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Muskoka Traditions

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One of the humbler boathouses on Lake Rosseau from behind the wheel of a vintage Muskoka boat. (AE/NG)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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