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Caught In Cottage Culture

Father Raymond de Souza confesses to wonderment that so many Canadians irrepressibly set out along traffic clogged roads for distant summer cottages when they could far more comfortably stay home. 

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Caught In Cottage Culture August 2, 2018  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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The August long weekend brings about joy tinged with dread. On Wolfe Island, for some three decades now the August holiday weekend includes the family softball tournament, where the various Island clans compete against each other in a friendly tournament. It brings relatives and friends from far and near to the Island, and a good time is had by all in a welcome spirit of festivity and fellowship.

But all those people coming to the Island make it, from Thursday onwards, very congested on the ferry from Kingston. It is possible to wait two or more hours to get a place on the 55-car ferry. So, I try, as best as is possible, to get stocked up and be home by Friday morning, and not leave until Tuesday or Wednesday. Otherwise I would usually go over to Kingston every day, but not this weekend. 

I have that option, and it requires only a modicum of planning on my part to make it work. Yet in southern Ontario, there are vast numbers of people, many of them quite affluent, who precisely choose congestion as part of their summer fun, not just on the long weekends but every week.

Growing up in Alberta, some friends had “cabins,” summer places on a lake or in the mountains. Once the danger of snow had passed – usually in late May – they would open them up and spend weekends and vacation weeks there. That is nothing compared to the “cottage,” though, as it is called in Ontario. The priority of cottage culture – even after years of living here and looking forward each summer to the return of my summer parishioners who have cottages on Wolfe Island – still puzzles me.

By Friday late morning, the great exodus is underway, the highways of Toronto clogged as city-dwellers head out for the 150 km drive to Georgian Bay and thereabouts, a trek that can take three, four, five hours in traffic. Before the safety monitors got a stranglehold on fun, entrepreneurs would set up chip trucks on the side of highway. So slow moving was the traffic that passengers could alight, purchase a snack and easily catch up with the driver, who had only moved ten or twenty metres. Something like a drive-through, but much slower.

Arriving at the cottage, weary and worn out, an early night is called for as the next morning the intrepid cottager has to beat it into town early to get provisions – gas for the mower, a few things at the hardware store – in order to attend to the various maintenance projects required at the cottage. Then a relaxing afternoon listening to the roar of watercraft on the lake, before a relaxing dinner outside, enjoying conversation over the low crackle of the bug zapper of the neighbours who, out in glorious nature, are thirty feet away on the subdivided lots.

The lots have been subdivided because cottage values have appreciated to such a degree that it is very difficult for one generation to transfer ownership to the next without triggering large capital gains taxes, which often require a sale, or partial sale, to pay.

So why the urge to head out to the cottage, when a more relaxing weekend might be had at home? Why do those who employ all sorts of people to make life easier at home, assume all those tasks at the cottage? Why hit the road, instead of the local pub, or park, or even couch?

An ancient Christian wisdom called man homo viator, man on the way, or better, man the pilgrim. We like to be on the move. The cosmic journey from nothingness to existence to eternity is reflected, it seems, in our desire to be on the way. Yes, man travels for exploration and discovery and commerce. But none of that applies to a family returning to the cottage for the 27th consecutive year. 

We travel because it seems that somehow it is right to mark the passing of the seasons with actual passage from one place to another. As the days lengthen, it is time to head north to open up that cottage. As the days shorten, it is time to head north to close up. And the great high holy days of the summer calendar – Victoria Day, Civic Holiday, Labour Day – are days of obligation, for which there needs even to be days of preparation, like the Jews of old getting ready for Passover.

Cottage culture cannot be adequately explained by recreation or convenience. It is better explained as a secular desire to live liturgically, according to the rhythms given by the great sun deity. The cavalcade heading to the cottage ought not look down on those sun worshipping indigenous cultures of the new world. 

Yes, of course there are cottagers who get to church on Sunday – I am grateful for those in my own parish – but for many at the cottage the key Sunday morning question is what departure time is best to beat the traffic back to the city.

I admire those who meet the exertions required by cottage culture. There is a determination and stamina necessary that is a sort of virtue. But it is not for me. And why would it be? In God’s good providence, I already live where the cottagers are headed. No need to be homo viator if you are already home. 


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