My Muskoka, Gone Forever

In 2006 Susan decided to sell her family cottage, the place she grew up and the place her memories and dreams were born. It was not a difficult decision in the end. Muskoka...a love gone forever.

Reader’s Digest.
July 2006

My first memory of Muskoka is sitting in the stern of our old aluminum fishing boat, looking up at two very blonde girls...so blonde, that I described them to my grandmother later that day as having hair the colour of polar bears.

These girls also had big sky blue eyes, which were staring at me. I didn't know what to say or do. I was four years old. My dad and I had just returned to Canada from York, England, after my parents split up. I knew no one in this land of transparent lakes and vibrant evergreens. I eventually asked in my thick Yorkshire accent: "Pleeas pas de buuuket?" -the bucket being a sawed off white boat fender, lying on the dock that I could use to bail out the boat.

Linda, 6 and Karen, 8, who had the cottage next door, didn't understand me (no one could until my accent faded a year later). I was as foreign to them as they were to me in their mud-stained jeans and puffy life preservers. Silence filled the space between us for what felt like an eternity, until Linda asked: 'Do you want to play?' I nodded.

We ran from one cottage to the next along well-worn paths, carved through the woods by generations before us. We threw rocks into the little pond down the road and caught toads and frogs, studying their tiny legs and big throats before setting them free.

That summer drifted into the next and the next. Each summer brought new kids to the bay. At one point, there must have been 15 of us, saying goodbye to our families at sunrise to spend the day canoeing, swimming and rock diving. We went water skiing at dusk; roasted marshmallows over bonfires and played hide and seek during the evenings. We told ghost stories in my family's cabin at night. Every twig that fell onto the roof, owl that hooted or mouse rustling in the walls was a ghost. We grasped each other in fear and giggled over jokes until we passed out from exhaustion.

My friends and I were like the kids in the movie Stand By Me (although we never went in search of dead bodies; just bunny holes and caves in which we could host our tea parties).

On rainy days, I baked apple pies and read the Narnia Chronicles, drifting off into a magical world where I imagined the raindrops on the trees to be wood faeries. I kissed a boy for the first time in our boathouse. And I chose my career, journalism, reading National Geographic on the dock.

Muskoka was for me all about dreams and love. My grandfather purchased our place, known as 'Swaying Birches' for the silver birch trees dotting the property, in 1968. The cottage, on Stanley House Bay at the north end of Lake Joseph, was a birthday present for my grandmother. I've spent almost every summer of my life there. It was the legacy I wanted to pass on to my children, Lauren, 4, and Charlotte, 2.

But I'm not so sure anymore.

I don't know exactly when it happened, but Muskoka has lost its innocence. As technology and wealth spread over the past few decades, Muskoka, as with many other cottage destinations, seemed to resist its advance at least until the 1990s. But then something changed for the worse.

In 2001, as a staff writer for Maclean's, I wrote about the burgeoning poverty among local people in Muskoka. As property values escalate, many people just can't afford to live there anymore. In that article I talked about how skyrocketing taxes were forcing many long-term cottagers to abandon their properties to dot.com millionaires, Hollywood celebrities, NHL hockey stars and wealthy Toronto and American suburbanites who blast the lakeside Canadian shield to build 15,000-square-foot mansions. It's only become worse since then. Many of my friends have sold their places and moved to cheaper locales. And the new residents often only come up for a weekend or two each summer. Muskoka, you see, has been transformed into 'the Hamptons' of the north, with similar glitz, star attraction, and cocktail parties.

Teenagers no longer hike into the sleepy village of Rosseau to buy comic books and jellybeans and watch four-year-old movies in the Town Hall. Instead, boys and girls drive into town in their parents' Hummers to meet each other in the pricey coffee shop and chat about the parties they'd be attending that night. And cottagers no longer stop in the middle of the Bay in their canoes to talk about the loon family a bay over. There aren't that many canoes on the lake to begin with these days; expensive speedboats with fancy stereos and jet skis have taken over. And only a small fraction of boaters even bother to do the traditional boater's wave anymore.

"Muskoka isn't what it used to be," my grandmother said last fall after spending her last Thanksgiving at the cottage (she died in November). "Maybe you might be happier somewhere else." She then talked about my uncle Andy, who had recently purchased a little cottage on a small lake near Sudbury. "He seems very happy there," my grandmother said.

Her comments made me recall my last visit to Santa's Village in the Muskoka town of Bracebridge. Most of the children were led from ride to ride by their full-time nannies. I, on the other, let my kids run wild. This didn't go over too well. When Charlotte threw a tantrum, another mum admonished me for bringing both of the girls. "I usually leave my toddler at home with a babysitter," she told me. Leave one of my children behind? Charlotte and Lauren left Santa's Village covered in strawberry ice cream. I, on the other hand, left bitterly bemused.

I don't want to leave Muskoka. When I look to the past, I am filled with so many wonderful memories. But when I look to the future, I don't see Lauren and Charlotte leaving the cottage at sunrise for adventures with other kids on the bay. Even if there were other kids for them to play with, I'd fear for their safety. On the water, boats zoom by with little regard for others. When I was little, my friends and I may have been running around with reckless abandon. But someone, somewhere knew where we were. Now, sadly, that sense of community is gone.

Muskoka used to be a place where kids could just be kids. But not anymore, and therein lies the problem. Children today seem to grow up fast enough. A cottage should be a place where they can remain carefree and innocent for as long as they want, and it just won't be that way for them here. It's time for my family to move on.