Authors: James Ross
For my folks, Alan and Joyce,
for instilling in me a love and passion for cottage living.
And to my family, Chantelle, Kayla, Tori, Sean, and Jenna,
for making our island cottage such a wonderful place to write about.
Start the Day
Of Mice and Men
Game of Tapes and Ladders
The Breakdown and the Brat
What's Eating You?
Farewell to a Cottage Friend
The Nesting Box
Time Moves On
Leave It to Beaver
The Perfect Storm
Holding the Fort
Death of a Dog
Life Is a Game
The Food Chain
Lost in Translation
The Cottage Duel
A Gathering of Loons
Who Has Seen the Wind?
Pirates of Muskoka
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
That '70s Show
It's a Dog's Life
Our Garden Patch
Hunting for Hidden Treasure
In a Fog
Back to School
I'm a Lumberjack
Three Men on a Dock
To Fetch a Pail of Water
Cottage Country Christmas
The End of Claus
The Cottage Rink
My wife will never understand the life of a writer.
Sure, she works hard. She heads off to her restaurant every day, where she slaves over the grill, settles staff issues, and deals with the demands of spoiled customers. She helps bring in the money necessary to support our family of six. I will give her that. But I work hard, too â she just doesn't always see it that way.
She comes home early from work today to find me relaxing on the back deck, sprawled out in a lounger in the sunshine. A good book lies open on my lap. A frosty beer sits on a side table, along with a pen and an empty notebook. Dark shades hide my eyes, which are shut. Many would be convinced I am sleeping, but I am simply meditating, dreaming cottage thoughts, and thinking about the summer days at the lake that will soon come.
I have filled up the kiddie pool and have it placed just off the deck beyond my bare feet. In what I thought was an inspired touch, I have taken my wife's beautiful carved wooden loon from its prestigious perch atop the fireplace mantel and have it bobbing around in the sparkling pool water.
“What are you doing?” my wife shouts, rudely awakening me from my slumbers. I try to spring to my feet, but instead, in my half-dazed state, I jump on the foot of the lounge chair. The lounger, in turn, tilts forward and springs me off the deck and into the pool with a splash. I pretend this graceful dip was my intention all along, sitting in the little wading pool splashing water over my upper torso.
If you have ever wondered what an incredulous expression looks like, all you have to do is witness the look my darling wife is giving me at this very instant. I must be a very funny sight, a big guy like me sitting in this little pool with sunglasses askew, but my spouse does not even smile. She does not even chuckle when I jump back with a little yelp, having seen a headless wooden loon swimming towards me.
“What are you doing?” she repeats, speaking very slowly and succinctly, making me for the first time realize the dangerous predicament I am now in.
“Why, I'm working,” I say. Her expression of incredulity sharpens.
“Research,” I try. “Writing is all about mindset.” (I'm not entirely sure she is buying it.) Her hands stay fixed on her hips. I can't help but notice the colour rising, the fists clenching.
“I was suffering from a tiny bit of writer's block â and I need to have a âCottage Daze' column in tomorrow. I needed to get into the mood.”
I sense I'm making some headway finally. I notice her head nodding slightly.
“Ah, yes, of course â¦ then perhaps I can help,” she offers graciously.
My accommodating wife quickly fetches me a gallon of deck stain and a brush. “Pretend it is the cottage porch,” she says, pointing to our oversized cedar patio deck.
Later, while she has me chopping firewood, trimming trees, and raking well into the twilight hour, she bustles about in the rickety garden shed. I must admit, my wife has quite the imagination when she applies herself. With a little bit of a rustic touch, she soon has that clapboard shack looking much like an old cottage bunkhouse, complete with mice, spiders, and a thin little lumpy mattress and scratchy wool blanket for me.
“Good night,” she says. “Hope this helps get you in the mood.” She wanders off to our comfortable house. I light the oil lamp she has kindly provided, grab my notebook, and put pen to paper.
Yes, writing is all about mindset. Perhaps my wife understands the life of a writer, after all.
Springtime: Back to the Cottage
It is an annual ritual that takes place once the snow has receded â not disappeared completely, but at least retreated to the protected shade of the trees. Once the thick lake ice has magically transformed itself, first on a mild spring night into an infinite number of tiny ice capsules before disappearing completely the following afternoon, and once that first sunny weekend is promised in April or May â¦ it is time. It is an event as much anticipated by the family as Christmas morning, and is often full of as many surprises. It is the opening of the cottage.
The children are loaded into the SUV, along with the dog and enough provisions to last a year. The boat and trailer, fresh out of winter hibernation, are hooked behind. Off you go, down the highway and along the twisting, winding road to the lake. The children get carsick, the dog makes smells (or at least nobly accepts the blame), Mom snoozes, and Dad yells at the kids and chastises the pooch. Not long into the trip the first “How much farther?” and “Are we there yet?” are uttered from the back seats.
The ruckus gets louder, the dog sleeps and drools, the wife sleeps and only occasionally drools, and the dad hoarsely begs the children to quiet down. You are almost there, and the children argue over who has seen the lake first, the dog wakes up and pants out the window, the wife's eyes remain closed, and Dad's mouth lifts into a slight smile â his voice is gone. Then you arrive, in our case at the landing, which looks out at the lake and our island cottage. The dog runs in circles, the children run on the dock, and the wife wakes up and states, “That didn't take very long.”
Back at the cottage â life is good.
The rain starts, the wind picks up, and the water gets choppy. With everything loaded you head across the lake wondering what surprises you will find at the cabin this year.
Thankfully, the old birch, the one that you meant to cut down in the fall, has fallen on its own but only slightly clipped the porch roof â the roof you wanted to replace this summer anyway. Worse, the ancient cedar that has stood regally for so long at the back of the privy has snapped and twisted, and is held up ever so gently in the limbs of a spindly pine, inches above the outhouse. You have to use this building, but are afraid to do so until the cedar is cleaned up, lest the branches of the pine give out while you are seated and you become always remembered on the lake as the fellow who died in this peculiar and awful fashion.
As if in celebration of your impending doom, the squirrels have decorated the building with the toilet paper you forgot to put away at closing. The mice have held a party in the cabin. Those who ice fish off your point every winter have, for whatever reason, forgotten to remove their bottles and trash. The Javex bottle left in the kitchen has frozen and exploded, and bleached the linoleum when it thawed in spring â you planned to replace the floor this summer anyway. A sack of potatoes was left in the shoe trunk over winter, which now smells only slightly more pleasant than your old runners.
The pump won't pump, the propane fridge won't light, and you forgot the liquor.
But you are back at the cottage. Life is good.
Weeks before that first trip to the cottage, I pull out the “Opening of the Cottage Checklist” from the safety of my underwear drawer in my bedroom armoire. The checklist is a yellowing, coffee-stained, crinkled piece of lined paper, with fading blue ink scrawled in my dad's handwriting. It is a list culled from years of experience, handed down from one generation to the next and updated and perfected yearly. Little notations are penned in the margins. We use it as a guideline and get ourselves more organized than we will be for any other event throughout the entire year.
My list is actually meant to remind me of what I need at the cottage. It contains items like: “Don't forget the chainsaw, sharpen it, fill the propane bottles, clean the barbecue, and bring tools, paint, brushes, and caulking for the windows. Don't forget the cabin key! Nor should you forget the starter key or the plug for the boat.”
The list is also a reminder of the process I must follow after arriving. “Do a walk-around of the island and cottage, to both remind you how lucky you are and to see if anything is amiss. Turn on the propane, clean and start the fridge, assemble and prime the pump, take off the metal window screens, start barbecue, bring Muskoka chairs to dock, and then sit down and smile at wife and share a nice beverage.”
My wife sees the “Opening of the Cottage Checklist” in an entirely different light. For her it is a shopping list. She takes the list as my blessing for her to go to the store to buy new things: romantic candles, tea towels, elegant yet rustic photo frames, bedding, pillows, lanterns, comforters with a bear motif, scented candles, wine glasses, candle holders, and a new opening-up-the-cabin outfit for herself. Then she looks around the garage, where we are making things ready, and decides that cardboard boxes are not really nice enough to carry these things. For this regal purpose, she knows we need those fancy plastic storage bins, those which are dreaded by husbands everywhere.
Weeks before our trip, my darling wife has everything we need stored in its place, labelled and stacked neatly ready for me to load. One plastic bin is full of linens, towels, and a couple bottles of red wine. Another contains food, and a third bin holds flashlights, candles, matches, bug spray, mousetraps, batteries, and a bottle of her favourite wine. A clear plastic bin is stacked full of toilet paper. A tall one, with newfangled locking lid latches that pop open whenever you pick it up, is crammed with every cleaning supply imaginable, and a bottle of her favourite wine.
Then there is a low, rectangular plastic bin with
written in black marker on the top, and Band-Aids, Advil, wine, and an old Scrabble game stowed within. The Scrabble game is the same one she has been trying to beat me on for over a decade, without success. The wine is for the “without success” part.
The Advil? I believe it's for me. Most of the containers have those lids that snap shut and are purportedly childproof. When you want inside them, you are forced to use a claw hammer or pry bar to work them loose. Yet when you are transporting them across the lake in the front of your boat, the top invariably careens off and saucers through the air like a Frisbee or an ancient ninja weapon, either hitting me square on the forehead or careening higher still and clipping the tail feathers of a mallard in flight.
We won't need to eat the downed duck, however. With the lid off the bin, I'm able to see that my wife has gathered enough culinary provisions to feed an army, or to at least allow her to survive until rescued, should the lid of a container come flying off and behead me like Oddjob's bowler hat in a James Bond movie.
Start the Day
It has become known as the Cottage Breakfast. Nothing fancy, mind you, nothing gourmet. Certainly not something that you would have to suffer through, watching how to prepare it on the Food Network. Our traditional morning breakfast at the cabin is just bacon, cooked to perfection, and set gently on an English muffin, toasted golden-brown. That is it. Sometimes you can add an egg for variety. Simple, but delicious, just a traditional slice of cottage life.
It is a wonderful way to start a new day, sitting down on the dock in the early morning, watching the goings-on in the little bay out front of the cabin, while enjoying a coffee and eating this simple breakfast. Like many meals cooked at the cottage, or out on a camping trip, it tastes fantastic. Cook it at home and it just isn't the same.
My wife and I are opening up the cabin this week, and on this chilly spring morning, while I boil up some cowboy coffee and sneak in a tot of Irish cream, my wife puts the finishing touches on our first Cottage Breakfast of the year.
“It just isn't the same as when Grandpa makes it,” she complains. It tastes pretty darn good to me this morning, but I know what she means. The traditional breakfast is really something that my dad started, and he is very particular about how he makes it. Grandpa does the breakfast with fastidious care. First he gets the fire going in the wood-burning cookstove, coaxing it to the proper temperature. He contends that the propane stove just won't do. Each portion is done individually. He fries up the two pieces of bacon in the cast iron frying pan and sets the English muffin halves under the broiler.
There are two minor problems associated with the Cottage Breakfast. One, cooked individually and with such attention to detail, the breakfast hour can stretch long into the late morning. His meticulous method can be a little problematic when everyone is up at the cottage at the same time, six to eight adults and seven to nine kids.
Just as Grandpa finishes feeding the early risers, the tantalizing aroma from the grill wafts into the interior of the big wall tent where the kids are sleeping, waking them in a most pleasant manner. It certainly seems to work much better than the morning alarm clock's shrill buzz that is meant to beckon them to school. One by one they will wander down to the dock and place their order. Each time that Grandpa thinks his morning task is complete, along comes another mouth to feed. Even though he complains, I think he relishes his reputation as breakfast chef extraordinaire.
The second problem? Grandpa has a certain misguided sense of chivalry. What should be first-come first-served turns into ladies first. How old-fashioned!
I try to get up early and out to the dock to be first in line. Otherwise the smoky smell of bacon frying in the skillet can drive one crazy. I have learned to bring my wife coffee in bed, hand over her book, tell her that it is still a little chilly out on the dock. “Nobody is up yet,” I'll say. “Call me when you want another coffee. I'll even bring you breakfast when Grandpa gets up.”
“You're not fooling anybody,” she responds. “I can smell the bacon from here.”
Just as the master chef is wandering down the stony path to the dock with my hot breakfast in his hand, my darling wife comes out of the boathouse bunkie, stretching and yawning.
“Oh, good morning! You're just in time, a breakfast for you,” offers my charming dad. “And I'm sure your husband would love to get you a coffee,” he will add.
I stomp up to the cabin. “Is that you growling, or just your stomach,” teases my sensitive spouse.
It is marvellous how much we enjoy these simple pleasures in our cottage life, and interesting how things become cottage traditions. We may greet the morning with pancakes, scrambled eggs and sausages, or cereal and toast, but when that Cottage Breakfast is handed out, all of us who have spent time at our paradise experience a wonderful sense of place.
In search of those elusive trout.
Of Mice and Men
For us it's an annual battle, a constant war waged over ownership of the cottage. I'm reminded of Bill Murray's role in the movie Caddyshack, as a beleaguered greenskeeper trying to outwit the course-sabotaging gophers. Our nemeses are the mice that look to our cabin for shelter, comfort, and food, especially through the harsh winter months.
Keeping the cabin free from invasion is a difficult task. Whether the cottage is a posh retreat or a simple lakeside shanty, the mice do not play favourites. No matter how hard we work to “mouse-proof” the place, it is hard to stop an animal that can slip through an entrance as small as a nickel.
I was just a kid â perhaps thirteen. A mouse had been sneaking into our food cupboards, soiling the countertops, rustling the plastic bags of cereal, and waking us in the night. To catch him, I built a simple trap, a light linen cloth over a smooth-sided bucket and a cracker slathered with peanut butter for bait. Mouse, tea towel, and cracker fell into the bucket â where I found the rodent and the cloth in the morning.
“Now what?” asked my dad.
“I'll let him go outside,” I said.
“He'll get back in.”
“I'll take him to the other side of the island.”
“He has discovered easy food. He will find his way back.”