By Amanda Bondy
Those are lake fairies. You have to try and catch them.
This was something my mother's grandfather (who smoked like a chimney, had a thick French accent, who swore like a, was a, lumberjack) told her when she was young. He was talking about the golden light that tips the crests of waves, and it was meant to divert my young mother's attention for a few minutes. One day, my mother would tell me the same story, about the same light, the same waves. On a lake in Northern Ontario generations of my mother's family had spent their summers, or parts of summers, fishing and swimming and reading, and battling black flies and woodsmoke and the bare-necessities confines of a three-room cabin.
There's no other place like it on earth.
* * *
In a time long before I was born, some time around the Olympics or the Expo (so either '76 or '67; details get fuzzy and less important over time) my grandmother's (baba's) parents made the trip from Montreal back to Windsor and ended up in a then undeveloped area of Ontario called Hastings Highlands. I don't know if scouting cottage (or cabin, interchangeable, really) locations had been part of the trip, but that is when the tiny cottage on a tiny lake in a tiny town in an immense province became a part of our family lore.
“The Cottage”, as it came to be known, was one of only a few on a lake called Little Boulter—which adjoins a lake called Boulter and is actually the larger lake despite the name—and is much the same today as it was when it was first constructed. Wood panelling covers the walls, the same ancient and reliable Frigidaire appliances stand in the kitchen, newspapers from the '70s line the closet in the bathroom which holds blankets and towels worn from decades of use. The toaster (which makes a perfect slice of toast even today) stands gleaming in chrome next to the black rotary telephone that still operates on a party line. A wood-burning stove, a recent addition, supplies heat in the fall moths when the old orange fan heater won't sufficiently cut the chill on the linoleum in the mornings. The place is a testament to a bygone era—from the Audubon Society field guides stacked on the coffee table to the RCA radio standing guard on top of the kitchen cupboards to the Tiffany-inspired light fixture over the table. For me, a return to The Cottage is a return to a time where fairies could live in the crests of water.
The geography hasn't changed much in the twenty or so years that I've known it, and hardly at all in the time my family has known the place, but my perception of it has altered quite a bit over time. When I was small, the rolling hills of Crown Land that receded into the horizon across the lake, the towering pines that enclosed the property, the subliminal vistas from the top of the Beaver Trail in Algonquin Provincial Park, and the distance to the grocery store in town (45 minutes which stretched into what seemed like hours) all seemed beyond comprehension. Nothing seemed larger than a great boulder that stood beside the cottage—evidence of the glacial till that formed the lakes and landscape of the Canadian Shield—which my siblings and I and whatever family pet came with us that summer would clamber up at the end of every trip. My mother or baba would take a picture of us (one year shows my baby sister's knees covered in band-aids, my brother pulling a silly face, and my long hair pulled back and tucked into a ball cap.) That boulder grew with us, smaller as we grew bigger, but the presence of the rock was always a constant.
There's a story that one year, my grandfather and his father-in-law (the chimney stack of a Frenchman) went out into the lake in the canoe to fish—I say “the canoe” because along with the aluminium fishing boat, the red canoe with the wicker seats and the beavers painted onto the paddles has been around since the shack of a cabin was pulled across the winter ice from its first location on the other side of the lake. Apparently the canoe tipped, probably they tipped the canoe, and the fishing poles as well as the bait and some towels and a wrist-watch and a hat sunk to the bottom of the lake. The canoe and paddles were saved and both of the men returned to shore. I think of my great-grandfather's wrist-watch, at the bottom of the lake, the hands stopped at the moment the water gummed up the works of the gears, as another constant of the place.
For me, The Cottage has become a text of my childhood. I remember the first time I swam across the lake without a lifejacket, the time my dad took me out in the boat in the middle of the night during a meteor shower, the hours spent wrapped in old quilts at the end of the dock reading, learning to swim in the cold lake as an infant, the summer the lake was so warm the bass were lazy and you could catch them by hand—my few weeks of every summer spent there have been more important in forming my own values and identity (as a woman, as a Canadian, as a person who believes in the good in nature.) I hope to be able to share this place with my own loved ones one day, just as any person desires to bring their friend or lover to a special place that gives them a context for why you are the way you are.
However, as time passes and my grandmother begins to age and land taxes become less affordable and giant cabin-chic mansions are being built by wealthy Torontonians and the lake becomes less secluded and sections of forest seem to disappear every summer, I worry what will become of The Cottage. I fear that constant always-can-come-back-to place with the boulder and the wrist-watch and the lake fairies might not always be a place I can come back to.
* * *
In the mornings, very early, before the sun rises over the hills in the east and burns off the night's fog, the lake is so still. Maybe you hear a loon calling in the distance, a breeze making the wind chimes dance. There is little to hear on a sleeping lake. You would pull on thick wool socks and wrap yourself in a blanket. Stepping out into the yard where the grass is sparse—you're not far enough north for that prickly scrub of the tundra—there may be a chipmunk jumping in the branches above you. The sun is warm on the skin that is exposed and you feel good. You throw a branch for the dog to chase after and notice smoke across the river—the family across the lake is starting the fire for breakfast. You'll want coffee, because the well water and old French press (or percolator) make the best coffee even out of beans you couldn't stand back home.
At The Cottage you'll always compare everything to back home—the way you sleep, eat, feel, think better, the way the milk tastes sweeter, how the clouds are faster and the sky bluer—and you'll recognize the magic of a place that doesn't seem like much at first glance.