Life in a Boathouse
My summer days begin when the sun rises over Crown Island on Lake Muskoka. Shafts of sunlight ripple across the lake and bounce off the water into my boathouse bedroom. Without moving from my bed I can see this miracle of day breaking. I get up and put the coffee on. As the boathouse fills with gauzy light, I pad about in bare feet and enjoy the quiet while others continue to sleep.
With warm coffee mug in hand, I make my way outside to water the flowers in the window boxes that line two sides of the boathouse. I pick off dead blossoms, poke at the soil, and breathe in the fresh air, fragrant with pine. The dock underfoot is damp with dew, and the sun is just beginning to drink up the morning mist as I slide into the lake for my ritual morning swim. All is silent, except for a seagull calling to me from the boathouse roof. Treading the soft water a short distance from shore, I watch my cat, the only other creature stirring, as she rounds the corner of the boathouse, crosses a patch of rock, then curls into the base of the cedar tree next to the bird feeder.
This routine happens every summer morning at our island boathouse-cottage in Muskoka. It is my family's treasured retreat. The boathouse is our emotional anchor, the place that roots us, the place to which we all return. I've been coming to these two small islands belonging to my aunt since I was a child -- long enough to know every inch of lichen-covered rock, the shoreline's every nook, and the height of every pine tree. Now my daughters perpetuate this loving attachment to our small patch of earth. "Can't we go up just for an hour or two?" my younger daughter implored recently because she hadn't been to the boathouse for months. In our family "go up" has always meant "go up to the lake." The island's cottage has existed, in various forms, for a long time, but our livable boathouse is new. Its construction was an all-consuming project that took place in the summer of 1988.
That was a summer of much building activity around the Muskoka Lakes. A construction boom took place in this cottage country between 1985 and 1990. Property was selling for unprecedented prices and many extravagant new cottages were built with immense boathouses at the water's edge. The last time the lakes experienced such epic boathouse-building was between 1905 and 1930, during Muskoka's steamboat era, when cottagers depended on boats to get to their summer homes. Few roads had been opened into the area, so the early cottagers arrived by train, then boarded the appropriate lake steamers that would carry them and their belongings to their cottages.
In 1905 the Muskoka Lakes Navigation and Hotel Company ran the largest inland-waterway steamboat line in the country, ferrying cottagers and hotel guests from one end of the lakes to the other. Fifty thousand guests could be accommodated at scores of fashionable summer resorts. Many cottage owners found the navigation company's timetable too erratic, so they bought their own steam-driven launches. These launches were large enough to hold family groups with their attendant trunks, wicker baskets, packing crates and hat boxes. Some of these private steamers were enormous. The Wanda II, for example, was a 94-foot steamer built in 1905 for Timothy Eaton, the Toronto department store tycoon. It could hold fifty passengers. Before long, dozens of private steamers plied the lakes, each requiring a boathouse for shelter.
Before the advent of the steamboat, the only shoreline buildings were crude sheds put up by settlers to store their canoes and rowboats, or the somewhat more elaborate dry-slip boathouses belonging to the cottagers. The latter had ramps that sloped into the water so that unmotorized craft could be pulled out of the lake for winter storage. But when the large new private steamers arrived on the lakes, they required buildings that had long slips and tall, pitched roofs. Sheets of tin were used to cover the ceilings, and smokestacks were cut into the rooftops because the boats' wood-fired engines were stoked while the craft were still in their berths. This hazardous arrangement caused frequent boathouse fires. Many early steam yachts were destroyed this way, including the lovely Wanda II, which burnt in a boathouse fire at the Eaton's summer estate on Lake Rosseau in 1914.
By their nature, boathouses are intrusions on the landscape. Every one built obliterates another patch of scenic shoreline. But many have architectural merit that goes beyond their function. Architect Tony Marsh, who has been involved in twelve Muskoka boathouse projects, maintains that "the design of the boathouse is more important than the cottage because it's more visible. It's a less serious building, really just a garage for boats, so there's room for some whimsy in the design. Details like fish-scale shingles in the gable ends, trellises and window boxes are what make them interesting as buildings."In the architecture of boathouses, it seems, form can follow fancy.
In the early years, architects were rarely involved in the building of boathouses or cottages. Many turn-of-the-century cottage designs came from pattern books, popular building guides published during the Edwardian era. The one architect known to work in Muskoka around the turn of the century was from Pittsburgh. In the early 1900s Brendan Smith was hired to build cottages and boathouses for a few of the Pittsburgh group who summered at Beaumaris. Most notable are the much-photographed Clemson boathouses that look like big and little brother due to their jaunty matching roof lines and porthole windows. Another Brendan Smith structure is found at the Hillmans' property on Gibraltar Island, where two look-alike brown boathouses with fanciful white trim stand side by side. Both these sets of boathouses were built by Peter Curtis, a local builder who left his trademark in the form of wooden cutouts. At the Clemsons' the cutouts are heart-shaped and can be seen on railings, shutters and dock benches. At the Hillmans' the cutouts are diamond-shaped.
Second storeys were often added to boathouses to accommodate staff. In those early days, families often stayed for the entire summer -- mothers and children, assorted grandparents and aunts, cousins and others. Servants ensured the smooth running of such large enterprises. On Lake Muskoka at the turn of the century, James Kuhn, a banker from Pittsburgh, built a huge estate on Belle Isle and then brought to the island a staff of twenty-six, a number of whom lived in the family's boathouse. At some cottages the boathouse's upper storey was used as a dance hail and was festooned with streamers and paper lanterns for Saturday-night parties.
As gasoline-powered motorboats took over from steamboats and steam-powered launches, the need for large waterfront buildings lessened, and from 1930 to 1965 few boathouses were built. Some of the older ones that hadn't burnt or fallen down were altered to get rid of their smokestacks and tall, covered slips. In some cases a floor was added to increase upper-level living space, and because family servants were now a thing of the past, the second storey became dormitory space for the children.
For years boathouses -- particularly those located along Millionaires' Row at Beaumaris --- have been focal points for afternoon cruises around the lakes. But it wasn't until the early 1980s that there emerged a renewed interest in "Old Muskoka" cottages and boathouses. Muskoka once again became a fashionable summer place, much as it had been during the golden years of the 1920s, when Muskoka events and gatherings were reported weekly in the society columns of Toronto's newspapers.
Many of the old boathouses were restored, and new ones were built to imitate the old style. Upper levels that over the years had become storage space, or recreation rooms for children, were also looked at with renewed interest and in many cases renovated for adults, either as guest rooms or granny flats. "What happened at our boathouse," explains a Lake Joseph cottager, "is that we planned the space perfectly for weekend guests, then spent one night in it ourselves, listening to the water, and never moved back to the cottage."
Living in a boathouse wrapped in blue lake is different from living fixed to the ground in a cottage. There is a feeling of buoyancy in the daytime, and at night the lulling sensation of water lapping beneath you as you sleep. It is like being on a large vessel that is permanently anchored in the same snug harbour. "It gives me a psychological lift," claims a boathouse-dweller from Lake Rosseau. "The light is special. It glints off the water even on the dullest days." The full spectrum of light can be seen. Dawn comes in with its pale and shimmery waves of yellow, and at dusk the afterglow of sunset is like a mauve cocoon.
Summer days are ruled by the lake's many moods -- by the rhythms of the water, the cycles of the sun and moon, the closeness of the night sky. Like sailors, boathouse-dwellers study the wind. At our island we're exposed to an open stretch of lake, and at times "the north wind doth blow." And blow. And blow. On such days, as the wind rattles the windows and shakes the foundation cribs, we dismiss all loving thoughts about the place. Curled up in the deep cushions of our sofa, with stacks of books and magazines at our side, we turn up the music to drown out the crashes and thuds. We haven't let the real world intrude on our boathouse in the form of television and VCR, but we do have such civilized comforts as hydro, hot water, telephone and stereo. My kitchen typifies the simplicity of our existence, with its two-burner hot plate and absence of gadgets. We try to balance our boathouse life along the fine line between rusticity and comfort.
In her book Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote about "the art of shedding" and how little one needs for beach living. Boathouse living is, or should be, similar. It demands less. Fewer clothes make their way into limited closet space, furniture is kept simple, and outdoor cooking dictates a casual approach to meals. Being surrounded by a vast, cooling body of water tempers our hot summer days.
One of my favourite times at the lake is twilight, when my husband and I inch our way out of the boathouse in our old motorboat and put-put along the shore. We watch as the last sliver of daylight disappears from the horizon and the twinkle of cottage lights begins to appear along the shore. As darkness falls and the rush of cool air rises from the lake, we idle back to the boathouse, pull down the door, and bid goodbye to the day.
The weekly scribbles in our family diary show how insular our boathouse life becomes. Little of the outside world is noted. Instead there are jottings about the weather; the temperature of the lake ("still too cold for a midnight skinny dip"); the day the swallows arrived and started to nest beneath the eaves; the comings and goings of friends and family ("Jane arrived today with the three kids"); the number of saplings gnawed by the beaver; and details about the size of the moon and its silvery path across the lake. And for each of the four summers that we have lived in the boathouse, the final entry in October reads: "All is drained, antifreezed, emptied and shut down. We hate to leave."
Until 1965, Muskoka boathouses were built without restrictions. No by-laws had been imposed by any government to control the building of these waterfront dwellings. Then, as concern for the vanishing shoreline increased, permits were required and various regulations applied. Now the rules change on an almost yearly basis. But since 1989 the maximum allowable size for boathouse living quarters has been 650 square feet, with a maximum height of 25 feet. The neighbours' approval is required before a permit can be granted. In addition, the Ministry of Natural Resources must examine the lake bed to ensure that fish spawning grounds will not be disturbed by the foundation cribs, and Canadian Coast Guard permission stating that the structure will not impede navigation must also be obtained.
In 1990 the Ministry of Natural Resources began to look even more closely at buildings on Crown lands (which include all waterways) and decreed that no more two-storey boathouses may be built in Ontario waters. Permits will only be granted for single-storey structures. And so the boathouses of Muskoka, these quirky, often elegant harbingers of the cottages that lie hidden in the woods, will become historic treasures, never to be duplicated.