POSTED: SEPT 28, 2021
When I started this website I just posted my pieces at random times. Sometime a month or two would pass between posts and then I would go for a while where I was posting multiples a month. Now that I am in something of a regular gig teaching little cooking classes and making lunches and dinners as a paying routine for my neighbours I have slid into a regular thing of posting always on the first of the month.
So why am I posting today on the 28th? Well, I am in a bit of a scramble as I am off to Ireland for a day then on to Ottawa Canada for a weekend. I am sure I will probably have something to say on the adventure when I return but for now my thoughts are on the whole notion of getting away.
Early in the pandemic I had a little trip to Ireland to speak to Ciara’s ex, which was eventful/frightful (see various posts from March 2020) but other than that I have been here in this little spot in Malta and for the most part don’t go much further than I can easily get to when walking or riding my little fold up bike. Even En Plein Air only gets me out on the ocean occasionally these days. So I have not had the benefit of getting away as many people have enjoyed during this pandemic.
Most have gone to their cottages, some have gone camping and some on vacation. All of these approaches have something of the same effect but the people who have really had it good are ones who have had a regular place to go to, whether modest or grand, whether for a few days a week or to move to for months at a time, especially if that destination is a special personal place with memories and alternative experiences.
When growing up in eastern Ontario Canada we had the wonderful benefit of a lot of little lakes all around. The population of Ottawa was not large, about three hundred thousand when I was a teenager. When Canada changed over to metric in the early 1970’s many of us joked that in metric it might be about four hundred thousand! The result of an abundance of lakes and not a big population was that most families had a cottage of some description. Wealthier people were on the best lakes, with the best waterfront, and the biggest shoreline and beautiful classic cottages.
But even those with more modest incomes, particularly those people who had some manual dexterity or worked in the trades would get a small lot and build some kind of place to get away to.
And it is the getting away that mattered. For a kid the big change was the different activities – swimming, boating waterskiing, bonfires, fishing, canoeing. But more than this it was a change in norms and expectations of behaviour, a change of neighbors and friends, and generally a place to cut loose and not be as structured in your life. For adults it was also that change in behavioural expectations as well, where the conventions of city life were left back in the city and everything was more relaxed. Even parents in serious endeavours left their business cards at the office. And of course this predated smart phones and even the internet, so people who were away, truly were away.
The result of course was that people might change houses often, or move for a better job in another city, but the cottage – well that was somewhat sacred. It was also often a meeting place of various family members for holidays and celebrations.
In northern climates it takes on a special significance as the long winter months take their toll and the summer is a time to get outside with nature that has reappeared after her nap. Spend any time with someone from Canada, Norway or Michigan and you will soon learn of their cottage life.
A lot of cottages are handed down in the family, creating some crazy partnerships as most families would have more than one child but only one cottage.
In my circle of friends most families had a cottage they went to and imagined going there for the rest of their life, but few aspired to having their own. Not my buddy Jim.
As soon as he was working and had a bit of extra money he and Janice bought their first cottage lot. It was up on a small lake close to Parry Sound which for those who don’t know it is a community on the eastern shore of Georgian Bay, a very large bay (190km x 80km) of lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes.
It was about 3.25 hectares (8 acres) with about 125 Meters (400 feet) of waterfront. A couple of years later with a few more bucks in his jeans the road went in, and a dock. Then one Thursday he was siting on a flight from Vancouver flying home to Toronto as he did every second week in those early days of his business, and noticed an ad in the paper he was reading for a little log cabin that was available, but it would have to be moved. It was not expensive, but more money than he and Janice had at the time.
Over the flight he pulled the little cut-out add from his pocket a few times and looked at it. When the flight landed in Toronto it was about 11 pm and he called the number in the ad to see if he could come to see it then. It was located about two hours away from the airport in Toronto in a little village called Mount Forest so he could be there by about 1:45 AM he told the bewildered fellow on the other end of the line.
The owner of the place was older, and assured Jim that:
- there was no frigging way he was letting Jim come over in the middle of the night and
- that on Saturday they were having a showing to all interested parties from 10 to 2 and they would then determine who they were going to sell it to. The fellows tone also suggested that they would probably not sell it to a nutbar who calls at eleven pm expecting to come to tour a house at 1:45 or 2 am.
By Saturday Janice was as pumped about it as Jim and as they drove to Mount Forest where the place sat, with little Jade in tow, they talked about the endeavor of moving a log cottage about 300 km to their property and the tasks involved to be ready.
As they drove in the road to the place, as Janice tells it, they were so excited to see the little log cabin, but all along the driveway in were the cars of the other potential buyers. The array of BMW’s, Porsches, and Mercedes were quite a contrast to their Isuzu Trooper with a kayak on the roof.
The little log cabin was just as represented. Built from large logs using the Scandinavian scribing technique instead of the north American chinking technique, pine floors of 2 x 12 tongue and groove planks, a little loft for sleeping, one small bathroom and a woodstove/fireplace for heat, it was an adorable little place with a footprint of about 660 sq. ft. and total area of about 800 sq. ft.
Things were a bit chaotic as the little cabin was overrun by all the people looking at it, poking around and asking questions. And then the process began. Everyone had to go outside and one by one the people who had registered to see it had their chat with the owners. Most of the potential buyers were confident they could cajole, coerce, or convince the owners to sell it on the land where it was sitting, next to a stream and idyllic pond, and one by one were rejected. The existing owners were selling it because it sat on the best part of the lot, and they had decided to build a much larger place to retire there so that is why it needed to be removed.
It came down to only a few potential purchasers left and for some reason the couple decided Janice and Jim should get the place for something less than the asking price instead of a much higher bid from another couple who were going to have to find a lot, buy it and then be ready for the move.
It was fall and over the winter Jim worked up the drawings and got the building permits and contracted with a local contractor in Parry Sound to build a foundation. While this was going on the owner of the little log place, who was an engineer and pretty handy himself, was removing the inside of the place (flooring, kitchen windows interior doors and trim) and storing it in a barn. By spring they were ready and a log builder with a big boom truck had been hired to mark the logs, take it apart one log at time and put it on a sixty foot flatbed to be moved to its new home.
Lots of challenges occurred when for example the flatbed could not get in the road Janice and Jim had built and they needed to hire a smaller boom truck to move the logs in one at a time. But eventually it was assembled in place fully exposed to the rain that spring. So, the race was on to get a roof on it and get the windows and doors back in. Jim’s dad, Janice’s cousins husband John, who was a carpenter, and various others worked away with Jim to get it enclosed.
For that first summer, Jim took all his holidays as Fridays and Mondays and for each of those four day weekends he would drive up from the Toronto area, the two hours in the morning early and drive home late so he could see Janice, Jade, and newborn Jason, and did that for every four day weekend for ten weeks. He put over 85,000 km on that Izuzu Trooper that summer, but by September it was ready for them to use that winter. Over the next few years Jim worked away on it, putting in the floor, the bathroom, building new kitchen cabinets etc.
With time, and his business growing they bought the next two lots so they had 1,200 feet of waterfront, more boats came along, the “barn” was built on the next lot over they had bought, and plans were underway for a larger cottage. They went as far as designing it with an architect but then when they could not find a builder who had the skills involved to build it, decided to build a ski place outside a little ski town that Jim had done some development work in when he was first starting out. They already had a little house there to stay in for their ski weekends. Having spent about nine months designing their dream cottage of about 9,000 square feet for the cottage lot they spent only about five weeks designing a smaller post and beam ski house for that 15 acre site.
They went in the ground on labour day weekend and by December 31st 1999 this five thousand foot place was finished.
So why am I going on about these places? Well they were both pretty important to Janice and Jim, and recently there has been a real milestone in their cottaging life. To understand the significance, I will need to go back in time a bit.
Jim retired on his 48th birthday and he and Janice thought they would try living at their big ski place and eventually downsize their home in Toronto. It did not work out well.
They felt much too isolated, particularly in the winter, and neither of the kids were coming up to the ski place or coming to the cottage. After some reflection they sold the cottage, and eventually sold the ski place and then downsized their house in Toronto. For the first time in their married life they did not have a second home, but Jim had this idea to find an old farmhouse in Provence, Brittany or Normandy and to rebuild it.
And that’s where Key West came in. Every year the artists collective that Janice was associated with in Toronto would take her work to show for the Art Basel Miami weekend and she would have lots of art sales. Each year she and Jim would tie into going to that show in South Beach a trip to Key west, a place she had lived as a child in the 1960’s. They liked France better than Key West, but with a dog, they could drive to KW from Toronto with Tuli. So Key West became the Provence project.
The right “borderline derelict” house was found, acquired, and they set about to restore it. It was from the 1880’s and had a colourful history as a private home, then a general store, then a few apartments, then back to a single home and in the 2008 mortgage mess, an asset handed back to a bank.
The first few months saw them drive down pulling a big two axel enclosed utility trailer each time with furniture from their cottage and ski place to “seed the memories”. Some trades were hired for the regulated stuff or things Jim was not up to – electrical, plumbing, a new metal roof, and pool digging but otherwise it was all about Janice choosing finishes and Jim executing the work.
In the first summer Jim went down to work on it alone when the pool was under construction but otherwise it was all done when they would be there from January to April each winter for the last six years.
So that brings us to early March 2020 when at a big ceremony in Key West Janice and Jim were awarded a nice plaque for their restoration and preservation work on the house. The ceremony occurred at Truman’s Little White House where the president spent much of his time in Key West.
It was the culmination of a lot of work and when the other recipients for 2020 went up to receive their awards with their architects, historians, contractors, specialty sub-trades and consultants it was just Janice and Jim in their case.
The reason I am writing this piece today is because of what came after that ceremony. Yes , Covid really hit hard in the next week of March, 2020 and we all got messed up by that, and in Janice and Jims case they scooted back to Toronto before the border was closed. But during this they also made a decision to sell. Difficult health insurance issues with Jim’s neurological situation, and climate change that does not bode well for a flat little island in the middle of the hurricane corridor, are what pushed them to sell a little place they loved. They had even tried to find a purchaser who would let them rent it back in the winter but that did not pan out. So a buyer was found, their things were moved to a storage unit and they are now people without a place to get away to.
I don’t find this strange as I have never had a second place. At times I have barely had one place, so its hard for me to get my head into their situation, but I know that without a second place, and more importantly without a project, they may be feeling a bit adrift, especially with lots of Covid restrictions.
After writing this little post, I was speaking to Janice about the arrangements she had made for my upcoming trip to Canada and she says that Jim is looking at ads for barges and floating homes, and has also remarked at how much fun it might be to restore a vintage Airstream trailer, or to renovate a lighthouse on Prince Edward Island….. stay tuned.