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Muskoka 101

How to live, let loose, and win the love of your cottage neighbours

If you’ve just bought a Muskoka cottage, or you’re spending more time here than you ever thought possible, welcome! Muskoka is the perfect place to let go of stress and let loose with friends and family.

Now’s the time to bust out the dock speakers, light the fireworks, and do endless victory laps around the lake, right? Umm… Not so fast.

By now you’ve probably realized that no two lakes, properties or cottages are exactly alike – that’s part of the beauty of our region. But what you may not know is there’s an unwritten code, or rhythm that helps us all to enjoy the lakes and its surrounding communities to their fullest.

We’ve drawn on our own experience in Muskoka, talked to friends and family, and interviewed a range of community leaders – permanent and seasonal residents alike. And we asked all of them a variation on one question: What is essential for new Muskoka residents to know?

Some of their answers are here. Consider this to be your intro guide to being a good cottager in Muskoka.

We put this first, because it came up again and again in our conversations: don’t be afraid to do nothing.

It’s easy to view the cottage as a blank canvas that you need to paint on, a place that would be perfect if only it was a little less wild, a little more manicured, a little more like your home in the city. And so, you spend each weekend picking away at it, building and cutting and “improving.” But in the process, it’s very easy to lose sight of the very things that attracted you to Muskoka in the first place: the wildlife, the serenity, the natural beauty.

There is another way to cottage, though. Don’t be afraid to go barefoot, to sit on the rocks, to listen to the wind in the trees.

It’s not just good for your soul, it’s also good for the lake itself. Terry Rees, executive director of the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations (FOCA), put it best: “The recipe for a healthy lake and waterfront is three parts hammock, zero parts lawn mower.  Relax, and let nature do its thing to keep your lake great!”

One of the biggest differences between waterfront living and in-town life is that the lake is communal: like it or not, you are sharing the water with every one of your neighbours.

It’s one of the reasons lake associations are a vital part of waterfront life.

Just about every lake in Muskoka has a lake association. Some of the larger ones have more than one – a small one to represent a given bay or part of the lake, and a larger one representing the whole lake or cluster of lakes. The biggest and oldest of them is the Muskoka Lakes Association (MLA), which was founded in 1894, and represents owners on a dozen or more lakes.

Big or small, lake associations exist in part to represent the interests of waterfront owners to area politicians, in part to share news about what’s happening on the lake, and in part as a source of information about what everyone should be doing to help protect and preserve the water.

Joining your local lake association and going to the AGM are great ways to learn more about your lake, meet your neighbours, and learn about the local lake culture.

“We all enjoy the waterfront in different ways – some like to savour the quiet and nature pursuits while others like power boating and water sports,” says Deborah Martin-Downs, president of the MLA. “But we all need to share the water and be respectful of each other’s experience.”

“The MLA often talks about the ‘view from the canoe’ – which means that the way the shoreline looks is part of the value of your property and for those around you or across from you.  There are many ways to build our cottages and landscape our properties to preserve our privacy as well as the beauty and natural shorelines that, more than anything else, contribute to maintaining swimmable water.”

Like many of us who have spent years in Muskoka, Scott Young is concerned by what he calls the “suburbanization of the waterfront,” a dramatic increase in manicured lawns and a loss of wild spaces.

Scott is the executive director of the Muskoka Conservancy, an organization which manages thousands of acres of environmentally significant land throughout Muskoka. He’s also both a cottager and a permanent resident (a combination that is surprisingly common in Muskoka, where many people share family cottages and maintain their own homes in town.)

New cottage owners don’t always realize that there is a direct connection between their shoreline and the quality of the water they enjoy, he says. Natural vegetation along the shore and in the water provides vital shelter to birds, fish, frogs and more, while also filtering impurities and preserving the water quality. Weedy bays, backlot beaver ponds, marshy wetlands and tangled jumbles of shoreline shrubs are all critically important, but all too often they are being dredged, drained, and built over.

The impact of dredging one weedy bay may not be obvious, but the cumulative effect of dredging all of them can be disastrous. “People need to consider whether they want a living lake or a dead one,” says Scott. “We could wind up with a Disneyfied replica of Muskoka.”

Fortunately, most of Muskoka’s 1,600 or so lakes are in very good shape, particularly when compared to waterways to the south of us. And by some measures, some of them are actually in much better condition than they were 40 years ago, thanks to the collective actions of waterfront residents.

“South of the Severn River, the focus tends to be on rehabilitation,” says Scott.

“Here we actually still have a chance to protect a lot of wildness.”

To learn more, connect with a local environmental organization such as the Muskoka Conservancy, the Friends of the Muskoka Watershed, Safe Quiet Lakes, or the Muskoka Watershed Council.

Winter in Muskoka brings a great many activities: ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross country skiing… and breaking in to cottages.

It’s one of the less savoury realities of cottage ownership, but the fact is that criminals know that entire cottage communities are often left vacant for months on end. With nobody around to hear a sound, even the most dim-witted thief can gain access and see what valuables can be had.

Staff Sergeant John-Paul Graham, commander of the Huntsville OPP detachment, says the best approach is to take valuables with you if at all possible. Alcohol, electronics, and tools are particularly attractive to thieves.

What you can’t take with you should be protected in other ways. “If you are leaving vehicles, make sure they’re secure and disabled,” he says. “For snow machines remove the track and hide the keys. Ensure boats are covered and locked, outboard motors locked and slightly disassembled, ATVs disabled – leave nothing on trailers unless it is locked or disabled.”

Permanent markings on valuables can deter thieves because they can be harder to sell if they can be traced. (Sgt. Graham recommends engraving your driver’s license number, and posting a notice saying that you’ve done so.)

Hire a property management company or alarm company, or recruit a friend or neighbour to be a keyholder and to check on the property regularly when you’re away. Many insurance companies now require this.

SupportOne of the things that makes Muskoka such an interesting place is that it’s remarkably well serviced for a rural area. Compared to many other parts of central or Northern Ontario, this region has an incredible number of talented builders and artisans, a diverse array of shops and restaurants, and far more service providers and other businesses than you’d expect to find in a region with just 65,000 year-round residents.

Those businesses exist, of course, because cottagers help them survive. And in return, they give cottagers access to a useful depth and breadth of local knowledge, says Norah Fountain, executive direct of the Muskoka Lakes Chamber of Commerce.

“Whether you’re hiring someone to cut your grass or you’re looking to buy a boat, it’s in your best interest to use someone who knows your lake,” she says.

Contractors, for example, know what’s allowed on each lake – and what’s allowed can vary considerably from lake to lake. They know who to talk to get permits, and they have the connections to get support services if they’re needed.

Even something as seemingly straightforward as buying a boat can be simplified if you work with a local dealer. “A knowledgeable salesperson will ask you what lake you’re on, what your lifestyle is, and be able to advise you on the boat that’s best suited to your lake,” says Norah.

“It really is in your best interest to use them.”

No matter how you choose to spend your time at the cottage, no matter if you are a July-August weekender or you’re here from spring thaw to freeze-up, welcome. This truly is a place like no other. People have been cottaging here for well over 150 years, and we hope they will be for at least another 150.

The best way to make the most of your time here is to engage with Muskoka. Learn about its history, its biology, its sociology. Read Muskoka books, follow social media feeds, join discussion groups, go to museums: the more you learn about this fascinating and marvellous place, the more she will reveal herself to you. Above all, sit back and observe. The view from your dock can be endlessly fascinating, an ever-changing panorama that can be absorbed in a single glance, but which can also occupy your gaze for the rest of your life.

Welcome to your first summer in Muskoka: may you enjoy many, many more.

We asked our friends, family and social media connections what other tips they’d offer. Here is some of their advice.

“Friday afternoons are the busiest time in the grocery stores. Saturday afternoons are really quiet, as long as it’s sunny. A rainy Saturday is a busy shopping day everywhere.”

“Make a bucket list of communities and trails to visit. This will keep you going for a long time, and you’ll discover gems of Muskoka you never knew about.”

“Enjoy and embrace every season. Dress for it and go out there and be in it. Be grateful for sunny, blue-skied days but find ways to be with the quieter grey days too.”

“Learn about septic systems and how they work. Antibacterial products are an anathema to them.”

“Don’t throw a wake when passing close to docks.”

“Even though you think you’re ‘just down the road’ from a local business, you’re probably not. Just pay the delivery fee!”

“Butter tart baking is an artform around here, and every bakery does it differently. You owe it to yourself to try as many different butter tarts as you can.”

“Try to use blowers, pressure washers, chainsaws and lawnmowers after 9 a.m. and before noon and try and keep it under an hour at a time.”

“Spend a day canoeing in Algonquin Park. You’ll be inspired when you see what lakes can look like with undisturbed shoreline.”

“Learn about proper protocols for garbage and recycling. Simply leaving a bag of refuse at the end of the driveway may invite ravaging by ravenous ravens! Consult with your neighbours about best practices… or just spy on them on garbage day.”

”Drive courteously. There’s no need to blast your horn or rush stoplights. Wave people through.”

“Respect people’s privacy: not all people come up to their cottage to socialize.”

“If you haven’t yet bought your property, pay attention to things such as elevation, water depth, seasonal road access and direction of sun exposure. These things are not obvious and can’t be changed.”

“When you pack up for the season, video the interior of the cottage. If you ever have to make an insurance claim, it can be incredibly useful.”

“Building and home improvement are going to happen, and we just have to live with it. If possible, try and do it in the off months.”

“Most businesses operate on reduced hours in the winter. Eating out on a Monday in January can be a challenge!”

“Sound travels on the water. If you play music on your property, make sure you are the only one that can hear it.”

“If you’re here in the winter, you will need snow tires. All-season tires do not cut it.”

“Keep lights on the lake to a minimum. Avoid installing lights that shine up – learn about dark sky-friendly lighting and use it.”

“If you have an issue with a neighbour, try to speak to them about your concerns. They may not even realize what they doing bothers their neighbours.”

“Don’t throw garbage out the window of your car. Make the time to walk your road and pick up the garbage of others in the ditch.”

“Be respectful of public dock space. Tie your boat properly, leave room for other boats, be kind and helpful to others who are navigating in tight spaces, be patient and friendly.”

“Don’t be pretentious! There are way more people with way more money than you and many of them are local.”

“Buy your beer direct from the brewery. You’ll get access to brews that aren’t available in stores.”

TEXT Andrew Wagner-Chazalon & Shelanne Augustine
PHOTOS Scott Turnbull


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