I don’t get rich people at all.

If you had all the money in the world, why would you build your dream cottage in the midst of the world’s worst mosquito infestation? That is exactly what I wondered as I stood on my hotel’s back deck in the late evening and slapped my face hard, wiping blood smears down my neck. In Canada, everything is bigger, including the mosquitoes, which like to attack in squadrons.

Three hours earlier I had experienced my first facial—meant to rejuvenate, cleanse and make me look so much younger. The therapist at the spa informed me that as a gentleman in my thirties, I really should be exfoliating weekly.

“I didn’t know that,” I whined in defense, suddenly feeling guilty. I added “failure to exfoliate” to my list of personal shortcomings, secretly hoping that like a dentist visit, perhaps this first magical facial would last me extra long, throughout the whole of next year.

But the mosquitoes ruined my new face. I wasn’t wearing bug spray and I’m guessing the insects enjoyed the bitter orange revitalizer I was still wearing. I didn’t flinch from the bites, really—I was too engrossed in the night sky, wide-eyed, noticing the long northern dusk turn from indigo to black and then white with stars in the thousands. An astronomer found intergalactic addresses on his telescope and shared them with me: the moon, Saturn, and the red giants that make up some of the closer constellations. The next morning, I noticed several red giants on my face—nasty welts blistering up on my cheeks and forehead.

I blame rich people for bringing me here.

People of means began traveling to Muskoka more than a hundred years ago. A few intrepid souls had managed to explore this world of myriad lakes and tree-covered hills and remarked how pleasant it all was. Word got out, a summer cottage was built, then another, then dozens and hundreds and soon thousands. Steamships began carrying the holidaymakers through the lakes to their homes, a railroad was built, and the Muskoka tradition was born.

The Muskoka season lasts a flighty 10 weeks long—from late May to early September. For those who make the journey, this piece of Ontario represents a Canadian summer of leisure. Some days are misty and overcast, all northern and moody gray—and then there are clear blue days when you never take off your sunglasses and feel energized by a kind of youthful carefree positivity.

My Muskoka office, complete with authentic Muskoka chairs (AE/NG)

Muskoka is not just another sunny summer destination. These lakes and the lifestyle built around them are quite specific, with traditions laid down over a century ago. Things happen a certain way here and they look a certain way, too. “Muskoka chairs” are crafted from Ontario pine or cedar and designed specifically for relaxing with a view of the lake.

Muskoka has its own style of lakeside cottage architecture—Victorian to a degree, sprawling and with lots of trim. The trimmings are important though in reality, it’s all about the boathouse. While so many “cottages” (many of them mansions) are set back in the hills, the boathouse is what the visitor can see from the lake. In regular rich people fashion, the Muskoka’s version of keeping up with the Joneses lies in the sheer size and ostentation of one’s boathouse.

 

At Butson’s Boat Shop, a workman adds a coat of varnish to a vintage cedar kayak. (AE/NG)

There are traditional Muskoka boats, too—a classic wood-hulled speedboat that reflects the taste and style of the 1920s or earlier. In the village of Minett, I visited Butson’s Boat Shop, a heritage boat builder and refurbisher of vintage “Muskoka” boats. Most are built from mahogany and varnished with a brilliant red shine that looks rather dazzling out on the lake.

These vintage boats sell for at least a quarter of a million dollars and often much more. The new boats are made entirely by hand, which is why Butson’s only builds two per year.  For the current jet set, owning a Muskoka boat is another trapping of tradition, granting a link to the golden past.

In actuality, Muskoka’s golden age came to an end after World War I, when a nation’s tragedy saw fewer families taking their summers up here. The Great Depression added another blow to the the Muskoka lifestyle, and yet somehow it all sprung back to life.

The strength of tradition is that no matter what, it goes on. Somehow, Muskoka lives on, even down to the quaint and rustic traditions of times past. I think that is the real allure of Muskoka today—there are so many lakes and cottages all across Ontario, but in Muskoka, there is a firm heritage and a very particular fashion to the rites of summer. People travel from all over the world specifically for that Muskoka tradition.

Despite the very small village feel of Muskoka (fewer than 50,000 people are permanent inhabitants), Ontario’s “cottage country” welcomes more than two million visitors a year—a rather large city, one might say. Of course the two million vacationers are not all there at once—there is much coming and going at Muskoka. Wives and children might relocate for the summer, fathers come up on weekends. Retired couples migrate to Muskoka for part of the year, then head south once the weather changes. The commute is part of the Muskoka tradition.

On the edge of Highway 11, about halfway between Toronto and Muskoka, sits Webers, a hamburger stand that’s been around since 1963. All they serve is hamburgers, hot dogs and fries, though by the look of the long lines, you’d think they were handing out gold bricks.  This is a hamburger stand whose success rests on the constant back-and-forth Muskoka traffic.

“You must go to Webers,” I was instructed by dozens of Canadians. I followed their command and found that while the hamburgers tasted all right—and the experience felt a bit how I imagined the 1960s—I wasn’t sure that this particular restaurant warranted the unanimous adulation I had witnessed.

Conversing with the man in line behind me—a man who quickly informed me that he owned his own island in Muskoka—I was told that Webers had the “best hamburgers in the world.” I beg to differ, for like so many iconic restaurants, Webers is less about the food and more about the tradition. What you’re really buying in that brown paper bag is a nice bite of nostalgia.

 

The Raymond General Store is one of dozens in the Muskoka Lakes township. (AE/NG)

 

The upside of nostalgia is the spirit of preservation that Muskoka does so well. Nearly every town and village, no matter how small, has a general store at their heart that sells everything under the sun. The Saturday morning scene I witnessed at the Rosseau General Store (built in 1874) was one of frantic vacationers—eager to rush off with the supplies necessary for doing nothing. Each general store has its own traditional characteristics—some with make-your-own coffee corners, their very own butcher’s counter or a stand hung with fishing lures.

Insect repellent is also for sale in Muskoka general stores, though I never bought any. I actually think that the giant mosquitoes are part of the tradition—if all those rich people wanted to get rid of the bug bites, they probably could, but slapping your neck in the evening and wiping away the blood is just part of the tradition—so very Muskoka.

Tradition above all was a new side of Ontario for me. So much of Canada is new and wild—even stately Ottawa feels relatively young, but Muskoka is an institution of Canadian tradition, one that is alive and well. One might even remark that the whole of Ontario’s “cottage” culture aspires to emulate Muskoka.

Travel traditions may offer us some dream to aspire to, but they can also set us on a false chase, copycatting the past badly.  For example, today’s mega-cruise ships are a plastic homage to the grand luxury liners that once carried the elite across the Atlantic—and the young backpacker swarms that ride Eurail ‘round Europe are only reenacting the Grand Tour that upper class youths once embarked upon to “become cultured” and make oneself “well-traveled.”  So many experiences, be they camel rides at the pyramids or an African safari are merely cheap imitations of the grand travel traditions of old.

 

A summer storm passes over Lake Rosseau in Ontario's Muskoka region. (AE/NG)

 

Muskoka is similar in that the summer ritual harks back to a golden tradition. What sets Muskoka apart, though, is that so much of that past glory is still around to enjoy—These are beautiful lakes: still, dark and cool. Cottages are still placed a fair distance apart from one another and the lakeside forest still dominates. On any summer evening, one may sit in one’s Muskoka chair and enjoy the spectacle of quiet nature and the whizzing circus of vintage speedboats.

There is nothing wrong with travel traditions—they can be fun—as long as they don’t prevent one from breaking out, doing something different or exploring a place as if it is new. In short, the spectacle of a place should never transcend the place itself.

My family has not spent the last hundred years going to Muskoka, nor do I mix in the movie star circuit that has christened Muskoka their own rich person playpen. My own personal Muskoka traditions involve something quite different from vintage boats and giant boathouses. Instead, Muskoka (for me) includes: counting Saturn’s rings through a telescope, eating crumbly homemade butter tarts from one of the general stores, holding a staring contest with a wild (but friendly) deer, sipping an extra spicy Caesar while overlooking the lake, rowing in a scull across Lake Rosseau, dipping my toes in the water and fussing about the cold a good twenty minutes before building up the courage to jump into the lake.

Also, getting facials at the spa . . . and mosquitoes.

Dabbling toes in the water--a Muskoka tradition. (AE/NG)

Comments

  1. Anne
    Canada
    July 13, 2011, 7:02 am

    Lovely piece of writing Andrew. I agree with you that so much of Muskoka is very much about tradtion, although not all cottagers are as rich as you observed on “The Big Lakes”. There are many other people who have small, modest cottages, (especially on the smaller lakes) and love the tradtions that have come with growing up at a cottage.
    Cottages are memories spent with loved ones in a cherished place. Of being a child and learning to swim, and learning to row or canoe and gaining some independence on the water for the first time. Or looking at the stars while out on your dock at night with beloved family members. Memories of getting up early as a child and begging to be taken along on an early morning fishing expedition.
    Muskoka is that and so much more, although I know people have these same experiences in other parts of Central and Northern Ontario.
    Thanks so much for coming here to visit!

  2. Tom Millar, aka Muskoka247
    Minett, Muskoka
    July 13, 2011, 9:37 am

    Yes, in Muskoka, Heritage Enthrals. Like soaking up the white cascading waters at Bala Falls. And Tradition Evolves. Like rowing a flat bottom boat for fishing to, well, what retailers of today are marketing. And then there is the Nostalgia of youthful summer cottage times with grandparents, parents and friends that seemingly just bubbles up and are remembered with fondness. But like U blogged, Andrew, it’s what U make of being in “the place” that is important. For me, it’s about Experiential Living in Muskoka.

  3. Frank
    Sudbury
    July 13, 2011, 10:31 am

    I see you are complaining about the mosquitos and regret coming up north. That is ok with me. This way southern Ontario folks stay south and we get to keep our land and natural beauty to ourselves.

  4. Anne
    Canada
    July 13, 2011, 10:49 am

    Oops! Typos galore – should be *tradition.

  5. Bob Jackson
    Houston
    July 13, 2011, 8:26 pm

    Well done. Spent several years in Toronto and fell in love with both the Country and the countryside. Will never forget “Texas” sized mosquitoes in cottage country…but also will never forget the amazing night sky and the quiet of the night. Have thoroughly enjoyed your trek across Canada this week.

  6. Becubed
    Waterloo, Ontario
    July 14, 2011, 1:50 pm

    Excellent encapsulation of Muskoka! I love how the area feels like a collision of time machines, where pieces of history tangle with threads from our modern world. Thankfully there’s something for everyone in Muskoka, and it’s possible to enjoy a week or two there even if you’re not a movie star. Mind you, if that level of luxury is your style, there’s no shortage of options. Here’s one of my faves: http://demeure.com/properties/muskoka-cottage

  7. Andrew Watson
    Lake Joe
    July 18, 2011, 2:23 pm

    It seems you spent your time in Muskoka well and talked to people who really care about the area. And, while you get the history a little out of order, your observation that connection to the past is central to the culture of Muskoka misses one of the most important points in ‘getting rich people’ here in Muskoka.
    A few tourists visited Muskoka before steamboats and railroads, but the tourist industry was made possible because the steamers and trains were introduced first (to service lumber companies). Back then the cost of one trip to and from Muskoka-Toronto could amount to 10-15% of the cost of the property the cottage was built on! Just getting to Muskoka, then, was costly enough to limit demand and development.
    Nowadays, however, the cost of the same trip to and from Muskoka-Toronto amounts to 0.01% of the cost of the property the cottage is built on. The trip became so much more affordable and convenient after WWII that demand skyrocketed, and property values followed close behind. Lakeside lots were subdivided and the race was on to carve out new cottage properties.
    Yet, the über-wealthy who could afford to own property and travel here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries picked some pretty nice spots. Spots with lots of sun through the day, away from swampy backwoods, and facing cross breezes. All spots relatively free from mosquitoes.
    That left mostly just places that are mosquito heaven (or at least more so).
    So, while I feel your pain at being bombarded by mosquitoes, you should know there are many lovely locations throughout Muskoka where even a gentle breeze and a mix of sun a cloud keeps them at bay (they would make excellent camping spots if it wasn’t for all the rich people).
    So, if you’re trying to ‘get rich people’ who decide to spend a ridiculous amount of money on a place seemingly infested with mosquitoes, it might help to keep in mind that our connection with past often explains our culture… even in Muskoka!

  8. Joan Bawden
    Rochester, New york
    July 21, 2011, 7:10 am

    I read your article while visiting my daughter in England and enjoyed it very much. A little disappointed you only met ‘rich ‘people’ on your trip, as most of the people I knew growing up with summers in Muskoka in Bala were not rich but ‘regular folks’, mostly relatives, who were delightful and fun-loving, but not rich. My grandfather purchased “Crown Land” on Lake Muskoka in 1919 for $.50 a foot, started with a tent on a platform and then added walls, roof,etc. in subsequent years. I spent my summers there, swimming, canoeing and rowing. Our first motor boat was a 1-1/2 hp. motor on the end of the rowboat which my grandmother would row into town, two miles away, for groceries and to pick up the mail. So many wonderful memories–but to me Muskoka is magical. Thank you for bringing them back for me.

  9. [...] National Geographic explores Muskoka traditions [...]

  10. MJackson
    Muskoka
    July 30, 2011, 4:09 pm

    I loved your article. However, I still feel like you missed alot of Muskoka and our life style. Maybe one day you will return and truely experience it all! Our life is much much more than just “rich” people, the cottages and the amazing night skies!

  11. leo dubreuil
    Raymond, Muskoka,Ontario
    August 15, 2011, 8:31 pm

    No matter how it is worded, muskoka is a great place to live ,visit and enjoy!!

  12. S. Thomas
    Utah
    April 11, 2012, 3:53 pm

    We have a log cabin vacation home on Kawagama Lake that my grandfather built in 1926. He bought five acres of crown land for $50.00. That cabin is rich in history and tradition from my family and its descendents. The Muskoka region is a great place to visit and/or live! We are now on our 4th generation of families to enjoy the area.

  13. [...] Muskoka represents a lovely Canadian summertime ritual, and while Lake Muskoka may have all the big, fancy lake houses, it’s the placid blue water of Lake Rosseau that I love most. I remember counting Saturn’s rings through a telescope, eating crumbly homemade butter tarts from the local general store, and shrieking every time my bare torso hit the lake. Add a wooden speedboat and it’s a summer that I will never forget. [...]

  14. Ashley Baker-James
    Seattle, WA
    July 12, 2013, 9:37 pm

    The first photo is of “OUNO” cottage, which is over 100 years old. My father, George Baker, owned that island back in the 70’s. It is where he first met my mother! They met because my mother’s best friend was dating the son of the previous owner. They were visiting the island on the May long weekend and didn’t know the owner (my dad) had already arrived on the island. He saw my mom in Ouno’s garden and fell in love. They spent the summer together on the island and were married in the Fall. That island is the reason my parents met. Every time I see a picture of that cottage or it’s unique boathouse, I am filled with goosebumps and nostalgia! Thank you for posting this picture. <3! ;-)

  15. […] National Geographic explores Muskoka traditions […]