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Leah McLaren

Muskoka's sodden summer of discontent Add to ...

If Toronto is the most detested city in the country and the super-rich its most loathed minority, then surely the upmarket lake district of Muskoka wins the annual summer sweepstakes for the most hated place in Canada.

Having said that, I love it up here.

I did not grow up with a cottage. But my boyfriend's family has one, and in recent years I have come to appreciate its charms. What's not to like about a little log cabin in the woods on a quiet bay? I know that admitting this will not win me any friends among the cottage-less majority. Cottages are a privilege, after all. They are also like awards: ostentatious and useless, until you have one, in which case they're the best thing since sliced bread.

The backlash against the cottageocracy has been simmering for years, but in these times of economic crisis, it is stronger than ever. "Must be nice" is the most civil response I get when telling friends I'm going to the cottage for the rest of the summer to write. The more common one, I'm afraid, is unfit to print.

But hold your hate mail - this year, the Ontario cottageocracy doesn't deserve your envy, but the opposite. This is the summer of our discontent.

I arrived last week to the news that Muskoka had been struck down by a swine-flu outbreak. More than 200 children at several camps in the region had been diagnosed with the highly contagious, occasionally fatal virus. There were more cases of swine flu in Muskoka than in all of Britain - a cruel irony for someone who had crossed the ocean in the hope of "getting away from it all" in the Canadian wilderness.

Like everywhere, the economy up here is feeling the pinch. The monster-cottage market is drooping as people opt to offload the private island rather than yank the kids out of private school. The result? A market correction, in which you can pick up a fully winterized Cape Cod-style lakefront getaway with clay courts and two boathouses for the bargain price of $2.8-million (annual property taxes roughly equivalent to a nurse's salary).

Yes, it's the summer of the bargain hunter. "We're certainly down in dollar volume," said Donna Reid of Royal LePage Lakes of Muskoka Realty. "The only people buying in a market like this have been waiting in the wings for a long time … but it's a correction, so what can you expect?"

Of course, all of these concerns pale in comparison with the real crisis on cottagers' minds this summer, and that is the weather.

According to everyone I've run into, it's been one of the rainiest, coldest, most solidly miserable Julys on record. Not really a July at all. "Welcome to Junuary," my aunt recently grumbled. "Before that it was Juvember."

The weather might not matter so much to those with oceanview cabins, but let's face it: Without the sun, most Ontario cottages are damp suburban bungalows on the edge of a weed-choked lake.

The Australian visitors staying in our guest bunkie had been here for a whole sopping week when we arrived. Having been lured halfway around the globe by tales of glorious summers and cocktails on the dock ("docktails," as I like to call them), they understandably looked put out.

"There hasn't been one nice day," the mother told me as her bored 12-year-old son lolled on the sofa watching cartoons. We sat in silence watching freezing rain bounce off the porch screen and I felt a perverse wave of patriotism. "I'm so sorry," I said, as if to prove I was Canadian, and, "Can I get you another beer?"

Penny Caldwell, editor-in-chief of Ontario-based Cottage Life magazine, is not surprised at this summer's wave of misery.

"People don't think they're going to get swine flu at the cottage," she said when I called her up to chat (it was raining - there wasn't much else to do). "They go there to get away from that stuff and relax. If it's cold and rainy, you can't go in the water, the kids can't catch frogs, you can't go in the boat and the bugs are worse."

This sodden season has been brightened only by the local gossip that Kate Hudson brought A-Rod home to meet the parents: A friend of mine recently saw the Yankees third baseman golfing with Goldie Hawn and Martin Short at Muskoka Lakes Golf and Country Club - a thrilling and random group celebrity sighting if there ever was one.

Add to this evidence that the eyesore development of 200 condos and a "waterfront recreation centre" planned for next door appears to be on hold.

Maybe global pandemics and economic crises are good for something after all. And guess what? The sun just came out. Think I'll grab a towel and fix myself a docktail. But before you start slagging off the cottageocracy, remember: It'll probably rain tomorrow.

Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

 

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