For many Canadians, it is the repository of their most cherished memories and the official clubhouse for the extended family.

It is a place of respite from long winters, a shrine to the national virtues of self-reliance and unadorned practicality.

In a country where three out of four people now live in an urban area, it is the link to a vast and largely uninhabited landscape.

And for a nation that fancies itself as a middle-class paradise, it has become the enduring symbol of the good life.

This time of year, it seems, just about everyone in Canada is headed for "the cottage"--and no more so than here in Ontario, where the presence of 250,000 lakes has etched the waterfront cottage into the natural rhythm of life.

In Toronto, for example, it's not uncommon for offices to close on Friday afternoons so workers can beat the traffic up to cottage country (there are so many of them that, of course, they can't). Retailers offer specials on cottage reading and cottage supplies. Supermarket magazine racks beckon with recipes for cottage fare (simple) and cottage sex (quiet). The new Canadian Oxford Dictionary even lists "cottage" as a verb as well as a noun.

"Getting away to the cottage has practically evolved into a basic right," says Amy Willard Cross, a Washingtonian who moved to Canada and wrote a book titled "The Summer House: A Tradition of Leisure." "It's very much a part of the Canadian identity."

With all this cottaging going on, nobody finds it odd when Parliament adjourns for the summer in mid-June. The Cottage Nation provides the prime minister with not one but two official cottages--one in English Canada, one in French--although the current occupant, Jean Chretien, much prefers his own place on Quebec's Lac-des-Piles.

And it should be no surprise that the artists most beloved by Canadians are seven guys who got started painting landscapes up at the cottage on Lake Huron's Georgian Bay.

Picking a cottage is almost as important as picking a spouse--indeed, the two choices are often related. In Canadian mating rituals, the crucial moment is often when the new boyfriend or girlfriend shows up for the weekend at a cottage packed with siblings, parents, grandparents and cousins. No worse fate can befall the prospective new mate than to be judged "not a cottage person."

Among married couples of a certain age, there's a good chance that they first met up at the cottage--and have been coming back ever since.

In fact, deciding which family to cottage with is part of the informal negotiations before many Canadian marriages.

"In my wedding vows, I promised to love, honor, obey--and buy a cottage on Georgian Bay," recalls Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto Business School, sitting on the patio of his splendid new cottage on Georgian Bay.

Martin's wife, Nancy, recalls the emotional trauma years ago when her family "lost" the Georgian cottage they had rented for 15 years. Now, she says, "what I want is that no matter where the kids end up, this will be their spiritual home."

To find out just how powerful the cottage connection can be, ask any of Canada's divorce lawyers, who report that after children, cottage custody and visitation rights are often the most contentious issues.

"People want to see their grandchildren splashing in the same water they did," says Michael Cochrane, a Toronto lawyer who has written several books on family law.

Sitting on the screened porch of his log cottage near Honey Harbour, salesman Doug Heron recalls the tribulations of his own divorce. "You go through marital things and you lose this, you lose that," he says, "but they'll never get the cottage. I'll be dead first."

Of course, not all Canadians share this salmonlike instinct to return to the cottage each summer. The poor cannot afford it, while farm families have trouble breaking away at the height of the growing season. Residents of the eastern Maritime Provinces live close to the ocean and feel no need for another waterfront place. The charms of cottaging also seem to be lost on the millions of first- and second-generation immigrants who make up as much as a third of the population in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

Officially, one in seven Canadians reports owning a second home--double the rate in the United States--but the figure understates the ubiquity of the cottage in the Canadian experience. For even those who don't own a cottage are likely to rent one, share one or make liberal use of one owned by parents, siblings and longtime friends.

"We'd give anything to have our own cottage, but for the moment we live off OPC--Other People's Cottages," said Janice Pugsley of Newmarket, Ontario, as she loaded two young children and a carton of groceries onto a boat in Parry Sound in Georgian Bay. Her destination: the cottage of the parents of an old friend she has visited every summer since high school.

This enthusiasm for doing largely the same things with the same people weekend after weekend, year after year, is very much a Canadian thing. In many ways, it is the ordinariness and predictability of cottage life that holds so much appeal--a reality reflected in the simplicity of cottage architecture, the secondhand quality of cottage furnishings and the banality of cottage routine.

Sunny days at the cottage typically begin with an early morning swim and a hearty country breakfast before diving into the main activity of the day: puttering. Replace a board on the dock. Repair the water pump. Bake a bumbleberry cake. Kids spend endless hours hunting for frogs, jumping off docks, fishing from rocks, picking blueberries, then taking the boat to the store for ice cream or a candy bar while grown-ups sneak in an afternoon nap on the hammock.

On rainy days, there are endless games of Monopoly, Scrabble and a Canadian game called crokinole, a cross between pool and shuffleboard played on an octagonal wooden board. Although most cottagers have finally accepted electricity, many still draw the line at television and video games.

The cottage day invariably winds down with a cold Molson on the dock at sunset, often with some of the neighbors, as conversation turns to the full range of approved cottage topics--the weather, boat traffic and water levels on the lake. A simple dinner is followed by more Scrabble, reading and often a skinny-dip before bed.

Cottaging began a century ago when a few adventurous souls made the trip by horse and canoe to Lake Muskoka, north of Toronto, simply laying claim to parcels of "crown land" at the nearest provincial outpost. Railroads followed in the 1920s, bringing with them rich Americans from places like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati who built great summer castles and elaborate boathouses. Wealthy Canadians were quick to follow, building their own places or checking in for a month at any of a dozen grand hotels that opened for business.

In those early days, lakefront property was so plentiful, and the demand so modest, that the government gave it away to veterans or sold it to anyone who promised to build on it. As late as the 1960s, anyone with $1,500 and some skill with a hammer and saw could pick up 100 feet of shoreline property and erect a small cottage from a catalogue kit. Thousands did. When children grew and had their own children, additional cottages and "bunkies" sprouted next door.

"The car, the house, the cottage, then the boat with a motor--that was the economic progression for most Canadians in the period after World War II," says Desmond Morton, director of the Institute for the Study of Canada at Montreal's McGill University. "By the 1960s, cottaging had become a mass activity."

There are signs, however, that cottaging is becoming less democratic. Prices for properties in choice areas like Georgian Bay or here along Lake Muskoka have climbed tenfold over the last 20 years as families finally outgrew the original property and children and grandchildren began to look for cottages of their own.

A wave of newly rich financiers, movie stars, hockey players and Americans began buying up old cottages, in some cases only to tear them down and construct more lavish compounds on the same site. Local businesses that used to eke out a living selling ice, bait and simple groceries are now doing a booming trade in $4,000 wooden rowboats, authentic Muskoka furniture, gourmet ice cream and Cuban cigars.

"Our buyers today, frankly, are not coming up here to paddle a canoe and listen to the loons," says Diane McKee, a real estate agent here who has been coming to the Muskoka region for more than 40 years. "Now they are coming up to socialize and play golf and run their speedboats. The old-timers like myself are trying to hold fast to the old traditions, but it's pretty much a losing battle."

Indeed, the cottage market is so hot that there are more than 300 real estate agents operating in an area where a generation ago there were only three, recalls McKee. As for prices, her Chestnut Park agency has more than a quarter of its 75 listings priced above $650,000, with the average listing running around $300,000. Even in less tony areas, a modest cottage cannot be had for less than $65,000.

Those changing economics weigh heavily on Peter and Mollie Carswell, a retired high school geography teacher and his wife, as they take a visitor on a tour of an elaborately maintained white-pine boathouse at his cottage on Gloucester Pool near Port Severn, Ontario.

It was grandfather Carswell, an Anglican minister, who bought the property for $5 an acre at the turn of the century. Carswell himself has never missed a summer here, and his three children still rarely miss a weekend. But he fears that the property has become so valuable that none of the children will be able to afford the capital gains taxes when it's time to pass it on.

"My father and my grandfather are alive to me here," said Carswell, pulling out a photo of the old minister. "But unless we can figure out a way, that chain will be broken. Cottages like this have now pretty much been priced out of the reach of the younger generation."

CAPTION: Many families have owned cottages in the same Canadian shore towns for generations.

CAPTION: University of Toronto Business School Dean Roger Martin and his son Daniel play crokinole at their cottage on Georgian Bay in Ontario.