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Sue McPhedran reads in the Muskoka room of her family cottage near Rosseau, Ont., on Sept. 8, 2019.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Sue McPhedran and her husband bought their property on Skeleton Lake near Huntsville, Ont., in 2004 because of the pristine water, rugged landscape and windswept pines. The cottage that came with it all was a bit of an afterthought.

“When you drove up the driveway and slammed the car door, the windows shook,” McPhedran says with a laugh. She describes the 900-square-foot building, which housed a remarkable four bedrooms, as “basically put together with duct tape.”

Still, for all its tackiness – indeed, maybe because of it – they loved it, and when they finally tore it down in 2010 to get a little more “elbow room,” they vowed the new cottage would be as laid back and unpretentious as the original.

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“My decorating credo was simple: You had to be able to sit anywhere in a wet bathing suit,” says McPhedran, an artist who has a workshop in the basement of the new cottage and makes whimsical woodcarvings, such as a bathing suit and canoe. “Our cottage is full of sentimental things, hand-me-downs or furniture I have made or refinished,” she says. “Nothing precious is allowed.”

Top of her wish list when they were building was a Muskoka room – or screened-in porch – something most cottagers know is a necessity as soon as the warm weather begins and the black flies descend. “It immediately became our family gathering place. It’s like it has a gravitational pull,” she says, adding that sitting in the cozy space surrounded by the woods feels like being in a tree house.

“It’s where we do so many things. We read. We visit. We play games. We have informal meals, and when there’s too many of us, we just grab more chairs and jam ourselves in,” McPhedran explains. She and her husband have two grown kids, one in Toronto, the other in Calgary. “It’s also where my girlfriends and I drink wine and solve the world’s problems.”

With all the dark cedar, McPhedran says red seemed a good colour to embolden the room, and she uses it freely on chairs, side tables, cushions, knickknacks (such as the jam jars with candles) and the dome-shaped ceiling fixture.

The furniture is a delightful mixture of odds and sods. The wicker settee and coffee table came from her favourite local antique shop, Flying Star Antiques in Bracebridge, Ont. The coffee table was recycled from their home in the city. McPhedran cut off the legs and refinished it. Her dad made the birch lamp out of a stump he found on the family farm.

“The red-and-white quilt my grandmother made me,” McPhedran says, “and the bowl on the coffee table came from her, too. It was what her family used to make butter in.”

Everything in this room, she adds, means something, but by far the most precious keepsake is the cottage journal, which she keeps in the butter bowl.

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“If there was a fire, and I had to grab one thing, that would be it. Everybody writes in it when they come, and it contains all sorts of magical memories from over the years,” McPhedran says. “Every cottage has a personality. Ours reminds us that family, friends, health and nature are the real gifts of life. The real luxuries.”

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