Monday, August 12, 2013

A poor man on a rich lake

From time to time an old friend affords me the opportunity to summer on an island in one of the lakes north of Toronto. I get a cabin with no electricity and no running water. The "facilities" consist of a vintage two-holer.

A hundred years ago this island was the summer home of the Peck family of Chicago. That was an era when those who could afford it would hire a private rail car and make their way north to get their families and an appropriate complement of servants away from the oppressive mid-west summer heat.

A few days later they would disembark their rail car and board a steamer that would deposit them on the dock at their summer retreat.

The remains of the Peck family's summer home are still partially intact at the highest point of this island, from where, in the first few decades after the rapacious logging concerns clear-cut everything they could access, they would have had a view for many miles up and down the lake.

I still get a decent view from the two-holer. I am no stranger to pre-modern sanitation. One of my family's first homes in the promised land had no running water; a hand-pump in the yard was the only water supply for the house and the barn and the chicken coops.

Ten years later, as the upwardly mobile immigrants built their first new house in the promised land, vagaries of scheduling resulted in the family moving in before the plumbers got there, and I had the opportunity to execute an entire winter's worth of bowel movements in temperatures that could hit -30.

So the island outhouse is no great shakes in the hardship department. In fact, due to being screened in on three sides it affords a rather splendid vista of the eastern reaches of the lake, and the breezes the screening allows minimize both the odors associated with outhouses and the bugs associated with taking a shit in the woods.

At some point post WWI the Peck family, made comfortable in the Chicago summer by electricity and air-conditioning, no longer required this distant refuge and deeded it to a church group, which built a bunch of little cabins and made it a summer youth camp.

One of those cabins serves as my occasional summer retreat.

The history of summer retreats is something that I could, if I were starting a career as a social historian, get seriously enthused about. After all, there are worse ways to spend one's life as a social scientist than lounging about in the Muskokas.

The uber-rich from far away are mostly gone. Waterfront on any of these lakes starts in the range of a half million dollars and goes up from there, and is mostly held by upper-middle-class folks from Toronto and professional hockey players.

They wouldn't recognize the Pecks and the Pecks wouldn't recognize them.

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