Beware the Free Cottage

You'll Pay, One Way or Another

Cottage season will soon be upon us.  If you don’t own a summer cottage, the next best thing is to be on good terms with someone who does.  Your cottage-owning friends may, from time to time, invite you for a carefree weekend away, all without you incurring the expense and bother associated with owning a second home.

If you’re really lucky, your friends may even grant you the unfettered use of their cottage when they are not occupying it.  What luck!  Rent-free vacation accommodation, all to yourself.  Does summer living get any better than this?

Not so fast.

I once got lured into the free-cottage trap.  It seemed like such a good idea.  My then-husband’s co-worker offered his cottage for our family’s use for one July long weekend.  The cottage, he warned us, was still under construction.  Although the exterior was complete, the interior was rough, and there was neither plumbing nor electricity.  No problem, we thought.  It will be like camping indoors.

With sleeping bags and young son bundled into the back seat, we set off on our cottage adventure, hitting the highway with high hopes and soaring spirits.

We drive north four hours to this unpolished hideaway on Georgian Bay.  Well, not on the bay, but near it.  Within walking distance.  The detailed directions help us navigate through a tangle of cottage roads.  Arriving, we discover the cottage looks pretty much as expected:  a neat, elevated, A-frame.

The interior is rough, but liveable.  The living room and bedroom areas are humbly furnished and reasonably tidy.  The kitchen area is a construction zone, with dust-covered counters and an array of builder’s tools.  The bathroom is out the back.

The outdoor bathroom is the First Sign, but I take it in good humour.  I fight my way through overgrown—and potentially snake-filled—grass to reach the wooden privy.  The outhouse is a recent construction—spacious, well-windowed, and door-less.  I mean there is no door.

After my initial dismay, I shrug it off with a chuckle.  After all, the neighbouring cottages are some distance away, and it’s unlikely that anyone could spy on the poor outhouse occupant.  What could be more natural than answering nature’s call in the great outdoors?

The Second Sign is the black flies.  We should have known, but did not consider, that early July is still prime black-fly season in Northern Ontario.  On our sole attempt to walk to the beach, swarms of those horrid biting things attack every exposed inch of flesh.  We race back to the cottage, and do not attempt to walk anywhere again.

Between black flies and mosquitoes, sitting outside during daylight hours proves impossible.  Our great outdoor adventure is confined to the indoors–except the bathroom of course.  At least the cottage has a roof and four solid walls.  And that brings us to the Third Sign.

Walls should have only two functions: to hold up the roof and enclose a space.  Walls should be sturdy, impenetrable, and boring.  They should not whisper, nor scratch, nor breathe.

The walls in our free cottage possess a life of their own.  We notice it shortly after our arrival.  An indistinct rustling which seems to emanate from everywhere.  We examine the cottage inside and out but can find no source for the sound.

As afternoon fades into evening, the sounds grow.  Alarmingly.  What began as gentle rustlings grow into scratching and shuffling.  It becomes so loud that we can easily trace the noise to the cottage walls.  By sundown, the cottage is positively heaving with life.  It is unnerving—a sensation heightened by the descending darkness.

Dusk brings an explosion of movement.  Bats!  The walls are stuffed with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of nesting bats.  Our free cottage is one big bat house.  Peering from the windows we watch droves of bats streaming from the bottom of the walls, heading out for their nightly nosh.

“At least,” I say weakly, “They are not inside.”

Whatever the fault in the exterior walls, the interior seems solid.  We huddle around dim candlelight and listen to the cottage seethe.  We look at each other’s rounded eyes across the flame.  Will we last even one night, let alone a full weekend?

“I think it will be all right,” I say, trying to jolly everyone along.  “As long as none of them can get inside, we are quite safe.”

With that flimsy confidence, we zip ourselves into sleeping bags and try to sleep.  The flapping and scratching continues.  Whenever a noise seems particularly close to my unfinished-loft bed, my eyes fly open to search the dark.  A number of times I urge my husband to turn on the flashlight to make sure none of the flapping creatures is inside.  On the last such occasion, the beam catches a pair of wings over our bed.

“It’s a moth,” he says, snapping off the light.  Is he hoping, or just outright lying?

It’s too much for me.  I bundle up my sleeping bag and pillow and make a dash for the car.  I sleep in the backseat’s heavenly silence.

By morning, the bats return to their cottage home to slumber between the walls.  The noise and terror of the night are gone and the cottage whispers soothingly.

After breakfast we pack the car and head home, this free cottage is just too much!