A Piece of the Shore

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Vacation Special, August 1997
 C O T T A G I N G   I N   O N T A R I O  

A Piece of the Shore

Skinny-dipping under the stars, and other reasons to go cottaging in Ontario.
By Ann Vanderhoof

August 3-10
Cherry River Festival
Richwood, West Virginia
In 1937, Richwood residents banded together as "the Cherry River Navy of Admirals" to protest the lack of a paved route heading east; this week, locals relive those salad days by donning admiralish attire and dragging a wheeled ship down Main Street. 304-846-6790.
August 4-10
U.S. Open of Surfing
Huntington Beach
The highest-ranked professional surfing event on the mainland this year, with a $155,000 purse; Aussie phenom Mark Occhilupo is expected to show. 714-366-4584.
August 6-10
Digby Scallop Days Festival
Digby, Nova Scotia
To honor the fishermen of the renowned Digby Scallop Fleet, scallop shuckers go mano-a-mollusk in timed competitions. 902-245-4531.
In Ontario, "cottage country" is a precise geographical term, "to cottage" a common verb. The province has a pleasing ratio of 220,000 lakes to 200,000 or so private cottages beside them; about one of every 20 families owns one. And most of the other 19 families manage to cadge an invite or two.

Muskoka, Georgian Bay, the Kawarthas: The topography of the cottage regions changes from one to the next, and the cottages range from million-dollar showplaces to rustic one-rooms (like mine, where running water means hustling from the dock with a bucket). The uninitiated can't see the appeal of suffering through Friday gridlock out of Toronto, of returning to the same place time after time. "You have to do it to understand it," says a friend.

For me, the reasons come clear each time I arrive and slide my kayak into Mississagua Lake. I make a circuit to see what's new, knowing almost nothing is. But always discoveries await: the loon's nest on the edge of an islet; the heron stalking its supper; evening light striking the long fingers of granite that reach into the water.

Perched on Precambrian rock, our tiny, green-stained cottage is barely visible from the water, hidden among pines. The land around us belongs to the Crown and can't be built on, so the bay is almost ours alone. When the urge for greater exploration strikes, we pack dry bags into the kayaks and go, because Mississagua Lake spills into the Mississagua River, which alternately meanders and rushes into a lake a dozen or so portages downstream. At its other end, Mississagua connects to a chain of other lakes via a wetland where snakes slither in the shallows, frogs bask on logs, dragonflies mate, and platter-size snapping turtles paddle in deeper stretches.

Any cottager will tell you a cottage is a place stacked with memories of what you can't wait to do again. Skinny-dipping on a starry night. Devouring the season's first ear of fresh-picked peaches-and-cream corn slathered in butter. Screaming along on the Laser, hiked out, head almost touching the water, laughing out loud. Sometimes when I'm back home, caught in the city's hustle and hassle, the clatter seems to retreat and I hear instead the slap of the waves against the dock. I'm up north again, and all's right with the world.

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