Cabin life

Author outside her friend's log cabin

I’ve always had an affinity for log cabins. They make me feel at home. Sadly, they are a dying breed. While custom log home builders are still building majestic post and beam and timber frame homes, you have to comb the backwoods and back lakes of our region to find an original hand-hewn log cabin.

We were having this conversation last weekend at my best friend’s family cottage north of Minden. Her Dad built the main cabin almost sixty years ago and over time, her brother Steve built two more log cabins on the property. Steve said to me at one point, “Nobody builds cottages any more, they’re all homes.”

Log sleeping cabin

Their cottage hasn’t changed much in 40 years. Waterskis and lifejackets hang from the wooden rafters in the ceiling. Next to the old icebox in the kitchen filled with baking supplies is an antique Kellogg Wood Wall phone, the kind where you had to hold a receiver to your ear to hear the person talking.

The walls of the cabin are filled with bric-a-brac, antique cookie tins, pieces of driftwood and kids’ artwork from years gone by. The only thing that has changed is the fireplace. About eight years ago, Steve refaced the fireplace, using weathered river stone. The last few years, he’s been working on restoring another old log cabin on the property. It is a very special place.

Main family cottage
Stone fireplace
Log cabin
The newest log cabin on the property

My favourite vacation rental of all time was a 100-year old log cabin set in a meadow on a hillside on 25 acres just outside of Woodstock, Vermont. We spent a week there when the kids were little, and it too, was special.

The kitchen had an old porcelain style sink with a picture above it of the original homesteaders on the property, sitting in overalls with corn straw hats. The interior of the house had an old wood stove, a long wood dining room table adorned with wildflowers in a vase, and a big wooden staircase that went up to a loft that had two bedrooms, connected by a long walkway.

100-year old cabin
100-year old cabin in Woodstock, Vermont

The best part of the house was its wraparound porch. It was massive, and we practically lived outside for the entire week, eating meals and playing games on the small table with four chairs and sitting in the rocking chairs. On our last day, as Dave and I rocked on the porch enjoying our morning coffee, a deer made his way up the hill towards the cabin, grazing on the dewey grass until he was just a few feet from us.

Yes, if I were going to move, it would be to a log cabin on a lake. For now, I’m grateful for friends who have so generously allowed me to share in the memories of these special places. It has meant the world to me.  

Front porch of log cabin

Cotton candy skies

Brilliant sky over the lake

Gorgeous summer nights have brought a special delight: a bounty of spectacular skies for the watching.

We’ve seen fiery red orbs, masking as the setting sun in a strange haze, ablaze like the wildfires burning in Northern Ontario and Western Canada.

As darkness descends, we’ve seen iridescent super moons rise high in the sky, first glowing orange, then magically changing to white, lighting up the night.

But my favourite by far are the cotton candy skies. The nights when the sun goes down and the horizon gives way to fluffy pink and blue puffballs, like the bags of sticky cotton candy on a stick you’d buy at your local fair.

This week’s #HappyAct is to watch for nature’s show in the sky this week.

Blue and pink sky
Cotton candy sky over the lake

Take the “life in one picture” challenge

Author on island with a canoe

I recently saw a photo on LinkedIn. It was of four generations of couples kissing and it was captioned “life in one picture”. It was so simple, yet beautiful.

This week’s #HappyAct, is a challenge. If you had to capture your life in one photo right now, what would it be? Share your pic. Here’s mine.

My happy place has always been near the water. This picture of me was taken this week on our staycation—Dave and I spent the day paddling on Desert Lake. We stopped at this beautiful little island for a swim and lunch, and to watch a mother loon in the bay swim with a baby on her back. This is my life, in one picture, and I’m ever so grateful.

Fireworks and fireflies

Me in my kayak with sparklers

Last weekend, the little girl next door turned five years old. Other than having a dragonfly-themed birthday party (a huge departure from the usual Frozen theme), all she wanted for her birthday was to stay up late after dark.

To honour her wish and give her a birthday she’ll never forget, we hatched a scheme with our neighbours to shoot off fireworks at the lake at dusk.

It was a warm summer evening, one of those nights when the air hangs heavily like wet clothes on a clothesline and the water is as still as glass. Shortly after eight, we headed down to the lake and piled in boats and kayaks. My neighbour Bruno was the pyrotechnician. He devised an ingenious launching pad in his boat (he only has a trolling motor, no gas can!) so he could light the fireworks, then swing the wooden stick that was serving as a launch pad away out into the water for safety.

Within minutes, we heard little voices chattering excitedly coming down the hill. The kids piled into their pontoon boat, anxiously anticipating a special treat.

Their eyes opened wide when the first fireworks lit up the sky. Burst after burst of sizzling rockets, fountains, firecrackers and sparklers were met by squeals of delight and cheers and claps.

After the show, we lit up sparklers on the dock and in the boats. From my kayak, I wrote the birthday girl’s name in the air with my sparkler, just like we did when we were kids.

As we were getting ready to head home, we looked up the hill. The brush and trees were lit up by fireflies, flitting like mystical fairies in the dark. I guess Mother Nature didn’t want the show to end.

This week’s #HappyAct is to enjoy some fireworks or fireflies this summer. If you want to read more about fireflies, check out this earlier post.

Kids watching fireworks
Kids watching fireworks
Fireworks in the sky

Out for a rip

Husband and author on ATV

Does this interminable lockdown have you down? Has cabin fever got you feverish for adventure? The perfect panacea for this perpetual pandemic is to go out for a rip.

We’ve been going out for a rip on our ATV, exploring the back roads and trails in our area the last few nights.

While technically you can go out for a rip in any vehicle like a car, truck, snowmobile, or even bicycle, there’s nothing like the open air and wind hitting your face when you’re on an ATV or bike.  

You also get to explore new terrain in an ATV. We’re very fortunate to have the K&P trail which is open to ATVs north of Verona just up the road from us.

Our area is well known for this pastime, iconicized by the famous Tamworth rapper BRich. Watch his music video Out for a Rip to find out how to do it right. (Foul language warning).   

On my rip with Dave, we whizzed past farmer fields filled with purple and white wallflowers, through old growth forests and cottage laneways. We stopped to see a magnificent barred owl, watching us from the hydro lines, a mossy covered snapping turtle laying her eggs at the top of a waterfall, and to catch the fading sun over a lily-pad covered bay.

With Clare last night, we came across three baby raccoons who clambered up a tree beside the road when we stopped to watch them, a turkey perched in a tree, and two deer.

If you enjoy the freedom of an open road, you’ll love the freedom of an open trail.

This week’s #HappyAct is to go out for a rip, bud.

And I couldn’t resist throwing it back to this post featuring the BRich Sportsnet video, “Get out your swimming trunks—the Leafs are in the playoffs”. Sorry, Leaf fans!

View from the back of an ATV
Snapping turtle laying her eggs
Baby raccoons in the trees
pond with lily pads
My daughter Clare on our ATV

My island getaway

Back Beach, Amherst Island

Usually about now, Dave and I and the kids would be heading south to the Carolinas or an island somewhere. Since a true island vacation isn’t in the cards this year, we thought we’d spend Good Friday touring a local island, Amherst Island.

Located just a few kilometres off the shore of downtown Kingston, Amherst Island was settled in 1788, when a prominent Loyalist leader, Sir John Johnston, was granted the entire island in recognition of his service and valour during the American Revolution. A second wave of immigration occurred in the 1840’s, when Irish immigrants settled in the area, with the population peaking at 2,000 Irish settlers.

Like most islands, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time the moment you drive off the ferry. We began our tour driving along the water towards the east end of the island, in search of Back Beach. Amherst Island is home to a large wind farm, and we marveled at the massive windmills in the fields on our way.

Wind turbine

We arrived at our destination and walked the long stretch of isolated pebbled beach. There were only two other people, a mother and her son walking in the afternoon sun. The beach itself was nicely sheltered, but as we walked toward the exposed point the April winds whipped all around us.

Girl on beach
People walking on the beach

After a brisk walk, we continued our tour, looking for wildlife along the way. We saw about 25 deer in total on the island, a fox walking along the beach, and lots of waterfowl.

Fox walking on the beach

The island’s most famous wildlife are its owls. Birders from miles around come to the island, which is on a major migratory path for owls, geese and other birds. We were pretty sure we saw a barred owl, which flew across the road into the fields, but weren’t close enough for a positive ID. (I saw another barred owl on my walk today and it was a beauty!)

On the western end of the island, the Kingston Field Naturalists have a property known as the Owl Woods. It’s not well marked so is tricky to find, but if you explore the property and take the time to look up into the thickly wooded trees, you may see a small sawwhet owl. They also have Purple Martin houses and blue bird houses lined along the road, but it was too early for bluebirds this cold April day.

Another interesting feature of the island is its stone walls. Amherst Island has the greatest concentration of historic Irish dry stone walls in Canada, a throwback to the days when Irish settlers inhabited the island. Up until 2019, the island hosted a Dry Stone Festival, where people come from Canada and the United States to learn the ancient art of building stone walls.

This picture of a typical dry stone wall was taken at one of our 4H family members’ houses. We hosted a barn dance at their place two summers ago for visiting 4H families on an exchange.

We finished the day with a walking tour of Stella, the tiny village at the ferry docks. There was an old blacksmith shop covered in punch tin and barn board, an old fashioned general store and a town hall. Before we knew it, it was time to catch the ferry back to the mainland.

This week’s #HappyAct is to explore an island near you and experience your own island getaway. Happy trekking!

Blacksmith shop
Amherst Island General Store

Stay in a luxurious over-the-water bungalow

Imagine your dream escape.

An over-the-water bungalow in a secluded locale

Silence and serenity your only companions

Gaze into the waters below and watch another world unfold

Every amenity within reach

There is nothing to do but relax

Except maybe curl up with your favourite book

Or wet a line and see if you can catch your dinner

Fresh grilled fish. A delicacy

The late day sun casts a reddish glow across the sky

Its yellow orb casting shadows over a breathtaking view

Until the moon appears, cresting the skyline

The end to another spectacular day in paradise

Thinking this isn’t possible right now? Well, think again. Come visit us any time in our beautiful over-the-water bungalow. Here’s a picture of our sweet little escape and of the fish I caught! And remember, you can always dream. The picture above was an ad I saw on TravelZoo. $1,899 for two to stay for a week at over-the-water bungalows in the Maldives, fully refundable. Hope this week’s #HappyAct made you smile!

Ice hut
Author with pike caught through the ice

Living vicariously through others

Author on Dubawnt River in NWT
On the Dubawnt River in NWT

By special guest blogger Dave Swinton

One thing the pandemic has taught me is you can escape through the magic of Youtube.

When I was younger we were always looking for our next adventure. One summer when I was 13, a friend of mine, his father and I built and launched a pontoon boat made completely out of wood. With an old kicker motor and a thirst for what lay around the next bend, my friend and I set off every day to fish, swim, and explore the Grand River in all its glory. As I got older, and went off to school in Thunder Bay, we ascended the top of the Sleeping Giant and descended to the depths of Ouimet Canyon (if you haven’t heard of it, look it up). We hiked, skiied and snowshoed new territory every weekend. We ice fished lakes from dawn till dusk and purposely got lost because this is where we found our true selves. 

I’ve been to places few people have ever been. Whether it be a 9-day river trip in the Arctic or a safari in Tanzania, my thirst for adventure is never far from the surface.

But the inevitable dance with age is starting to catch up with me. Sore knees, hips, and shoulders are starting to diminish my dreams of trips. My mind is still filled with adventures. Hiking in the Himalayas, far north canoe trips, road trips, lost lakes. But who am I kidding, some of these may never happen.

I’ve had some willing partners over the years, some of who are now gone but my thirst for adventure continues. 

But I’ve found a new set of partners on YouTube. They have specialized camera equipment like GoPros and DSLR cameras and drones which make you feel like you are right beside them.

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered a YouTuber named Foresty Forest. The man has literally converted his van into a liveable space and spends his days hiking and mountain climbing all the gorgeous peaks of British Columbia. His stamina for climbing is off the charts and sometimes he climbs multiple peaks every day. The vistas he captures are stunning and his minimal dialogue is very enjoyable. I’ve also hiked the Himalayas with a Nepalese man named Ram and his company Mountain Ram Adventures without ever leaving the comfort of my house. One day I’m fishing Lake of the Woods, the next night I’m canoeing in Quetico.

My thirst for adventure will always be satisfied.

This week’s Happy Act is to live vicariously through others, because that’s all we have right now.

Giraffe at Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Lake Manyara, Tanzania

A vision for the future of Kingston in a post-COVID world

Abandoned limestone building

A new year is upon us. A time for hope, setting goals and envisioning a new future.

This year, I believe one of our greatest challenges will be to have a vision for the future for our towns, cities and communities in a post-COVID world.

Life will get back to normal as the vaccine rolls out, but things may not look the same. Businesses will have closed, for rent and lease signs may become permanent fixtures in downtown cores, and we may see an exodus from cities as people now have the choice and freedom to work from anywhere. Which leaves us to beg the question, how can we keep our cities vibrant and relevant in a post-COVID world?

I was thinking about this today while walking along the waterfront behind our new hospital, Providence Care in Kingston. On a cold day in January during lockdown, there were runners jogging through the grounds, families toboganning on a popular hill, and people walking their dogs along the trail by the water.

This particular area of Kingston is interesting because there are many old beautiful abandoned limestone buildings on the property near the waterfront. I started imagining what the scene could look like six months from now when COVID was under control and the weather was fine.

This is what I saw: waterfront galleries, stores and craft cooperatives in the limestone buildings along the water.

Outdoor patios and seating like in the Distillery District in Toronto and nice restaurants extending out over the water like the pavilion at Dow’s Lake in Ottawa.

An area where street musicians and performers could play like The Forks in Winnipeg or Jackson Square in New Orleans.

Miles of boardwalk with lookouts and views where you could watch the sailboats go by.

Kingston has an astonishing 280 km of waterfront. It sits on Lake Ontario, is at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and is bisected by the Cataraqui River which feeds up into the Rideau Canal.

There’s Fort Henry with a magnificent view of the river, lake and city, our historic downtown with market square, City Hall and Confederation Basin where the tour boats depart from, the entire Kingston Penitentiary site, and miles of parks and trails.

We are water rich, but to a large degree our waterfront is still largely dispersed. You have to hop, skip and jump like a stone skipping on the waves to get from one waterfront trail and park to another. We also have huge tracts of land and buildings that are sitting idle, just begging to be developed.

In 2014-2016, the City of Kingston developed a master waterfront plan that identified hundreds of projects over a 30-year period. There has been a lot of terrific work that has already been done to make our city the gem it is, but there is so much more to be done.

For all of Kingston’s parkland, we also do not have a single stand-out, signature garden, maybe not quite on the scale of Butchart Gardens in Victoria or the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, but a garden that would attract people to our city and become a place of natural beauty, peace and a place for the community to gather.

This week’s #HappyAct is to envision how our communities will look like post-COVID. Then ask, what can we do to make it happen?

Old limestone building on Kingston's waterfront
Lake Ontario
This abandoned pier is the ideal location for a pavilion style restaurant extending over the water in Kingston
These abandoned buildings would be ideal for retail, craft cooperatives and art galleries

The year in review: my favourite happy acts from the year of COVID

Two girls graduating

Each year at this time, I select my top ten favourite blog posts for my annual year in review.

I was a bit worried this year that pickings would be slim. Truth be told blogging about happiness during a global pandemic is a bit of a tough slog. With little prospects for fun excursions, and at times struggling with my own mental and physical health, there were many weeks when I wondered what simple act could I share this week to make the world a happier place?

But as I re-read the posts two things hit home. You can feel moments of happiness and gratitude at the most unexpected times and by doing the simplest of acts.

The other realization was happiness cannot be viewed in isolation. We are vastly impacted by events happening around us. My blog this past year has been as much a reflection and chronicle of the times as anything else.

Here were my favourite happy acts from a year that will go down in the history books as a year to remember:

There you have it. Another year under the bridge, another year of happy acts. Here’s to a happier 2021 for us all.