Wild Wild North

Do you love the countryside? Imagine waking up to the soft sound of trees brushing, and leaves and waves sparkling in the sunshine. Then a cheeky squirrel gently taps on a window looking for a treat, or a friendly beaver waves his tail as a greeting. Picture freshly baked pastry paired with freshly brewed coffee, a wooden dock spread across crystal waters, a long awaited book by O’Henry and a loop of beautiful warm days…

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Knock-knock-knock – it’s reality: morning temperature in June on Manitoulin Island ranges from +4C-16C (if you are lucky), with the hottest +20C, high risk of rain and thunderstorms. When the weather locks you indoors, another round of pleasant surprises is awaiting – your cottage originally built in the 1910’s as a log cabin lacks every comfort that a city girl is so accustomed to: central heating, hot water, internet (forget Netflix), showers and a Nespresso coffee-maker! “No problem, let’s go for a drive” they say, though the closest restaurant is 37 km away and so is the closest supermarket – well, welcome, to the Wild Wild North.

There is something very Canadian about heading up north to survive through their vacation. It took me a while (a bottle of Ontario produced Riesling to be precise) to comprehend the fun behind jumping in a lake in June when it stayed frozen until the mid of May. The “now or never” motto applies to every aspect of the short Canadian summer experience.

I choose to discourage any boring anthropological, logical or any other sorts of statistics in favour of deep psychological analysis driven by Sigmund Freud to understand the truth, the pain and the joy of Canadian summer cottage lifestyle from dawn to dusk. There is always the possibility that the majority of Canadian population lives in the south of the country, spread across the border with US, so geographically two options are open – traveling to US (South) or up north (the rest of Canada). Here is the top 10:

  1. Summer is really short (obviously). It may accidently start any time from April to June or never start at all. For two summers in a row, 2013-2014, I experienced the worst weather possible with cold gloomy days, minimum sunshine, but generous daily showers. In fairness or in unfairness, the situation had improved just right after my departure. In their turn, Canadians are well aware of their moody climate and well prepared to cherish every bit of sunshine, so for them, cities are where one works during the year and cottages are meant for summer chill-outs (chill-out is a key word).
  1. Cities, think Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, get intolerably sweaty when the weather stays warm for a couple of days. Last July, Vancouver was surrounded to forest fires, balding lawns and big-tummy shirtless guys. Heat (and not-so-handsome shirtless guys) is a lot easier to tolerate in the shadows of tool-sheds, boathouses, oaks and wild cottage shrubs.
  1. Canadians love to hide away from hipsters (and hipsters from their fellow-hipsters), in order to not being judged for dressing super casual (or not casual enough), or wearing the same shorts for 2 weeks (as tried and tested at City Chick Gone Wild).
  1. Big city folks are used to squeezing into clustered spaces on subways, the office, streetcars, condos, detached houses, family vans or other places where functionality prevails. The find it super exotic to be out in beautiful nature, with affordable room and space just after an hour drive within Canada (they are patriots).
  1. The Wild Wild North is Wild! Yes, it’s a sense of danger in the most protected way through the luxury of locked doors and windows that appeals to sweet Canadian souls. Encounters with bears, snakes, foxes, wolves, deer and turtles are slightly exaggerated and passed in a form of a “knight’s tale” from generation to generation. Select Canadians of above-average toughness escape to remote locations to voluntarily deprive themselves from using electricity, running water, WiFi and technologies in favour of candle-lit dinners and physical labour. Well, the first hot shower back in the city turns out to be the sweetest thing ever (the dream!).
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Photo credit Mark M.

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  1. Physical labour. Well, Canadians enjoy physical labour with great enthusiasm. The next day after arrival at the cottage they start walking around looking for the stuff to fix, wood to split, trees to chop and picnic tables to build.
  1. Living and re-living Canadian stereotypes. Morning starts with blueberry pancakes soaked in Maple syrup, side bacon from St. Lawrence Market or from a gourmet store on Bloor. Beef sliders for lunch are prepared on the BBQ and eaten right before a trip to the beach where boats are sailed, rowed, motored and remote controlled. Caesars (have you tried? They involve clams) are stirred, not shaken around 5 o’clock. Crunchy celery stir sticks trick the mind into believe that this super Canadian cocktail is healthy. Then there is cold beer, chilled beer and more beer leading to dinner cooked on a campfire.
  1. Campfire! Hooray! The campfire is a ritual. Unlike in Dubai, buying wood to build one is considered a waste. Driftwood is collected right on site, carefully sorted into categories and then neatly arranged into a Tepee shaped pyramid. Dinner is cooked at the sunset; baked potatoes and sausages are followed by my favourite treat: s’mores (slightly burnt marshmallows pressed between butter cookies with a chunk of milk chocolate). The evening ends with sparkles and star gazing (Manitoulin Island is one of the few places where milky way is shining in its full glory)

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  1. Socializing – letting kids run freely, meeting childhood friends, lending and borrowing tools from neighbours, sipping cocktails on the dock, playing real table games (Monopoly, cards, spoons, etc.) and having long heartily chats after midnight. One would be surprised what the lack of Internet does to good people. Cottages are perfect for family re-unions too. Summer tends to bring the best team-oriented behaviour and drinks served in the early afternoon encourage good humour and an attitude of cooperation.
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Meet Mark, a super-skilled cottage neighbor who  knows the secrets to cooking the best fried fish on the planet Earth, and to taking the closest close-ups of wild bears
  1. Last, but not the least, is the healthy component of any cottage adventure – discovery walks, cycling to the grocery store, hiking the trails, swimming in a refreshingly freezing water, outdoor showers, simple food, lots of vegetables, fruits and vitamin D – so when the vacation is over, Canadians are glowing with happiness and sun kissed skin. Even their well known irony is replaced by simply funny jokes: “Guess what’s brown and sticky? – A stick!”. “What are 2 seasons in Canada? – “Winter and July”.

Speaking frankly, the Wild Wild North is not meant for everyone though, only the bravest hearts. Being there is a lifestyle adventure that takes a few summers to figure out and another few to fall in love with. So it happens that one day at the end of June you will wake up to the sound of a racoon pressing its teethies against your window for a better lick of fish flies off the glass, while a merciless north wind bashes waves onshore and the outdoor temperature lowers to +8C. You say, “good morning world!” and actually mean it.

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P.S. A group of great people have dedicated their time and humor to help me to write and review this post. Thank you Judy, Tom, Angie, Andrew, Mark and Sander.

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My Big Ontario Affair

In an attempt to uncover the mystery behind Canadian migration up north to cottage country every spring/summer, I decided to trace their movements right from the beginning. My trip from Toronto to Manitoulin Island started around 6am with a light breakfast, extra strong black coffee, last minute packing (think chain-saw parts, propane cylinders and a fur coat – out of a looong list) and setting Google Maps for the road ahead. And what a road! A scenic four hour drive is followed by two breezy hours on the MS Chi-Cheemaun, the legendary ferry that connects Manitoulin Island to the Bruce Peninsula since 1930. Total time from Toronto to the cottage – 8 hours.

Speaking of the trip and duration – Canadian roads deserve special praise. They seem to be improving yearly with picnic sites, beautiful scenery and Tim Horton outlets within an hour of one another. Being used to driving on 6 lanes in one direction with a speed limit of 120 km/h (plus 20) in Dubai, it was challenging to adapt to “one lane for all” highway standards where speed will drop from 90 km/h to 50 km/h around small towns. Plus I had to watch out for horse drawn carriages managed by men in black. In Ontario “Adopt a Highway” is a common traffic sign to which people seem to respond rather positively – no garbage, but flowers, greenery, wind turbines and occasional bear jaywalkers greeted me along the road.

Just right after Toronto, I noticed the disappearance of large glass / concrete condominiums. Houses grew bigger, front lawns lusher and households got busier. The further north I went, the more confusing the Canadian accent – all super friendly comments from folks wearing “I love haters” hats were completely lost on me: “Oh hey, eh”. “It’s really weathering outside, eh”. “Got yourself in a kerfuffle? Go talk to Doug”…  I accidently got myself into further trouble by ordering a cup of tea. “Excuse me, a cup of white tea please”. “Sorry, you want it black?” “No, white”. “No double-double, eh?”. “Just white!” “Oh, boy…”

Charming little towns spread along the route casually feature the usual Ontario architecture (churches, clock towers, barns, brick houses) and the two most successful local businesses: gas stations and Tim Hortons (Always Fresh!). I was never a big fan of the latter until I tasted it in Canada. It was a love from the first sip with a dark roast black coffee paired with Maple Pecan Danish. “Tasty, eh?”

A trip on a local celebrity – the MS Chi-Cheemaun, meaning a large canoe, requires a commitment to show up not later than 1 hour (sharp) prior to the departure. Being late, even for a minute as my past experience has proven, results in loosing the reservation and queuing to be boarded on a “first-come first–serve basis” (not a delight, unless you are a fan of Russian roulette). The queue can be long as well as the vehicles in it. Chi-Cheemaun is capable of carrying 638 passengers and 240 vehicles. However, once your reservation fate is locked – it’s time to discover the little port city of Tobermory.

Tobermory is a fun place to explore, just like Dubai. It’s all about entertainment, shopping, food and the joy of a short stay. Start at Foodland for last minute supplies shopping (avocados, crackers, mature cheddar and marshmallows in our case). Continue with crowd watching from the comfort of the Tobermory Brewing Co. and Grill while sipping Russian Imperial Stout beer and spooning Vodka Smoked Salmon Roulade. That place is seriously delicious and should not be missed. On the way to the car, stop to get a scoop of locally made ice cream, fudge and a serving of beaver tail (delicious, beavers like it too).

Sailing the MS Chi-Cheemaun is an adventure in itself. As passengers are not permitted to re-enter cars during the trip, it’s important to carefully select a pile of layers to snuggle into and remember to carry a camera. I was told that a photo with a lighthouse on the background brings luck. The Chi-Cheemaun proudly features two outdoor decks, an indoor lounge, a playground, an information kiosk, a little museum display, a cafeteria and a boutique. Good news, she’s air-conditioned!

Once the Chi-Cheemaun reaches land and the final round of driving is done, it’s time to open the cottage, turn the electricity and the water on, dispose of spent mice traps and open a bottle of Cab to cheer the sunset on the wooden dock. The overwhelmingly fresh air, edgy smell of a distant fire and 50 shades of red spread across the sky reflected in the waves made me think that the trip is a total success already.

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