Cottage Romance

Ontario’s fierce, odd passion for lakeside getaways

No one who grew up living the Ontario cottage experience is going to be able to read Julia Harrison’s A Timeless Place: The Ontario Cottage without emotional reminiscences, so let me set out mine at the start.

In the 1920s, my grandfather bought up tracts of land on the Alcona Beach and Big Bay Point shores of Lake Simcoe, near Barrie: five sites, one for each of his offspring plus himself. Although my dad got probably the smallest cottage, he did get the best waterfront: the rock-free, weed-free, clear water deepened so gently that we could wade out more than 30 metres before it reached over our heads.

Our cottage had a faux log-cabin exterior and a cheap plywood interior. Until the late 1970s, it boasted what I derided as “the world’s only indoor outhouse,” fragrantly located right beside my bedroom. No matter: the cottage was a place to relax, a place where I could devour two or three books daily and join friends to listen to records in their boathouse, turning up the volume on the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita” whenever lovely Rita from one of the back cottages came down the access path to swim in her purple bikini.

I did not always love the cottage, and it did not always love me back. But when my first child was born, he was enduring the seven-hour drive from Ottawa to the cottage within three weeks of taking his first breath: it was already time to introduce the fourth generation to the unique experience of Ontario cottaging.

Cottaging, in the rustic-romantic sense that we like to apply to it, was actually a fleeting phenomenon of about 80 years in the 20th century. And it was a bizarrely Ontarian phenomenon. Some other provinces, notably British Columbia and Quebec, prized cottages, but Harrison rightly defines Ontario families as “valuing the … cottage experience [as] valuing what it meant to be Canadian, even if that was understood from a particularly Ontarian perspective.” We equated the cottage with both our own present Canadianness and with our history as Canadians, an Atwoodian connection to the bush across time and space, a “nostalgic nationalism” symbolized by the flags that festooned our summer properties in a way we would feel embarrassed to perpetrate in our city homes.

It is, alas, a thread of Canadianness that Harrison pitilessly pegs as “exclusionary.” Ontario cottagers, even today, are a white European bunch (my cottage friends were all Latvians and Germans). Immigrants from less privileged parts of the world had migrated to get away from the same amenity-free “basic conditions” that were part and parcel of cottage country, and they had no interest in returning to such circumstances in the name of a baffling form of leisure. And while even lower middle class people could afford the cheap wilderness lots of my grandfather’s era, the “monster cottages” of today require an upper middle class income just to maintain them, let alone to buy them.

Harrison’s research turned up less than a handful of non-white, non-European cottagers (nearly all of whom married into white families of long-standing cottage adherence), only three gay people and virtually no disabled people. Gender stereotyping was blatant: males who could not recognize a hammer from a saw at home transformed into pioneer fathers at the cottage, digging out septic tanks and building additional rooms or even canoes without ever feeling that it was “work,” whereas women found the cottage to be just another abode where they were expected to clean, cook and mind the kids.

What this effected, Harrison suggests, was an intense if highly traditional (not to say archaic) relationship of “family” with the cottage: “‘Family’ was a group narrated into being by the stories and memories of previous generations and experiences at the cottage, life at the cottage in the present, and the hopes for the future of life at the cottage.”

This absolute integration of family with cottage elevated the latter to a significance in family dynamics far beyond that of the year-round primary house, for the city home was merely a practical commonplace, whereas the cottage’s “ritualized role … outweighed its practical purpose.”

Harrison’s analysis goes a long way toward explaining the almost crazy passion with which the traditional Ontario cottager cherishes the seasonal home. None of her many interviewees could talk about their cottages “with disinterest or detachment.” The bemused Harrison was moved to declare that “not being able to spend time at their cottage challenged these individuals’ overall sense of well-being and their purposefulness in life.”

This is not to say she does not occasionally take it too far. This is an academic book, so she feels obligated to buttress each point with its own international literature review and dictionary definitions; the sheer fun of cottaging often goes missing in the wake of tautologies such as her observation that learning to water ski symbolized “the confidence and perseverance needed to overcome the challenges of actually getting up on water skis,” or when she pontificates that the passion for cottaging is “grounded in a dialectic tension between presences and absences, even if these are not located in a genetic coding omission or in atavistic yearnings.” And I could certainly do with far fewer references to “moral signification,” “moral values,” “moral character” and “morally worthwhile”; we are talking about Haliburton, not Oberammergau.

The deep identification of family with cottage is possibly the only hope for the survival of cottaging. New generations are tearing down the traditional shabby cabins and replacing them with homogenous suburban mansions. They are motivated externally by the need for civic regimentation in order to implement 9-1-1 emergency services, the concomitant need for street naming, and water, sewer and hydro infrastructures, and the exorbitant property taxes to pay for them all—“an array of external regimes implicitly working to transform the cottage into something framed within more rational than affective structures”; and they are motivated internally by the inculcated drive to acquire and display the tools and toys of commodification and urbanization. In today’s cottages, the connection is to the wireless router instead of to the wilderness.

Harrison suggests that this profound change could be validated as a 21st-century adaptation of the cottage experience, for “the cottage feeling [can] transcend décor and design”: it is, at heart, a sense of place, “even if it appeared to be misplaced in nature.”

When I consider the full-page advertisement that appeared in the Toronto Star on March 29, 2014, I cannot share her hopeful vision. That ad aggressively promotes a development on the flip side of the peninsula where my grandfather started out at Big Bay Point. In place of a natural rocky outcropping populated by a couple of dozen hand-hewn wooden cottages, the renamed “Friday Harbour” will be a $1.5 billion, 600-acre development with 1,000 boat slips, 2,000 “resort residences,” sports clubs, restaurants and shopping galleries. The ad consists of 1,200 words. Not one of them is the word “cottage.”