Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cherished Memories of Childhood Vacations in Canada

When my parents were young marrieds, they began spending a week or two every summer at a cottage on Desbarats Lake in Desbarats, Ontario, Canada. (I don't know the correct pronunciation of "Desbarats," but we've always pronounced it "Deb'-ro.")

My mother's mother lived next door to an older couple, Mr. & Mrs. K, who owned the property in Canada. They were getting to be an age where it was difficult for them to travel the 500 miles or so to the property, and they were thrilled to have a responsible couple to go at least once a year to use and attend to it.

The first year that my parents went to Desbarats, my mother was appalled by a snake that would appear on the doorstep every morning, so my dad killed it one day. When they returned to Indiana after that trip, Mr. & Mrs. K asked them if they had seen their pet snake. Mom and Dad could never bring themselves to tell them the truth about the snake's fate.

My folks had begun these trips to Canada around 1940, before my brother, Phil, and I came along; and they continued going each summer without us, leaving us in the care of two aunts, until about 1949, when I was four years old. Mom said that I wouldn't have anything to do with them for awhile after they returned from their trip that year, so they decided it was time to start making a family vacation out of it.

Those yearly trips to Desbarats are the source of multitudes of warm memories for me. We would usually begin the trip on Friday afternoon, as soon as my mother got off work. Dad worked in a factory and got home a little earlier, so he would get the car loaded; and we would go pick Mom up from the law office where she worked downtown and be on our way.

I remember that we never packed suitcases, but used cardboard boxes instead, because they could be squished into the car's trunk a little easier. In addition to normal clothes and jackets for four people, we also had to take our bedding and towels, as well as food for two weeks, fishing gear, and a boat motor.

In those days, it took about 12 hours for us to travel the 500 miles from our home in Indiana to Desbarats. There was no interstate highway going up through Michigan; we traveled on U. S. 27. There was no bridge across the Straits of Mackinac, and we would often have to wait quite awhile for a ferry to take us across. The ferry ride itself took about an hour. Mom would take Phil and me up to the upper deck and let us throw bread to the seagulls, while Dad napped in the car on the lower deck.

Then we would have to take another ferry from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to Sault St. Marie, Ontario, which didn't take long at all, once the ferry was underway. By the time we reached "the Soo" on the Canadian side, we could hardly contain our excitement because we knew we weren't far from our destination.

There were two cottages on Mr. & Mrs. K's property at that time. The Road Cottage was located near the Desbarats Lake Road, where we turned onto the private lane that led to the Lake Cottage, which was the one that my parents always rented.
The Lake Cottage
There was no electricity or running water in the cottage. We used kerosene lamps and Coleman gas lanterns for light. Mom cooked on the wood-burning kitchen stove. We heated lake water for washing dishes and bathing. There was a spring, just up the hill from the Lake Cottage, which had wonderful drinking water. A metal cup hung on a post by the spring; and, as I remember it, any and all used that cup to dip water from the spring and enjoy a drink. Of course, we carried water down to the cottage to have some on hand there, too.
The Kitchen
In addition to the kitchen stove, there was a pot-bellied stove in the living area to provide heat for the cottage. There was an icebox, for keeping perishable foods cold. It was always a treat to go into town with Dad to get a block of ice for the icebox. It was a marvel to this city-raised kid that ice could be stored in an old barn, all summer long, with nothing but a layer of sawdust to keep it cold.
The Living Area


The icebox was small, so only things that might spoil could be kept in it. Things like soda pop, which was a rare treat for Phil and me, who never got it except for one a day while on vacation, were kept in a shallow place near the shore, where the spring-fed lake water could keep them chilled.

Of course, an outhouse was located on a rise a short walk from the cottage. When we were very young, we children were provided with a pot to use during the night. If we did go to the outhouse at night, one of our parents would go with us.

My dad loved to fish, and there was good fishing in Desbarats Lake. We always fished with "drop lines." I didn't know until much later that that was in an effort to evade the Canadian fish and game wardens who, when flying over the lake, would see only one or two poles and not realize how many lines were actually in the water. For years, I thought drop lines were the only way to catch walleye or northern pike. We would hold the line in our hands, drop it until the sinker hit the bottom of the lake, then raise it just a little. Then we would use a finger to gently move it until we felt a fish hit it. Then we would pull it in for all we were worth.
Linda and Phil with Fish

There was a world of exploring available to Phil and me, and not much fear of anything harmful happening to us; so we were given a lot of freedom. The lake shore near the cottage included a hill of rock that we referred to as "The Slab" which provided hours of fun for us kids. We had some great toy car races down that smooth slab of rock, in addition to just climbing around and investigating every nook and cranny of the place. Other formations around the lake, which we visited by boat with our parents, were called "The Steps" and "the King's Highway."
Linda Playing on the Rocks Near the Cottage

In later years, Mr. & Mrs. K's son took over the property and added another cottage, closer to the lake. Mom and Dad began to look for another place they might be able to rent. They found a place on a narrow channel of the same lake. The cottage was much nicer; the kitchen stove even had a reservoir on the side, where water could be heated while the meal was being prepared. And it had a pump at the kitchen sink, allowing lake water to be pumped directly into the kitchen instead of being carried in in buckets.

Across the channel from the new cottage was a Finnish family, with four little girls: Sinikka, Hilkka, Sirpa, and Seija. One of my school friends went with us one year, and she and I became acquainted with the Finns. The girls taught us a few phrases in their language. Their father spoke some English; I think their mother understood some English, but she was too self-conscious to speak it in our presence.

Sirpa, Sinikka, Hilkka, and baby Seija
When I learned that Mr. & Mrs. K's son had died, maybe 25 years ago, I looked into the possibility of purchasing the property where I had spent so many happy summer vacations; but the cost was prohibitive.

Sometime later, Doug and I revisited the two sites of these long-ago vacations. At Mr. & Mrs. K's property, the cottages were in varying stages of collapse. The Lake Cottage was in the best condition of any, but even it was sorry looking. And the spring had been left untended, the water no longer safe to drink.
The Road Cottage, About 1988
The Lake Cottage, About 1988
In comparing this photo with the one taken when we were using the cottage in the fifties, it doesn't seem to be the same cottage, although it was positioned where the old one had been. They might possibly have moved the original cottage and built another in its place, because we found the ruins of another cottage down by the lake, a cottage that hadn't been there when we were frequenting the place.
Looking Through the Window of the Lake Cottage, About 1988
Doug at the Spring, About 1988

On the other hand, we found the owners of the cottage on the channel at their cottage when we visited. They were so pleased to see us that they even took us for a boat ride out on the lake.

Mr. & Mrs. K's Property, As Seen from the Lake, About 1988
This is another picture of Mr. & Mrs. K's property, taken from the lake, about 1988. That sort of bald spot to the right of the cottage is the rocky area where we played as kids.

I imagine that my folks originally began these trips because it was a pretty cheap vacation (about $80 for two weeks, if I remember right), and it provided great fishing for my dad. I can't imagine how my mom ever thought it was fun, though, with having to cook on a wood-burning stove and doing without all the conveniences of home. But she seemed to enjoy it as much as any of us.

It's hard to imagine a family in today's technology-addicted society being content with this kind of a vacation, but it might do some of them good to give it a try.


  1. Great post AL! Love the pick with you and my Dad holding the fish. And imagine what the pictures from the lake would have looked like if you had your new super zoom camera!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post, Linda. It's obvious what a special place it was to your whole family. I'm glad you shared this story that you had told me in bits and pieces over the years, but it's made even better with the pictures. Good work, friend. :)

  3. Beckie-There were lots of pictures of people holding fish in my photos from those trips, but most had faded quite a bit. This was one of the sharpest. Besides, Mom might come back to haunt me if I published some of the ones I have of her.

    Sandra-It really WAS a special place to us. My folks went there every summer for probably 25 or 30 years. It's the source of some of those childhood memories that you wish you could experience again as an adult; but, as is so often true, you can't go back.

  4. Linda;
    Dont you recall the flying squirels? I recall them from when Phil took me there in the early 60's.

    I also recall the old "Whizzer" boat motor your dad had.

    Don Coatney

  5. Hi, Don. I can't say I really remember flying squirrels, but maybe that's because I didn't actually see them flying. I had forgotten that you had been to Desbarats with Phil. I hope this brought back some warm memories for you, too.

  6. I was born in Canada. My parents had a cottage at Rice Lake. My first fish was on a string. Like the picture shows of yours with the childrem.

    What memories. I loved fishing. I loved the cottage. Could not wait till summer came to go all summer as a kid.

    Now I gave my age away. Tee,hee.

    I just added you.


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