Muskoka in Winter

On the cover as shown here, the boy and his dog on a northern lake dock is emblematic of Canadian summer, but within this arresting book about the out-of-doors, MacGregor devotes an entire chapter, one of the best, to "Winter."

If ever there was a time to read such an encouraging account of how to be a real Canuck – from "winter cottaging" to open-air hockey – these are the months.

A highlight for the MacGregor family starting in the 1990s has been enjoying their unwinterized cabin at Camp Lake, off Highway 60 at the northern tip of Muskoka near Algonquin Park. It is a Spartan adventure, to be sure, getting supplies in over unplowed roads, slowly working the cabin's sub-zero indoor temperature high enough to remove at least some outdoor clothing, keeping the fireplace roaring ("because there are nights when, if the fire goes down, you may not get up"), wearing three pairs of wool socks because of the uninsulated floors, and enjoying the comfort of a thick felt pad with a round hole cut in its centre for the frigid outhouse.

In addition to heating the place, another first item of business in Extreme Cottaging is drilling into the lake with an auger for water to make a steaming hot cup of coffee.

The waterhole is also used to flood a large rink, which the Globe and Mail's national hockey columnist dubs the "Camp Lake Gardens," about half the size of an NHL ice surface, where rigorous games of shinny keep players warm as the score climbs into the stratosphere.

The MacGregor's kids and their friends quickly became as enthusiastic as Roy and his wife Ellen about the adventure of going to the lake in February. The rope they'd swung on to drop into the lake in summer could now be used instead to land in deep snow drifts. Books could be read in front of a roaring fire. Silly board games held even more appeal played in winter with a cup of hot chocolate. Having made a trip once to Disneyland, the family unanimously embraced, instead, the more authentic Canadian drama of real life characters, going north rather than south for winter. "We don't want to leave!" became the protest when the winter's week at the cottage drew to an end.

In addition, MacGregor gives moving word portraits of winter landscapes, and describes the intense noise of a winter night as temperatures drop – the snapping trees, the cracking lake ice, the bangs in the building, the loud crunching sounds as a moose breaks through snow crust near the cabin. Those scenes contrast to others describing the muffling silence as thick snow falls, reminding us of winter's dramatic variety.

The sanctity of isolation, its own "escape," is so much easier today than in pioneering times. "Pink insulation, Gore-Tex, electricity, baseboard heaters, eiderdown, four-wheel drives, nylon, airtight stoves, microwaves, and imported cognac have all conspired to turn winter around for most Canadians," MacGregor details. "We ski and skate, snowmobile and snowboard, and we tell ourselves that it is winter that makes our most-treasured season, summer, so very, very special."

Despite advances in comfort and security, MacGregor is mindful that one must always respect nature. "We are cautious about winter, very often with good cause. There are roads in these parts where winter travel without a shovel, without a bucket of sand, without an emergency kit of candles and tin cans and blankets is as foolhardy as daring to drive across a freshly frozen lake where there is still open water around the currents. There is an edge to winter that wisely breeds caution, but there is also a challenge to winter that brings out an equal portion of daring."

Another of Roy MacGregor's books, described by the Calgary Herald as "a Canadian classic," is The Last Season . It too, is a worthy companion for wintertime reading, with important sections on hockey, including in Huntsville, although in this novel the town is lightly disguised by the name "Vernon".

This book actually is out-of-print, but I've recently made arrangements with Dundurn publisher Kirk Howard and Roy MacGregor for The Last Season to be published in a new edition later this year. Meanwhile, the libraries have copies, and here's what you need to know:

The central character, Felix Batterinski, arrives in Vernon/Huntsville in 1960 for hockey and high school. Admonished by his coach to "Walk softly and carry a big stick," as Teddy Roosevelt counselled, this becomes part of the coda for Batterinski to use force in the game. By the time he's playing for Sudbury, his reputation as a no-nonsense enforcer is secure. As dark night follows bright day, he's next playing for the rough-house Philadelphia Flyers in the two NHL 1970s seasons they used thuggery to claim the Stanley Cup. As his career ascends, his personal life spirals downward.

To say that The Last Season is about hockey, though, would be like saying the main street of town is about transportation – neglecting the shops, the people, and the atmosphere that give the place its real interest and appeal. In this book, MacGregor has crafted a tale on which he hangs philosophy about living, the superficiality of modern life, penetrating descriptions of families and attitudes in Ontario's small communities, and as realistic look at Canadian winter, and its shoulder seasons, as any writer could pen.

Maclean's magazine said this book "is so rich in meaning that to call it simply a hockey novel is misleading. In giving Canadians Felix Batterinski, Roy MacGregor has shown us a vital part of ourselves."

That brings us to how Muskokans, and folks in our neighbouring districts to the east and north, are portrayed in books. The Last Season so richly describes families that the Globe and Mail found MacGregor's passages "reminiscent of William Faulkner's descriptions of rural Mississippi families – the sense of foreboding, the family members bound together by dark secrets, the mentally retarded relative, the clash of organized religion and the occult."

This is an intense book, not for young readers, rich with insight about our time and place, with a feel for winter and hockey that sweeps far wider than snowflakes and hockey sticks.

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

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