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CANADA : In Ontario, Summer Is a Cultural Retreat

Few pursue weekend getaways with the single-minded determination of Torontonians. 'Cottage country' provides a window on province's soul.

July 12, 1996|CRAIG TURNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GRAVENHURST, Canada — Here in rural Ontario, just a two-hour drive north of Toronto, signs of approaching midsummer are unmistakable: the last crusts of ice are off the lakes; the Olympian-sized mosquitoes and black flies are beginning to die off; and the outbound freeways are jammed on Friday afternoons with the annual weekend migration to "cottage country."

Cottagers sally forth in minivans and Ford Explorers, canoes lashed to their roofs. They are summoned by the call of the loon, the gentle ripple of lake water on the beach, the tug of a trout on a fishing line, the deafening roar of a neighbor's Jet Ski.

Cottage country's boundaries are unofficial and somewhat indistinct, but roughly encompass a fan-shaped area extending northward from Toronto that is honeycombed with thousands of the province's estimated 250,000 lakes.

The definition of a "cottage" is similarly flexible, taking in everything from a shack with a privy out back to a multimillion-dollar mansion with a sleek inboard afloat in the boathouse.

What binds this all together is the weekly ritual, shared by more than a million people by some counts, of Fridays out of town and Mondays back.

Weekend retreats are far from unique to this region, of course, but few people pursue the rite with the single-minded determination of Torontonians. Moreover, cottage country provides a unique window into the history, geography and demographics of this part of Canada.

"Toronto's obsessive about it, almost, in the sense that, sure it's nice to have a cottage, but must everyone go every weekend?" said Walter Podilchak, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who has studied the trend.

Ontario's lake district was until the 1950s largely the domain of Victorian-era grand hotels frequented by wealthy Americans up from the Midwest. In the economically expansive 1950s and '60s, however, the family car replaced the lake steamer as the vehicle of choice and vacation homes displaced the old hotels, most of which burned or were bulldozed.

Today, Toronto's middle-class baby boomers almost all can recount childhood, burnished gold memories of summers on the lake, either in the family cottage or in a rental.

The habit has persisted for following generations. Al Zikovitz, publisher of Cottage Life magazine, the unofficial chronicle of lakeside life, cites surveys estimating that there are more than 200,000 vacation homes in the province.

Some Ontarians even get to rub shoulders with movie stars. Canadian comedian and actor Martin Short is a cottage owner; other celebrity sightings include Tom Hanks, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.

Rising property values and taxes have made cottage ownership less of a middle-class accouterment. A Cottage Life study found an average cottage value of $158,000, which is about $116,000 in U.S. dollars, and that more than 7% were worth at least twice that. This means families increasingly are choosing between a home in Toronto and one by the lake, rather than having both.

Judy Ross, who owns a cottage on its own island in Lake Muskoka and is completing her sixth book on cottage country, said more owners are outfitting cottages with winter insulation with an eye toward using them or renting them year round and for their own retirement.

Ross also noted that each cottage community has developed its own personality. Homeowners on the wild coast of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay, for example, take pride in their more rough-and-tumble lifestyle. "They look on the Muskokans as kind of wussy," she said with a laugh.

Podilchak has noticed another trend. Cottagers still tend to be overwhelmingly white and European in origin. They reflect the Toronto of 20 to 30 years ago, before an influx of immigration from Asia and the Caribbean.

In a sense, Podilchak notes, the weekend cottager might be returning to a more homogeneous past. "People tend to stay in ethnic enclaves, and that happens even in cottage country."

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