Anybody who's anyone has a cottage

To 'cottage' is a Canadian summer rite. The second home on a lake isalmost an national entitlement, like health care.

There is almost nothing happening as we put our canoe in on Three Mile Lake. The lavender blooms of the pickerel weed at the water's edge are past their prime, but still pretty, and we strive to place ourselves downwind from the fragrant white blossoms of the waterlilies.

We make the circuit around the edge of the water, surveying the architecture of the lakeside cottages and speculating on their accessibility during the winter.

Off in the distance floats a flat-bottomed aluminum boat of the type my host refers to as "a floating living room."

A couple of times during our circuit, a power boat goes by, and we brace to cut through its wake, the only intrusion of modernity on this perfect afternoon.

This is high season in the "cottage country" of Ontario's Lake Muskoka region, when anybody in Toronto who is anyone at all has vacated the city for a lakefront homestead, preferably one that has been in the family for three generations.

It's a time of year when much of the population of one of the world's most urbanized nations heads for the country. For many Canadians, summer at the cottage is the central stillness around which the rest of the year revolves. It is a time to reconnect with family and extended family, and the landscape. It is a time to do nothing in particular.

Toronto artist Anne McTaggart remembers her cottage summers as a girl: "I wouldn't go anywhere I couldn't get to by boat."

It is a bit of a paradox: Canada prides itself on being a kinder, gentler country than the United States, without the extremes of haves and have-nots. But ownership of second homes, which many would regard as a sign of serious affluence, is reportedly twice as prevalent among Canadians as among Americans. And the raw numbers -- 1 in 7 Canadians reports having a second home - understate the importance of the cottage phenomenon in Canadian culture, especially here in Ontario and next door in Quebec. Many of those without a cottage of their own nonetheless have an extended-family link to a cottage.

Cottagers enjoy almost a middle-class entitlement here, like health care.

But in this region that gave birth to the Group of Seven painters, who taught Canadians to see their own country - its red rock, its birch trees, its waters - the economics for cottagers are changing. New zoning laws requiring minimum frontages make it impossible for younger families to build the kind of cottage they grew up summering in. Market-value property tax assessments are forcing some longtime owners to sell. The shiny white-on-blue house-number signs posted at everyone's driveway, to help emergency crews find addresses, bespeak new demands for local government services - which will mean more money.

Death, divorce, and generational shifts also take a toll on the harmony of cottage life. Several years ago, Ms. McTaggart had to face the sale of the lakefront house in which she had spent 50 summers. "Intellectually, I could understand that the place had to be sold, and I could deal with it. But emotionally it was something else." The house was torn down so that the new owners could build afresh - and much larger.

Meanwhile, the McTaggarts were thinking of selling the house in which they had raised their family and exchanging it for a pied--terre in the city and a Muskoka cottage. Except that they were sure they couldn't afford it, and so looked for building sites everywhere but there.

But a short stay in a friend's cottage brought her to a moment of truth, she relates. Tears began to flow, as she told herself, "Anne, you're a Muskoka girl. How did you ever think you'd be happy anywhere else?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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