The town was humming with activity this past weekend, its inhabitants infused with that primal energy that goes along with the start of warm weather. Everyone just wants to be outside. As Jason and I sat in front of our outdoor fireplace on Friday night, drinking wine and staring at the stars, we could hear distant bass lines, squealing tires, cascades of laughter, doors slamming, the sound of bikes passing over patches of gravel. The town has officially emerged from its long hibernation. Now that the residents are out and about, it’s only a matter of weeks before the tourists arrive.
I grew up in Muskoka, which is Ontario’s most famous cottage country, but now I live on the other side of the province, which is a lesser known but equally beautiful cottage country. It is interesting to note the differences between the two regions. Muskoka is the land of rocks and lakes, and most cottages are built on individual waterfront properties. Along the Lake Huron coast — where I’m living now — some of the cottages are waterfront but many are located in town, clustered along the streets close to the water. Many people come up to rent cottages for a week each summer, but there’s much less of that in Muskoka, where most people own their cottages. There is a large communal beach that stretches for kilometres along Lake Huron and that’s where everyone goes to use the water. As a result, the Huron coast has more of a social vibe than Muskoka, where people can hole up in their cottages for days on end and never see another person, but here we must mingle if we wish to swim.
Life in Ontario tourist towns follows a predictable cycle. When the May long weekend arrives, it’s as if someone flicked a giant “ON” switch. Hordes of invaders arrive, people driving up from Toronto or southwestern Ontario who have rented or are coming to open up their cottage after long months of being closed. My little town in Muskoka would go from having about 400 year-round residents to 4000. It’s literally a flood of people. Suddenly there are lineups at the grocery store and strange faces in the aisle who don’t know about your uncle’s hip surgery. Cars drive faster on the road, impatient urban drivers who forget you need to watch out for moose at this time of year. Here, on the Huron coast, the arrival of the tourists is marked by the ‘drunk parade’ — crowds of loud young people stumbling past our house after last call at 2 a.m. (We happen to live on a street that connects the major bar in town with the trailer park.) We year-rounders have to adapt, and we do so quite happily, because many of us depend on tourism as a main source of income. My dad is a contractor and builds cottages. My mom is a painter and has an art gallery. (Here’s a link to her blog.) Neither Jason nor I have careers tied to tourism, but it’s still fun to feel that summer vibe.
By the time the Labour Day weekend rolls around at the beginning of September, we’re ready for the tourists to leave — and they do, instantly. The town goes from buzzing with life to feeling dead by comparison. Once again, I know everyone I see and they all know me. As a kid, I found it very depressing, but my parents loved the return to solitude; after all, that’s why they moved to Muskoka in the first place. Now I can appreciate much more that desire for solitude. For the time being, though, I’m welcoming those tourists with wide open arms, not least of all because it means my girlfriends and I won’t be the only table when we go out to the bar on a Saturday night!