Liz Craymer was 77 when she decided it's never too late to live on the wild side.
Two years ago, she tore down the Lake Muskoka cottage where she's spent idyllic summers since age 11 and built the year-round house she's always wanted - with a big kitchen for family get-togethers and a wood-burning fireplace where she can curl up with a good book and watch the water lap the shore.
"I'm hanging in by the skin of my teeth," jokes Craymer, who turns 79 later this year and still carts her own firewood from the garage. "I was snowed in for four days last winter, but I managed to wade out in time to make my dentist appointment."
As the first wave of baby boomers trades in work for wilderness and smog for stunning sunsets, Craymer is living proof that the lure of the lake has no age limit - summer or winter.
The former Bracebridge, Ont., resident chuckles that she hopes to have her new place finished by the time she's 80, paid off by the time she's 90, "and then I'll coast until I'm 100."
The shift of cottagers from the city to the lake is hardly new, but it's showing no signs of letting up as boomers, and even their spry parents, fuel a building spurt that is transforming once-sleepy lakes and small communities into year-round hives of activity.
A voluntary buyout from Bell Canada allowed former Toronto resident Mark Montagano to retire five years ago, at just 55, to the Land O' Lakes area north of Kingston. At first, Montagano and his wife Margaret just spent their summers at their rustic cottage on Devil Lake, but when that didn't seem like enough time in the sun, they opted for a permanent home on nearby Sharbot Lake where Margaret will also retire and join him next month.
The highly social couple have gladly given up their Scarborough home, as well as the great restaurants and night life of Toronto, for the monthly Blues on the Rideau songfest and buffet at charming Westport's Cove Inn.
On weekends, their six bedrooms are often filled with family and friends. And when Montagano tired of spending weekdays working around the new house and monitoring investments on his home computer, he took up selling real estate, partially to help him feel more a part of the community.
"This isn't for everyone," says Montagano, who makes it look pretty darn appealing as he basks in the sunshine, his bulldog Georgie Girl parked at his feet. "I think it's comforting to have the vision of moving to the lake, but one of the first questions I ask people is: 'How much time do you want to spend going to get a loaf of bread or a bottle of wine?'
"If you're not good at meeting new people and making new friends and getting involved, good luck."
Chris Winney, 62, thought she'd already found her perfect retirement place - a 4,400-square-foot home with a pool, hot tub and sauna in Stittsville near Ottawa - when her husband reminded her of their wedding pledge to someday live on a lake.
"I said, 'Isn't a pool a big enough lake?' But he said, 'No.' I went to the cottage kicking and screaming because I wasn't just going there, I was moving there. It was like starting a whole new life in a whole new country."
For seven years Winney and her husband were forced to commute from Kashwakamak Lake near Kingston back to Ottawa for medical appointments. That's how long it took for them to get to the top of the waiting list for a local doctor.
The former high-school drama teacher also gave up her hopes of getting involved in the arts in Ottawa after retirement and, like Montagano, started selling real estate in hopes of getting to know the area, and the locals.
But any doubts disappeared as summer gave way to fall, the wildlife reclaimed the lake and winter "was like looking at a different picture every day."
"I'm getting boomers coming to me now saying, 'I'm going to retire in the next three or four years and I want to look at what my options are.' They're very methodical and they're very specific about what they want.
"They are making plans, which we didn't do," says Winney. "We didn't plan enough."
Boomers are increasingly looking for cottages with conveniences, like a nearby gym, good shopping and cultural or community events year-round - and not all cottage communities can offer than yet, she warns. Ninety-five per cent are also looking for sunset views.
Now she cautions even veteran cottagers thinking of going it year-round to try a two-month stint first.
"Not in the summer. Live there when it's a little different - when the people aren't there, when the boats are gone. It's entirely different after the cottagers have gone home. It seems like you own the whole lake - you and the wildlife - and that doesn't suit everybody. Some people really need the buzz of the city."
It's critical, year-round cottagers stress, to make the effort to get to know your neighbours. Winney suggests throwing a social night right away, especially if you are new to the lake, so that you're not asking to borrow a ladder the first time you knock on their door. And volunteer at least a few hours each week so you quickly become part of the community and plugged-in to what's going on.
Craymer has designed her new place so it's wheelchair accessible, should that day come. And she gets away to Florida for the worst weeks of winter.
But what she didn't anticipate is that taxes on her new place would be $795 a month, more than double the $300 a month she was paying on her 60-year-old cottage. That, and the strain of almost-constant upkeep, is forcing many older cottagers to finally give up lake living.
Craymer, however, is determined to hang in as long as her money holds up.
"I don't have any place else to go. This is my home. They'll have to get me out of here with a crowbar."