I never planned to buy a cottage. Then I saw my grandfather’s old property in Algonquin listed for $220,000
For as long as I can remember, living with nature was an essential part of my life. Born and raised in Oshawa, I was the eldest of three kids. My family didn’t have much money—my father was a freight driver for Purolator and my mother was a school bus driver—so traveling was not an option.
Instead, from the age of nine onward, we spent summers at my grandparents’ cottage in the Algonquins. Dubbed Rocky Ridge for its rugged terrain, my grandparents bought it from the original owners for $55,000.
Situated in a private park, the three-bed, one-bath bungalow was approximately 750 square feet. The lot had 108 feet of shoreline frontage on Barnum Lake. With a rustic red exterior and an A-frame roof, the cottage clung to a small hill that overlooked the lake, where on many mornings, a mist drifted by the window.
While the place belonged to my grandparents, we’d come to know it as the family cottage. We were taught to care for and respect nature and animals. My grandfather, a passionate hobbyist in the craft of wood burning, turned household items into works of art, like transforming the kitchen cabinets into a carved landscape of trees and rock.
I, along with my sister Jennifer and brother Thom, would explore the nearby woods. We climbed trees and gathered raspberries. We made food and listened to music of my grandparents’ choosing on the radio, usually Polka. We sat on the deck together and played “I Spy,” spotting clouds, trying to find shapes in them.
Sometimes, I placed peanuts between my toes and fed the chipmunks, or watched hummingbirds flutter over the feeder. But what I remember most vividly were our activities on warm days. We swam in the lake with grandpa, who would backstroke down to the small bay at the end of the lake.
As I grew up, circumstances in our family changed. Grandpa had mobility issues and couldn’t keep up with the maintenance. And no one else in the family could afford the upkeep at the time.
In the summer of 2001, my grandparents were forced to sell for $80,000. It was particularly difficult for me because my parents separated around the same time. When the cottage sold, it felt like the end of my childhood.
As the years went on, I held on to a lot of memories. During teacher’s college at Queen’s, I ended up working part-time at a hardware store called Millwork, in Oshawa. That’s where I met my now-husband, Steve. The store has since been replaced by a big-box conglomerate, but, looking back, working with wood stayed with me.
By the summer of 2020, my husband and I were living in Whitby with our daughter Grace, 5, and our son, Oliver, 8. Steve was an accountant for an architectural firm, and I was working as a teacher for children who were deaf and hard of hearing. And while I often thought of the cottage during those years, life went on, and we had no immediate plans to purchase a cottage of our own.
In June, my cousin, who rents a cottage every year, happened to see my grandfather’s cottage on MLS, listed for $220,000. I mentioned the news to my husband, who said we should have a look. In July, we made the two-hour-and-forty five-minute drive to the Algonquins, partly for nostalgia, partly for fun.
The adventure began before we arrived at the cottage. As we drove through the Haliburton Highlands, it was clear we were in the Canadian shield because of the jagged granite walls flanking the road. The rocks were as thirty feet in some places. I knew we would probably see wildlife, like turkeys, porcupines, turtles, deer, foxes, owls and moose roving about. There were tall, leaning jack pines on our lake, reminding me of Tom Thomson’s “The Jack Pine.”
As we drove up, we passed a general store that has been around for 100 years. It’s the last stop for supplies, cottage swag and the famous Kawartha Dairy ice cream. After we turned off the main road, it was another thirty minutes of winding, hilly road, without cell reception. A four-wheel drive vehicle is often required for access because of how steep the terrain is.
To my surprise, the place was nearly exactly as my grandfather had left it. The man who had bought the cottage from my grandfather 20 years ago hadn’t made any changes at all.
Inside, I saw scenes from my former life. No TV; mid-century modern furniture within wood-panelled walls; the dining room table; the flower studded carpet; and the airy, grey curtains draped over the window.
Some personal paraphernalia was still there. The wood-burned kitchen cabinets; my grandmother’s dishes; tucked away in a drawer, there was an old telephone directory with a note my grandmother had written on the cover.
Viewed through the window was our no-motorboat lake. To get on the water, we’d have to rely only on what muscle could move: canoes or kayaks, like the ones we’d take to Loon Island, a natural sanctuary we’d visit to watch birds nest.
It was very emotional, seeing the cottage again in 2020. It made me feel close to my grandpa in a way I hadn’t felt since he passed away. I could picture him sitting at his spot at the dining table. He was always in charge of the toast at breakfast. He was often on the deck, beer in hand, soaking in the cottage air.
It was like being in a time-capsule. I knew I wanted to buy it. After a discussion with my husband, we saw an opportunity. Due to the early phase of the Covid pandemic, prices were more negotiable. Since interest rates were low, and because the owner hadn’t done much work to the place, our realtor was able to negotiate an affordable purchase price. We weren’t initially looking to buy a cottage. We weren’t in a financial position to do so. But if we wanted one, it had to be this one.
It took time for the sale to be finalized, but we purchased the cottage in August of 2020, for $192,000. Today, it’s valued at roughly $400,000.
The jump in price is understandable. The pandemic kept so many people from traveling, and the supply in the cottage market was low. Suddenly, everyone wanted somewhere to go, a holiday or a safe, secluded place to stay.
I received the key on the day of my grandmother’s 100th birthday. Even though my grandfather is no longer with us, I know he would be happy about the outcome.
Since then, we’ve left many of our cottage’s core elements intact. People visit and ask, “Are you going to paint it white?” We laugh and say no. We want it to have that cozy cottage feel, just like it did back then.
We also brought back some items from the original cottage. The canoe paddles on the walls; the retro rug that depicted wild mushrooms, which my aunt had made for my grandmother; a couple of my grandfather’s wood burnings on plaques; an old Montreal Canadiens jersey, Lorne “Gump” Worsley, reminding me that I was a third-generation Montreal Canadiens fan.
On the sideboard, we placed a picture of my grandfather and a younger me, taken in his Uxbridge backyard, before I went away to England for two years. I had just gone to the Highland Games Festival and had a wreath of flowers in my hair. The photo was special because after it was taken, my grandfather had started having his health issues. I wanted this photo to reminded me of the essence of him, the best version, the grandpa I knew.
But we have started to renovate. We’ve added light, modern touches—glass doors, crisp sheets with colourful geometric designs. We’ve also added a new deck, due to wear and tear on the old one, and made roof repairs, because of water damage.
The original sign staked into the ground at the entrance of the cottage is no longer there. But we have replaced it with a new one. Both my and my husband’s surnames are etched into wood, established in 2020, marking a new era.
In the next few years, we plan to do more renovations, including the kitchen. Once we do, we’ll keep and refashion my grandfather’s wood burned cabinets as art work. We expect the total renovation to cost approximately $35,000.
As a teacher, I’m fortunate enough to have summers off, and my husband works remotely. Since it’s such a close-knit community, we will continue to paddle the canoe across the lake to enjoy the company of friends.
I still have the paddle boat we used as kids. On these adventures, I think of the time capsule my sister and I once buried. We haven’t been able to find it yet, but I take this as another adventure for the family to go on while we spend time here.
Unlike other places, we don’t have too many cottages crammed around the lake. Strict by-laws govern a protected and low-density natural environment.
My kids love swimming here, just like I did. They also love exploring the area around lake.
On game nights, we play Yahtzee and have a designated happy hour. These nights remind me of when grandpa would have a Rickard’s Red, and we were allowed the luxury of a pop.
We carry on this tradition of happy hour. Then, like now, our family gets really into it. I remember us cheering while playing board games. The family across the lake could hear us because our voices would travel across the water, so even the neighbours knew how much fun we were having.
Having the cottage back in our lives feels like a piece of grandpa is with us still. It’s a way for my kids to know him. It takes me back to the time when he first sold the cottage, the moment when my childhood unofficially came to an end. Except now, the feeling is good. I feel like a kid again.
– As told to Penn Javdan