst of this never-ending winter, it is the perfect time to check out all the new cottage products, the toys and gadgets that, in our mind, will add both comfort and excitement to our summer days. I’m especially excited this year because we have brought the kids along – which means more fun for a dad than simply having to trail off after a spouse on an agonizing, stop and go trek, through the endless aisles of Martha Stewart-like interior exhibits. No, cottage life should be about fun in the outdoors, not inside entertaining. The kids won’t put up with the monotony of furniture, crafts and cutesy knick-knacks, I reason. Meaning this visit will be about fun and toys and … then comes the let-down, in one simple sentence.

“Why don’t you kids wander around on your own, and we can meet back here in an hour. Your dad and I want to check out the new cottage kitchens.”

No! They will be climbing in and out of fancy new boats, checking out the latest in canoes, kayaks, catamarans and wind surfers, sitting dreamily on jet skis and hiking themselves out on some racy sailboat like a crew-hand in the America’s Cup. The girls will lounge briefly in the cushioned seats of pontoon boats imagining themselves hanging out with their friends in bikinis, while my son will play with the steering wheel of a ritzy cabin cruiser while envisioning himself as some multi-millionaire yacht owner. They will be kicked off a good many vessels by salesmen wanting to impress more legitimate customers. The kids will try on the latest water skis and boogie boards, bounce on water trampolines, practice fly casting, and try to climb into futuristic hot tubs. I want to be with them.

Instead, my wife and I are hanging out staring at soapstone countertops that are “as attractive as they are durable and not only impervious to heat and stains, but virtually maintenance free.” I run over to a wine tasting exhibit to help me get through this, and then catch up to my darling wife drooling over a mammoth pine harvest table with eight sturdy plank chairs. “Wouldn’t this look good at the cabin?” she seems to be asking me, and I probably would have heard her, had I not been looking off with envy in the direction my four youngsters have wandered.

She stops and listens to some talking head extolling the virtues of something called “Sham-Wow,” and then I see her take out her wallet. She hands me a small, square piece of very expensive felt and tells me she bought it for me to clean our old boat – “fellow said it would be just like new!” I run back over to the wine exhibit, swirl a Shiraz around in my mouth and tell the person that poured it, “Ah, full-bodied, with a distinct note of black cherry and a hint of pepper, if I’m not mistaken,” or some such thing that I had memorized from the information card.

We meander through some food exhibits and sample feta stuffed mini pitas and little nibbles of chocolate cashew buttercrunch, so small that they are only a tease. We dip pretzels into little dishes of various sauces, while a lady explains to my wife the fine ingredients whilst glaring at me undoubtedly recognizing the classic vacant look of the typical double-dipper. A spicy chili concoction has me running back to the vintner exhibit, only to find that I have been cut off.

Finally, mercifully, the hour is up, and we hasten back to the rendezvous point. Perhaps seeing my pain and sensing my agony, my compassionate children beg me to come with them for a brief look at all they have discovered. I cast my eye on the elegant lines and shining chrome of a polished mahogany launch. The kids drag me onward to the fancy ski boat, envious of all the bells and whistles, especially the enormous stereo speakers that I’m sure would be heard all around the lake. If that’s not loud enough for them, they marvel at a jet boat. With exclamations of approval, my son watches a video clip that shows the enormous, space-age craft zooming around a lake, belching fire out of its back end and sending a plume of spray 100 metres in its wake.

My wife stares dreamily at a sporty Hobie Cat, I’m sure taking her back to the sailing days of her youth. There is a sleek wooden row boat, and I imagine rowing it around the island and over to shore each morning, a great way to get into shape. I show it to my wife, who imagines herself sprawled out in the bow sipping red wine, while I get into shape. Something new for the cottage dream list, somewhere ahead of the flatulent jet boat, but surely well behind a harvest table.

Cottage Prepping

It always seems in early Spring that my wife and I get restless. It is the drawback of the island cottage, there is a period of forced absence. We have to wait until the lake ice melts away before we can open up the place. It is that forbidden time, usually from late March to mid-April, when the ice becomes unsafe. We can only stare from the mainland out to the island.

We will usually take advantage of this sabbatical by doing some cottage prepping at the Spring Cottage Life Show, to see all that is new and fanciful for cottage living. This year, however, we decided to do something a little different, so we trekked down to the big city a weekend earlier and took in the Wine and Cheese Show. It represented a virtual round-the-world taste test, to find that ultimate wine to sip on the dock in the late afternoon after a busy, fun and productive cottage day, or that full-bodied red to compliment the thick steaks that I would have cooking on the barbecue.

We started at the show wandering up and down each aisle, savouring the best vintages the world had to offer. While some of those standing around us would swish around the tastings in their mouths, gurgle it like mouthwash, and then, and what’s the sense in this, spit it out into some stainless steel spittoon, we would take a sip, close our eyes, and imagine ourselves laid out in a lounger on the cottage deck with the sun warming our face, or sitting around the big pine kitchen table enjoying a fine meal. While others would talk about their wine exhibiting the beautiful sweet nose of spring flowers and a taste of such richness that it massages the palate with the flavours of chocolate, gooseberries and leather oxfords, we would ask which offerings might best repel blackflies. There is nothing worse than swallowing a drowned insect in one’s robust merlot.

We sipped Italian Chianti and decided it would compliment a cottage comfort meal of spaghetti and meatballs. We tasted an Argentinian Malbec and muttered “mmm – steaks on the barbecue.” We swirled around a Pinot Noir from New Zealand, a Californian Cabernet and something unpronounceable from Great Wines of China. China? – really. It wasn’t bad … we decided it would go nicely with Chinese. The great wine regions of Ontario were well represented, Strewn from Niagara and Crew from Erie – great for the cottage we decided.

We sipped our way through most of the afternoon, and for most of the day our romantic city escape and cottage prepping plan seemed well founded. Then, two things happened. Firstly, we started to realize the value of using the spittoons. No matter, we had wisely booked into a local hotel and had taken a shuttle to the show. Still, the wonderful wines had probably clouded my judgement a bit, and had made my wife less tolerant. Wandering down one of the last aisles I came across a wine tasting seminar being advertised. “Get Naked With Wines” it was called. I stared in at the young, nubile speaker and immediately signed us up.

When the pretty vintner swirled around wine in her glass and said things like “you have to check the legs, the lighter the wine the faster they run, the fuller, the slower,” or “a slight hint of melons and the essence of candy,” or “this is likely a little more body than you’re used to,” I thought she was speaking directly to me. Worse than that, my darling spouse thought that I was thinking that she was speaking directly to me.

Cottage Prepping! We have some newly discovered wines we want to savour dockside. I can swirl a rich, robust wine around in my glass, look over at my wife and proclaim, “beautiful legs.” Perhaps that will get me back in the good books. Or, maybe, such tasting theatrics are redundant, a good bottle of red sipped at our favourite place on earth will suffice.

Remember When

“Remember when the sound of little feet, was the music we danced to week to week.” (Alan Jackson)

What I will call the ‘quiet season’ is upon us, as our kids are back to school.  For us, that means we are down to one left at home – the other three are off in different directions.  It is just my wife and me at the cottage this weekend.  I remember when we looked forward to getting some alone time here.  Years ago when we were surviving the hustle and bustle of a particularly wild and chaotic week at our island escape with the whole clan, we would look into the future with envy.  “It will be nice when we can have the place just to ourselves,” we would say.  “It will be so peaceful.”

 

Well, those days are here.  The kids have grown up – they grew up so fast that we almost missed it.  Now, even in the summer, they don’t make it to the cottage as much.  They no longer enjoy the uninhibited freedom of youth; the reality of grown-up life is upon them.  They have to work through the summer to make enough money for the next school year.  Now they are off again to university.  So, my wife and I sit with our morning coffee, amongst the peace and quiet of a cottage morning.

“Remember when?” we will say, first one of us and then the other.

“Remember when,” I reminisce, “your oldest daughter, (they were always my wife’s kids when they were misbehaving or careless), fell on that rock when she was running through the water.” She had casually commented that she had cut her leg, when in fact her shin was slashed so badly I almost passed out looking at it.  She needed a major stitch job.  A beauty mark we call it now.

“Remember when,” responds my spouse, “the girls would spend the whole afternoon snorkelling off the shoal on the point in search of treasure.  Oh, the trinkets and fishing lures they used to find.”

Remember when they stumbled over that wasp nest while playing in the forest.  It was like a cartoon, the kids came screaming and running towards the cabin with a swarm of angry wasps hot in pursuit.  Remember when our son built that raft out of logs and rope.  We thought it would never float, but there he was, like Huck Finn, paddling his homemade raft around the bay.  Remember when the cousins came for a visit and we would practically never see the kids, except when they were hungry.  They would have their own games, and their imaginations ran wild.  All we would hear from them was hollering and laughter, and every once in a while we would catch glimpses of them running through the woods like ghosts.

Remember when Grandpa and Grandma would join us. No matter how hard the children tried, Grandma would always trick them and be first into the lake for a swim.  Remember when we would sit around the bonfire in the evening and Grandpa would pull out his harmonica.  Or we would play a board game, something we only did at the cottage when the family was all together, and everybody, young and old, looked forward to it.

In the boathouse my wife has arranged a collage of old sepia-toned black and white photos set on colourful pallet frames.  The photos are all cottage scenes, snaps of the kids having fun, laughing and smiling in the midst of all sorts of cottage activity.  Many of the photos were taken years ago, when the children were much younger – well, I guess we all were.  I often stop and pause in front of the pictures; they bring a smile to my face.

My wife and I sit here on the dock as another cottage season speeds away, and share the memories.  We look at each other, laugh and say, “Remember when?”

Into the Blue

“Remember when we said when we turned grey, when the children grow up and move away; We won’t be sad, we’ll be glad, for all the life we’ve had – and we’ll remember when.”