Last night the sky was pink; tonight it’s lavender. Overhead, a wisp of cloud hovers that so closely resembles a seagull’s wing it could be a painting. I know if I rush for my camera it will be gone, so I simply watch it hang, suspended, the wind stretching it to eventual dismemberment. My husband floats under that wing, adrift in his canoe with his fishing rod, hoping to hook the granddaddy of all the baby perch he threw back this morning. I am sipping tea in a Muskoka chair on the dock, scribbling furiously in the waning light as the ducks begin to bed down for the night.
Huddled round the horseshoe of the GTA, an hour’s drive from the US border (along with the majority of Canadians), it is easy to forget nature’s place in our lives. Gone are the days when every child carried a pocket knife and played in the woods after school; building tree forts; catching tadpoles in the swamp; eating wild blackberries for lunch. This was my childhood. Today almost every tree I climbed is gone. I have no idea what happened to my pocketknife. It was my grandfather’s, and my dad gave it to me…if I did that with one my kids today I’d likely get arrested. Or they would, and charged with carrying a concealed weapon. My kids are 17, 15 and 11 and have never climbed a tree, or lay on their backs in a meadow for an entire afternoon imagining shapes in the clouds.
These days your average Canadian doesn’t know how to start a fire without lighter fluid, or catch a fish without $200 worth of equipment. These skills still exist in the more northern communities, but in Ontario at least we are all so comatose after 13+ years of institutionalized education, followed by decades of cubical dwelling, that many of us have no idea how we would live without fridges, air conditioners and indoor plumbing. The velvet blanket of darkness has become something to be afraid of, to be pushed back with the electric buzz of streetlights, putting up a wall between us and the natural world; hiding the stars. Head north to cottage country, however, and nature returns with a vengeance.
My family recently spent a week at a cottage on Lake Simcoe in Ontario, and the first thing you notice are the spiders hanging in every nook and cranny, inside and out. The mornings began with sweeping all the cobwebs off the outdoor furniture, which magically re-appear overnight. There are spiders everywhere; on chairs, under tables, in the window frames. One ambitious arachnid the size of a quarter spun a web measuring 8 feet x 5 feet between two of the porch pillars. The breeze billowed this web in and out, with the eight-legged architect of this engineering marvel proudly riding the sway.
The best part of a trip to cottage country is watching the kids put down their electronic gizmos. Our two girls spent all of one day trying to feed bugs to a frog they caught. They built their new pet his very own private Eco-Hilton in a bucket with rocks, dirt and a lily pad and popped him in. The next morning, realizing Froggy had not eaten the bugs, or indeed even moved since his benevolent imprisonment, they reluctantly acknowledged he wasn’t happy and released him back into the lake, where he dove under a lily and disappeared with one strong kick.
Another day they paddled around the lake in our canoe and a wakeboard. They were scared to stand up at first, both of them sitting on the board and paddling with the canoe paddles. “Look mom; we invented canoe surfing!” They eventually managed to stand up and proudly rode the tiny waves through the reeds.
Swimming at dusk is also great fun as the ducks come to join them, swimming less than two feet away from their heads, occasionally going underwater to pull at the reeds, their little tails waving above the waterline. You can’t do that at the zoo.
The cottage we stayed at, built in 1919, is a private home on private land. In 1890 a certain Sir Byron Walker and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Walker, settled here, and the original cottage is still standing. Over the years they deeded pieces of the property to their children, and then their grandchildren. Today it encompasses a few miles of private shoreline with 15 cottages on it, all owned by Sir Byron’s descendants. They all know each other, of course, and they don’t rent them out, so the two elderly aunts next door were quite alarmed when they saw my husband, shirtless, with torn jeans, a ponytail and a biker mustache, walking down their private road. Even after he explained who he was (the owner’s business partner and guest) they watched him from behind their fence all week, even putting a gate up to block him from walking down “their” path.
With the exception of the land cleared for housing, the property remains very much as it was 125 years ago. The only exception is a tennis court, which suddenly appears in a clearing after a short walk through woodland paths.
Take a walk at dusk and you are likely to see a deer eyeing you cautiously behind a birch tree, and if you are still they will continue on their way, crossing the small dirt road right in front of you. In one secluded glen some park benches have been set up so you can sit quietly and watch the animals, or just enjoy the stillness of a forest afternoon. You can’t hear a single voice, car, or any sound to suggest civilization is just a ten minute drive away.
The dense forest may hide the animals from our sight, but not our hearing. We can occasionally hear the cracking and snapping of something large moving through the trees, and once we heard the low grunt of a male deer. We’ve seen woodpeckers, ducks, but strangely enough, no squirrels. We know there are racoons as they are leaving nightly deposits on our lawn, no doubt expressing their opinion of the strange dogs in their territory.
This is real Canadian forest, untouched by city planners or landscapers. Almost impenetrable trees and shrubbery, some hundreds of years old, surround the few worn paths, showing lightening damage, chewed bark, dead limbs criss-crossed in illogical patterns, making walking through it slow going. Deer can walk through here silently, but we bumbling humans rustle leaves, crack branches, and trip over rocks, likely making the hidden woodland creatures wonder how our species manages to survive at all.
Cottage holidays are the city dwelling Canadian’s chance to escape the noise and traffic and remember, if only for a few days, what life in Canada was like before we became so obsessed with money and possessions. And gives us something to dream about; a retirement earned perhaps. But for most, this remains a weekend getaway, or a standard two week vacation sometime in July or August. We always return to the city, to our jobs, commute, smog and stress. And the trees wait silently for our return.