As the summer of 2011 rapidly comes to a close I find myself thinking about our latest two-week cottage vacation and realizing the profound effect that these holidays have had on the family over the years. Ever since our children were very small we have always taken at least a week of vacation where we either camped or cottaged in various regions of Ontario. For the past several years we have been fortunate to find some terrific rental cottages in the 1000 Islands. Having grown up in Gananoque the opportunity to return to the area each summer gives my wife and I the chance to share many of the great memories that we had as kids with our children and to allow them to gain an appreciation of the tremendous beauty of the river and the islands for themselves and to start to stockpile their own special reminiscences.
I began making a mental list of all the things, big and small, that have made our summer holidays such an enjoyable experience for the family and I was amazed at how long it was becoming. I challenged myself to try and capture some of the more memorable happenings on paper so that others who haven’t experienced the joys of a cottage vacation could get a small sense of appreciation for it, and for the ones who do get it, perhaps trigger a fond memory or two of their own and bring a smile to their face. So, in no particular order, here it goes!
We have shared just about every summer holiday for the past twenty-some years with our terrific friends, the Matys family of Ottawa, and have watched our six kids grow up together over that period of time. Although they are now getting older and starting to go their own ways these children will always share a special bond and will be able to draw on colourful memories of time spent together during their vacation time. Friends for life!
I have to get up pretty early to pull the wool over my wife’s eyes, but I was able to accomplish it once while we were at the cottage this summer! I secretly arranged to have an old friend, Jocelyn, who we haven’t seen in thirty years, come for a surprise visit. I went into the marina on the pretext of picking something up and I returned with a passenger, fully disguised in a raincoat, hat and dark glasses. I could tell that my wife, who had come down to the dock to help land the boat, didn’t have the faintest idea who was sitting there. After feeding her a few clues she finally realized who was now standing in front of her and they embraced in a very emotional hug. The many years that had punctuated our friendship seemed to evaporate and we all picked up where we had left off, albeit a little older, wiser, and greyer!
In order to keep the numbers at a manageable level at the cottage, and to give the septic system a bit of a break, we have had to institute a “one friend at a time” rule for each of the kids. It has made for some tough choices, and a few hurt feelings, but the friends that do get to come for a visit always seem to have a terrific time and hope they are on the “list” again next summer. I had to chuckle when Graham, a nephew of the Matys family who had been invited to come along, asked if the one friend rule applied to him as well. I guess we should be flattered that our children still want to spend time with the “old folks” on their summer vacation.
All three of our kids are avid fisherman and are quite comfortable baiting their own hooks, taking off the fish they catch, cleaning them, and cooking them. They have all come to love that shot of adrenalin you get when a fish grabs your hook and starts to run with it, causing the rod to bend and the reel to whine as the line quickly feeds out. There have been some great “trophies” caught and lots that “got away” but watching the look of pure joy on a kid’s face and listening to the excited commentary as he fights to reel in a good fish is something that truly memorable moments are made of.
When our children were quite young we used to have a fishing contest between the two families over the week, complete with a gaudy trophy for the winners. Our youngest son, Mike, took these contests to heart and his competitive juices would really start to flow. We generally let him take care of the King family scorekeeping duties during the contests and would wince when we heard him count 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10. I’m not sure how many “tainted” winner’s trophies our family managed to take home, but we always credited our wins to “Mike-math “, a term that still gets used to this day.
Early one morning the five males in the group went out on a bass fishing expedition a fair distance away from the cottage. Although we were keeping a watch on the weather out of the corner of our eye we didn’t realize that a large thunderstorm was building out of our line of sight behind the island where we were fishing. A tremendous crack of thunder quickly brought the impending storm to our attention. Realizing that we would never make it back to the cottage before the full fury of the storm hit, we made a run for a fishing hut on a nearby island to take refuge. We were almost there when the heavens opened up and the rain came down in sheets. By this time the wind had picked up and the frequency of the thunder and lightning was also intensifying. We made it safely to the hut, soaked to the skin, just as the storm hit in earnest. Simultaneous bolts of lightning and peels of thunder told us just how close it was. We were lucky that day to have made it to shelter in time, but it certainly was a strong reminder of just how quickly the weather can change on the water and how insignificant we are in the face of Mother Nature’s wrath! A new respect for the power of weather was gained by everyone in the fishing party that day!
Cooking, Eating, and Drinking
Does anything taste better than a freshly caught perch that is fried up in butter and Fish Crisp?
It’s amazing how something like breakfast eggs can take on a whole new personality when they are prepared outdoors on a griddle. “Cottage eggs” are now a staple of any big breakfast for our group, along with lots of bacon, toast and coffee. These “special” eggs are prepared by topping a fried egg (usually over easy but not guaranteed) with grated cheese and Montreal steak spice. Simple and delicious!
Since our kids are now of the age that they can help out with the meal planning and preparation we handed them the challenge of making two of the dinners for the group this past summer. They really stepped up and produced some excellent food that was enjoyed by everyone. One night’s dinner was a Mexican Fiesta which included two different batches of Guacamole, the result of a culinary challenge, that each of the diners had to taste and vote on. The other night’s dinner was Japanese fare, complete with tempura vegetables and shrimp and “St. Lawrence sushi” which contained fresh, pan-fried perch and bass as one of the ingredients. I can’t wait to see what they do next year to top this.
Our nineteen year old daughter Becca reminded us several times that she was finally of legal drinking age for our cottage vacation this year. She is also a big fan of “The Food Network” on television so as a celebration of reaching this landmark milestone in her life she found a recipe and put together a batch of the best Sangria that I have ever tasted. The only reason I had more than one serving was because there was fruit in it, so it was good for you. Yeah, right!
When the children were young we always had to pack very carefully to make sure we could fit in all their paraphernalia, such as high chairs, playpens, cribs, toys, etc. Now that they are older, the challenge is to find room for all the empties that have to go back to the beer store.
Fun and Games
Of course, one of the primary objectives of a family holiday is to have fun, and there has been no shortage of that on our vacations. I still smile when I recall the huge grins and absolute look of pride on the kid’s faces when they were finally able to get up on water skis for the very first time after many unsuccessful attempts and unintentionally drinking gallons of river water. Now, I see that same look of pride and happiness as they pull themselves up effortlessly on the first try.
Having been the designated boat driver for tubing runs for several years now, I have had a chance to perfect my technique, and despite a lot of bravado from the riders, I have yet to find one who can hang on during one of my signature “figure eights” followed quickly by a sharp “crack the whip”. Many have tried and many have failed! We have had some epic “ejections” off of the tube over the years and they are always a source of riotous laughter as the “vanquished” recall their attempts to keep hanging on and compare battle scars with each other.
It used to be that we would tuck the children into bed and enjoy an adults-only campfire to finish off the day. Then it progressed to the stage where we would let the kids stay up for a little while, have their S’mors, and then send them off to sleep. Now, it’s the grown-ups who, after having their graham cracker, marshmallow and chocolate treat, turn in while the children stay up and tend the fire into the wee hours. My, how times change!
Even at my age I still find it mesmerizing to watch the twinkle of the fireflies as they appear in the bushes near the shore at dusk.
I think the family member that enjoys the cottage the most is our dog, Snickers. From the time that she first sets foot on the island she is consumed with discovering what lurks in the bushes that ring the island and she spends countless hours sniffing every square inch several times over. In between her “hunting” sessions she fills the role of “Dock Dog” admirably, running down to the water’s edge whenever a boat is approaching and announcing its arrival with a chorus of barks. With all the fresh air and exercise she sleeps like a log every night.
The Matys family brought their six month old golden lab puppy to the cottage this summer and Cooper managed to keep everyone on their toes. Anything hanging on the clothesline was fair game, as far as he was concerned, and several times during the week a spirited game of “catch me if you can” took place as the pup took off with his latest treasure. If they didn’t know before, everyone at the cottage is now aware that I wear black jockey shorts, thanks to one of Cooper’s little escapades! It didn’t take long for Snickers to establish the pecking order for the dogs on the island. A few timely snarls and snaps reminded Cooper that the old girl was boss and that he should tread lightly around her. Once the dominance issues were settled the two dogs got along very well and they spent hours together investigating all the captivating smells around the island.
One of the most relaxing and beautiful sounds that I associate with our cottage holidays is the late evening or early morning cry of the loons. As they call back and forth to each other across the still water their haunting song reminds me just how fortunate we are to be able to experience nature’s treasures in such a magnificent place.
I was simply amazed by the vast array of birds that we observed around the cottage this past summer. From majestic Bald Eagles soaring high above to the tiny Hummingbirds that darted to and from our feeder, it was terrific to see so many different species thriving in the area.
When I was a young lad cruising around the islands I don’t recall ever seeing an otter on the river. Now when we come to the cottage we see many of these little creatures swimming across the bay or scampering along the shoreline. Obviously they have found a habitat that is very much to their liking.
There is nothing more breathtaking than a beautiful sunset on the river. As the sun slowly dips below the horizon there are a few moments when the lighting is absolutely “magical” and everything is bathed in a soft, golden glow. Can there be anything better than sharing Mother Nature’s spectacular show after a great summer’s day with close friends and family while enjoying a nice glass of wine. If there is, I sure haven’t found it yet!
I could go on and on – I haven’t even touched on spiders and snakes yet - but I hope these few anecdotes and observations have been able to convey an appreciation of some of the things that have made our family summer vacations so memorable. Looking forward to those two glorious weeks at the cottage next summer will surely help brighten the days to come when the snow is in the air and the sun is setting before dinner.
By Tom King
Tom King and his wife Marion, have lived in Milton, Ontario for the past twenty-five years, where they both worked and raised their family of three children; Kris, Mike and Becca. Tom still has a strong attachment to the Thousand Islands, having grown up in Gananoque and being a “river rat” from a very early age. The family tries to return to the islands every summer and for the past few years have been renting a cottage on Sampson (a.k.a. Heritage) Island, just out from Gananoque.