What I learned from Canadian summers at the lake
My sense of fun and adventure hasn’t really dulled in my adult years. Sure, there’s a different way of prioritization, a much longer list of responsibilities, and an accountability that exists now, but the playful, daredevil tendencies I had when I was 10 have yet to wane. So, recently, when I came across a day trip that involved walking through sun-kissed landscapes to a river where we could jump off the rocks and swim, I was in. No questions asked.
The morning arrives and I coat myself in sunscreen. It’s a day of outdoor fun: hiking, photo ops, lunch at the shores of the river, exploration. We tread along trails that are dried out thanks to the Ecuadorian sun’s rays and arrive at the space where the river rushes in harmless rapids at the base of two small cliffs. This is it: our rock jumping spot. At 32, I’m lining up—eagerly—to jump. When it’s my turn, I peer down at the river below. It’s about nine or 10 feet to the surface of the water… not a huge jump or anything, but not nothing.
“Uno, dos, tres!” My friend counts me down, my heart does a nervous-excited lurch, and I jump. My body feels like it’s suspended in air for a second and my stomach does that familiar flip-flop as if I’m going down the drop of a rollercoaster. Then I hit the water. Splash! I surface, swim to the shore and can’t wait to go again. I feel like a nine-year-old. An ecstatic one.
As the afternoon goes on, I notice something. Not everyone is jumping gleefully into the river’s current. I suppose they just don’t feel like it today. It’s only on the car ride home that it occurs to me that there’s something really inherently Canadian about hurling yourself off ledges and into bodies of water without a care.
As I explain tubing, waterskiing, and jumping off jagged pieces of The Canadian Shield into lakes, I’m both a) getting a look of wonder and b) feeling nostalgic for summers at the lake in Canada, particularly when I was a kid.
“We were always jumping off cliffs, docks, and ledges,” I tell my friend sitting beside me in the car. “And when we weren’t, we were out on the water tied to something which was tied to a boat.” It only comes across my mind on this particular day that not everyone did this. As I explain tubing, waterskiing, and jumping off jagged pieces of The Canadian Shield into lakes, I’m both a) getting a look of wonder and b) feeling nostalgic for summers at the lake in Canada, particularly when I was a kid.
Back in 2000, I experienced Ontario’s cottage culture for the first time after driving a few hours north with my friend Deanna and her family and zipping up my sunset-orange life jacket for the 10–minute boat ride to her rustic summer cottage. There, we ate burgers as we looked onto the lake and after dark, we swam in its cool, inky waters. With wet hair, we climbed the ladder to the loft where the three of us—myself, Deanna, and her little sister, Christine—would sleep for the long weekend. When her parents fell asleep, we stole freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies from the kitchen and Deana told me about the weekend plan: tubing in the morning (whatever that was) and jumping off The Big Rock in the afternoon. We would try The Little Rock first just to make sure I was up to the challenge. I was up for all of that and I thought about it as I fell asleep in my sleeping bag.
In the morning, I found out exactly what tubing was. Deanna, Christine and I swam all morning and when her dad pulled the family boat up to the dock, we left a trail of mini footprints along the dock’s wooden boards as we eagerly lined up. Lifejacketed and grinning, we climbed onto the inflatable tube tied to the boat and as we waited for the motor to start, Deanna briefed me. The boat was going to cut through chilly Georgian Bay waters pulling us behind it. We’d have to hold on tight. When we got out onto open water, her dad would probably steer the boat into curvy “s” and “o” shapes and we’d bounce off the waves and try not to fall off. Nine-year-old me was in heaven. After just two minutes of hanging onto that tube, I was convinced I’d do this all day every day if I could. When I did fall off, my little body went sailing through the air and—splash!—into the water. Wicked! I had aced my first test of cottage country summer.
But The Big Rock, and jumping off it, still loomed. The three of us sunned ourselves on the dock, went searching for wild blueberries and spotted a chipmunk scurrying from the bushes. In our flip-flops, we walked through the pine needle woods. We ate lunch (chicken nuggets, carrot sticks, and dinosaur-shaped cookies) and then it was time. Rock jumping time. In 2000, we had already established that there was no high-adrenaline activity we wouldn’t do together. We regularly had competitions to see who could climb trees the highest and I had, on one occasion, found an abandoned shopping cart and taken it on a chaotic ride down a hill near our houses (unsurprisingly, it crashed). The Big Rock sounded exactly like the kind of thing I would love.
I could tell Deana thought so. Her eyes, big and blue like the lake, widened as we got near. Then, her dad stopped the boat letting it float a stone’s throw from the shore of the craggy island. The three of us jumped out to swim to the island. I already loved rock jumping. Under the summer sun, The Canadian Shield feels hot underfoot. I thought so as we dripped lake water along its surface and made our way over to the previously-scouted jumping spot. The island’s surface was mossy, jagged, and cracked. “Don’t step on the crack or you’ll fall and break your back!” I hollered, as if it would be the tiny cracks of a rocky surface and not jumping off cliff edges that would cause injury.
When we reached our jumping location, I looked down at the water below with excitement, curiosity and fear. I wonder now how high The Big Rock actually was but as a nine-year-old, it seemed huge. This was the ultimate dare, the ultimate thrill. I looked at the water below both daring myself to jump, but holding myself back long enough to question if I actually would. Of course I would though. We were the kids who jumped off the swings at the park by our houses when they were as high as they would go. We cut our knees so many times during those summers when we fell off our bikes but we got back on anyway. I hesitated but I knew The Big Rock would never win this one. There was no contest really. I looked at Deanna’s dad in the boat down below.
“One! Two! … THREE!” Deanna counted me down. I jumped and my tiny body fell towards the lake's surface and splash! Best feeling ever. The sense of adrenaline was unmatched. I swam back up to the top and smiled wide. Tubing was now my second-favourite summer activity and cliff jumping was number one. By the evening, my face was sunburnt with smile lines etched into my skin.
From then on, summers were spent doing adrenaline-causing activities. When I returned to Deanna’s cottage, we always jumped off that rock and whatever others we could find. There’s a gorge relatively close to my house with high cliffs that overlook a quarry. In high school, my friends and I drove out there and rebelliously ignored the warnings not to jump. Hey, it was summer, we’d do whatever we wanted. Cottage trips weren’t cottage trips unless we had an ice cream and dove off the pier afterwards either.
I think this is just what summer in Canada is. And I’m not saying that people in other countries around the world don’t have just as much fun doing similar activities in the water. Our U.S. neighbours have all the same water sports and the lake culture that we have. Some of the world’s best divers are Chinese and Russian. When you think of countries that have a big culture around water sports, you may think of Australia with its extensive coastline and world-class surfing or Nordic countries that have made polar dips world-famous. But Canada, the country with the most lakes in the world, Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and vast networks of rivers, is undeniably water-logged. Then there’s the fact that we spent half the year stir-crazy and sunshine deprived.
At the lakes around the country, we’re basically just a crazy bunch of kids. We kick off the summer knowing that there’s no time to waste.
By the time summer arrives, we go bonkers. At the lakes around the country, we’re basically just a crazy bunch of kids. We kick off the summer knowing that there’s no time to waste. The best season is here and there’s fun to be had dammit! You wouldn’t let the days of July and August pass you by without really going for it. Lake culture across Canada in summer is like fun on steroids.
This matters because this sense of adrenaline-packed adventure is part of our identity. We get to know our landscape and we make sure to have fun in it. We’re active people. If there’s a beach to swim at, a water sport to test, woods to hike, or nature to explore, we do it. We kayak, we swim in frigid water when summer long weekends kick off, and we ski down mountains. We’re not afraid of the landscape, we make ourselves part of it. If the sun’s shining, we promise ourselves that we’ll make the most of it. It doesn’t matter if our hair gets wet and frizzy, our skin turns pink, or we go weeks without makeup. That’s just the Canadian summer-dazed look. Canadians have a strong sense of adventure—the outdoors just offers up so many opportunities and we won’t miss out.
It’s only recently that I realize that this is such a strong part of the Canadian identity. I didn’t notice all the ways that those summer lake trips 20-plus years ago shaped who I am today. I’m willing to get outside, get active, get dirty and get sweaty. If it might put a smile on my face and get me away from the day-to-day norm, I’m in. Lake culture had an impact on me as an energetic daredevil of a nine-year-old. At 32, I live several countries and a continent away, but still, this Canadian landscape is part of how I express myself.
On that recent day in Ecuador, just a mere few weeks ago, we leave the rock, the river and the jumping for the day. On the car ride home, I think about how it had all of the same appeal today as it did back then. It had been a while!