Cottage Country, Canada
When we were young, it was the centre of our summer world. Every year, in mid-June, we packed the car and headed north into what felt like another continent. Every year, through summer months that seemed to go on forever, we lived the Canadian idyl — in a cottage, on a lake, surrounded by deep woods.
Cottage country is to Canadians what the south of France is to Parisians or what the hill station was to colonial families during the Raj, though perhaps without the sour waiters or the casual adultery with Indian princes. It is summer’s natural habitat, though here with one important difference. Cottage country carries with it the idea of wilderness. Most Canadians may be as urban as most Brits, but wilderness lies at the heart of who they think they are.
As children, cottage country was our wilderness, our pioneer days. We crept through forests like Indians clutching our tomahawks. We canoed across lakes like explorers in buckskin on our way to the unknown. At night we sat round campfires waiting for the wolves to start howling, as the forests filled with unfathomable shadows and the lake was polished with moonlight.
It is decades since I have lived in Canada, since those summer months at the cottage. I felt it was time to share its excitement with others. And so I rented a cottage, and herded together a happy tribe of European children, including my two year old daughter, to show them what it was like in the New World, to see the early mists curling off the lake, to feel the pull of the canoe paddle as it dipped in and out of the mirror-still water, to taste smoky hot dogs grilled over a fire, to hear the ghostly call of the loons across the lake at night.
You have probably guessed already. Showing them was just an excuse. Really the trip was for me. I wanted to recapture that moment of breathless anticipation when, aged ten, I peered over the front seat of the family car as we rounded the bend at the top of the hill, and caught that first glimpse of the lake, shining beneath us like a promise. I was a romantic in search of my past. The kids… well the kids were modern children, more savvy, more experienced, and more cynical than I was at their age, and probably than I am now. What would they make of my wilderness.
Things began to tour sour before we had reached the suburbs of Toronto. It was the start of an August bank holiday weekend, and departure from the city was reminiscent of newsreels of a refugee crisis — long sluggish queues of packed vehicles, with the faces of wailing children and distraught parents pressed to the windows. I hadn’t remembered such traffic. I began to wonder if I was going to find the lakeside idyls of my childhood sinking, like Venice, beneath the weight of modern visitors.
Aside from the traffic, there were two problems. The first was that everything the children wanted to do — shop, ride the streetcars, hang with their glamorous teenage cousins — lay behind them in Toronto. The second problem was donuts. The children had developed a passion for North American donuts that seemed dangerously like addiction. To pass one of the flashing drive-thru donut emporiums risked all-out mutiny. To stop inevitably led to civil war as, surfing a sugar rush, the kids fought for territory in the back seat.
We staggered onwards in traffic that would have made the retreat to Dunkirk seem like a speedy and orderly procession. Outside it was 30 degrees. Inside, where the air-conditioning didn’t seem to be having much effect, it was 34 degrees.
Of all the misconceptions about Canada, the most persistent concerns the weather. The country is so famous for its winters, for deep snow and people muffled against the wintry blasts, that the other seasons get pushed out of the public imagination. But summers are hot, rather like Tuscany without the Art or the insane drivers.
Just as dramatic as the seasonal contrasts are the geographical divides. There are two distinct Canadas. There is the populated south, a fertile crescent of rich farmland and busy cities within shouting distance of the American border — it is a tribute to Canadian politeness that they rarely shout anything more unpleasant at their southern neighbours than ‘oh heck’.
And then there is the empty North, the wilderness to which the city dwellers are so attached, a limitless tract of forest and lake, a country that would make the Scottish Highlands seem dangerously overpopulated. A glance at a road map tells you all you need to know as the dense web of southern roads thin northward to a few lonely highways crossing blank expanses. Vast, forbidding, trackless, it was described by Canadian writer, Stephen Leacock, ‘as a country to drink whisky in.’
The difference between these two Canadas lie in the earth beneath Canadian feet. For the first 80 miles or so on the road north from Toronto, we passed through fields studded with charming farmhouses that looked like retired film sets from Anne of Green Gables. But by the time we reached Lake Simcoe, rock had begun to menace this innocent fertility. Once we had crossed the Severn River, cold slabs of granite loomed everywhere. The rich soils of the Canadian south had given way to the Canadian Shield, the great U-shaped formation of Precambrian rock which pushes southward from Hudson’s Bay into northern and much of central Ontario. Forests crowded out the fields. When the trees broke, dark pristine lakes appeared.
Something else rather miraculous had happened after the Severn River: the traffic disappeared. The great exodus pouring out of Toronto, all those thousands of cars streaming northward, had been absorbed into the vast spaces of cottage country. The empty highway stretched ahead, crowded with tree shadows rather than cars. Donut emporiums became rare. Deprived of sugar, the children calmed down and eventually fell asleep as we whirled northwards through Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Huntsville, small towns whose names where the signposts of my own childhood.
Algonquin Park is larger than seventy-one of the world’s countries. It is larger than Devon, so much larger that you would need to throw in a good hunk of Cornwall to get an idea of the size. One of over a hundred such wilderness parks in Canada, it contains 2500 lakes, almost one for every square mile, and well over a thousand miles of canoe routes. Yet it has only a single highway, cutting across its south-western corner. To reach anywhere else in this vast wilderness park requires a journey by canoe or by foot.
Not wanting to startle my immigrant tribe, I had arranged for our first night in the north to be spent in one of Algonquin’s few rustic resorts where a degree of comfort would soften their introduction to the wilderness. Arowhon Pines sits on a promontory on Joe Lake, a collection of comfortable log cabins standing among birch and pine woods.
Over dinner in the grand hexagonal dining hall, I tried to divert the children from the uncomfortable truth — that we had come to a place consisting primarily of trees — with stories about my own legendary canoe trip in Algonquin Park, aged sixteen, coping with black flies, portages, and pot noodles cooked over sputtering fires. They listened attentively; the threat of disaster had piqued their interest. But when the story concluded without a drowning or a bear attack, they turned away to the sweet trolley, disappointed by the lack of fatalities.
After dinner we sat outside on the porch, our feet propped against the railing, watching humming birds feeding while the light faded across the lake. The darkening forests round the shores contained no lights other than our own. Loons were calling. Loons are such an emblematic bird in Canada that their image has been used on the dollar coin, inevitably dubbed the loony. Every lake is said to contain only one pair of birds who return to it each year. Their haunting call, drifting across the water, is the aural signature of these northern landscapes.
We were joined by Helen, owner and manager of Arowhon Pines. Helen was in her eighties and a testament to the beneficial effects of fresh air, good food and a half an hour backstroke every morning. She is the second of three generations who have been involved with Arowhon. Her mother-in-law created the resort in 1938, and Helen and her husband Eugene were in charge for almost forty years. Eugene died in 2007, ‘though not until the last summer guest had departed.’
I asked when she had first come to Algonquin. ‘Probably on my honeymoon,’ she laughed. ‘It was love, at first sight. I thought I was marrying a man but I was also marrying this Park, this wilderness. Both were a lifelong love affair.’
In the morning, when the mists were still curling off the surface of the water, I set off with Guglielmo, who was twelve, to paddle across the lake. It was his first time in a canoe, the archetypal Canadian boat. I introduced him to the secrets of the J-stroke, which allows canoeists to steer without constantly changing hands.
On the far side we found the river inlet, and paddled upstream as the banks narrowed and the forests closed in. After a time we came to an old beaver dam. We dragged the canoe across the low wall of mud and branches, then climbed in again and paddled on. As we rounded a bend in the river, a small side bay appeared, enclosed by white pine and birch. There, standing in the shallows, grazing on lake weeds hardly twenty feet away, was a bull moose.
We stopped paddling in mid-stroke, and stared. Lifting its head, the moose stared back, lake water dribbling from its chin. He stood almost six foot at the shoulders and sported a large pair of late season antlers, almost four feet across. Moose have comically mournful faces, with a drooping nose and a double chin. In that moment our new friend looked like a rather difficult guest at a party, being introduced to someone he had no interest in meeting.
‘Whoa,’ Guly whispered. ‘Is he going to charge?’
‘Only mothers charge,’ I said, hoping I was right. ‘Females are always more unpredictable.’
‘Hey. Just like humans,’ he said.
Having given us the critical eye, the moose turned, heaved itself onto the bank with a shudder of irritation, and slipped away between the trees at a slow trot. For Guly, the encounter seemed to be up there with new Wifi tennis program.
‘That’s awesome,’ he said. I felt he was getting the feel for the wilderness.
Back at the resort we found the girls playing with Arowhon’s Labrador. Margherita ran down the dock to greet us, with a bundle of fur in her arms. ‘There are puppies, there are puppies,’ she cried. ‘Can we stay for a week.’
I had overlooked the corrosive effect of Arowhon on my cottage dream. Over lunch I tried to give the troops a little pep talk about how great it would be to have our own cottage, our own dock and our own world, without a lot of other people around. But the flow of gorgeous meals, ferried to our table by attentive staff, then painlessly cleared away while we went bird watching did not make it easy to contemplate an independent life. The room attendants making the beds and cleaning the floors while we paddled canoes, sailed sailboats, and swam from the dock didn’t help. A puppyless world of self-catering independence suddenly seemed beyond us. No one wanted to leave.
But leave we did. After a heart-rending farewell to the puppies, we set off in a car whose silence was only broken by sobs from the back seat. I don’t think even a Honey glazed Old fashioned Cinnamon Twist donut would have eased the pain.
In the beginning Canadian cottage country was the preserve of the wealthy. They were the same people who colonised Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. In the late 19th and early 20th century, bankers, lawyers, and industrialists from southern Ontario and the eastern United States arrived to build substantial holiday cottages in stone and timber on prominent positions around Lake Rousseau, Lake of the Bays and Lake Muskoka. Families arrived by train with a retinue of servants and three month worth of luggage, then boarded the lake steamers that took them to their summer properties.
Theirs was a fashionable and glamorous world. There were golf courses, tennis tournaments, tea parties and dances. The same families were summer neighbours over the course of generations, their connections often cemented with marriages as young people met, fell in love and became engaged at swimming parties and canoe expeditions. In the 20’s and 30’s, the glamorous aura of Muskoka was much enhanced by the arrival of Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Carole Lombard who stayed at the exclusive Bigwin Inn on Lake of the Bays where entertainers included Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
In a more democratic age after the second world war, everyone started to get in on the cottage thing. When I was a child it was already common for most families to have a cottage somewhere. In those days summer holidays seemed to go on for months. These days, with shorter holidays and more overseas travel, most owners rent their cottages for part of the summer. For renters, it can be a little like a house swap, with that sense of stepping into a much loved home, but without having the necessity of clearing out your own sock drawer.
We arrived at our cottage on Drag Lake in the Haliburton district to find a welcome hamper that contained everything from wine to maple syrup. If I had come with memories of a rustic cottage with camp beds and wicker chairs, this was the moment to abandon them. There had been an architectural inflation in the cottage world. At the heart of our temporary home was what is called ‘a great room’, the size of a small barn, which acts as an all-in-one living room, dining room and kitchen with one of those North American fridges like a walk-in wardrobe. Floor to ceiling windows drew the panorama of the lake inside to the breakfast table A central staircase led to five bedrooms on the first and second floors. Outside a wide deck overlooked the lake.
It took about five minutes for the kids to forget about the charms of Toronto as well as the delights of Arowhon with its choice of three different luncheon puddings. From the deck they made a sound like Iroquois on the warpath before racing down the stone path through the trees to the dock where there two canoes, a paddle boat, a kayak and a small motorboat were moored. In their excitement they didn’t really appreciate the fact that they didn’t need to keep their voices down, or avoid disturbing other people sunbathing, or wait their turn for the boats. We had arrived in our own little kingdom, without the nuisance of Other People.
Our days settled into a pattern of long breakfasts, mornings on the lake shore swimming and canoeing, afternoon excursions, and nightly bonfires. It was a Swallows and Amazons existence. Each day seemed to bring some new enthusiasm One day we fancied ourselves fishermen and set off in the boat to cast lines in the bays and pools around the lake where we eventually caught a number of unfortunate frogs and enough speckled trout to make a tiny appetiser. Another day raspberries were discovered along a top road and we spent an afternoon eating and picking, then lugging our loot home to make puddings. Another found us in secret lairs in the woods where we painted our faces and made tepees out of fallen branches. On yet another day birds suddenly became all the rage, and our novice ornithologists canoed round the lake shore with binoculars, ticking off their bird lists, with sightings of kingfishers, nuthatch, a variety of warblers, indigo buntings, grouse, humming birds, the majestic great blue heron, and the fearless goshawks who feed on hares. At night we made huge fires, sang ridiculous songs, roasted marshmallows on sticks, watched the moon rising through the pine trees on the opposite shore and listened to the loons calling. I had underestimated the power of wilderness. It doesn’t matter how urban modern children are; wilderness is still one of their natural habitats.
When asked about the thorny issue of Canadian identity, Pierre Berton, broadcaster and writer, used to say that what distinguishes Canadians from other peoples, what makes them truly Canadian, is the fact that they can make love in a canoe. As a badge of national identity, it beats Norman Tebbit’s cricket test. And to those who have a passing familiarity with canoes — my father, who was Irish, could capsize one just by looking at it — it is also an impressive feat of balance and nerve.
Ontario is an Indian word which means ‘glittering waters’. Up here on the Canadian Shield, lakes and rivers are the arteries of the country, and for centuries the only way to get around. It was the Indians who invented the canoe, stretching birch bark across wooden frames, sealing the joints with pine rosin. They should have hidden them away before the Europeans turned up. Early explorers used canoes to penetrate the continent they would eventually take from the native tribes. Canoes are still the iconic boats on these lakes. Many of the cars on the road north from Toronto had one lashed to the roof, and every cottage has one tied to the dock.
While the kids swam and paddled, I arranged to visit a traditional canoe maker. I found Jack Hurley at day’s end in his workshop near the shore of Lake of the Bays. He was grizzled back country guy in his fifties wearing a plaid shirt, a carpenter’s apron and the kind of ornery look that implied you needed to account for yourself. Jack has been making canoes for 28 years, and the workshop was crammed with canoe moulds and half-built carcasses, its floor a thick litter of wood shavings and its walls a crowded gallery of photos, post cards and newspaper clippings. The shop smelt of cedar wood and resin.
The sun was obviously over the yardarm, and Jack was opening a can or two of beer as his two young female assistants were putting the final touches to the framework of a canoe. If he seemed a trifle prickly, the women were friendly and pleasant and delightful. Their presence made me feel better about Jack, and twice as interested in canoes.
In spite of his years at the trade, Jack still managed to come over a bit emotional at the process we were watching.
‘Canadians have been doing it like this for over 150 years,’ Jack said a little misty-eyed. ‘And the Indians before that for ten thousand years,’ I wondered if they had all had such beautiful assistants but asked instead how many canoe makers were left.
‘Only 70 people in the world,’ Jack said, ‘are still building them by hand in the traditional way.’
I enquired how he got into canoe building.
‘Love,’ he said, confirming the link between canoes and romance. ‘I am from the States, from Buffalo just across the border. But I married a local girl, came to live up here, and became fascinated by canoes.’
Taking the white cedar ribs out of the steam press, the two women were bending the strips carefully over the canoe mould and nailing them to the long gunwale lengths with a kind of elegant female precision. In that moment I had decided all boat-builders should be women.
‘They are beautiful,’ Jack said.
‘Sure are,’ I nodded. ‘Have they worked for you long?’
Jack took a long swig of beer, eyeing me over the rim of the can.
‘I am talking about the canoes,’ Jack said.
To reinforce the children’s sudden enthusiasm for nature, rather than television, I took them one afternoon on the canopy walk in Haliburton Forest Reserve, half an hour away. The walk allows visitors to get up close and personal with the treetops. We set off with a guide — Cameron, a Glaswegian arborealist, to whom Canada was a tree-hugging dream.
Deep in the Haliburton forest we clambered into long voyageur canoes to paddle across an empty lake where a pair of loons tracked the boats. On the far shore, we kitted up with safety harness. Cameron took a moment to advise us to keep in a close group, as a bear had been spotted in the area in the morning. His warning came with one or two bear attack tips.
If threatened, you must never run. Apparently bears could overtake Usain Bolt over a hundred metres without breaking sweat. Faced with a bear with an attitude problem and unrecorded Olympic sprinting records, the form is to stand your ground. ‘Without provoking them, you have to try to look bigger and badder than the bear.’ Cameron said. ‘Above all never climb a tree,’ Cameron went on. ‘After monkeys, bears are the best tree climbers in the animal kingdom.’
At a stroke this fact made the canopy tour a slightly less appealing option. Going eyeball to eyeball with a bear on a branch seven storeys up, I doubted I could rearrange my terrified features into some facsimile of the kind of bad guy who eats bears for breakfast.
Anyone suffering from vertigo should look away now. The canopy tour involved boards barely a foot wide suspended among the treetops on wire cables. There were hand rails and safety wires to encourage the illusion that walking on narrow boards seventy feet above the forest floor was a good idea. My own confidence was fatally undermined by a man in our group who announced, just as we were stepping out on our high wire tour, that he had suffered a fall at work, the previous year. ‘Broke both my arms, and made a helluva mess of my face,’ he declared cheerily. I asked how far he had fallen. ‘Only fifteen feet,’ he confessed.
Immune to anxiety, the children were off like rabbits, bounding along the planks in a manner that set them swaying like a playground swing, while I stood clutching the hand rail, my expression fixed in a lunatic grimace, refusing to glance down at the Eastern Hemlock that Cameron was now pointing out. It was three centuries old, he reckoned. ‘The hemlock wood is so hard,’ he said, ‘it can only be worked when it is freshly cut. When it dries out, it is like cement.’ Which made it rather like my legs. I felt if I tried to bend my knees they would crack, sending me hurtling downward through the pine branches.
Afraid of being left behind, I shuffled along the planks stiff-legged, past red and sugar maples, balsam and beech and birch trees. The dominant species, Cameron was saying, was the mighty white pine. The forests may look untouched, he said, but they are not entirely original growth. In the 19th century, enormous logging concerns were active here. In 1811 alone, 23,000 white pines were sent to England from Quebec City alone. In time every house in England would have floorboards or tables or rafters made from these forests while the masts of most ships in the Royal Navy were Canadian White Pine.
Among these mighty trunks, woodpeckers seemed to be the chaps of most interest, if you discount the acrobatic bears. Cameron pointed out the holes of the pilated woodpecker who search out their prey by feeling for the vibration of the insects beneath the bark. A little later, over a yawning chasm, he paused again to show me a neat grid of holes as perfectly and symmetrically cut as if they had been done with a drill’ The yellow-bellied sap sucker,’ Cameron said. It sounded more like an insult than a bird. ‘They are really trappers. They make the holes, the insects come to feed on the oozing sap, and the birds return to harvest the insects.’
The walk ended at a sort of eagle’s nest platform above a lake created by a beaver dam. We arrived just in time to spot three white-spotted deer disappearing into the forest on the opposite shore. A great blue heron was stalking among the lily pads beneath us. Looking straight down Guglielmo spotted a turtle the size of a dustbin lid swimming among the underwater reeds, known here as witches hair.
‘A snapping turtle.’ Cameron nodded sagely. ‘I can think of appendages I wouldn’t want one of those guys to lock onto.’
I was going off Cameron. He seemed so keen to introduce new anxieties at every opportunity.
Bad bears and big snapping turtles are all very well but the real stars of these forests are the wolves. Unfortunately they are rarely sighted, but wolf researchers in Algonquin have discovered that humans can talk to them, that wolf packs will respond to humans imitating their howls. Every week Haliburton organises a public wolf howl — a sort of primal scream therapy for vacationers.
We arrived back at the main compound in time to join the assembled group as they set off down one of the tracks into wolf territory. Wolves howl of course as a territorial announcement, a warning to others to make scarce. But wolf howling is also done for the hell of it, the guides explained, a kind of communal singsong before setting off for a night hunt, to boost morale. I pictured them in a circle, holding paws, howling Kumbaya.
To get the wolves going, two or three of the guides began to howl. We stood in the road listening. There was no response. Then he divided us into groups and got us to howl in turn. It was a surreal scene — groups of city folk, deep in the darkening forest at dusk, howling their hearts out. The kids loved it, though their howling was more like banshees than wolves.
At a sudden signal from the guide, we all fell silent. And then from somewhere in the forest away to our right, a wolf pack howled back. A moment later another pack howled somewhere away to the left. It was magical. We were talking to the animals, and they were talking back.
Sophia, who was two, howled all the way home like a wolf cub. Back at the cottage, everyone ran outside to howl at the fat moon rising through the trees. There was no response this time but it hardly mattered. The wolves get to howl any old time; children don’t.
The kids loved it but how was it for me. The great thing was how little had changed. Cottages were rather grander than I remembered but then so was the landscape. Landscape is like that, like the best kind of art. Every time you look it is more impressive, more beautiful, more moving than it was before. As you mature, so do your favourite landscapes.
I loved the bonfires in the evening, when we sat round the fire pit, roasting marshmallows on sticks and telling tall stories. I loved the sense of the forests at our back, unknowable and endless. And I loved the freedom the children had, the ability to play and have adventures without any concerns about traffic or other people or urban dangers.
The best parts of my day were my solitary swims. I tried to swim every morning before breakfast, before the kids were awake, slipping into the still lake from the end of the dock, feeling it close cold soothing hands over my head. When you are accustomed to the salt water of the sea, the lake water felt like silk.
And I loved canoeing at night with my partner, in the avenue of moonlight that stretched between the dark shores, dipping our paddles in and out of the liquid light. This was a kind of magic, and it was just as I remembered it.