Memories of Dawson Lake
I had met Bob, the main character in this story, at a winter party at someone's home who he was also friends with. Bob had invited me to come up for a winter journey to his winter campsite on the shores of a small secluded lake. I was always impressed with his lifestyle ~ biking into town instead of driving, embarking on long wilderness canoe journeys, winter camping journeys, working in his blacksmith shop, building his own rustic log cabin. He was truly a 'man of the wilderness' who always exuded a lovely warmth and hospitality. I wrote this based on a story that he had told me about the day his dad passed away...
Bob was in his blacksmith shop working on a metal latch for the old Hanson farmhouse down the road. His shop was beside the log cabin that he had built. His parent's house, where Bob had lived before building his own, was on the same one and a half-acre property. An unpaved road lay between his property and Maple Lake.
This little community, outside of Carnarvon, Ontario, and close to the village of Haliburton, was where Bob grew up. This was where he had learned about the seasons and the ways of nature. He would return here after his many long wilderness canoe or snowshoe voyages into Northern Canada. Bob had never liked formal schooling; he felt that it forced people to learn in a particular way. So, at an early age, he discovered his way of learning - experientially. Bob wrote his own curriculum.
For many summers, he would set out with his canoe, gear, and a pack of food and paddle for a month or more across lakes and down rivers. Much of what he knew about he discovered on these summer adventures. But, no matter how far he traveled, Bob always knew that he would return to his log cabin, on the shores of Maple Lake. Back home, he would recount his tales of adventure as he shared his favourite home cooked meal with his mother and father.
It was quiet this time of the year. One could hear a leaf making a gentle splash as it landed on the dark cool water. Most of the cottagers had closed up their places on the Labour Day weekend. They would not be back until May. You could always tell which homes were occupied at this time of the year - a wisp of smoke floating out of a chimney, and the flickering of a light across the lake on a dark night.
Bob and his father had just finished harvesting their garden a few weeks ago. They filled up three bushels of potatoes, two of onions, and an assortment of carrots, cabbage, beets, and garlic. They placed them in the basement where it was cool. This would usually see them through the winter and often well into the next summer. This year, it might last all the way until their next harvest.
Bob’s mallet was raised. He was about to strike the red hot metal. He saw the glow through his protective goggles. The techniques had become habitual, though they had taken him long to learn. For the most part, he was self-taught. There were not too many blacksmiths left in his community. As the mallet struck the piece of metal, his hand froze. He heard a distressed voice, which is rare on the shores of Maple Lake.
“Bob, come quick.”
His mallet tumbled to the floor as he flipped his goggles around his neck. There was no mistaking that voice.
He remembered playing in his canoe down by the lake when he was young. Often, just around dinnertime, he would hear his mom calling. Whether he was dreaming of far off adventures in the north or practicing a new stroke, his mother’s call would remind him that home was just across the road. He always had something new to tell his parents as they shared another meal together.
Yet this time, the emotion in his mother’s voice pierced the air like the call of a distressed loon. He opened the door and stepped outside. His mother stood there, breathing heavily. He looked into her red, swollen eyes.
As they walked past the vegetable garden, his mom began to speak. “When I came home, I sat down to watch the news. I saw your father on the couch. You know how he likes to take an afternoon nap. After fifteen minutes, I decided that I would wake him. I nudged him a few times. Then I began to shake him and as I did I hollered, ‘Dinner is ready, it’s time to eat, come on, wake up!’ As I shook him, tears rolled down my cheeks and landed on his old woolen sweater. I thought of all those years together, the meals, and the memories - I knew how much I would miss him.”
Bob and his mother walked into the house and knelt beside him. He lay on his back with his head on the pillow. He looked as though he could wake up at any moment.
The funeral followed a few days later. It took place at an old stone church at the south end of Maple Lake. After the service, friends and family gathered in Bob’s parent’s home. Bob greeted many people at the door, some he had not seen for a long time. He had short sporadic conversations with many people but, as the afternoon wore on, all he could think of was Dawson Lake. Just up the road and through a wooded path was Dawson Lake. Bob had many memories of times he had spent there with his father.
The next morning he got up early. The sky was blue and there was a light dusting of snow on the leafy ground. He stepped onto his front porch and looked out over Maple Lake. He listened for the sounds of the loons and then remembered that he had not heard them for a few days now. The last pair had left for their flight to the ocean, where they would stay during the long winter. They would not be back until next spring. It was hauntingly quiet. Bob looked at his mother’s bedroom window; the light was not on.
He strapped his canvas bag around his shoulder. Inside it, he had his hatchet, matches, a small battered kettle, and two dented mugs. He walked across the lawn and felt the leaves crackle under his feet. Most of the trees were barren. He started walking down the dirt road and soon came to the beginning of the trail, which led through the woods to the shores of Dawson Lake. He had not been on the trail since last March and so, as he walked, he cut back some of the new growth that had come up over the summer.
As he came to the top of the last little hill, he saw Dawson Lake. He stopped for a moment and took a deep breath. The air was cool and fresh. Between the trees, beams of light shone and bounced off the snow. He could remember standing in this same spot with his dad. The words that his father had spoken seemed to echo all around him…
“You know Bob, long before you were born I had been coming to Dawson Lake. There is something very special about finding a place where you can return to and feel like you have never left. There is an old fire pit that I built many years ago. How about we fix it up today, and make a little fire?”
Bob stood there and thought about that fire pit. It was just off the trail, beneath the old cedar tree, and close to the lake. He veered off the trail. After removing a few fallen branches, he saw what remained of that old pit. The rocks formed a jagged circle, having been pushed around by many winters of snow and ice. Most of the rocks were covered with moss, bits of grass were growing in the middle of the pit, and a few tiny pieces of charcoal lay scattered beneath the grass.
Bob hung his canvas sack on a branch and started repositioning the rocks. He gathered a bundle of fallen sticks that were scattered throughout the forest floor. The wood cracked with a crisp snap. “Starting a fire would be easy today,” he thought. Kneeling beside the fire pit, he struck a match on a rock and lit the dry birch bark. Within a few moments, the flames began to melt some of the snow. As he stared into the fire, he sensed the faint voice of his father. It was as though he were right there beside him…
How about some tea, Bob? Here, take this little pot and get some fresh water from the lake.
Bob placed the pot in the middle of the fire. He sat on the gently sloping hill and peered through the smoke and out over Dawson Lake. The sun, shining in the deep blue sky, reflected off the still lake and thin layer of snow. He saw a beaver, dragging a branch in his mouth. The beaver disappeared into the black water, diving down to bury his food for the long winter.
The water began to boil. Bob threw some cedar leaves that he had collected from the old tree into the pot. After it boiled for a few minutes he removed the pot and placed it between the fire and the rocks. There, between the rocks and the fire, it would steep.
He poured two cups of tea, and placed one beside him. As he held his cup in his hand he felt warmth; the fire, the tea, the sun, and memories of his father. The two cups sent wisps of flavoured steam into the cool air. Before Bob took his first sip, he whispered, “Dad, this is the best way I know to say good-bye to you; just the two of us, drinking tea, beside our old fireplace on Dawson Lake. It sure is a beautiful day.”
January 14, 1998
I had the privilege of being guided by Bob to Dawson lake for a few winter adventures in and around the time I wrote the above story. After one adventure, I had written this in my journal...
A Warm Tent in the Canadian Winter
The gear has been unpacked and sorted into its proper place. A warm shower washed away the smoky film that seeped into my skin from the fire over the past few days. As dinner heated up in the oven, I lit a candle and my mind wandered back to the shores of Dawson Lake. Only a day away but it felt like so very long ago. We had gone winter camping - the traditional way, just like the early explorers did when they ventured into the harsh climate of a Canadian winter. Beneath the surface of our big cities, fancy cars, high tech computers, cellular phones, fax machines and fast paced life, is something that is truly Canadian. Walking across a frozen beaver pond in the winter is one way of discovering that.
As I lay on a bed of fresh Balsam boughs, with the woodstove pulsating within the walls of the canvas tent, it is not too difficult to hear the wind whispering in the towering White Pines. In the middle of winter, we cook gourmet meals, share stories, and sleep peacefully in our little haven of warmth set amidst frozen beaver ponds and snow filled forests. For most urbanites this place on Dawson Lake would be like another universe.
Days are full when you camp in the wintertime. In the morning, we strap on our snowshoes and head off through the fluffy snow as if we were floating on a soft sea. We walk through trails, up hills, and stop to observe icicles sparkling as they dangle from a rock cliff in the midday sun. We discover fresh animal tracks that zigzag through the forest. Leaving the forest, we step onto a Beaver pond. We feel the wind and see snow blowing horizontally across the lake. The sky is deep blue. We find a sheltered area near one end of the pond. We gather sticks and larger limbs from fallen branches. There is an abundance of dry wood at the edges of the beaver pond and from dead trees that stick out of the ice. Before long we have a blazing fire. A circle in the snow begins to form around it. Making a tripod with three larger sticks, we place it above the fire and hang a tea kettle from it. We toast our bread on small sticks. The warmth of the sun, and the heat from the fire, seep into us as we sit on a fallen log and eat our lunch. The lid of the kettle begins to shake and we pour some tea. I never knew a more Canadian experience. And even though it was well below zero, there was no time to feel the cold. After lunch, we continued our walk through the woods and over frozen beaver ponds.
Back in the wall tent, after another tasty meal and more stories, it was not hard falling asleep…
On a soft bedding of aromatic balsam fir,
in a wood stove heated wall tent
beside the snow covered shores
of frozen Dawson Lake.
The fire crackles;
I fall peacefully