This Old Canoe

There it was, hanging from the rafters at the back of the garage.  It was an old wood and canvas canoe.  It was a vintage Minto, in fact, built in the same classic design as the Peterborough.  I remember the day we picked it up.  It was summer, 1973, and we were camping at Killbear Park north of Parry Sound.  We rose early and dad drove my brother and me across to Minden, where Sandy had one of Mae Minto’s canoes waiting for him.  I remember when we first saw it.  The canoe was beautiful – the wood glowed, and the green painted canvas gleamed.  It was my older brother’s first major purchase in life; bought with money he had earned working on a dairy farm at Bar River.

Seeing it hanging there at my parent’s Muskoka River home stirs up a lot of emotions and buried feelings.  It looks miserable, worn and lonely, and a long way from the water.  I know my parents would never want to part with the canoe, which had belonged to their oldest son.  I also know that they didn’t quite know what to do with it.  I’m sure it stirred up difficult memories for them, of a life lost.  Each tear of the canvas, broken rib and split piece of planking were part of a life, part of who their son had been.  With the canoe, he had challenged the wildest of rivers, and explored the remotest lakes.

I stroke her worn canvas sides, feel the punkie keel and run my eyes over the cracked ribs.   I remembered her beauty, and her woeful condition at first makes me sad.  But were these scars or beauty marks?  The canoe was worn and battered because we had made her so.  My brother and I had shared many adventures in the old boat, I in the bow and he in the stern.  We had pushed the canoe to its limits, and she, in turn, had pushed us to ours.

We tackled nasty white water, even though her delicate body would not permit mistakes.  She moved beautifully, resplendent in style and grace, yet also fearless when we called on her to be so.  We crossed angry lakes and pulled hard against heavy waters.  The canoe’s elegant shape glided smoothly through the water like a bird through air.  So well balanced was she, that with a yolk and tump line, my brother would carry her across an arduous portage with hands free.   We slept under her in the night, our heads sheltered by the canoe and our bodies protected in our canvas bedrolls.

We went on family canoe trips, week long routes that tested our strength and helped forge our character.  These trips tested the family, and we passed.  From my canoe, I watched my sister paddle along in the bow of the Minto, with my brother, leading the way.  I know he was proud of her during those days, even though he was unlikely to say so.  Still, he carried stories of those family trips through his life, and often recounted them to me with fondness.

In 1974, my parents took the canoe out for an afternoon paddle, off to explore some new arm of a lake we were camping on.  They rounded some small islands near the western end, and saw one with a charming log cabin tucked back in the birches.  Off the point they saw a “For Sale” sign fastened to a deadhead sticking from the water.  The canoe had shown them what would be our family cottage, the one that I now own, and of which I write.

Yes, this canoe has given us much – and I know it is now time to return the favour.  I have resolved to get her back into her vintage condition.  I tell her so, and then, with one more stroke of her aged canvas, I depart.  I make inquiries into the canoe’s restoration.  I learn of another female canoe builder who followed in the footsteps of Mae Minto, one with a shop on the edge of the Sequin River.  It just seems right that I bring the canoe to her.

I am often haunted by the image of my older brother, paddling his magnificent canoe with his buckskin jacket and leather wide-brimmed hat.  He handles the canoe like it is a part of him – man and canoe moving in graceful symmetry.  Then, I think of the canoe hanging there, aged by use and now in its state of disrepair.  I see the old cedar strip canoe as his abandoned friend, like the hopeful, old, arthritic dog watching keenly up the drive for the return of his master, so they could set out on one last adventure together.

Unfortunately, I knew he wasn’t coming.

The Nesting Season

Springtime can be a dangerous time. Not solely because spring is purported to be the season when “love is in the air,” though that remains a good reason to be on guard. No, what I mean is that this beautiful season is a critical time in nature’s scheme. Spring is a time of new life, and our cottage environment puts us in touch with this daily.

Millions of creatures are born. The migrating birds have returned and gather their sticks and twigs for nests.  Some settle for the cottage eaves, holes in trees, or the sweeping branches of the beautiful shade trees that support our hammock. Others will move into the nesting boxes that we charitably supply. Water birds have hidden in the waterside thickets that fringe our cottage shoreline, mothers sitting cautious and still.

Soon, broods of goslings, ducklings, merganser chicks and baby loons appear, gracing our serene bays, following clumsily after their mother along shores, hitching a ride on a parent’s back, or swimming single file behind their guardian.

As such, spring is a wonderful time of the year for watching wildlife. The young are out in force, and there is a certain beauty in observing the rearing and development of even the commonest of animals. The Canada geese that we seldom look at twice, only curse them as we gingerly wade through the mine field of their goosy deposits on shore, suddenly become a focus of our fascination when they have a young gaggle of goslings in tow.

Such is the case at our cottage each spring. We don’t even need to get a glimpse of the youngsters, but can tell from the posturing of their parents that they have arrived. The gander will stand on guard at the shore, neck arched in a display of aggressiveness. The mother feeds while he watches, and then the roles are reversed. Never will they graze at the same time.

This year, for two nights running, we are awakened from our sleep by the honking and squawking of the panicked geese. Then, when the tiny goslings make their first appearance, we are saddened that there are only two, when usually there are six or eight. Perhaps the blame lies with the gulls, or maybe it is the Great Blue heron that stalks the shores. Certainly the loons cannot be blamed this time, as the baby geese are not even old enough to get their feet wet.

One thing is certain, with only two surviving goslings it is much easier for us to become attached.  We watch them each morning from our cottage window, as they seem to double in size daily.  They are precocious brats, seemingly intent on giving their parents a hard time. The two demons wait until their protective parents look away, and then run for it. One scampers across the little wooden bridge that crosses to our swim rock, seemingly moving faster than possible for his small and scrawny legs. The female honks and runs after him. This gives the other gosling the opportunity to try his own escape, running awkwardly in the other direction along the shoreline. The holy terrors seem to be laughing as they put their mother through misery.  Maybe it is no longer politically correct to peck one’s offspring, and this has led to such troublesome behaviour in the youngsters. Mother goose gathers the delinquent twins back in, and then peers out over the bay with a look of annoyance, perhaps feeling that the parental care is becoming a little one-sided.

When the male returns from his feeding, the mother goose seems to be chastising him before she waddles off for her own dinner. The gander stands their stupidly, perhaps trying to understand, but his attentions are soon taken up by the two active brats.

Perhaps, once again, nature has gotten things right, a brood of eight goslings would have been far too exhausting for the parents to rear, and for us to watch.

This year, take a moment to think about the wildlife at the cottage. Stay clear of water-birds with young broods, keep pets under control and away from wetland nesting sites, and, although it is always exhilarating getting the boat out for the first time, take care along the shorelines and respect your wakes. The beauty of nature that has attracted us to Muskoka often struggles against our indiscretions and our naiveté can add to nature’s peril during this very dangerous time.

When a Pandemic has us Stuck at Home – We Go Looking for a Cool Adventure

Being stuck at home in Muskoka is not so bad. We can get outside and have the space to be alone in the great out-of-doors!

There were cross country skis under our Christmas tree this year. Two sets of backcountry skis, poles, and boots. Santa Claus must have felt I needed to get out and get a little more exercise.  Well, not just me, my darling wife too. Okay – he felt that I should, and he was kind enough to give me company.

I have not tried cross country skiing for a good many years, not since my teenage years when the skis had just recently advanced past being wooden boards with leather straps. Way back then you had those plastic low-cut boots that helped to deep freeze your toes into a painful state of numbness. You felt that if you whacked your foot with a ski pole, both boot and foot would crack in half. The equipment certainly has advanced. This new variety of boot is high cut, leather, well-cushioned and comfortably insulated. They look good too, racy and sleek. I had considered some spandex tights to complete the ensemble, but my wife, sensibly, had given a thumb down to that potential look.

The long skis are a little wider than I remember, for ploughing down snowy trails. They are scaled on the bottom, so you no longer have to rub wax on them for hours on end before departure, pretending that you knew what you are doing. Even the bindings seem much more sensible than the old “squeeze-the-toe” type that always seemed to pop loose as you were gaining speed down some steep pitch.

Cottage Country is a beautiful place in winter, with many opportunities for winter fun. On a sunny Muskoka winter’s afternoon, my wife and I head to Arrowhead Provincial Park north of Huntsville, where we plan to do some skiing, snowshoeing and skating on their generous groomed trails and ice loops. We check in at the park office to get a trail pass and a map, and then after a brief but heated discussion on which trail to ski, (my wife favours around the lake and I want to ski down the tube run), we decide to ski around the lake.

I clip my boots into the ski bindings, grab the poles and prepare to stride off down the peaceful trail. Instead, I lose my balance and fall clumsily into the soft deep snow. I find out what the poles are actually for, as I slowly pry myself back to my feet, and then fall the other way. I contemplate pulling out an excuse, a bad back, a sore knee, a concussion – I bonked my head and cannot remember how my legs work. Instead I persevere, we are off, and I am soon mastering the technique.

My poles flick at the snow, working in unison with the skis. I push hard down the packed track; the dense groves of silver birch, maple and aspen that hedge the trail are nothing more than a blur in my periphery. I glide effortlessly along, climb up short hills, and then swoosh down long looping slopes that carve through thick stands of pine.

I begin wondering to myself whether there is enough time to prepare myself for the 2022 China winter Olympics. “Coming around the last corner, from Canada, well in the lead, is skier number 13 in his flashy tight lycra ski suit. What an effort – what an athlete … TRACK!” I am brought back to the moment as a frail-looking elderly couple shouts “Track!” and swishes past, with a “Thank you,” given in a thick Norwegian accent.

“Yes, well we kick your butt in hockey,” I holler after them. Okay, the Olympics are out. I am having fun though, exploring Arrowhead Park like this. The weather is pleasant.  It is quiet; the heavy snow deadens any sound. Silence – save for my heavy breathing, the sound of the wind and the twitter of the occasional bird.

We ski most of the 33 kilometres of groomed classic trails that the park offers, along the East River and around Arrowhead Lake. Afterwards, we snowshoe to Stubb’s Falls, and watch the water gurgle over a snowy ledge and down through a frozen wall of ice. It is beautiful, a natural ice sculpture. My wife scurries off ahead in her modern and fancy aluminium shoes, lightweight and barely bigger than my snowboots. I plod along behind in my authentic chestnut and gut-line beavertail shoes, circa 1749.

I will get her back later, doing my best Eric Heiden impression on the oval skating track, while my wife teeters around unsteadily, looking for a hand to hold. We even bounce down an icy bobsled-like run, piled together on some rubber tube, and here I do hold on to her, tightly, lest I get catapulted away. At the end of the day we head home to cozy up to the fireplace – tired and satisfied, after a day well-spent in Muskoka’s splendid winter playground.

Ski Muskoka:

Arrowhead Provincial Park grooms and maintains more than 33 km of cross-country ski trails that are designed for classic skiing or skate skiing. The Ontario Parks Ski Report provides updated trail conditions, and if you were not good enough to get ski gear for Christmas, equipment rentals are available.

Other great Nordic ski locations include the Bracebridge Resource Management Centre, located on the east side of Highway 11 just north of the town, which boasts 17.5 km of groomed trails. The KOA Gravenhurst/Muskoka offers 15 km of groomed and track-set ski trails throughout their 785 acres of wilderness. The Frost Centre Ski and Snowshoe trails located 12 km south of Dorset offer 26 km of beginner to expert groomed trails.

A Winter’s Journey

It is the perfect place to isolate – at our island cottage on an ice-bound lake. It is a journey I have made before, a long time ago. This winter seemed the ideal time to repeat that winter’s journey.

The wind blows in gusts, snow swirling across the ice like a thick fog, tumbling over the frozen lake’s rippled surface. We march through the driving blizzard towards the island, one snowshoe in front of the other, pulling sleds with our gear and supplies. Well, everybody else has a sled they are pulling – I have trained the two dogs to pull my load, I am just trying unsuccessfully to keep up with them, acting more like an anchor. Gradually the soft outline of the island and our cottage materializes in the snow. We are almost there. Not that we were worried, it is hard to get lost on a lake that I know so well. And it is only a couple of kilometres from our parked truck to the destination. I had, in fact, let my mind drift like the snow, back to a winter’s journey I had made here many years ago. The last time, in fact I had made this trek in winter.

It was more than 40 years ago, shortly after my folks had purchased our island retreat. Crazy or brave, or perhaps simply adventurous, they had decided to take their four children on a long walk to visit the cabin in winter. At that time, the back country roads were not kept open through the snowy months. Where now we can drive our vehicles almost to the shore, back then we could only get within 18 kilometres of the lake. And, of course, my dad was not in favour of noisy snowmobiles. Our plan was to ski down the packed access road hauling our provisions behind piled high on toboggans, like Arctic explorers on a trek to the Pole.

We set off in a state of excitement, gliding down the trail, hauling our loads gamely up and down the sweeping hills. Pines were shrouded in heavy snow like ghostly sentries beside the path. The family basset hound trotted gamely ahead, but was not any help. Sometimes he would chase rabbits, falling off the packed trail, and we would have to help in out of the deep powder. We skied along for half the distance, and then removed the skis and tied them into the sleds. Off came the ski boots, and we rubbed our frozen toes. We trudged on in winter boots. The miles stretched on our exuberance waned, and our legs grew heavy. The first glimpse of the frozen lake was like the first glimpse of water at the end of a long portage. With renewed energy we hopped on the loaded toboggans to glide down that long steep descent to the shore.

The lake in winter seemed even more remote and solitary, surrounded by stark, barren, trackless hills. It was also most serene on this late winter’s afternoon when its snow-covered ice was deeply tinted with the gold of the setting sun. We had made it, but before we could get into the cottage, we had to grab shovels to dig out the deep snow that had drifted onto the porch and in front of the door. We got a fire started in the wood stove, not realizing that it would take hours to chase out the winter chill. Finally, exhausted, we huddled where the heat gathered first, high up in the cabin’s loft, cuddling mugs of hot chocolate our mom had made.

Dad stoked the fire with maple and birch logs and cooked up beef stew on the cast iron bean pot set on the fire. Toques, woolen mittens, snow pants, felt boot liners, and parkas were hung from the loft railing to dry – the cottage looked like a laundry. The hound curled on the hearth rug, thawing, and licking snow from his paws. Gradually the log walls soaked up the heat and gave the cottage a cosy warmth.

The next morning, we shovelled a path to the privy and chopped a hole in the ice for water. We strapped on our beavertail snowshoes and headed into the dense groves of naked birch and poplar, and the snow-laden stands of pine, cedar, and balsam that seemed so thick, black, and impenetrable. We augured a few more holes in the ice and tried our luck at fishing. Thank goodness we were not counting on fish for dinner. We stayed for a long weekend and then packed up and set out on the long arduous journey back to our car. It had been a hard trek but an unforgettable adventure.

Now, we have returned. I stoke the fire and hook up the propane tanks for the stove and lights. The trip was a bit easier this time – but the experience remains pretty much the same. Our Aussie shepherds curl in front of the fire while the kids try their luck at ice fishing. Knowing how that will turn out, I put a big pot of stew on the fire.

Hello World!

This was my dad and I read this story at his memorial service. He was such a big part of our cottage lore. He passed away on May 1, 2019 – and now I have taken up his familiar cottage greeting, shouted out to the lake …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!

Move over Dear Abby, I decide to give some practical cottage advice. With apologies to the late John Prine (folk singer) and the late Dear Abby (advice columnist).

“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, email, or follow @cottagedaze.”

Boats and the Cottage

Boats are a big part of cottage life, for the experiences they allow and the memories they create.

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

An evening cruise up the lake with the whole family has become a cottage tradition.

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:

The Reading

I list the good, the bad and the ugly of doing a book reading at a busy downtown restaurant … with a little help from Billy Joel’s “The Piano Man.” It’s 9 o’clock on a Saturday…

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.”


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!