Sunday, August 12, 2007

In the North

There is a little lake in Northern Ontario called Ella Lake. A clear, glacier lake that you can find after driving 30 minutes north of Sudbury through a series of two-lane highways and a winding road (where I once hit a moose). The land up here is different from anywhere else I've been: rolling hills covering chunks of rock, tiny blue lakes and rivers sitting between birch trees and evergreens, and a fresh smell to the air that you can only find when you're far away from a city.

There aren't many camps on this lake - and yes, up here we say "camp", not "cottage" - so everybody knows everybody else, and generations of families have watched each other grow older, get married, and return with families of their own. There are a few little islands on the lake, some with camps on them, some without. I can remember taking our paddleboat out to visit friends on the closest island when I was a little girl - visits that always included stuffing freshly picked blueberries into our mouths and searingly-hot steambaths.

There is a public beach (for the people who were unfortunate to have to drive to our lake because they didn't have camps here), and a canteen where kids can buy candy and ice cream, or fresh fries and poutine. I worked at the canteen when I was in high school, helping to make the hot food, keeping things clean, serving hundreds of scoops of ice cream to adorable, sunburnt little kids, and giving wood or other assistance to the people staying in the campground. I'd wear my bathing suit under my "uniform" of shorts and an old t-shirt, and happily jumped in the water to cool off during my breaks. Free fries and gallons of Nestea, music through the stereo, and a stream of people coming by for food or just to visit - it was a fabulous first job. At the end of my shifts, my boss and I would sit in front of her little fire pit and chat with people from the trailer park who felt like coming for a drink and a visit.

I grew up with a group of children whose parents all grew up with my parents - we were another generation lucky to enjoy the starry nights and bright summer days. People I didn't know would see me and say "you're Mary and Bill's kid, aren't you!"

As I got older, my school friends would come out to visit, and we'd sit in front of the campfire until it got light out - toasting bags of marshmallows or eating cups of chicken noodle soup. Soon, we'd have little parties here when the parents were away, sampling the strange alcohol that we'd find in the cupboards. "Cookies and cream?! I thought that was a kind of ice cream!" (turned out that it certainly didn't taste like ice cream at all and to this day, I don't enjoy creamy liquor at all) We tortured the other residents with loud music, which always included the Tragically Hip, and suntanned for hours on my dock.

Being back here again after spending 5 years away has reinforced my love of this lake. Despite it's status as a Summer Home for most of my childhood, my best memories were always of being here. Now, I'm watching a new generation of kids hanging out till 6am with their friends, having saunas, playing loud music and stealing their parents beer during campfire nights. They will return every summer just like we all do, for visits and long "remember when we..." conversations while they hold whittled sticks with hotdogs or marshmallows on the end.

One of the many traditions we have out here is to find the Big Dipper in the night sky. I don't know why it started, but after running out of the sauna and throwing ourselves into the lake, we stop and look up at the constellation, usually commenting on it's position (it moves in a scooping motion through the year, so late August shows the Big Dipper looking just like a spoon scooping something up to eat) and how bright the stars are. Everywhere I've lived since moving away 5 years ago, I've always looked for the Big Dipper. In Windsor, I'd sit on the balcony with Jeremy and happily point out that it was straight ahead - something that made me feel closer to home even thought I was 8 hours away...

When we moved to London, the sky was too bright to see many stars, and I got used to the purply-orange glow that most people see above big cities. We enjoyed the lights on the buildings and glow of hotels and landmarks all around, but part of me always missed the stars.

During my visit to Cornwall with Kelly (definitely a story for another blog post), the skies were dark and clear of the light pollution of London. But I still couldn't find the Big Dipper. Resigning myself to the fact that I wouldn't see it again, until I ran out of our steambath at Ella Lake, I pointed out the few other constellations I'd learned about in the past to Kelly, who had never learned about them before (being a lifelong city girl, she wasn't used to seeing the stars like that).

On my last night in London, I sat in Naomi's back garden, sipping Moroccan tea, and reflecting on the year that had passed. I was telling her all about home, and how excited I was to be going back to Canada to see all of the people and places I was missing so much. While we were talking, I glanced up at the sky and there it was...

The Big Dipper - I could believe it.

An entire year away from home and not once had I seen this little set of stars, and suddenly on my very last night in England, there it was.

I'm not sure what it meant that I saw it that night, but it reminded me of the feeling of bundling up in a warm sweater with my best friend and a cup of soup, lying on my dock at 3am, looking at the stars and feeling like everything in the world was perfect. I couldn't wait to see our sparkling little lake again.

This little lake isn't fancy, and neither are the people who live here - we drink cheap beer and watch hockey, we drive boats that have scratches on them with old (often clunky) motors, our beach has some pebbles on it, and the swamp grass is threatening to take over part of it. The fishing is terrible, although you can drive for a very short distance to find lakes with huge pickerel and other fish. Some of the camps on the lake are old and run down, and there are bears in the forest all the time. We only have a couple of months each year to really enjoy the warm summer days, and during those we deal with horseflies and giant mosqitoes. Our road is bumpy and often full of potholes - you can always tell the locals based on the way they drive on that road - either avoiding the potholes or running straight over them. We don't have resorts or restaurants, and you have to drive for at least 15 minutes to get to a store. But the people all know each other, take care of each other, and generation after generation have stared up at the skies above on summer nights, pointed out the Big Dipper, and said "this place is just like heaven".

And to us, it always will be.


  • At 12:34 PM, Blogger Suldog said…

    I think I've said this in response to another piece of yours, but it fits here, also. You have made me nostalgic for someplace I've never been. Quite a feat.

    I do have a somewhat similar set of memories, though. My Granduncle had a cottage on Cape Cod that he invited the whole familt to every summer for two weeks. Obviously, it would have to be a rather large cottage to house a whole Irish family, but a cottage it was - wood-burning stove, half of us slept on cots - and I can think of nothing so relaxing as sitting out back of that place, on those odd metal chairs you only find at cottages and beach houses, digging a toe into the sandy soil, and listening to the adults talk politics, religion and sports (the Red Sox encompassed all three, of course) while sipping their beers.

    Thanks for stirring my memories.


Post a Comment

<< Home