My family had this amazing situation: the seven of us (my brothers and sisters and I) plus our parents. We would leave the city behind for the two months of the summer and move two hours car ride north to the lake. At the lake, we would shed our footwear and mostly run around barefoot. It was incredible. We were fleet of foot. We would run through the tender green hay in the early summer which would be blond and tall by the late summer.
When I ponder that aspect of my childhood, I remember the immense sense of fortune at having this place as a retreat every summer and, when not doing morning chores, the sense of freedom and connection with nature that we all shared.
Most days, I would live in my bathing suit…no sunscreen (we didn’t even know what that was). No hat, no sunglasses, no shirt, and as stated, no shoes.
Our lakeside acres had patches of earth that I knew to always be damp and mossy. Patches that were warm and dry. Tough prickly grass in the big fields. Slimy slippery rocks like the ones on the path by cabin #1. Annoyingly painful gravel of the camp roads which would get an ‘ouch!’ and a hobble out of me every time. The thick green moist grass outside of Grampa’s kitchen window where the sink water drained. The wet grainy sand of the beach as I would wade in for a swim, digging my toes in and enjoying the sensation. The soft tufts of maiden grass that grew in the yard up by the porch of #2. The baked planks of the redwood-painted docks. The bottom of the canoe as we would catch frogs in the cove and the sensation of gliding over water that I felt through the fiberglass.
I knew these things because I detected them with the soles of my feet time and again as I would nimbly move over our twenty lakeside acres all summer. Once, riding on the shoulders of a family friend he remarked that I had leather-bottom feet. I shrugged. It was my normal.
I was betrayed by them a few times, my bare feet: I knew the agony of a piercing by a three inch hawthorn, stepped on absentmindedly, chubby arms crossed across my round belly, shivering from swimming for hours, as I made my small way past the tool shed we called “the shop”. I cried and bawled unabashedly with the pain, like little children do, and neighbours took me to have it removed by a doctor, such was my carrying on with it. (Mom and Dad were in town so the Pattersons came to my rescue – read a funny account of my brother Mark and the Pattersons in this story: The Camp).
Another betrayal of my barefoot days is in this story: Barefoot Heathens in which my Father forbids the ‘going to town’ barefoot. We had been discouraged from ruining our school shoes which would be passed down from older siblings until they were worn and gone.
My brother Jobe and I would race through the tall hay in the lower field arriving at the frog pond slowly, lest we scare the frogs away. We would creep the edges and wade carefully to grab an unsuspecting frog by its tiny waist just above its powerful legs. Now and then, our bare feet would betray us and one of us would slip down the slick clay bank of the frog pond and into its stagnant waters, the stink and slime on our skin. Once, we found ourselves a baby snapping turtle in that pond. Just the once. We held it like an Oreo cookie while it stretched its neck, beak and clawed feet doing its best to injure us while we ooohed and ahhed at how tiny and cute it was. Then carefully letting it dive back into its swampy home, as we did with all the little pond frogs we caught. (This wasn’t what we would do with the big, meaty bullfrogs we would catch in the cove though. Those guys became breakfast and a crisp dollar bill from the Pattersons for helping to quiet the cove where their tent trailer sat. The dozens of bullfrogs would ‘ribbit’ their love songs loudly all night long.)
These days, decades later, I find myself in my fifties and marvel at how we were back then. Mostly carefree. Mostly enjoying the simple things in life. We wouldn’t use a telephone all summer. Now we can’t be without one for a minute, carrying it on our person like it is a lifeline.
We would actually write letters on paper, stuffed into carefully addressed and licked 8 cent stamps on the envelopes, to friends in the city. S.W.A.K. loudly printed on the back flap: ‘Sealed With A Kiss’. If we were lucky, we would receive a hand-written letter from them a couple of weeks later, delivered by the mail truck guy into the big old aluminum mailbox at the top of the gravel road. Its red flag up and encouraging us to come. Scurrying barefoot to check the mailbox each day until finally it was there: a letter for me! Savouring its every word and studying, turning and even sniffing the envelope for clues as to when it was mailed from the city. The impossibility of receiving news from two hundred miles away.
Times sure have changed as I am about to post this story and knowing that it can be read worldwide, in the blink of an eye. I am ever so glad to have made those simple but priceless memories at the lake, and through the soles of my leather-bottom feet.
Many long sunny days during our summers at the lake, we would walk the two miles to the nearby town of Magnetawan, population 300 souls, just for something different to do. Sometimes I would be with a friend staying in the camp. Other times I would be with a brother, or two. On this particular day, I was with my older brother, closest to me in age: Jobe.
We were walking along on that hot summer day in the 70s. We each had a dollar to spend in town and we were feeling rather rich. We were discussing what we could do with that money. Would it be spent on fries and a pop at July’s or a vachon, black balls and chocolate milk at Jake’s General Store? July’s and Jake’s shared side-by-side real estate in the village of Mag and each backed onto a grassy patch which sloped down to Ahmic Lake which was really Mag River extended after the locks system.
Both July’s and Jake’s were tired, dusty and faded. Their respective owners, July and Jake, had since thrown up their hands to the bygone dreams of business greatness. (A few decades later, both buildings would burn to the ground in an unsolved tragedy that would rock the core of the wee village, one which still wondered at the loss by fire of their once proud Marina.)
The Tuck Stop didn’t mind. Even Seniors were ordering take-out these days and pulling up a bench seat at a red wooden picnic table in order to enjoy their chicken fingers and fries with a cold coke sipped by straw. For Jobe and I, our favourite was the foot-long hot dog. We just could not believe that a hot dog could be that long. We marveled at it each time it arrived in front of us. It was especially good when washed down with a thick sweet chocolate milk-shake.
So, on this particular day, with nary a water bottle nor a hat and never ‘sunscreen’ (what was that?) Jobe said, ‘hey Marn, let’s walk the whole way to town up on the rocks!’ Jobe loved a physical challenge. I guess I did too. Up we scrambled onto the hot, dark rocks which had been cut to form the roadway. We carried on walking, sometimes skipping from one outcrop to the next. Jobe was way ahead of me, as usual. He was faster, more daring and more physically efficient in every way.
As I walked along the rocks, a bothersome horsefly bobbed around my head, crashing into my tanned forehead every few steps. Looking up to see Jobe’s red head bobbing up and down ahead of me, I suddenly realized that there was a warm sensation coming from the bottom of my right foot. ‘What the…?’ I reached down and my hand came back to me covered in blood. The tears burst from my eyes as I screamed for Jobe.
With wild, frightened green eyes Jobe arrived by my side and knew instantly that I had trod on a piece of broken glass. He found the piece a second later. It was a nasty jagged stalagmite of broken beer-bottle glass and it was covered in my blood. Jobe half carried me for about ten minutes to the closest cottage where he pounded on the door and asked for help.
The nice lady who came to the door took me to her pure white porcelain tub and quite tenderly washed my gash of blood. She soothed me with sweet mutterings while she ensured there was no glass left inside the wound. I was silently crying and worried. Next she sat me down on a kitchen chair and expertly bandaged my foot with a gauze. She used a lot of gauze. A whole roll. She knew exactly what she was doing. Then she drove us back to the camp and made sure Dad received us before she left. Dad had a quick conversation with her, thanked her profusely and got the details of the unfortunate occurrence.
Dad closed the door of the office and turned around to stare us down with the look of thunder on his face. He was not happy.
‘Martha, why didn’t you have shoes on while walking to town? FROM NOW ON, YOU WILL ALWAYS WEAR SHOES WHEN WALKING TO TOWN. IS THAT CLEAR?! he bellowed. ‘THAT WOMAN IS A COMPETITOR OF OURS. DID YOU TWO KNOW THAT?’
We both shook our heads vehemently, but, we DID know that. He was always talking about our competitors. How many campers they had compared to us, and so on, endlessly.
‘NOW SHE THINKS WE ARE BAREFOOT HEATHENS!’ he yelled. ‘SHE’LL SPREAD IT ALL OVER THE LAKE THAT WE CAN’T EVEN AFFORD SHOES!’ He was livid. His face was purple.
At this point, Jobe escaped out the screen door and all I heard was the wap! as it hit the frame – his red noggin’ bouncing up and down as he diminished down the trail to the shop then hard right passed the Patterson’s tent trailer and gone up into the camp, likely to find Mom and our baby brother Luke and tell them the story.
Next, Dad grabbed my skinny arm roughly with his huge hand. I was just seven years old and tiny and he was a behemoth. And Mad. He spanked me hard several times with his open hand which hit my bare legs and stung very badly. It hurt a lot and I quietly bawled and bawled, but what hurt even worse was the betrayal I felt. He was the guy who was supposed to protect me. I didn’t think it was fair to receive a beating when I was already injured but, I didn’t say a word. That would have been certain death.
He told me to get in the car and off we went to the medical clinic in Burks Falls, 20 miles away. I needed stitches and a tetanus shot. So much for a vachon and coke.
This day was horrible and getting worse by the minute. The aftermath of the cut foot was ten days of no swimming. Was I miserable?! I always wore my shoes to town after that one. Probably didn’t need the beating because the no swimming was punishment enough.
Usually natural consequences work best, I find.
But, what I am still confused about when I remember this, even though it happened to me decades ago, is just how much Dad over-reacted, in a bad way, to my cut foot. Perhaps he was having an awful day and this was just one more hassle to deal with.
But, it was me.
His good little girl.
I was hurt and scared and needed a hug. I can’t imagine beating my child who came home to me with a cut foot. It’s like kicking someone when they’re down.
I am gonna re-write the last bit…
…Dad closed the door of the office and turned around to look at Jobe and I with a soft worried look on his face. He gathered both of our small bodies to his chest with his big strong arms. He kissed our curly heads, mine dark, Jobe’s ginger. He told us not to worry. He was going to fix all this.
‘Get in the car you two. First it’s stitches for Mart, then it’s ice-cream.’
We smiled at our Dad who was always so good to us and fixed all our mistakes, or tried to anyway. In town, we picked out a sweet thank you card for the lady who helped me and after ice-cream we brought it to her door to thank her in person.
Even though I couldn’t swim for ten days, Dad took me fishing and we had so much fun.
If you have any comments, I would love to read them.
Around six in the evening, the canoe finally drifted into the little cove on the island. They carefully unloaded the gear to assure it would remain dry. They set up the tent, threw the sleeping bags inside and paddled off to Echo Rock. As they paddled, Luke looked up at the rock cliff, and he began to remember the first time he had jumped from Echo Rock. He recalled the mixture of exhilaration and frightening feelings, as he slowly scaled the naturally laid stones to the precarious ledge which opened to a panoramic view of the bay. Local history has it that in the late nineteenth century, before roads were built in the area, a steamship that supplied the towns of Maggie River and Almond Harbour caught fire and sank in the bay. On a clear day, one can still see the timbers of the old steamship from the ledge at Echo Rock.
They docked the canoe to the side of the majestic rock surface and tied a line to a birch tree conveniently overhanging the surface of the water. Like most hot July days in the north, the day’s end was a subtle transition into a long, warm evening, with the heat of the day still prevalent in the mid-summer air. On this particular day, the late evening temperature was higher than usual. As he dove through the air, he anticipated the cool feel of the water on his sweltering body. After thirty minutes of climbing and diving, they were both ready to retire for the evening. They jumped back into the canoe and headed toward the tiny island campsite, just three hundred yards in front of them.
As the distinctive sound of crickets filled the air, accompanied by the multitude of mysterious sounds from other diverse night creatures, the sun’s powerful radiance created a timeless portrait on the night’s western sky.
The buzz of thousands of mosquitoes hovering over the surface of the water were silhouetted by the red glow of the sunset. The night became animated in sound and the peculiar northern environment came alive with tranquil vitality.
The time was 9:30pm. Jason started a small fire and they cooked a meal of beans and wieners as they quietly watched the flickering flames. Luke turned and asked Jason a question and he was surprised to see him already heading for the tent to go to sleep. Just then, he looked up at the night sky and saw a ring of clouds forming in the western horizon. Suddenly, he heard a splash on the other side of the island. He ran over to a barren rock-shelf and flashed his light in the rippling water.
A big snapping turtle appeared in the dark water below him. The characteristic hooked head and long tail on the lonely reptile gave it a sinister look as it frantically swam away from the light. As he looked over the water, the rain then began. Nevertheless, Luke doused the fire and headed for the tent.
The air in the tent was hot, but after a while the rain’s hypnotic sound on the tent softly lulled him to sleep as it quenched the night air of its sticky heat. The wind was picking up as the sound of trees bowed to its might and it could be heard all around the tiny island.
Suddenly, Luke awoke. He looked out the tent window and saw a flash of light in the night sky. Just heat lightening, he optimistically thought, as he drifted again into a twilight sleep.
Twenty minutes later, however, the tent abruptly shifted as the wind became strong and severe. They were both awake now and wondered if this was a smart time to get off the island.
Luke looked out the window of the tent at a tiny porch light, about a quarter of a mile up the lake. The light flickered and went out. A power-line must have gone down, he thought to himself. He realized then that this was not a normal storm. As he looked out at the turbulent lake and heard the white waves hit the shore of the island, he knew they were trapped.
The canoe could easily capsize if they took the chance to reach the nearest shelter. The storm raged on, and with every flash of lightening their fear rose as they waited for the inevitable clap of thunder, which sounded so close it shook the tiny island and rang in their ears as a warning of its fury.
Luke reminded himself and his young nephew not to panic. The combination of rain, wind and lightening became so intense that they were forced to yell at each other to communicate over the furious tempest.
What could they do?
Their bodies were drenched from the deluge of rain. They were sitting ducks in the midst of a powerful storm. The lightening flashed with great intensity and they both knew that they could be electrocuted at any second.
The time slowed to endless crawl. The lightening crashed down so close that the ground was alive underneath them. Fear became their greatest enemy. Luke thought about the headlines in tomorrow’s local paper:
Two Careless Canoeists Swept To Death Camping On Tiny Island
They had to act!
They both jumped out of the tent and into a blinding shower of rain. They had to get to the canoe to get off the storm-besieged island. They looked in amazement when they realized the canoe had flipped over and dislodged itself from its original place high up on the rock. The tie-line had torn off the tree limb. They were just in time! Luke had to get to the canoe before it was swept away into the deep water of the lake. He dove into the tumultuous water and came up on the other side of the canoe. The waves lapped against his head and he luckily braced himself on the bottom of the lake, pushing the canoe into the island’s rocky shore. Jason grabbed the tie-line and they lifted the canoe up and over, to empty it of water.
The lightening flashed and they saw its giant forks crash into a tree near Echo Rock, splitting it in half with ease. But, they were paralyzed with fear and decided they had to wait it out in the water-soaked tent. Going out on the lake now would put them in more danger.
It was three in the morning, and the storm had raged for more than three hours. At three-thirty, the lightening and the wind began to subside and they were ready to risk an escape in an empty canoe.
They placed the canoe in the water and paddled for the nearest cottage with all their might. The lake was still rough and the white waves became a formidable obstacle in the dark.
The wind gusted unpredictably. The canoe turned abruptly and the waves haphazardly hit the side of the tiny craft, pushing it into the bay. Luke started having second thoughts about their decision to cross over to the cottage on the mainland, but they could not turn back now.
The cold rain dripped from their weary faces as water lapped over the sides of the canoe.
The wind subsided and attacked like a bull on a rampage. After forty-five minutes of wind and waves, Luke pointed to the dock in excitement. Just as hope became alive in them, a colossal wave rolled mightily over the side of the canoe, sweeping them into the uproarious lake.
Fortunately, Luke and Jason were both strong swimmers and they did not panic easily. The night seemed endless and surreal as the dark water encompassed their every thought. Luke then looked behind him and saw the protruding dock just a few feet away.
They had made it….
Luke opened his eyes and it took a few moments to realize where his exhausted body had fallen two hours before, in the dark. The water was now calm as the early rays of the sun shone over the tree-line in the east. The canoe was rhythmically hitting the rocks just twenty feet to the left of the dock. As Luke’s eyes came into focus, he thought that the once proud craft looked broken and demoralized as the water swelled over its humble crescent form.
A man then appeared on the dock and told them about the tornado that had touched down in the area. They suddenly realized that the storm had left a path of destruction, with immense pine trees split in half and cottages with trees leaning on them, precariously.
As Luke and Jason drove out onto the main highway, they looked in wonder at the legacy of the storm. It was a storm that would be well-remembered by the two fortunate survivors.
Luke turned to his nephew and said:
A philosopher by the name of Nietzsche once wrote what I am feeling right now…
‘What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.’
Leave a comment! I love ’em and the guest writer, Luke Player, will love ’em too!
The summer I was 19 was the first summer that my eldest sister Eva owned the camp. I had just graduated from high school and would be attending University in the fall. My best friend Kelly was already studying Nursing. Both of us needed a full-time job and had asked at June’s Diner if we could work there. With a yes from June, we promptly began to plan.
We moved to the camp with my little brother Luke and with Eva’s middle child Jake, who was a tender four years of age. We promptly started the opening clean up, just as Mom had taught. Start systematically at cabin number one and spend a whole day on each cabin. In past years with Mom, we would work until noon then Mom would have Jobe build a small fire in the outdoor fire-pit of the cabin we were working on. Jobe was good at that. Mom would make soup and fried bologna or wieners over the fire. After eating and much to our enjoyment, she would pop popcorn in lard over the fire. We would just love those days with Mom…
It was hard, dirty work and there was a lot to do: clean, dust, paint, move things, wipe down cupboards, count dishes and cutlery, ensure pots and pans were there, affix curtains, paint and tidy…it was endless. One time, Kel reached up into a corner shelf and pulled out a stiff dead mouse by the tail, holding it horizontally while I squealed, having been startled by the oddity of it, so stiff and straight. Kel just chuckled at my antics. At the end of each full day, we all went out to June’s for a feed of fish and chips or something akin. Little Jake was an angel who was constantly helpful and pleasant and a joy to have with us.
Early the following week, working on number nine, we decided it needed a lick of paint. It was a bright, warm sunny day. Perfect for working on our tans at the same time and Luke had taken little Jake out fishing for the afternoon. We had the boom box playing full tilt: BORN in the USA and SUMMER OF SIXTY NINE and JOURNEY tapes. I should mention here that Kelly was a tireless worker. She would never stop and it was a pleasure and a joy to have her by my side for the summer, and she is still my oldest best friend today. So, we got up on the long ladder and once up there, feeling the sun on our backs, decided it would be perfect for topless painting. All was fine and good and we were working and singing, tanning and laughing.
Suddenly, between songs we heard the rumble of an approaching tractor. ANGUS BRECKNER!!!! Oh my god. The very cute farm-boy of similar age to us, was coming to cut the hay today. You never saw us scramble so fast down those ladders to find our t-shirts, screaming all the way.
The season began and we slipped into a routine. A johnny cake breakfast with Eva and the three boys who would kneel on their chairs, their blond heads forming steps on one side of the table. Next, chores which usually consisted of garbage pick up plus other light maintenance or cleaning jobs. After chores there was time for swimming and a bit of sun-bathing and then it was time for work at the diner in town. Sometimes we would bike to town but often we would get a ride from a friend, Angus or his buddy, or we would walk the two miles along the side of the highway.
Come the weekend there would often be various camp-fires or pit parties to attend. We also had friends of the male persuasion who would sometimes accompany us to Deer Hurst in Huntsville where we would dance and enjoy the house band being silly and celebrating our youthfulness. The best song came out that year: N-N-N-N-Nineteen, Nineteen. It was like it was written for us.
Another time we went out with our red-head friend Marvin. There were a few of us in his little jeep. We were driving pell mell along yet another dark, dirt, hilly, twisty turny country road for the sheer joy of the drive. Kel and I were squealing and ooohing with each directional change. Suddenly, Marvin slowed the jeep and driving close to the right side of the road, started to accelerate while turning sharply to the left. The jeep leaned over on two tires, EEEEEEK! It hesitated, as if deciding what to do, then over it went into the ditch, landing on its right side. There were a few expletives uttered at that point then Marvin said rather calmly and clearly in his deep voice: get out before she blows. Oh Jesus did we scramble to get out. The last person climbed out and let the door slam. It slammed on my right thumb. Marvin ran back and opened the door so I could escape. Whew. That was a close one. The jeep did not blow.
During other summers, from time to time a high school friend would come up and stay at the camp. When Sue (a boy named Sue, just like in the Johnny Cash song), arrived with his family, I was quite happy to see him. I enjoyed his company and we had had many good times together. As my sister Amy would say: he was a good head. (That’s a compliment).
One night we had heard about a campfire out off the Cane Road. Amy was at the camp with her car and, always generous, allowed us to use it. In we piled. There was Sue, Karrie from across the lake, a friend named Faye from the narrows, and myself. However, after a bit, I was a tad worried about Sue who was drinking large amounts of rye, thanks to Doug, the host, and he was getting quite drunk. We finally got him into the car after pulling him out of the ditch and started down the gravel, country road toward the camp. Suddenly, without much warning, except to ask that the window be rolled down, which it wasn’t, Sue got sick all over Faye. He had projectiled such that there was vomit on the car wall and window with a silhouette of Faye where her head and body had received it rather than the wall. We should have seen it coming. I pulled over and quickly asked Karrie to open the rear door. Sue tumbled out head first and landed in the ditch for the second time. He was moaning, groaning and puking. He waved at us saying just leave me here, just leave me here. Ya, no. I would not be leaving Sue there in some ditch on some god-forsaken, dark, forest-edged road. I yelled at him to get sick once more then to climb into the car.
The next morning I was cleaning number one cabin when I heard some commotion by the men’s outhouse. There was Sue. His large teenage male body was standing, slightly stooped, in the open door of the outhouse, his back to me. He was holding a Pocket Fisherman (for a split second my mind ‘reeled’ back to the time, years prior, when I had wanted so badly to use Eva’s husband Peter’s Pocket Fisherman and he so generously indulged me. Next, I promptly raised my right arm to cast the line and then somehow dropped it into an unfamiliar dark lake and just watched it sink. Frozen in horror at what I had just done. Peter had very graciously just waved it away, neither one of us wanting to go in after it.)
Anyway, Sue was holding the Pocket Fisherman the line of which was down the hole. He appeared to be fishing something out of the shitter. This was going to be interesting. I asked him what he was up to. Sue turned and his face was green. His front teeth were missing. He hesitated and seemed to argue with himself for a split second but, finally admitted that he was fishing his partial denture out of the shitter. It had fallen out when he was sick…..
Later, Amy and I saw him with his teeth in place. He told us he had boiled his denture for three hours. Poor Sue. That was a rough turn of events because after fishing his denture out of the poop, and then sterilizing it, he then had to go clean up Amy’s car which we had closed the night before and left in the sun. Not pretty.
The summer went on with canoeing, swimming, jumping off the rocks into the lake, exploring, campfires, chores and fun. Then we met Len, the son of a the late hockey great, a former Captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had a cottage near the camp and to call it a cottage was a vast understatement. It was massive with double doors leading into a great room with a double staircase heading up to a landing then splitting in two, heading in opposite directions around a upper story landing with several bedroom doors visible from below. There was no electricity and the whole place was made of weathered wood, but was new and in perfect repair. I could not stop looking at everything. Up at the top of the wall, hanging from the open rafters were huge posters of the hockey legend, taken in his day.
Len had all the toys and a boathouse and a boat, skis and all the gear. The top of the boathouse was a games room with pool table, table tennis, shuffle board, darts and a cooler full of pop. The boathouse had a balcony from which we would jump or dive into the lake below. It was teenager heaven. He would invite us over sometimes to water ski. We would have a ball! Mysteriously, whenever I told Dad I was going to hang out with Len, he would jump up off the couch and offer me a ride. I think he would have been quite happy if I had gotten serious with the son of a hockey legend. Imagine.
In the 60s my parents buy a piece of lake-front property north of the Muskokas in Ontario, Canada where we move to every summer to live bare-foot at the lake: fishing, swimming, sunning and doing chores each day…
In 1960, the year Mark was a born, my parents with my paternal grand-parents, bought a 21-acre piece of lake-side property north of Huntsville, Ontario. The Camp, as we came fondly to call it, had ten cabins, each on private, wooded lots, most with their own water frontage and docks, on beautifully picturesque forested property beside the soft mineral waters of Eight-mile Lake. The lake is part of a very long and historic river system. The camp is still up and running but is now owned and operated (since the mid 80s) by my eldest sister, Eva and her family.
The Camp was an integral part of my childhood and it was instrumental in my love of the outdoors. You see, as soon as the school year finished, Mom and Dad would have us packed up in the huge boat they called a car and we would move, lock, stock and barrel, up to the camp for the two months of the summer holidays. We never returned to the city during the summer. The City, in the summer, was a place where the less fortunate had to live.
Driving to the camp was always an undertaking. There would often be five or six of us in one car at a time for two hours straight. Once we were in, it was the lake or bust. Dad didn’t dare stop for anything. He had already gassed-up the boat and if one of us had to pee, it would be at the side of the highway, no kidding. That two-hour drive seemed to last forever, such was my eagerness to get there. Once we would pass Gravenhurst, we would be into The Rocks where the Canadian Shield would start to show its lumpy head. The Rocks was the first milestone that proved we were making progress. The Rocks we would say to each other and grin and point, then poke at each other in anticipation of all the fun the summer would surely hold for us.
The lake was the best place in the world to be in the summer and oh, how we pitied, for once, our neighbours, The MacNeils who only got to go on a short summer holiday somewhere closer to Walden. One or two of the MacNeils would usually come to visit at the lake and stay for about a week. Never the whole family though.
Once at the lake, life became a little simpler and a lot more basic. We would shed our shoes and heavier clothing and run around for hours at a time in shorts, tee shirts or just bathing suits. I can remember days filled with hours of swimming, canoeing, running back and forth to the trampoline, playing outdoor games and having the time of my life. All of us became expert swimmers, canoeists, fishers and water-skiers thanks to the black, soft water of Eight-mile Lake. I was swimming by the time I was three. I would spend hours in the water and became such a great underwater swimmer that people would often think I had drowned because I could hold my breath and swim underwater for so long.
The Camp had a built-in source of friends every summer. Nine of the cabins would be rented out to various families who had usually made bookings for them in the winter months. The campsites would also be filled up with people on vacation from the hotter, muggier climes of southern Ontario and of the northern United States. The odd time we would have customers from somewhere exotic like Europe. We would make friends one summer and then see these same people and their families return for several summers to follow. Together, my friends and I would explore the camp and surrounding area. We would swim, trampoline, canoe or walk to town, go for a hike, go fishing, go bull-frog catching, play hide-and-go-seek and have amazing sing-songs around the camp fire and under the vast starry sky at night. We were constantly on the go. We had a lot of good times. On rainy days we would play board games and spin-the-bottle above the work-shed that we called The Shop. Dad didn’t like us to have friends into The Office where he was trying to conduct business. (There were many fights about keeping The Office – our house where we ate and slept – professional and quiet. It was very difficult to keep it so serene especially with the screen door always slamming on the way out.)
‘Slam it!’ Dad would sarcastically yell from his inevitably prone position on the couch, with the newspaper. Conducting business was exhausting work. Meanwhile, Mom had already probably cut three huge grassy cabin lots, cleaned and dug four grimy, foul outhouses and had nothing but an open-face sandwich, a cup of black coffee and a gingersnap for lunch. A calorie deficit was often bragged about for some reason.
Saturdays were the worst days of the week at the camp. Saturdays were turnover days. All of our friends would be leaving and because we had so many chores on Saturday, we often didn’t even get a chance to say our good-byes. From the crack of dawn, we would be tasked with cleaning the cottages, picking up the garbage, cutting the grass, painting and making repairs. Of course, we had many of these same tasks on a daily basis but on Saturday we had a new element involved: time constraint. We had to have it all done before the new customers would begin to arrive and would be expecting their cabin or site to be absolutely sublime. When I was little, I would work closely with Amy, Eva or my mom on cabin cleaning. I would marvel at how quickly and efficiently they could complete a task. I would wish and wish that I was older and more capable, and I would try very hard to keep up with these experts but, I was a child and had the attention span of a child so I would find myself wishing I were swimming instead. Mom knew my love of the water and so would give me a task that would take me down to the dock. I would be given a large blackened kettle to scrub with sand or told to sweep off the dock! A few years later though, I was in charge of cleaning some cabins on my own, or with Luke as my assistant. Wanting to do the very best job, we drew up a list of the various tasks that would have to be completed in each cabin. It went something like this:
Make the beds. Wipe the bedroom furniture down. Sweep out the bedrooms. Clean and sanitize the fridge. Remove any left food and bait. Organize the cupboards. Blacken the wood stove and empty the ashes. Sweep down the cobwebs. Clean and sanitize the sink. Clean out the outhouse and drop ashes down the hole. Sweep and mop the floor. Sweep the porch. Sweep the dock. Tidy up the outdoor fire-hole.
Dad was very proud of this list that we drew up and he would show it to some of his friends and they would all have a chuckle over it – especially the sweep down the cobwebs line. Even now, when I sometimes (actually very rarely due, sadly, to living a few provinces away) help Eva with the cleaning, I mentally run over this list as I lovingly go about the task of cleaning those rustic, very special but ancient cabins.
Dad had a few nicknames that were given to him by the older boys: Cheapskate, Tightwad, Lard-ass, Oaf, Ogre, Moose and Minnie. Moose and Minnie were the ones that stuck although, on occasion, when Job was mad about something, and he was often mad about something, he would refer to Dad as that cheap tightwad or that Lard-ass or something akin to that. Nicknames were big in our family. From the second my Dad laid eyes on me he nicknamed me. I had all this black hair and my skin was a little brownish in colour. I was not cute. I became known as Petite Laid, meaning little ugly and later this was shortened to just Titty. I can still feel the humiliation, as a young girl, perhaps just starting to develop, Eva would holler across the aisles of Woolworth’s, Titty, come over and take a look at this. Just the other day, when on the phone, long-distance with Eva, she slipped and called me Titty. Oh my God, where did that come from? she asked. We just had a chuckle over it. Now, a few of decades later, I think it is a cute nickname. Back then, we all had a nickname, except for Eva who only got one when she met her hubby who called her Tuda. Amy was Doobie and Big Sweets. Matt was Feebert and then Feb. Mark started out as Goobie-Goo and then got Bert (except for the summer he was Manic and got ‘Skeletor’ due to not eating or sleeping). Job got Bert as well. I got Titty and then Ditch. Luke got Bert then Bertrum Brothers then Buttox. Mom was Big Bubbles. She used to leave the kettle on until there were lots of big bubbles and Dad used to goad her about that calling it a waste of energy.
Raising a family of seven kids, on a teacher’s salary, means that frugality is necessary. One day, at the lake, My brother Job 🧡 climbs out of bed and down the ladder from the loft. He decides to cook up some breakfast before starting on his morning chores. Noting that Dad is on the riding-mower out front, he decides to take some extra time and savour the peace of being alone in the office. He can just about taste the crispy bacon and eggs he will make.
Job pulls a pound of bacon out to the fridge, takes one look at the generic brand, and is so disgusted by how fatty it is that he flies out the screen door and whips the pound of bacon at Dad on the riding mower. The pound of bacon hits Dad on the back of the head while Job yells, Minnie you’re such cheapskate!
Dad would try very hard to stick around The Office most of the day. He liked to be there to collect the mail and to answer the phone and to sell a bit of ice and worms or gasoline to the customers. Of course whoever paid in cash made him very happy. Dad had a perpetual role of twentys in his pocket and would often get one of us, especially me, because I was honest, to count it for him.
Anyway, during the warm afternoons while the Northern Canadian sun danced on the large south-facing windows of the office, and the house flies buzzed angrily on the fly-catchers, Dad could invariably be found snoozing on the couch with his newspaper on his chest. Dad had bought a couple of massive, partially rusted deep freezers second-hand and they lined the north-facing exterior walls of the office with ICE printed on front and each sporting a Yale pad lock. Dad would tediously freeze huge blocks of ice in discarded fridge crisper bins. He’d then put the bin up on its edge on the kitchen table and it would begin to thaw and drip on the kitchen floor and then finally, it would yawn and tumble out. Dad would most often be there to stop the block from smashing on the floor. Here we go kids, another couple of blocks of ice to sell. Make sure to tell the customers that we sell ice down here at the office.
Dad would then, almost lovingly, wrap the blocks in old newspaper and sell them to the customers for a buck or two, as inflation dictated. Dad seemed to enjoy the process of making and selling ice and could be seen smiling dreamily as he slid the beef-laden freezer baskets out of the way and lay another completed block in its bed in the bottom of the massive freezer.
One afternoon, while Dad was snoozing on his back on the couch, a slim, curly dark-haired, handsome seventeen-year-old Mark decided to have a steak dinner. At that point in time, Mark was on the outs with Dad and was staying in one of the unrented, less popular cabins. Mark or Job and even Matt were often on the outs with Dad. Usually it was over a lack of respect. Personally, I don’t think there was much respect flowing in either direction in these relationships. Mark sauntered up the office screen door, to verify what he suspected would be the scene at that point in the afternoon. He then whipped out a screwdriver and proceeded to work the screws out of the latches on one of the freezers. He was successful. He opened the freezer. Squeak, the old hinges complained loudly. Oh Shit! Sure enough, Dad had heard his freezer door opening when it had been locked. He was up and he was mad and he was coming out of the screen door. Mark had already snatched a couple of steaks and was running through the trailer park up into the camp and yelling, I got some! I got some! Dad never saw those steaks again. Dad didn’t like to run and especially didn’t like to make a scene in front of the trailer park.
The trailer park was located beside the office on the way up to the rest of the cabins and other wooded camping sites. There was one older couple who used to always take the first site and were, therefore, closest to the office. The Pattersons were excellent fishers and liked to be close to the office dock where their boat and motor was tied. Every time we would have an argument or a kafuffle in the office, which was usually a couple of times a day, Dad would say: Keep it down, The Pattersons will hear. One of these fights got pretty bad one day. Fights were about money, nick-names, laziness, poor grammar and lack of respect. This time the fight involved Mark and got extra bad and very loud. Lots of harsh words were screamed in each direction and, of course, Dad said: Shut up! The Pattersons will hear. At that point Mark flew out the front screen door, slammed it loudly, jumped off the porch, ran down past the shop and right past The Patterson’s tent-trailer and screamed, at the top of his lungs,
FUCK THE PATTERSONS!
A few years later Mr. Patterson died of a heart attack while seated in his lawn chair. He had been looking out at the lake. His ashes were scattered over his favourite fishing hole.
I started canoeing when I was tiny. A brother and I would go out on the lake to catch bullfrogs and to explore the lily pads around the cove. We would often harvest a few lilies for Mom who would float them in a bowl of water on the table…
Last night I had a dream about canoeing at dusk on Lake Cecebe in Ontario’s cottage country. (The Camp ⛺️) I was over by number four cabin and the dark, soft familiar waters were choppy. I was solo. Suddenly I realized there was a lot of water coming into my canoe and it tipped over. I was in the drink. In real life, I have never capsized a canoe, not even while standing and lunging and reaching to catch bullfrogs as a child, never once did the canoe overturn. But in my dream last night, it did. The current became unusually strong and, still holding on to the overturned canoe, I was carried way down the narrows and into big part of the lake by Echo Rock. I was not afraid. Suddenly, I was overcome with a feeling of foreboding….but…then, I woke up.
I have many fond memories of canoeing on Cecebe. Like the late summer of 1983 when my little brother Luke would canoe into ‘Mag’ to pick me up from my shift at June’s Diner. He would slowly and quietly walk up from the dock, having tied the canoe there, to the diner to get me. I would be in my simple cotton uniform holdng a carton of to-go food. I would follow him down to the dock and take up my place in the bow and eat, famished, while Luke would paddle and tell me about his day and usually about his struggles with Dad.
After I would finish eating, we would sing for the rest of the trip. We would sing. The echo of our combined voices off the water was entrancing: Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad by Meatloaf:
Baby we can talk all night, but that ain’t getting us nowhere, I told you everything I possibly can, there’s nothing left inside of here. And maybe you can cry all night, but that’ll never change the way that I feel. The snow is really piling up outside. I wish you wouldn’t make me leave here…
Yep, we would sing that uplifting song. For some reason we knew all the words and, of course, various Bob Seger tunes and the odd Bob Dylan tune.
Mom wasn’t at the lake that year. Dad and Mom had split up. We missed her very badly. Her light always shone so bright at the lake. It was her favourite place on earth. When Mom passed away in 2001, we sprinkled her ashes in the upper field of the camp, under a pine tree. Eva, Amy, Mark and I took turns saying a few words and Mark sang a song that he wrote for mom. It was simple but sweet. Rest in Peace, Mom. We miss you.
Mom loved to canoe the lake. She would gather us up and we would make a canoe convoy out around the point beyond number six cabin in order to see the sunset.
We would laugh and tease and splash each other all the way. On the way back we would sing various camp songs and Mom’s favorite: Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles. As kids, we loved to go see the sunset on the lake. It was a big event. And Mom was with us, which made it extra special.
When my friend Ben MacNeil would visit (my neighbour from the city, see post: Let the Games Begin 🏀), we would go out in the canoe every day and usually we would canoe across the lake and then over to town. Sometimes we would take a fishing rod each and some worms and tie-up near the footings of the lighthouse and try for perch, sunfish and bass. Squealing with delight when we would catch a fish, pulling it into the canoe to be taken home where mom would clean it and add it to the other catches to be eating for breakfast the next day. She would roll each piece of fish in flour and salt and pepper and fry them in the big cast-iron pan with lots of lard. There would be a stack of fish and frogs on the table for breakfast —the most important meal of the day! Mom would say and then after grace, we would begin, with gusto. I have to wonder about the current trend toward veganism — there was nothing so natural and better than availing ourselves of the fruits of the lake for our morning meal and that flour and lard made everything extra delicious. Not to mention, we would have had to BUY vegetables. We didn’t have to buy our lake bounty. There were no children as fit as us as we bent to our chores, swam, tumbled and canoed the summer days away.
On calm days we would be beckoned by the still waters of Cecebe to adventure out for a day in the canoe. Luke and I, or Jobe and I, or Mark and I would head down the mysterious Distress River and follow all of its twists and turns seeing blue herons take flight as we rounded a corner or a beaver flapping its tail on the calm black bottomless water. The Distress was always so quiet and calm. There were stories about it and beliefs about the water because it was so black. People would say that it was bottomless. None of us wanted to swim in it, but mom would, no problem. Sometimes, just every now and then, Jobe would water ski down the Distress – My brother Jobe 🧡. He loved the challenge of it but, it did scare him, although he would never admit it. I remember being proud of Jobe. He was so courageous.
If you get a chance to canoe, give it a try and then you can say that U CAN CANOE!!!
This post features pictures by myself, my husband and my eldest sister Eva. The header shot is from google images.