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.”

Happy Making Waves

I always enjoy seeing two motorcycles passing each other on the highway or on a winding cottage road, the way the drivers give each other that two-fingered side wave.  It is a very cool gesture; calm, casual, stylish and trendy.  It says, “We are brethren, kindred spirits simply because of our chosen mode of travel.”

I have tried to get the same sort of sophisticated acknowledgement going when I pass another driver of a pickup truck.  I want to start my own trend.  So I hold my arm out of the open window, (something that since childhood your mom always warned you against lest a passing vehicle takes it off), clap my palm on the door and give a one-fingered waggle.  It just doesn’t catch on.  The other drivers give me an icy, unfriendly stare that says, “Are you a bit odd, or are you perhaps just mocking motorcyclists?”  Hmmm, maybe pickup drivers are just not fashionable enough – perhaps it would work better if I drove a family minivan.  Maybe other minivan drivers would be more hospitable.

I tried something similar when I was peddling my mountain bike down a narrow trail, I gave a passing cyclist what I thought was a very groovy hand-waving acknowledgement.  Not only did the other bicyclist not return my friendly gesture, but I was so focussed on my own savvy signal that I lost my balance, teetered out of control and crashed into the trailside tangle.  I guess I should have used my bell.

I thought that the only way I could gain any sense of satisfaction was to invest in my own Harley, or at least a small scooter.  I wanted to join the motorcycle fraternity.  I brought the idea to my wife, who simply scoffed and waved me away.  At least even the idea of owning a motorcycle had garnered a wave!

Then, feeling downcast and sullen, I decided that a day on the water might brighten my mood.  I took my pontoon boat, Big Red, out for an afternoon’s outing on a certain Muskoka lake.  I passed a runabout going the other way.  Everybody on board waved at me.  I passed a sleek jet boat and the same thing happened.  I passed a 100 year old man in a polished wooden dippy and he raised a hand in salute.  I passed a sumo wrestler on a jet ski and he gave me a fashionable wave, without even losing his balance.  Canoeists waved, sailors waved, people in all shapes and sorts of marine vessels passed and waved.  I boated in and out of the channels to pass as many boats as possible.  Everybody waved.  I waved back excitedly, frantically, like some kind of lunatic – or at least so said my kids.

People on the docks waved and I waved back, but then realized that the people on the dock were all young men and not waving at me but at my daughters on board.  “Get a boat if you want to wave!” I yelled.  A rower waved and a wake boarder waved; everybody young and old, big and small waved and was friendly.  A kayaker waved quite energetically, although, in retrospect, perhaps they were waving frantically at me to slow down or keep away.  No matter, nothing could dampen my sense of comradery.

Well almost nothing.  I waved excitedly at the police launch – and they waved me down and asked if I had been drinking.  I hadn’t, of course, I was just happy.  They checked my boater’s card and safety equipment and waved me on my way.  I was just thrilled to be part of the boating fraternity – elated to be part of any network for that matter, or at least one that waved at each other.  What a wonderful, welcoming, sociable bunch boaters are and I am just so delighted to be finally making waves.