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.