Gravenhurst Travel Blog

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I’m standing on the highest point of a sheer cliff wall that leans precariously over the black, black waters of Lake Muskoka way below me. A tiny breeze rustles through the fir trees behind me and gently, almost imperceptibly, pushes me towards the edge. The water below laps against the rope that, years ago, someone thoughtful attached to a strong tree halfway up the almost vertical incline. The rope moves gently in the swell, left..right…left…right like the movements of an impatient grandfather clock desperate to see me smashed to bits. There’s no way out. Bobbing far below me are four or five speedboats packed with blood-thirsty spectators come to see the latest idiot test his machismo against the lake. Failure is not an option. On one of the boats are my own two sweet children, perhaps wondering why they have been made to sit on a small boat and watch their overweight father totter in terror high above them. This being Canada I happen to know exactly how high above them I am. Someone has helpfully painted the exact height right on the edge of the abyss. Fifty-six feet is the drop, it feels like two hundred. As I peek over for yet another last time, a boy appears from the trees behind me. He can’t be more than fourteen. He stares at me quizzically and I try to pretend that I’m all very relaxed about jumping and indicate that he can go before me if he wants to, it’s no big deal. Without hesitation the youth hurls himself off the ledge managing to do a neat little double somersault in the air before he’s sucked deep into the mouth of the lake. After ten seconds or so he reappears above water and the bay resounds to the sounds of whoops and cheers from the floating audience. I can’t go back now. I take a final look down and feel a little nauseous. I take two steps back and launch myself forward. What if I slip on the crucial last connection? I don’t. I’m in the air, all hope of doing something graceful abandoned as my arms flail about wildly and all the air in my body is expelled in a panicky death gasp of fear. Photos will later show that I expand to almost double size as I relinquish all body control apart from that crucial portion of my brain dealing with absolute panic that is working on overtime. I can feel myself starting to lurch awkwardly to the side but can’t really do anything about it. I can see my daughter, Parker, cheering wildly at her daddy, her hero who knows no fear. I know that when you drown you’re supposed to see your life flashing before you but I haven’t even hit the water yet and I’m getting towards the end of the depressingly short feature. I wonder whether this really is it? My death to be shown endlessly on “World’s Dumbest Idiots” on the Bravo Channel. I can see the glint of at least five lenses straining to capture the actual moment of death. And then I hit. With a resounding slap I go under at a crooked angle that allows my tailbone to take the biggest hit. I manage to surface, bruised and broken. I can hear the smattering of applause turn to shouts as there is a general realisation that I’m not going to make it to the boat on my own. My watch is gone, ripped off my arm by the pressure of the entry and no doubt sitting, thirty feet below on top of a treasure trove of similarly lost booty. As I’m pulled back onto my own boat Parker gives me a big kiss and tells me that I can fly. I smile weakly and am forced to stand as I drive the boat back home. I wonder whether I’ll ever sit down again and why I insist on repeating this pathetic attempt at proving my machismo every single year?
Each summer I take a break from the intensive work involved in maintaining my status as a minor celeb and go cottaging in Canada. Sorry, I’ll rephrase that. Every year I rent a cottage in Canada. On lake Muskoka, three hours north of Toronto, to be specific. My wife, Stacey, is Canadian and, having visited her relatives a couple of times at Christmas when all of Toronto lives underground and soft drinks freeze in your car, I insisted on future visits being made in the summer. It turned out to be one of my ever-so-rare great decisions. It’s utter heaven. I love telling UK friends that I’m off to Canada for my summer holidays. Everyone assumes that it will be freezing and that I’m off for a bit of glacier skiing. I nod and pretend that it will indeed be a torturous affair but emphasise that sometimes it’s important that you don’t just think of yourself and do something for your wife and her family. As I bask in their praise I think of my speedboat bobbing in my dock, the hot Canadian sun glinting off the enticing waters of the lake to form happy, dancing patterns on the hull. I think of days spent pleasantly lost on the lake trying to find my way back home through the labyrinth of little islands and then coming across another gorgeous little hidden cove where I drop anchor and swim and sunbathe and read a book by Scott Fitzgerald and begin to understand what he was on about.
The whole idea of leaving the city far behind and retreating to your cottage is firmly entrenched in the Canadian psyche. If you look at a map of the country that has a circle to indicate any centre of population over 250,000 then you will se a strong line of circles strung along the US/Canadian border. About seventy percent of them live within two hours of it. The rest of this enormous hinterland is relatively uninhabited. Going “up north” is very much part of being a Canadian. It harks back to a tough history of men wearing racoons on their heads hacking through deep tundra whilst carrying a canoe and looking for beaver. In comfortable, twenty-first century, Canada there is still a pride in being able to shed the comfy trappings of modern life and going back to basics. So the very first cottages were mere log cabins with no electricity where the Canadian Pater Familias could take his family kayaking and fishing and teach them about the important things in life. Fortunately for materialistic me, Muskoka has really moved on. It was one of the very first areas to be “cottaged” by Torontonians and rich Americans at the end of the nineteenth century and its’ continued development and popularity has turned it into something of a “wilderness-lite” experience. The term “cottage” is now used to describe vast Hamptons-like compounds that can encompass, hot tubs, saunas, satellite TV and indoor swimming pools. Once I’ve driven up from Toronto I very rarely get back into my Alaska destroying SUV. I do everything by boat. In the morning I cruise the five minutes or so that it takes me to get to the nearest lakeside store where I can dock and get some milk, cigarettes and a newspaper and start to think about what I’m going to do that day. I might take the family in the boat up to Port Carling, a pretty little yuppy town that sits between lakes Rosseau and Muskoka. It has a couple of great restaurants with their own docks where can just tie up the boat and stuff our faces. Then a trip to a farmer’s market, go to the cinema, visit a superbly quaint old ice cream store with the kids, go water-skiing, or just find some (small) rocks and dive in and out of the water? It’s all done by boat and everything just feels so easy, so right. Maybe I could move here, get a job at the local radio station “Moose FM” I wouldn’t need much money, live like this for ever….it really is heaven
In the evening everyone ends up back at the cottage. The kids cook hot dogs over the huge fire pit that sits on the lawn at the edge of the lake. Someone starts preparing the proper evening meal while the rest of the extended family; cousins, grandmothers, aunts, uncles and nieces laugh and joke round the fire sipping some of my homemade hooch, an enormous tub of Vodka, fresh lemonade, peach juice, grapefruit juice, ice, lots of ice. Then after the meal, fireworks, reflected in the night of the lake, lighting up the excited faces of my kids. This is what holidays should be all about. They’ll remember this all their lives, late starry nights, jokes about bears, Scrabble, too much Scrabble, stories by the fire, someone’s singing….if only I could sit down……
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photo by: esterrene