Photo © Ian Coristine/
 You are here:  Back Issues      Archive

Cottage Life Isn’t for Sissies

Editor’s Note:  This is the second answer to a question we were asked In October 2009.  A New Jersey tour guide reported he brings bus tours to the Thousand Islands each summer and he wanted to find the answer for a question always asked: “Just what is it like to live on an island?”  Lynn McElfresh gave us a glimpse last month with Arriving with Stuff… This month she tells us more…

While we were having breakfast yesterday, I heard a strange hum. It wasn’t constant. I’d hear it for 20 seconds then it would disappear for 20 seconds.

Once I alerted my husband to the noise he knew instantly what it was…and it wasn’t good. It was the water pump located in the skiff house, the closest outbuilding to our breakfast table. We weren’t running any water, so the pump shouldn’t be running and shutting off and running again.

My husband diagnosed the problem immediately as a problem with the foot valve. I’m not going to pretend I know anything about water pumps or plumbing, but from my clueless vantage point it sounds like a foot valve is something that closes once the water is pumped in to keep the water in the holding tank. For some reason it wasn’t closing and the water would be pumped in only to run right out as soon as the pump shut off. The pressure gauge in the holding tank would indicate that we needed more water and the pump would kick on again. If it kept running at this rate, the pump would burn out.

My husband speculated that we might need to go on a special trip to the mainland for a new foot valve.

Instantly, my plans for the day changed. The pump was turned off for now. No watering of flowers, no laundry, no morning shower. A surge of excitement shot through me about a possible trip to the mainland. I started a shopping list. No point wasting a trip to the mainland without going to the grocery store.

A half hour later, Gary was back in the cottage. He’d fixed the foot valve. It didn’t need to be replaced. My grocery list was put on the fridge for another day. And again I was grateful to have a “River Man” who could not only diagnose plumbing, electrical and other maintenance issues, but actually fix them as well.

As our neighbor says, “Cottage life isn’t for sissies.” He says it with a smile though and we all know what it means.

Maintaining two cottages and three outbuildings isn’t an easy task. Four of the buildings are well over 100-years-old. Our cottages were built without running water and electricity. These things were added later. The third generation was already visiting the island by the time we had electricity. Several of the original water lines still exist. Many newer ones have been added.

Plumbing is a particular thorn in the side for my husband. The original pipes were galvanized steel, then copper, then PVC. We have all three types of pipe inter-connected. They weren’t necessarily installed by licensed plumbers and they don’t always come together perfectly. Sometimes a quick fix that his grandfather performed in the 1960s has come back to haunt Gary four decades later. “Why did he do it like that?”

All around the island in the past weeks are the sounds of opening up: the hum of lawnmowers, scraping of rakes, pounding of hammers and the occasional expletive. I refer to those occasional outbursts as the “magic incantation words” that are sometimes necessary to get the water systems up and running.

As we meet up with island friends we haven’t seen over the long winter, invariably the first question after “How was your winter?” is “How did the cottage come through the winter?” We hear about shingles that need to be replaced, shutters that have to be repaired, etc. etc.

Winterizing the water system in the fall is crucial. Mistakes you make in the fall will bite you in the spring. One neighbor needed to replace the intake manifold on his washing machine that had cracked in the winter, another neighbor had to solder a pipe under the cottage within twenty minutes of his arrival before the water could be turned on and a third had to put a temporary fix on a sewer pipe until a long term solution could be enacted . This was a rare year for us. No plumbing issues!

When the guys of the island get together, they often noodle through ideas of how to improve the leach field, how to fix an electrical problem, etc. etc. The guys in our little cove know each other’s tools and workshops as well as they know their own. Roger has lots of plumbing supplies, while Stu is the one to ask if you need an electric meter. Gary has a grinder and Wayne has an air compressor. When they’re not working on plumbing issues, they’re playing with lawnmowers carburaters or noodling through boat issues: bilge pumps, starters, etc. etc.


Non-island friends look at me quizzically when I tell about helping a neighbor patch their roof after a storm or that the guys got together to dig a new leach field. “Can’t you call someone to do that?”

We could, but we’d pay for it in time and money. For instance, if we had called a “professional” with the water pump problem, we might have been without water for a day or two until we could get someone to the island. And who knows how much that would have cost!

And while we hire out for the big jobs, like a new dock or maybe a retaining wall, the day-to-day maintenance falls to the shoulders of my River Man.

Most of us consider that we don’t own these homes as much as we are stewards of them for this generation. In our case, three generations have maintained these cottages before us and two generations are waiting in line for them. Maintaining the cottages from water intake to leach field from foundation to roof peak is like paying homage not only to this place but the generations that came before us.

So when our neighbor says, “Cottage Life isn’t for sissies,” he says it with a smile like a mother who is run ragged caring for an infant. Cottage maintenance is a labor of love.

By Lynn McElfresh

Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life.   Lynn is the author of Can You Feel the Thunder? published in 1999 in New York by Simon & Shuster Children's Publishing Division. It is suggested for youth ages 10-14.  She is also the ghost writer for several other children’s books.  We thank her for providing another answer to “what it is like to live on an island”.

Posted in: Places, People
Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Lynne Dennehy Brandt
Comment by: Lynne Dennehy Brandt ( )
Left at: 10:21 PM Monday, June 14, 2010
Hey Lynne,
Nice article. It is a labor of love. Wish I could do more. Looking forward to a cottage visit next week with Sophia..highlight of our year!
Diana Wright
Comment by: Diana Wright ( )
Left at: 5:27 PM Wednesday, June 16, 2010
As a fourth generation steward, I totally understand this article. I have learned how to take care of the plumbing, wiring, and many of the woodworking issues at the cottage. Throw in gardening, boat maintenance, and water front care and you know that when a cottager is out playing, they have earned it. I'm forever grateful that as I was growing up my dad never considered me "just a girl" and expected me to learn how to do things for myself. It's okay if the job at the cottage is not done perfectly since we are all amateurs but it is essential that you try. The confidence and satisfaction one gains when you replace that section of dock or put in that new light fixture is priceless. These are great skills and values to pass on to the next stewards. Oh, did I mention the painting, painting, painting? You know what I mean!
Lynn McElfresh
Comment by: Lynn McElfresh ( )
Left at: 2:35 PM Saturday, June 19, 2010
Thanks for the comment. Maintaining our cottages places is more than writing a check. It's a passion. It's personal. It's maddening. It's a delight. Only those who do it, truly understand.
Anonymous User
Comment by: Anonymous User
Left at: 7:05 PM Friday, August 6, 2010
Anonymous User
Comment by: Anonymous User
Left at: 1:32 AM Monday, July 2, 2012
Tom Walsh
Comment by: Tom Walsh ( )
Left at: 8:05 PM Friday, December 7, 2012
I just read this delightful article by Lynne, my neighbor on Grenell. Lynne, you capture the ordinary of our island lives in such an excquiste and articulate manner. Thanks for putting our experiences so well!