Spiders, Burnt Feet & Leeches

Starting in the late 1950s, summer vacations found my three siblings and me packed in the back seat of our car, off to find North America without benefit of seatbelts. In marked contrast to our friends who had cottages, we were literally and metaphorically carried along by a family philosophy valuing mobile over stationary vacations.

We stood in line at Disneyland, then the only magic kingdom, and cleaned abalone on a rocky shoreline near Prince Rupert.  We peered carefully over the edge of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and crawled even more carefully up teetery ladders at Mesa Verde.  We toured an aluminum smelter in Kitimat, attended Oscar Wilde summer stock in Helena, bought wood carvings where the St. Lawrence turns salty, looked in vain for trees in the Petrified Forest. A disciplined schedule of seat rotations gave everyone a turn at a window.  We quietly hoped for bad weather on travel days: rain might mean burgers and milkshakes from then-novel drive-ins, not sandwiches in a roadside picnic spot.

Not surprisingly, I grew into an adult who saw little value in spending vacation time in one spot, year after what I assumed must be deadly-dull year. Indeed, I believed there were two kinds of people: lake people (an unfathomable group who didn’t travel), and the rest of us. Biased by my early conditioning, I almost forgot that there was a time before all this mileage, our family equivalent of pre-history.

When the oldest of us was not yet 10, we were judged too young to travel any distance by car. For two summers we vacationed in a rented cabin at the lake, producing a legacy of vivid memory snippets — the things that mattered to a pre-schooler.

At the lake, unlike at home, I had my own bedroom — just big enough to hold a cot that, in turn, held me sleepless for hours, keeping an eye on the spider skulking in the sloped log ceiling. Daylight offered little reprieve from danger: I learned a new respect for coals after running too near the fireplace in bare feet. Nor was fire the only elemental hazard: after every venture into the shallow Prairie lake, I stood, squeamishly undecided, not wanting to touch the leeches on my legs, not wanting to leave them there either.

The lake wasn’t all spiders, burnt feet and leeches: there was also time to puzzle over the great mysteries of life, not evident in the city. Why did cut apples turn brown overnight? Did salamanders live in the water or beside it? Why would anyone, even a fish, eat worms?

Through the day we wandered freely, safe without any apparent supervision, happily sunburning in a time before sunblock. After dark, we cooked biscuit dough formed around branches stripped of bark, and filled the hole with strawberry jam. I can still see the sparks from those campfires, rising to meet first fireflies and then the stars overhead.

Then, suddenly, we were old enough to travel, and travel we did. The lake, with its particular magic for making memories, was no more, until I was reintroduced to lake life a few years ago by a bona fide lake person.

Smack in the Canadian Shield, Lake of the Woods stretches for forever. Impenetrable mixed forest slopes steeply down to the water’s edge, interrupted only by remnants of an ancient mountain range. It is a lake as different from the Prairie lake of my childhood as it is possible to imagine. Yet they are somehow alike in the sweet release they give from doing much of anything, and in the rhythm of their days.

In the early morning, dawn-welcomers and grumblers assemble haphazardly and venture out to track the wily pickerel, sometimes bringing home a taste to grace our lunch table.

In the heat of the afternoon, we swim. Some approach the water respectfully, inch-by-painful-inch down the ladder; others, cavalierly, cannon-balling off the end of the dock. Some years the initial shock wears off in a few minutes, some years not: it is not your standard sun-warmed Prairie lake. On the other hand, there is no squeamish standing-about afterwards, wondering how to remove leeches without touching them.

After supper, we putt around the architecturally uncontrolled neighbourhood, admiring cabins that reflect the varying tastes — and means — of their owners. Within a short boat ride is a new home that evokes a 1930s railway hotel, a 1950s one-bedroom cottage with outdoor plumbing, and everything in-between.

Later, sitting on the covered deck, we watch as bats, dark-as-night shadows, chase mosquitoes across the clearing in the trees. Reflected in the now still lake, the rising full moon fades from a wide swath of glitter to a narrow band. Somewhere across the water a loon cries, plaintive as always.

Just as one day slides gracefully into the next, so do the memories all slide together, over the years.  Enjoying the sun and the occasional rainstorm. Making meals and lingering at the table, talking and laughing with family and friends. Playing silly games through the day with the kids, playing silly games after dark with the grown-ups.

Through the winter I have waited patiently for the return of lake season, warmed by all my lake memories, old and new. I don’t regret my childhood years on the road: those memories are part of who I am. But just as it is good to venture forth and explore new places, so it is good to build memories in one place that holds part of your heart. I have learned that I, too, am a lake person. Maybe we all are.

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8 Responses to Spiders, Burnt Feet & Leeches

  1. Wade says:

    True enough. The Lake doesn’t require a carnival type barker to draw people in, or out as the case may be.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Step right up! It’s a banana – a chocolate coated, frozen banana! Yes, I seem to remember a carnival huckster selling these dubious treats. It’s hard to imagine anything further from the tone of the Lake, where (at its best) everyone is free to find their own pace, their own happy place.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    Oh, yes! What did we call those things, when we wrapped dough around a green stick, cooked it, and used it as a vehicle for ingesting sugar-and-fruit? My kids never experienced those — perhaps we never camped where we could cut green saplings and peel them. We did do bananas, partly hollowed out, filled with chocolate and marshmallows, wrapped in aluminum foil and roasted in the embers; I salivate thinking of it. Camping was hardly what one would call a hygienic experience, but it all seems so clean and simple now, looking back. Today, the kids would probably complain that they were out of cell-phone range for texting….

    Jim Taylor

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – I don’t remember there being a name for biscuit-on-a-twig; maybe an older sibling will dredge this up. Although it’s all too likely they’ve forgotten the thing itself – I seem to have a penchant for remembering food… As to today’s kids, I can’t speak for the texting generation, but I’m just back from several days at the lake with a gaggle of 5- to 8-year-olds, and they were very in their element: swimming in the often-frigid lake with foam ‘noodles’, watching for garter snakes, picking a weed bouquet for their hostess, fishing in the early morning, and learning about ‘horsepower’ while enjoying its best expression in an inner tube tethered at the end of a long rope behind a speed boat. One can only hope that early exposure will translate into enjoyment in the teen years.

      • Vince says:

        Was it simply a form of “Bannock” (or Native American bread) that you made on a stick, or did you have another name? I think I recall that from my much younger days. We might have to bring it back next time; as a sort of bun for the roasted weiners, or as a dinner before the smores dessert.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Vince – I think it was Bisquick (insert trademark symbol here) my mother used – and I don’t remember any name for it. It was kinda sticky, though, as you’d expect a batter bread to be. I’ll get the particulars and see if we can replicate it. Strawberry jam was the canonical filling, as I recall, but I guess anything sweet and slippery/gooey would do. Maybe dark chocolate….

  3. Susan Wright says:

    What a lovely description of a child’s perfect vacation. My parents were not the vacationing type, however one summer they packed my sister and me into our beater of a car and took us to a cabin on Lake Waskesiu, Sask. We had a fabulous time, running back and forth into the lake to get away from the horseflies, playing with the kids in the next cabin and generally running wild. I haven’t thought about that vacation for years, but your description of lake memories brought it all back. Thank you!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      I know that my own ‘perfect vacation’ doesn’t involve the car very much – I much prefer to go somewhere and explore either on foot or by short car trip. In addition to lake time, the beaches of the Pacific Northwest come to mind, as do (oddly enough) trips to mega-city centres, like Chicago or New York. Maybe what they all have in common is the opportunity to be out and about on a human scale, at a human pace.

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