Summer is upon us. With fierce temperatures and flash thunderstorms, weather (and therefore our wardrobes) can be unpredictable from day to day. But one thing is certain: Winnipeggers are flocking to cottages once again, to go swimming in the sun and play poker on rainy days.
We call this annual migration “going to the lake”. This curious expression, which makes out-of-towners scratch their heads, does not refer to just one lake, but to many bodies of water. There’s Lake Winnipeg, Lake Manitoba, Lake of the Woods, St. Malo, and Lac du Bonnet, to name a few.
Personally, I grew up going to my grandparents’ cottage in Gimli, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. I had the good fortune to spend July and August there every year, as my mom, a teacher, had summers off. I have happy memories of swimming, building sandcastles, bingo, going to the movies, and playing with my cousins.
Going to the lake in the summertime offers a person a chance to relax in ways the city just doesn’t allow. Whether it’s the natural setting, the lower level of Internet connectivity, the lack of job responsibilities, or having family and friends around, the lake can be a great spot to chill out.
In an ideal world, we would all have the chance to enjoy this summer treat. But, sadly, there are a lot of people who never get to experience it at all. As summer progresses, it’s important to remember that “going to the lake” is not a universal, democratic phenomenon. It’s largely the province of people with the resources to own and maintain summer homes.
Cottage ownership costs money. It requires a mortgage over and above one’s primary home mortgage. Just the fact that people buy cottages as a second, or recreational, residence demonstrates that cottage ownership is not for the masses, but a phenomenon of people in the home-owning class.
We often think of this as the middle class, those who have achieved some version of the North American Dream – house, car, kids, at least one income-earner with a successful professional career: teacher, nurse, doctor, manager, executive, tradesperson, etc.
But we know, the middle class is shrinking in Canada. While nearly everyone likes to call themselves middle class, we are not. Plenty of us are having trouble finding those professional careers, despite years of education. Plenty of us never had the opportunity to get higher education, or are overcoming other hardships. Lots of people rent their homes and simply cannot afford to own one residence, never mind two.
This means that a lot of kids grow up without cottages in their lives. These children spend all summer in the urban environment, either with stay-at-home parents, in day camps, or in daycares. Some of them attend sleepover camp for a few weeks.
Many kids don’t have the privilege of a summer at the family cottage. They don’t get to experience living in a rural setting or the rewards that come with slowing down in nature for a few weeks, or a season. They don’t get the joy of a beach available all day, every day.
This difference is hard to appreciate when you’ve either always had a cottage, or never had one, in your life. It is perhaps most bittersweet for those who grew up ensconced in cottage life and lost it in adulthood.
By the time I was in my late teens, my own cottage life was fading. I no longer had my grandparents’ place to go, so I started spending summers in Winnipeg. I also found technology more and more enticing, and it became difficult to relax the way I used to.
Years passed. Recently, my brother decided to buy a cottage of his own, near Lac du Bonnet. In late June, I paid my first visit.
Significantly more isolated than the old familial cottage in Gimli, my brother’s cottage lies on a peninsula in the bush. The cottage itself is tiny, just one room with a loft above it. He cooks with a hot plate, and trucks come in with fresh water and to take away waste. Most of the property is treed. In many ways, being there resembles camping.
There is a beach about a 15-minute walk away. It features a playground, a small strip of sand, and a shallow buoyed-in swimming area with green vines underfoot.
When I visited, we spent the day eating lunch at a local Chicken Chef, lying around at the cottage, playing in the playground by the town’s public swimming area, and swimming at the private beach belonging to my brother’s development. There was no Internet access and no one used their cell phones.
I must admit, it was challenging to go through a day in such a low-tech, slow fashion. We’re so used to things happening quickly these days, that slowing down to enjoy nature seems like wasting an eternity doing nothing. It’s kind of like what happens when you’re driving on the highway at a 100 km/h and suddenly have to slow down to 50.
Perhaps those who never lose their cottages have a different experience. Perhaps their nervous systems remain wired to relax every summer. Maybe they can still shake off the rest of the year and wade into slow time without feeling bored. Adults also enjoy different pastimes than children, so finding one’s “cottage legs” as a grown-up might just be a process.
Now that we have a cottage in the family again, I’m definitely planning to spend time there. As I learn to slow down, I will remember that I am lucky to have this again and that cottage access is a privilege and not a universal part of Canadian life.