The Teens are Alright

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Family Vacations Guide

The Teens are Alright

Just keep it simple: Give them space, and lots of it

We have taken our son on the road with us all his life, to Tuscany, Bali, both coasts of Canada, the island of Elba, L.A., New York, Paris. We've skied as a family in Whistler, B.C., and Stowe, Vermont; boogie-boarded in the icy waters off the west coast of Vancouver Island; camped off the Florida Gulf Coast; and canoed in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. But one of our best vacations was the simplest. Last summer, we rented a tiny cabin on an otherwise empty lake in Quebec, where we played music together. Nice.

Our son was 16, and still getting over the last family expedition--a too-long road trip to Nova Scotia. (He was also vegan at that point. Try eating vegan in the land of lobster rolls.) That was the summer I learned that you do not try to compress teenagers, like down bags, into smaller spaces, such as kayaks or cars. You try to give them way more space, so they can inflate to their true size. A cottage is too small. You need to rent a lake, too.

In Canada, this is still possible--especially in Quebec. But first, you must decode the classified ads. Skip the ones that say "exec. amenities" or "luxury chalet." You will end up paying a lot for an A-frame with a mildewed Jacuzzi, too many neighbors, and a lake abuzz with personal watercraft. Instead, seek out ads for a low-rent "nature-lovers' hideaway" or "rustic retreat, water access, hydro only." Outdoor plumbing is a good sign. If you pay less and drive further, you may luck into the ultimate "exec. amenity"--the peace of wilderness.

And for once you won't have to pack light to enjoy it. No more debagging the oatmeal or squashing things into those watertight bags. Since expansion, not contraction, is now our holiday motto, we crammed the Honda full of everything we usually leave behind: my son's cello, his guitar, my violin, my husband's tree-trunk-sized djimbe, the music stand, the laptop, the smoked salmon (for the lapsed vegan), the CDs, the hardcover books. Like homesteaders, we lumbered across Ontario for six hours and arrived at our cabin in the Laurentian Mountains, a hundred miles north of Montreal.

One half of the cabin was the original 1913 log structure, the other was a new pine addition, with a kitchen, bathroom, woodstove, and sleeping loft. All the amenities, actually. My son slept in the loft--and fell in love with the place from the start. He played Bach upstairs and Beck down below. There are very few tunes that call for a fiddle, a cello, and a hand drum, but we did a passable version of Van Morrison's "T. B. Sheets." We were free to be as loud as we wanted because there was no one there to disturb.

But in the middle of the second night, nature outplayed us on a much bigger drum. A thunderstorm struck with the force of a near-tornado. It ripped our bedroom windows open and blew the curtains horizontal. Wall-to-wall thunder erupted. The three of us huddled in the middle of the cabin, as constant lightning lit the lake like a lurid television screen. The lights went out--half the province of Quebec lost its hydro in that storm--and stayed out for three days. The digital clock on the stove jammed at 2:34, and our rusticity was complete.

Whenever the cabin felt too small, our son could take the canoe around the bend and out of sight. He would paddle down to the end of the lake, where faint trails led back into a forest conservation area. On one shore of the lake were 25-foot rock cliffs--perfect for rock climbing despite the alarmingly large spiders that warmed themselves there. An hour up the highway was a minor mountain, which we bothered to climb one day.

Mostly, though, it was music, and the lake. Every night when the adults began to mull over wine choice, our son would go down to his usual spot. He sat on the end of the dock, with a bug-hat on and a harmonica brace around his neck. He played guitar until darkness and mosquitos drove him back to the cabin. He was working on a falsetto that would get a rise from the loons.

I asked my son recently what he remembers about that place and time. "Dusk," he said, "because that's when everything happens on the lake." When dusk becomes an event, you know you're in the right place.

--Marni Jackson

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