The world has definitely, obviously, changed. And so the question for cottagers is how we can do the right thing so that we don’t harm others

The world has definitely, obviously, changed. And so the question for cottagers is how we can do the right thing so that we don’t harm others

A Muskoka chair on the dock at Deerhurst Resort, Huntsville, Ont.
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
Michelle Berry is a novelist and the proprietor of Hunter Street Books.
For me, summer weekends at our cottage on a small island in Stoney Lake, Ont., just north of where I live in Peterborough, have always been the only time I am able to relax and settle down. I spend afternoons looking at the sky and listening to loons. I can sit still for hours on my screened porch or on the dock staring at the water. Last summer I was ill and the cottage was the place I felt calm. With two crushed vertebrae from a grand mal seizure, I spent many Saturdays floating in the lake held up by pool noodles. Those were the only moments my back was free from the excruciating pain of gravity.
I am privileged to have a cottage. I didnt grow up with one and so Im constantly aware of my good fortune. What incredible luck for my daughters to spend weekends up there, to spend time as a family in nature, swimming and kayaking and enjoying long dinners on the patio on hot summer evenings. Their grandparents are on the island too, and the ability to just walk over to see them is something they cherish.
Story continues below advertisement
But this year is different. The world has definitely, obviously, changed. And so the question for cottagers is how we can do the right thing so that we dont harm others.
In Ontario, the tradition is to pack up the cars on the May 24 weekend and head up the highways for the yearly ritual of opening weekend. This is when you put your boat in the water, check your docks for winter damage, take off storm windows, dust your outdoor furniture and bring it out, clean the flies that crept in and died on closing weekend, check for rodent damage, make the beds, stock the cupboards and, lately, for most, set up your WiFi.
The weekend usually starts with hard labour and ends with fireworks and maybe a bonfire. Good food is eaten. The weather is generally nice, but chilly at night. Many cottagers invite friends up, although generally that first trip is more about families working together and getting ready for summer than it is about entertaining. In my case, its also my birthday, so there is usually cake.
This year, with COVID-19, the May long weekend is fraught with anxiety. We have all been staying home for almost two months. Were crabby and exhausted and stressed and worried and lonely. The politicians and local residents are telling us to stay away from the cottage. Small towns cant take the influx of shoppers and the hospitals in these areas dont want people who might be infected to come in and take up space and the energy of front-line workers.
Every decision we make in this new world is confusing. Some people think that since cottagers pay property taxes, and are therefore contributing to the local government, they should be welcomed. Others worry that if cottagers stay away, the small-town shops that often depend on their business wont survive the summer, let alone the year.
But we all know there are many risks. Bobcaygeon, where 28 people died as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak at a nursing home, springs to mind; its not that far west of my cottage. These risks are, of course, a matter of life and death.
Imagine an influx of cottagers rushing out for food because they forgot something. Or maybe they didnt pack their medication and need to stop by a pharmacy. Perhaps rodents have burrowed into the walls and they need supplies to get them out. Maybe the pipe bringing water into the cottage has burst and they need tools and fittings. Some people could have the virus but be asymptomatic. Do the local residents need to, or want to, take that risk?
Story continues below advertisement
Im worried about all of this. I am also worried about the relationship between the part-time and the year-round residents. If cottagers arent careful and considerate, if they arent prepared, if they arent willing to take everything incredibly seriously, then a rift is going to open.
We cottagers are lucky to be in the position to have summer homes, to enjoy getting out of cities, and we should be aware of this at all times not just during a pandemic. We should respect the people who live and work in cottage country and who take care of the surrounding areas.
This year, respect is about packing enough stuff so that you dont have to stop even once on the way up. Its about checking in by phone or e-mail and finding out how the neighbours feel about your return. Can you contact local stores to see whether they have adequate supplies and are set up for curbside pickup? Can you check with local health care providers to see whether they have the ability to deal with coronavirus-infected patients? Can you contact town councillors to learn about any new policies they have introduced? In short, can you be responsible?
I hope people will judge themselves accordingly, based on truly understanding what will work and what will not. No one needs to go to their cottage. I dont want future weekend retreats to be met with anger and hostility because of how we behaved this year. Like every decision made during the pandemic, this one must be made carefully.
Perhaps next year, or whenever things go back to some sort of normal, cottaging can still be about respect. Maybe the more we think about this carefully, the less our approach will change. Our relationship with the residents of cottage-country is one thing that makes the experience so wonderful. Cottagers want to get ice cream at their local marinas; they want to chat with store owners.
I can envision a future with the loons calling, the deer snuffling through the blueberries at night, the bullfrogs serenading and the crickets buzzing. I can imagine the human world going back to a type of normal, where I can sit on the dock and watch people fish, and I can swim and not feel fear. I am certain that there are more happy memories to be made at my cottage.
Story continues below advertisement
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter.Sign up today.

Share