Sunday, October 01, 2006

a lake in northern ontario

Ella Lake is very small. It's divided into two parts that almost look like a pair of lungs - only connected by a small narrow opening in the trees and rocks. On one side you find cottages, the beach, the campground - signs of civilization. The other side has nothing except nature.

That's one of my favourite things about it. You can jump into a kayak and spend 10 minutes paddling into the uninhabited half of our lake (cottagers call it "Second Ella") for an up close look at beaver lodges and a silence that you only get when deep in a forest. I've spent hours there alone or with others, often carrying a camera and just as often with a warm cuppa (getting into the Britspeak here - hot chocolate, tea or coffee) in a giant Tim Horton's mug between my knees.

In my other blog, I told a story about my Dad chasing the geese in his boat. This boat is probably his favourite thing in the world and the day he "puts the boat in the lake" is the happy kickoff to summer every year. Driving on the very bumpy dirt road between our camp (we call it "camp" in Northern Ontario even though it has a TV and indoor plumbing) and the boat launch, looking into the rearview mirror to make sure the boat is still there - even though it has never come loose in all the years I remember. After carefully backing the truck up until the boat is floating above it's trailer, my Dad hops out and does all of the necessary things to set it free onto the lake. Then it's the helper's job (often my brother, but this year was my turn) to drive the old truck and trailer back to the cottage while my father takes his first spin around the lake of the season.

When I was little, we would all pile into the boat after supper and slowly make our way around the edges of the lake, stopping to wave hello or say a few words to the other cottagers. The smoke from campfires just starting to rise into the air, as little kids made their way to the firepits with marshmallows, hotdogs, and cooking sticks. Sometimes music would start to play from the campground area, usually quietly enough to show respect to the rest of us who wanted to enjoy the sound of the crackling fires and the loons calling.

Those days on the lake lasted forever. It really felt like that. I was known to spend hours in the water, floating in my little tube as I read book after book. I was almost always outside, except for the time my friend Julie and I spent 3 days straight playing Super Mario World without leaving the loft that we slept in, despite my parents' reminders that it was "27 and sunny and get your butts outside for a bit!" Even rainy days were fun there, and I can remember visits with the children of other families on the lake - families who belonged to the area in a way that people belong after generations of them return each summer. Children from those families are always called by the last name of the original family. For example, even if their mother married a Smith, Ella Lakers would still call the youngest by the name Orser. I grew up with these kids and still don't know some of their true last names.

I'm not exaggerating - it really was like this. Still is actually. Now when I visit my lake the kids I grew up with aren't always there. Some of them have their own children now or jobs that have taken them far away. We all come back, but it's at different times.

My favourite job (aside from teaching of course) was at the Trailer Park / Campground at Ella Lake. As a teenager, I worked in the little store, making and selling bad-for-you treats like poutine, chicken fingers, and hamburgers. Scooped about a million ice cream cones and counted out bags of "mixed up candy" for excited little kids who would then bring their treats back to the beach to eat or run along the creek to catch tadpoles and frogs as they popped sweets into their mouths.

It was hot, sometimes lonely (we never had more than one person working at a time), occasionally demanding work (like when I had 15 people come in to order 1 large french fry each!), but I loved it. I would wear my bathing suit under my clothes for a quick swim on my breaks, eat as much food as i wanted, and my boss was great. The only stress was a result of unruly people in the campground or curious bears who decided to try and break into the giant caged in trash bin.

Growing up in Northern Ontario means you do see bears, so the children in the area knew to come looking for a grown-up whenever one got too close to the camps or campground. One such day, a large group of local kids came flying into the store all shouting at once.

"Melinda! Melinda! There's-a-bear-and-it-climbed-onto-the-cage-and-looks-like-it's-stuck! The chorus of little excited voices quieted down as they waited to see what my reaction would be. I made sure that none of the kids were still near the bear, assigned two of the oldest and most trustworthy kids to watch the store, grabbed a whistle and made my way towards the trash cage, a dozen children trailing behind me.

Our little parade stopped short as I ordered them to stay back. I could see the bear was pretty young (probably a second year cub) but old enough that Mommy wouldn't be around anymore. I hoped anyway. A Mommy Bear is not something you ever want to be around - no whistle or loud noise will scare her away if her cubs are nearby. He was still on top of the cage and making an impressive noise that sounded like "DAMN YOU! I KNOW there's yummy things to eat in there! JUST LET ME IN!!!"

or maybe it was just a "GRRROWWWWWWWL!!"

He howled a little bit more then froze and looked at me. He didn't seem to be afraid (or stuck), and just stared in silence as I marched towards him with my whistle in hand and a large stick I'd grabbed in the other. I banged the stick on the ground and saw his fur jump a bit. "Good", I think to myself, "At least the noises still scare him". Knowing that the best way to get rid of a black bear is to make lots of noise, I began blowing the whistle and pounding the stick against a piece of pavement - making sure to stay several yards away from the bear and the Cage Holding Wonderful Treats. After 5 minutes or so, he decided he'd had enough, crawled down the side of the cage, shot me a dirty look, and scampered off into the woods away from the cottages.

"YAAY!!" screamed the little crowd of kids, who would go on to tell everybody how Melinda scared away a "giant bear" with just a whistle. I didn't want to tell them that they actually could have done the same just by making a racket...

Black bears aside, we really didn't have any run-ins with dangerous animals. Unless you count the time the people rented a cottage nearby and kept their incredibly mean dog tied up right beside the walking path that kids use to get to the beach. They didn't last long.

My last night at the lake was bittersweet as expected.

I spent a lot of time trying to absorb the fact that I was moving to another country, as friends and family stopped by or called to say goodbye.

Our camp was full of people that night. I loved nights like that - when my parents would turn their up their Oldies music (I know all the words to every 50's and 60's song), pour drinks, laugh, tell stories, and gravitate towards the firepit down by the lake.

I looked around the living room, feeling grateful to every person there for taking the time to come out and say goodbye. They were excited for me and couldn't wait to hear stories about my adventures in ENGLAND (they always said "England" loudly). Living in a small town means that any news gets repeated - so I know that my adventures as a teacher will be repeated after church on Sundays or when people bump into one another during a walk around the lake or at the grocery store. It's just how things are. I've been hearing stories about old classmates whom I haven't seen for years because my parents still see their parents. Now they're hearing mine.

Even before I left for England, there were a few stories about me that did get told - and are still repeated when I see certain people at Ella lake. One in particular involved a toddler, a 4 year old who looked just like that kid from Jerry McGuire, and a boat with a problem... I'll save that for the next post though.


  • At 10:37 PM, Blogger Kim said…

    For me, that lake will always be a special part of my high school summers.

    Hope you get to spend another summer there soon.

  • At 11:58 PM, Anonymous mom said…

    Wow!!! You make this place sound like a paradise. I hope I always remember to see it through your eyes. I still remember when you were an infant and a butterfly landed on a flower near us and I said, "Look at this sweety. It's a butterfly." and it was like seeing one for the first time. That's the great thing about being a parent. You get to marvel at the world all over again with each new experience of your children. As you continue your adventure be sure to know how grateful we are that your love of home remains with you and that your new discoveries are in part our new discoveries. We are so proud of you. Love mom and dad

  • At 8:27 AM, Blogger Laura Coubrough said…

    I think anyone that has ever been there with your family would remember it the same way you do.
    When we were at Loch Ness I kept telling Jay that I liked it so much because it reminded me of Northern Ontario which just made me miss being at home.
    Pretty funny.


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