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!

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.

 

 

Left in the Dark

It is another thing I like about the cottage – I love escaping the city’s lights. Our cottage doesn’t have any electricity, so at night it is lit by propane globes and oil lanterns. They illuminate the cabin’s polished wood interior in a warm soft glow.

There has been much talk about light pollution in cottage country. At our lake, this has yet to become a real problem. Here, the night sky still exists, and has not been lost in the lights, street lamps or general glow of civilization. Often we can look along the more populated south shore of our lake, and see only a dozen or so distant cottages with their lights on. And, while looking up at the sky from many places often comes with the restrictions of buildings, hills or even trees, lying out on the rocky point of our island, the sky is big, a total dome overhead, and the starry display on a cloudless night is often spectacular.

I love the total darkness that we have here, and have summered at this place for so long, that I can find my way around the trails in the night without need of a lamp. And, if one needs help, a simple flashlight will do. During a recent family gathering at the cottage, my kid sister and brother in law decided to make the place a bit more resort-ish. They had brought a couple dozen solar lights with them, and had spiked them in an organized fashion alongside the trail that led from the cabin to their bunkie. I was horrified. Our island had taken on the look of a tropical resort with Tiki torches, or perhaps of an airport runway at night.   Though their scheme was reasonable and sound, meant to make the journey from main cottage to their bunkie easier in the dark, I found that the shadows cast by the dim lights had me tripping over roots or stubbing my toes on rocks.

Rather than acting mature and simply talking to them about these glowing standards, I decided my best and most practiced strategy was to act childish. While everyone sat around the evening fire, I snuck off and moved the lights, changing their path, so rather than leading down the trail, they curved off into the middle of some rough bramble. Then, quite pleased with myself, I hid behind a tree and tried to control my juvenile giggles. I heard someone approaching, then the rustle of leaves and the snapping of branches.   There followed the thump of someone falling and the oomph of landing hard – all the calamity capped by a sharp and unsavoury exclamation. I felt bad for a brief second.

“Which one of you fool kids moved my lights!” my sister’s husband cried. I chortled through my nose and ran back to the cottage through the darkness.

I felt a bit sheepish and foolish on the following morning in the light of day, especially when I saw my fine brother-in-law, his arms and legs scratched from prickles, taking down his trail of lights in a huff and storing them away in the shed. Still, I am happy to be rid of them. I guess my point was taken.

The Cottage at the Bonfire

The Cottage at the Bonfire

To celebrate my small victory, that night, after the sun had disappeared in the west, our bonfire had been doused, and the lake was dark once again, I gathered everybody on the rocky point. Adults and kids lay out on our backs like tumbled bowling pins, helter-skelter, staring up at the brilliant canopy of stars. My son used me for a pillow, and my wife and daughters snuggled in by my side. Only a few cottage lights were to be seen on the mainland. With no lights, clouds or moon, the display of stars was amazing. We watched overhead for hours – as falling stars lit a comet-like trail and flashing satellites drifted slowly past. We lost ourselves in the wonder of the Milky Way and tried to pick out the constellations.   The dark night was beautiful, and peaceful.

When you venture to your cottage, try your best to leave the bright urban glow behind – the city lights are pretty there, but not here. Make a point of turning off unnecessary lights, not just for yourself, but also for your cottage neighbours. And, most importantly, don’t forget to look to the heavens. Some people never see that sight. It is sometimes nice being left in the dark!

*For those who love technology, there are “Night Sky” apps available for your phone to help you identify stars and constellations – and then you can use your device’s flashlight to find your way back to the cottage at the end of the night.*

True Love, Old Age and the Cottage

“You’ve got to be kidding,” states my teenage daughter. “I thought we were going to watch a cool movie tonight … who are these old farts?”  She is holding up the DVD case, on which is a sepia-toned photo of an old Katharine Hepburn and an equally ancient Henry Fonda.  All my kids are staring at me, as is my wife.  Well, actually, my son is taking advantage of the disruption to cram as much of the popcorn into his mouth as possible, without his sisters seeing or complaining.

I try to explain who they are – “You know, she was in African Queen.”  “What?”  “He’s Jane and Peter’s Dad” – blank looks, “you know, the Jane Fonda workout!”

I realize I may have made a bit of a mistake here.  On a cold, rainy, miserable Spring evening, a rare night when there is nothing else on the go, I had received a call on my cell phone asking me if I wanted to pick up a movie on my way home.  “There is nothing on tonight, so we thought we could watch a good family film,” says my wife.

I perused the new releases, the action thrillers, vampire movies, love stories and comedies, and found nothing that quite struck my fancy.  I began glancing through old releases, and that is why I came across “On Golden Pond.”  It seemed inordinately dusty.  That should have been my first warning.  The second should have come when the young female clerk began punching it into her register, stopped, looked at the jacket, scowled and shrugged.  “Hmmm, never heard of that.”

I remember that my parents loved the movie “On Golden Pond.”  She was Hepburn, he was Fonda, and the cottage played the starring role.  Well, my dad has never been as cranky and cantankerous as the old curmudgeon Norman Thayer in the movie, nor my mom as dotty as Ethel Thayer, but it was the idea of the cottage and a summer at the lake that caught their fancy.  My mother took to calling my dad an “old poop.”

I remember my parents trying to get us teenagers watching the movie when it first came out.  We were equally as mortified at the prospect.  Where was the action?  Where were the car chases, gun battles, secret agents and scantily clad ladies?  (Well, Jane Fonda in a bikini … if I’d only known).  I had felt my own kids were more mature than I was.  I put the movie in and we all start to watch.  I bet they’ll like it, I thought.  They barely make the opening credits.  As I’m laughing at Fonda’s telephone antics, my oldest gets up, looks disgusted at me, and then turns to the others, “Who wants to play PS3?”  They file out, my son taking the popcorn.  I’m glad my wife remains, that is, until I throw a sheepish smile her way and notice that she is sleeping.

It is a dream many of us have.  We long for that day when our work-a-day world is winding down, and we can head for the cottage shortly after the loons return to the lake in spring, and stay there until all the colourful autumn leaves have tumbled to the ground.  There will be no work forcing us to commute, no soccer matches and hockey camps to schedule our cottage time around.  We will be able to head up for most of the summer.

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The trouble is, of course, that there is a short window between retirement and old age, when the daily rigours of camp chores and maintenance become harder to achieve.  My folks still love to play the roles of Fonda and Hepburn, they love to head up to the cottage stage.  They love it when the whole family is there, but it is hectic.  They prefer being up there on their own. Frankly, we worry about them a bit.  There are many things that could go wrong.

They relish the routine.  Dad gets up early and delivers a coffee to mom in bed.  He makes his famous cottage breakfast and they eat on the dock.   They jump in the lake to cool off and do the front crawl out a hundred metres from the dock and then back.  While they used to spring nimbly up on the end of the dock, they now walk out a little more gingerly to shore.  Friends pass in boats and pull in for a chat.  Sometimes dinner invitations are made.  Mom sews new curtains for the cabin.  They cease all work at 4 o’clock, the cocktail hour.  Like Norman and Ethel, they hear their loons and grab the binoculars for a look.

We needn’t worry.  They are fine at the cottage still.  They have good friends who watch out for them.  More importantly they have each other.  Years of cottage experience more than make up for aging muscles.  There is something to be said for true love, old age and the cottage.

4. Still - Cottage Chair for Two

Christmas in Muskoka

I sometimes wonder how certain traditions come to be. I am, in fact, wondering now, as I hang precariously off the roof of my Muskoka home.

My upper torso is suspended in space beyond the eaves, as I work at untangling a web of wire and lights. The toes of my winter boots are dug into the icy, shingled slope. My fingers, numb from the cold, fumble with the bulbs. Far below me, I see the white ground and am fully aware that the mild weather has left very little snow to break my inevitable fall.

Below, I also see my wife staring upward, and I am touched that she is there to catch me. Then, I realize she is pointing and shouting instructions as if my exercise is a simple matter, akin to the rearranging of the living room furniture. “You have two yellows together,” she seems to be shouting, but her words blow off in the biting wind. My three daughters stand at my wife’s side, echoing her commands and offering their own helpful suggestions.

The ladies are not the only helpers I have had on this day. As I stretched out the strings of lights on the front porch, my young husky pup decided it was he who was to be decorated. Wrapping himself in a cloak of many colours, he scurried about the yard, slightly out of reach, proud of his newly invented game.

Now, I have made it sound like I don’t enjoy this pre‑holiday ritual. The truth is, none of the trials and tribulations of the exercise can take away from the end result — when the lights are up and you stand at the ready with audience gathered. You stick the plug into the socket. Your place lights up and the kids ooh and ah, then bring to your attention the many lights that blink, flash, pop and fade to black. It’s back up to the roof.

Though one could argue that the intrinsic beauty of cottage country can be masked when the sun goes down, as it does quite early through December, the lights of Christmas tend to rectify this. Driving home in the evening, along the back roads and lakeside drives, one marvels at the colourful strings of lights that trace out the rooflines of homes and cottages, frame windows and decks, wrap hedgerows and trees, and illuminate outdoor skating rinks. As a starry night in this region seems all the more brilliant because of the lack of big city lights, so too do the Christmas lights seem all the more acute. The lighting adds beauty and brilliance to cottage country. Twinkling stars and carefully laid out nativity scenes remind of us of Christmas’s greatest story.

Traditions — they are a big part of the magic of the season, and bring back a powerful nostalgia for the family Christmas celebrations of our youth. I know we sometimes get cynical about the commercialism. At times, we get overwhelmed by the shopping. We panic because the whole family is coming and we want things to be perfect.

An escape to cottage country for Christmas is a great way to reconnect with holiday traditions and memories. Life at the cottage encourages fun in the snowy outdoors: sleigh rides and snowmobiles, skiing and tobogganing, and then sitting around a bonfire with a mug of hot chocolate. We clear skating rinks on the ponds and bays, and enjoy an energetic shinny match. A snowman is built and stands guard. The distant sound of church bells and carolling is heard.

Inside, the cottage is warm and cosy, a fire burns in the hearth and stockings are hung from the mantel. There is the scent of pine from a Christmas tree and fresh garland. A drink and some goodies are set out for Santa, and I assure the younger children that he will make it down the chimney just fine, in spite of the flame. There is the anticipation of Christmas morning, followed by the smell of the turkey, and a feast. There are mince pies, homemade fruitcake and Christmas pudding. Best of all, there are family and friends.

Christmas in Muskoka — it’s Christmas card perfect.