Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Missing Muskoka

The Muskoka Sands Inn. From 1980 to 1983, when I was 7 to 10 years old, my parents and I vacationed there every summer for two weeks. Because I was a kid, soaking up every second of sensory input and weaving hours of detailed memory-fantasies, in my mind it's like we lived there for months on end. Beautiful months upon summer months.

Muskoka is a rural region around 2 hours' drive north of Toronto. It's cottage country, a mosaic of lakes, rivers, and forests. You know you've arrived when the highway starts cutting through outcroppings of granite. Speckled, rough walls of veined pinkish or rusty rock loom over the car on both sides as you fly from the city towards your vacation. It's the Canadian Shield making its presence known.

The Muskoka Sands Inn still exists, but it's been totally renovated. I was only back there once since they rebuilt the place, and I didn't like the new look. I preferred the quaint, 1960's guest cottages that used to surround the main building. My folks and I used to stay in the same one every year: The Elm. My room had an orange shag rug, wood-panelled walls, and a brown-and-vanilla floral patterned quilt on the bed. The tap water from the bathroom sink came out smelling like the lake.

Lake Muskoka was the centrepiece of the resort. Most of the people vacationing there windsurfed, water-skied, and para-sailed all day long, stopping only for beers, burgers, and fries on the patio restaurant over the boathouse. On Sundays a live band played jazz on the patio, and I was allowed to order a banana split after lunch. I had to eat it quickly before it melted in the hot, August sun. Then if I was lucky my parents would give me quarters for a few games of pinball inside the restaurant.

Once every two weeks, the servers from the Inn put on a water skiing demonstration. They did tricks on inner tubes, made human pyramids, and, as a gimmick, skied on their serving trays.

The formal dining room, where breakfast and dinner were served, also overlooked the lake. It was a big, wide room, surrounded on three sides by glass windows. The sunset views were phenomenal. There was a parquet dance floor in the centre, and on Saturday nights the same jazz band that played at the boathouse would play big band music in the dining room while all the grownups danced.

My favourite moment in that dining room occurred when a server was bringing a huge tray from the kitchen to restock the breakfast buffet. It was filled with little glass cups full of stewed prunes. The server lost his footing as he stepped onto the dance floor, and lobbed the entire tray up into the air as he flailed for balance. It rained stewed prunes that morning.

My favourite place to be was in a special little cottage shaded by ancient trees, next to the shuffle-board courts. This was the potter's cottage. The owner of the inn was married to a sweet Dutch woman who had set up her clay studio there. She made beautiful dishes, mugs, and vases which she sold in the front room of the cottage. She used to let me stand quietly in a corner of the studio, watching her throw pots on the wheel. It was like magic, seeing a slippery, grey lump of clay turn into a bowl right before my eyes.

Once she let me make some bowls and stamp them with my initials. My mother still has them. It was only years later, when I took a pottery course and sucked at it, that I realized how much help I must have had making those neat, symmetrical bowls. She must have pretty much made them for me and then let me take all the credit.

On busy, cold days, I miss the Muskoka Sands Inn. I miss wading knee-deep in the cold lake, letting the minnows kiss my ankles. I miss taking walks with my mother, holding our breath while walking through clouds of gnats. She always ended up with at least one bug in her mouth, no matter how hard she tried to keep them out. I miss falling asleep in my squeaky twin bed, listening to the maple trees rustle in the wind outside the cabin window.


LL Cool Joe said...

Problem is, you can never go back. Things are never the same again.

There's a song by David Cassidy that sums this up to me.

Can't go home again

Time and time again I tried to get back to my home town
On my mind again
I'm on my way back take a look around
The places I remember where my pictures come undone
Such a long way back and this boy's lost track
Of the place where he was young

And I'm back on the street where I used to live
And I passed an old friend who was holding his kid
And I swear I can almost hear mamma call my name
And I'm back on the river where I was Huck Finn
Just Charlie McLaughlin he always played Jim

Now I know why they say you just can't go home again
Yes I know why they say you just can't go home again

My friends and I could talk the night away
About where we were going
Laying out our lives we had no way of ever knowing
The plans we made keep changing
And people they just do the same
It's a long way back and we all lose track
Of the faces and the names

And I stop for an ice cream at the corner drug store
A double-deck cone ain't a dime anymore
Have things really changed so much or is it just me
And I asked about Tom, he ran the picture show
And somebody said he died years ago

Repeat chorus

Such a long way back and this boy's lost track
Of the places and their names
And I spoke to the bum as he sat on the ground
That crazy old man he's still toasting the town
For the first time in my life I understood
How the wine that had taken his worries and cares
Had also taken the love he once shared
Then he cried as he said I just can't go home again

Jameil said...

Wow. You make it sound so idyllic! I've never wanted that sort of folksy, outdoor-centered lifestyle but if you miss it, I miss it for you!

wigsf3 said...

I detest the cottage experience. It first, I tried to understand it. I visited the cottages of my friends a few times. Each time, I found less and less reasons to want to be up there.

Nature is beautiful. That is why I live where I live. I'm close enough to the "country" that I can experience it whenever I want without having to piss away two hours each way on the road. While simultaneously, I live close enough to the city that I can go there whenever I want.

My last few visits to the Muskoka region have all been professional. And while I'm up there working, I'm sitting there wondering why my clients feel it necessary to piss away their hard earned money on a second home while their first home is perfect.

As for Muskoka specifically, it's certainly now (can't speak for what it used to be like) has become two completely different cultures. The life-long locals live under or damn near close to the poverty line while the cottagers (and retired new residents) are incredibly wealthy and affluent. I know that disparity between the two groups creates a huge feeling of resentment amongst the locals. I personally would hate to visit that region and have the feeling that the locals resent me although I've done nothing to them but in their minds, I represent the reason for their lot in life.

San said...

What a lovely memory you've painted of your childhood inn. It makes me think of a tiny little motel we used to go to on the Gulf Coast, way before that coast had been overrun with upscale highrise condominiums. We'd have the beach to ourselves, we and the handful of other guests.

Sparkling Red said...

LL Cool Joe: Yeah, that just about sums it up. 30 years ago the world was a different place, and we can never go back.

Jameil: Oddly enough, I was as indoorsy as a kid as I am now. I never participated in the water sports I wrote about. I didn't even like to spend a lot of time in the sun. I brought a suitcase full of books each summer and read my way through them under shade trees. The most active thing I did was play a few games of shuffleboard.

wigsf: Word. I am NOT into cottages whatsoever. Not the type you're talking about. The "cottage" we stayed in at the Inn had hot running water, and was very comfortable. I also don't recall being eaten alive by mosquitos the way I always am at proper cottages. When people invite me up to their cottage, I'll always find a good excuse not to go.
As for the locals, I'm sure there was economic disparity back in the day too, but I was too young and innocent to be aware of it. Although it probably wasn't as bad 30 years ago - aside from the seasonal tourists. I don't recall seeing mansions by the side of the road or anything like that.

San: There's nothing like having a beach to yourself. The only time I've ever had a beach to myself was during a rainstorm. It was still pretty darn nice.

DarcsFalcon said...

Those are some lovely childhood memories there, Spark. Good ones to cherish. :)

DarcKnyt said...

Great childhood memories. I wonder what it would be like to go back for you? Hm. Scary thought.

Andrew said...

Great piece. Thanks for sharing your memories of the Sands.

I'm the editor of the Muskokan, a weekly paper published out of Bracebridge. We occasionally run blog entries as guest columns. Would you be willing to let us run this one? I think a lot of our readers will relate to your memories.

Contact me via email: editorial (at) muskokan (dot) com.

wigsf3 said...

by the way, like the new template, very summery

Lynn said...

This is such a lovely post. And it is so funny that you loved the raining stewed prunes memory the most. :) Sounds like a place I'd like to see!