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.”

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!

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.”

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.

A Canada Day Beaver Tale

A friend of mine was attacked by a beaver.  Now, don’t laugh, it’s true.  He told us so himself.  We were at the cottage and there were a few of us, outdoor types, sitting around the campfire exchanging bear stories, when he joins in to tell us how he was nearly mauled by this plump rodent.  You can imagine our mirth at his little yarn – we all shared a good laugh.  He was serious though, and visibly shaken recalling the experience.

This friend is a forestry worker, a consultant.  As such, he spends much of his time in the outdoors.  He is in the bush through all seasons and in any weather, sunshine, rain and snow.  Until the time of the attack, his only worries were the occasional black bear, and the black flies and mosquitoes that torment him each Spring.

He has a dog that accompanies him on his wilderness treks, a Siberian husky that loves the outdoors, the adventure and the exercise.  Well, not too long ago as he was busy working in the bush, our friend heard the dog barking nearby.  Now huskies are not natural barkers, so he deemed the disturbance worth investigating.

 

He found the dog facing off with a rather large beaver – the beaver was confidently eyeing the canine.  Fearing for the beaver’s well-being, this caring forestry worker called off his well-behaved husky and ordered it to stay at a distance.  He was fascinated to see this beaver so far from any water.  There was no pond, lake or river in the near vicinity.  As he was admiring the pluck of the adventuresome mammal, he was shocked to find himself under attack.

The beaver charged, and our poor friend was quickly back-peddling.  The awkward looking attacker darted in with more speed than seemed possible.  Our hero dipped and dodged, weaved and wobbled, until he found himself with his back to a tree.  The beaver gnashed his large front teeth.  It seemed like curtains for our friend, but like a well-written movie, he found a large stick lying by his right hand.  Just in the nick of time, he stuck out the broken branch and held the ferocious creature at bay.

The beaver backed off a little and, seizing the opportunity, our brave forester sprinted off.  He did not look behind him, did not worry about his dog, did not stop until he had reached the safety of his truck.  You can imagine how we laughed when we heard this campfire tale, giggled until our bellies hurt.  I feel sorry for laughing now.

I have shared my friend’s scary account with others around the lake, and in turn have been given several similar stories of suspense involving the ferocious flat-tailed tree-eater.  One poor fellow required stitches in his backside.  A beaver had blocked his way over a bridge.  He left the safety of his vehicle to gently shoo the cute critter from his path.  The beaver charged and the man turned and ran.  The fleet-footed fur-ball caught him, pinning the man between truck and bridge guard rail as he struggled to open his door.   The beaver latched on to the startled victim’s posterior, gnawing on it like it was a poplar tree.

An old rancher friend from the west told me of his own experience.  When out riding his horse, repairing fence, he caught site of a beaver far from any pond.  Before the cowboy could spit a tobacco plug, the creature had lunged at his mount’s front legs.  The beaver put the run on the horse in such an expert fashion, that the cowpoke considered training the agile rodent for cutting cattle.

Now we all have our cottage stories of Castor canadensis – of the damage they cause, the trees they thin, the marsh systems they help create, or simply the sound of their wide tail smacking water on a still summer’s night.  What has put me in mind of these violent tales is that today, as I am writing this, it is Canada Day, a day when we salute our country and feel pride for our flag.  It is true we often complain that, as national symbols, the Americans have their bald eagle, the Russians their fearsome bear, and the Brits their king of the beasts, the lion.  We have our amphibious rodent. Though these buck-toothed engineers may be industrious, hard-working and skilled, they have never been credited as ferocious warriors.

“Well, now you know the rest of the story.”

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.”

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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.