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.”

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.”

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!

Remember When

Sitting around reminiscing about the fun family times we have had. Raising kids can be a whirlwind, that goes by far too quickly.

“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.”

Cottage Workshop – Building a Squirrel-proof Bird Feeder

I have built the ultimate squirrel-proof bird feeder.  I have defeated my arch-nemesis, Chirpy.  Finally, in the end, I have won our on-going battle.  I am victorious!

I know what you’re thinking.  What am I going to do at the cottage all summer if I am no longer battling with my sinister rival?  And, how will that rascal Chirpy actually win out again in the final paragraph of this column?  Well, obviously you haven’t read the title above.  This little narrative isn’t about duking it out with a bushy-tailed rodent, or about fighting with nature.  No, it is about the wisdom that I am about to impart to you, the reader, so you too can become the ultimate cottage do-it-yourselfer.  Or what I like to call D.I.Y., to save on my word count.

It started with a brilliant idea, one that I stole from a neighbouring cottager.  He had several bird feeder stands built judiciously around his grounds, easily visible from the back deck.  The feeders sat atop four by four posts dug into the ground, while old stove piping fixed halfway up prevented squirrels from climbing.  “We (meaning me) could build that,” states my darling wife.  She often says that about intricate building or renovation projects around our cottage, though I usually think it is her devious way of making me look foolish.  Here, however, was a project that perhaps I could take on.  It looked simple enough.  And with a few minor design modifications of my own, I could take ownership of this little project.  The Ultimate Cottage Daze Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder Stand!  It kind of has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

So, off I went to the local lumber yard to pick up a twelve foot, four by four post and a handful of wood screws.  I had some old metal ducting stored in the shed that I knew would come into use one day.  So I dug the post into the ground, tacked on the metal to make it rodent-proof, and built a cross-piece on top from which hung too well-stocked bird feeders.  Then I headed indoors to witness Chirpy’s agonized reaction to my wonderful invention.

As I peeked out of the cottage window, I watched Chirpy survey the situation, from all different angles.  He looked up with his paws on his hips.  He scratched his chin.  He nodded his little head.  Then he climbed up a nearby maple tree, walked out to the end of a branch, and let his weight droop the spindly limb down to the top of the feeder.  I dissembled the post, dug it out of the ground, and moved it far from any tree or shrubbery.  I put the stand back together and hid in the cottage once more.

Chirpy returned, and took in the new situation.  He paced off three metres from the base of the post, turned, and sprinted up, his momentum taking him past the slippery metal (like a snowmobiler skipping their high-powered machine across an expanse of open water – for whatever reason).  I dissembled the unit again and added a cone shaped metal cap.  The squirrel repeated the same process and then just used the cap as something to push off of, catapulting himself higher, in a circus-like trapeze manoeuvre, grabbing the base of a feeder before swinging himself aboard.

I dissembled the unit again and added a length of stove pipe.  Chirpy climbed up between the stove pipe and the post like a mountain climber scaling a chimney-shaped crevasse.  I dissembled the stand for the forty-third time, and closed in the bottom of the piping.

Then I waited, peering out secretively from my window.  I waited and watched and waited.  I got thirsty while I watched and waited, so I grabbed a beer from the fridge and then returned to watch and wait some more.  Chirpy came out and surveyed the situation.  He gave it a try, but he slipped backwards and fell to the ground.  He tried a couple more times, but failed.  Chirpy went off to the trees.  I had won – I had finally won!

For the next few days I returned to my secret spying window to marvel at my great invention.  I hadn’t seen Chirpy for a week.  Hard as it is to believe, I kind of missed him.  So I decide to take a stroll along the forest trail telling my wife that I want to find Chirpy and gloat, but when I do see him he ignores me.  I can’t help but notice that he is looking a bit thin.  And is that a whole chirpy family that he has in his hole-in-the-tree home?  Perhaps he has to provide for all of them.

I return to the cottage and dissemble the feeder stand one last time.  I strip it of the metal, the stove pipe, and the copper cap.  I build a miniature wooden ladder up the side for easier climbing and then fill the feeders with Chirpy’s favourite seed, suet and peanuts.  After-all, squirrel watching is just as much fun as watching silly birds.  Now, I am angered when I notice that the birds; the sweet chickadees, tiny sparrows, colourful jays and handsome woodpeckers are using Chirpy’s feeder.  I run from the cottage screaming and chase them away.

So stay tuned to another season of Cottage Daze, and particularly for my next cottage workshop project, the Ultimate Cottage Daze Bird-Proof Bird Feeder!  I have a plan.

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Just like they do in those fancy cottage magazines – read on for the step by step design and building instructions, made easy, for squirrel proofing your bird feeders and annoying your squirrels.

Cottage Workshop – The Ultimate Squirrel Proof Bird Feeder

Materials:  one 4×4 twelve foot post,  a handful of wood screws, some 6 inch bolts salvaged from the last dock repair, two dock boards left over and stored under the bunkhouse, a three foot length of dented chimney pipe from two years ago when you replaced the old cottage chimney with a new insulated one, a couple pieces of two by four that had previously been used to level the barbecue, a few bent and rusty nails – (for hanging feeders), a spade with a broken handle (that you snuck to the cottage from home when your wife tried to take it to the dump), the new bird feeder you got your wife for Mother’s Day instead of flowers – (which only caused one or two problems), and some bird seed – (which your wife served you for dinner as a result of the previous miscalculation).

The Plans:

  1. Dig post 3 feet into the ground – preferably sitting straight, kind of.
  2. Fasten old chimney about three feet off the ground – paint to taste.
  3. Cap the chimney section with an old metal dome-shaped roof cabbaged from a previous squirrel-proof feeder that cost a lot of money but didn’t work.
  4. Bolt old dock board at top of pole, braced by odd pieces of two by four.  Put in a few extra screws to secure, and add a couple of bent nails from which you can hang feeders.  Should be in a ‘T’ shape.
  5. Hang feeders and fill with bird seed.
  6. See squirrel on bird feeder, so disassemble entire unit and try again, making minute adjustments to design until you succeed.
  7. Repeat as often as necessary, or until it is the cocktail hour on the dock.

To Fetch a Pail of Water

It was snowing when we opened the cottage on the long weekend in May.  Now, while it was not exactly snowing when we came to close the place, it was far from warm summer weather.  Things were so busy at home, that I grabbed my dad and a couple of dogs to head up to the lake mid-week, driving through the beautiful colours of a spectacular autumn day.  We looked forward to this visit.  It would be a great bonding time for father and son, and we wondered when, if ever, we had been to the cottage together like this, just the two of us.

It was cold.  We awoke the first morning to see our breath.   A heavy mist rose from the lake, and the dock was covered by a thick, white frost.  We had already dissembled the pump, so I wandered down to get a bucket of water for the breakfast dishes.  My dad’s footprints were clearly etched on the frozen pier boards where he had grabbed a pot of water for morning coffee.  It made a beautiful photo, the swirling fog, the white frost on the dock and boat, footprints of dad and dogs, and the distant beams of light from a sun trying to poke through to lend a little warmth to the scene.

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Our cottage is a little remote, so we tend to close up the cabin like a fortress.  Our main intention is to protect the place against intruders, from vandals, but more so from furry trespassers.  We bolt heavy wire mesh on all of the windows.  Seldom have we had much trouble with the cabin from people.  The mice and squirrels have at times left a mess in the interior, as they have enjoyed the run of the place through the cold months.  Over time we have learned how to close the place to minimize the damage.

We secured the cabin, packed up any food stuff that remained from our summer visits, put anything that might freeze over winter away in our bunker below frost line, and stowed all the bedding and towels that the mice might find inviting into secure closets.  We worked our way through our closing checklist, and by evening had pretty much everything done.

We had a nice steak dinner, and dad and I talked about all the great years we had enjoyed in this place.  We reminisced about the adventures and the misadventures, the lessons learned, the fun times and the growing up that we had done here.  After dinner, I settled down at the table to work on this narrative, it was my last column of the season, and I was unsure what to write.

“Can’t help you there,” says my dad, and then disappears outside to grab a kettle full of water for cleanup.

I work away, writing down little notes and trying to find some inspiration.  I was unaware that while I was agonizing over a storyline for some time, my dad was outside doing his best to supply it.

The two huskies had wandered down with him and watched from the end of the dock as he leaned over to scoop some water.  It was dark and the water was smooth and black, it was hard to tell where night air ended and cold lake water began.  The dogs watched him tumble into the water and splash around trying to find his footing and to struggle back to dry land. In the movies they would have raced up to fetch me, offered up a bark of danger, a yelp that said,  “Put your pen down stupid, the old guy is in trouble!”

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When the door of the cabin swung open and he stood there dripping on the stoop, this was the point that seemed to disconcert him the most.  (Well, besides the fact that he realized immediately that his exploits would be in the paper in a week).  “They just stared down at me,” he complained, “ I’m sure wondering what I was up to.  They stood there side by side with their heads cocked to the side and an inquisitive expression on their faces.  When I got out, they ran away scared, like I was the creature from the black lagoon.

That made me laugh – he looked a little like that.  His sweatshirt was soaked, stretched long and dripping.  His hair was in a soggy state of disarray.  His shoes squelched as he walked, and he left a long trail of water behind, like swamp ooze.  He shivered uncontrollably, but tried to tell me that the water was actually quite beautiful.

“I’m not going for a swim dad.”

“No, it felt surprisingly nice, and I feel clean.”

I think it is great when you feel so good when you should really feel ridiculous – but I don’t tell him, of course.  After all, he is my dad.  Besides, it kind of scares me.  What if he had hit his head and drowned?  What would I tell my mom?  “Sorry, but I had to leave dad in the lake, he was too water-logged for me to lift.”  Would I ever get a lecture.  “See,” she would probably tell me.  “I knew your lack of enthusiasm for doing the dishes would someday lead to trouble.”

log cottage

It will be another cottage tale.  It will be a story made better over time.  Someday I will be closing the place with my son.  How special is that?  I’ll grab a bucket and head out in the evening for some water.  I will pause on the front porch, remembering adventures from days past – then I will slip on a lifejacket and head for the dock.