Touching lakes

ESSAY

Personal encounters with bodies of water.

Words by & artwork by Woodchart


The human body is sixty percent water. The heart and brain, seventy-three. The lungs, eighty-three. Even our bones are up to thirty-one percent water. Sometimes I think of the fact that each one of us is a tiny autonomous ocean.

Growing up with a father who was passionate about sailing, I spent a lot of time out on the water. At first I hated it. The rolling waves lulled me into a stupor from which I would emerge nauseous and irritable. But eventually, something changed. I remember standing on the shores of lake Ontario, freezing water lapping at my toes and a green, fishy smell tickling my nose and thinking I will live by the water.

Of the different cities I have called home over the years, I always find myself taking refuge in the vicinity of the water, searching for some sort of peace or relief in its flow.

The Liffey in Dublin flowed inky and foul, but I watched it from perches on the street above. At night its shining surface dared me to dive in, an insanity I never succumbed to, not even on the craziest of nights.

The harbor front in Toronto was full of life; the smell of cheap hot-dogs filling my head with thoughts of the carnivals and ferris wheels of my childhood, buskers filling the background with music and tricks. Boats drifted by or hung in the bay, full of tourists in sunglasses, worshipping the sun.

The Lungotevere in Rome was slow moving brown water, leaves and trash lazily snaking their way past diners and pedestrians on the banks, never revealing what lay beneath the surface. I remember sitting by the edge of the Tevere late one night, my feet dangling dangerously close to the stinking waters, a plastic cup of sangria in my hand, and I craved the feeling of sliding beneath the ripples, that release of plunging into cool water, to resurface with a gasp one moment later. A feeling I had not experienced since moving to Rome, but again, a madness I did not indulge in.

As the weather grew hotter in Italy, my home for the past two years, there were trips to the sea where we would lay languid under the sun, wading into the water and bobbing easily on the warm salty waves. I would lay as flat as can be on my back, testing my buoyancy and staring directly up into the clear sky, feeling happy and at rest, the real world feeling far away. Work, money, homesickness and stress all disappeared in these moments. It was bliss. I felt that if I squinted hard, perhaps I could see all the way across the sea, over France, Spain, and then over the Atlantic, back to the home I had left behind, but would return to soon.

Several weeks after coming back to Canada for a summer visit at home, the only water I had experienced was the buckets of it falling from the dreary sky each day. A far cry from the blazing heat of Rome, and the salt and sunshine of my vacation days in Capo Palinuro. In late July, on a (finally) sunny day, I took the Wolfe Island ferry across the channel from Kingston to meet my father on his boat. I sat on the ferry dock waiting for him, under the beating sun, looking down into the world below the surface of lake Ontario. I saw forests of green, thriving below my toes, which did not quite reach the surface. I imagined being a tiny fish, exploring what may have been hidden there, the sun filtering down through the clear water. I thought, I could jump in now. I looked up to see if there was anyone else around before removing my t-shirt, and saw a small rowboat approaching, the man inside wearing a broad-rimmed tilly hat. I recognized the multi-coloured braid around its rim, which my sister had made years ago. My father. Sorry I’m late. He helped me into the boat and we rowed back to Windsong, his sailboat, now anchored in the bay. I was thinking of going for a swim, I said. Let’s just eat lunch first, he said.

By the time we had finished lunch, thick black clouds were rolling in. So much for a swim, I thought, settling in to read a book. The rain came, and the storm passed quickly, reducing the temperature by several degrees. The sky still hung low and grey, but I slipped into my bathing suit below deck. When I emerged, goosebumps raised on my arms and legs, I didn’t think, just jumped. It was perfect. The way the water took my breath away, the way my hair fanned out around me, then collected itself again as I resurfaced, tiny white bubbles tracing the movements of my feet and hands.

Not two weeks later, I took off on a poorly planned, last minute, cross-Canada road trip with my brother. I wanted to see what else my country had to offer me, what waters and woods I could find. My country, which I had left many times for others. I realized that when international friends asked me what Canada was like, I had a hard time answering, as I hadn’t taken the time to discover it.

Though our direction was ultimately west, we had to drive a full day and a half north, just to make our way around the uppermost of Canada’s five great lakes: first Huron, then Superior. It took us three full days just to get out of Ontario. Our first stop was Manitoulin Island. We were buzzing with energy on the first day of our big adventure. As we approached the island, lake Huron sparkled into view: vast and deep, deep blue. The sun refracted pleasantly off its surface, and I was ready to set foot in only the second of our great lakes in my life. We continued driving for what seemed like ages through rolling hills and farmland, catching glimpses of the lake to our left.

As we followed the signs for the park in which we would camp, we turned sharply away from Huron, the waters disappearing in our rear-view. I had assumed we would be on the lake. I had assumed the island was small. We pulled into the camp, and I searched the map the girl at the desk was pointing to as she directed me to our site, and spotted a small blue circle. Is the lake for swimming?

You could, she said hesitantly, but it’s new, and we’re having some water-retention issues.

We set up our camp, excited to be so far from home already, slinging our hammock and stacking our firewood. Let’s go for a walk.

Emerging into a small clearing, we laid our eyes on Terry Lake. Is that it? It was a stagnant, man-made puddle, the banks still bare dirt and gravel from where the diggers had cut into the earth. The water was pitifully low, though there was a small paddleboat tied to a dock on the far end. I doubted if the water would reach my shins.

Our next temporary home was Lake Superior Provincial Park, another of Canada’s great lakes. Another lake that’s more like an ocean. We hastily set up camp, as I could hear waves lapping just beyond the trees sheltering our site. We found a path leading to the sound, and found ourselves on a vast beach, a mix of sand and pebbles, looking out on endless Lake Superior. There was almost no one in sight, as the sun was beginning to get low in the sky. We left our towels hanging on a piece of driftwood, grabbed our go-pro camera, and raced to the water.

Upon letting a wave cover my feet, I discovered the water was icy cold. But it was crystal clear. I waded in, the tiny hairs rising on my skin as the water chilled my shins, thighs, torso, and finally my chest as I began to swim. Looking down, I could see the bottom as clearly as if I were floating on air.

We dried off and skipped rocks towards the drooping sun, and eventually headed back to our site feeling refreshed. Before the sun had completely disappeared, I made my way back down to the water alone, and sat on a log I found just on the edge of the forest. I watched a man drift by on a paddleboard, a golden retriever perched precariously on the bow. I saw a dragonfly as big as a hummingbird buzz past me. I took in the twisted pines and craggy rocks along the shore. I thought about what the people on the opposite bank were doing, too far away to even begin to see. Then I turned my back before the last sliver of sun had slipped below the horizon, and headed back to camp.

We never had time to tire of a place before moving to the next, as if on the run. There were endless I wish we could stay’s as we drove away from a camp, heading to the next. The following day, we continued our journey up and over the great lakes. We set up camp at Sleeping Giant Park, on the northern shores of never ending Lake Superior. After setting up our disappointing camp (there was little to no tree cover, not to mention tumbleweeds drifting by, and an uncomfortably close proximity to the outhouses), we took off on a walk at dusk, the sky threatening rain. First, we found ourselves on a sandy beach. What’s that? asked my brother. I followed his gaze and found myself looking at two foxes, dancing around one another in the sand. They were bouncing off picnic tables, chasing each other and the waves. We sat ourselves on the swing set, and watched the show until the pair eventually slipped back into the trees, and then we headed over to the visitors centre, as we felt some drizzle coming. There was no one else there, so we were able to take our time looking at the maps and displays. I found myself enthralled reading the legend of the sleeping giant. As the story goes, he was turned to earth and stone as punishment for calling up a storm to prevent men from discovering hidden silver, knowing they would use the treasure for evil. Now, the giant (a large land mass shaped like a sleeping man), is said to be guarding the precious silver below, hidden beneath the waters. We made our way down to the opposite shore, stood on the dock and gazed out at his peaceful silhouette, protecting his treasure deep below.

The next day, we finally crossed our first border. We felt so far away, like renegades taking on our country, province by province. Making it as far as the mountains drove us to press on, waking with the sun and packing up for another day before the morning chill had dissipated.

Winnipeg was our first city stop. I had a friend there, who agreed to pick us up at our hostel and take us out for dinner and a beer. We felt so strange sleeping in a bed after several days on the road in a hammock and the back of a pickup. After dinner, we went for a walk and lined up at a neon glowing ice- cream joint. We took our milkshakes and crossed a bridge over a river. What river is this? I asked. I’m not sure, she said, either the Red River, or the Assiniboine. I’ve never really thought of it.

Passing through the prairies, there was nothing but golden fields: wheat for days. I saw a few fields that strangely seemed to be flooded, the flat land replaced seamlessly and without shore by flat water. We accumulated an insect massacre on our windshield, as we drove straight and fast for hours on end. We saw nothing but golden flats and white butterflies until we finally came upon the valley that is the badlands, shocking us as it emerged before our eyes amongst the farm fields. It was like we were in another country…it was nothing like our lush, green, forested Ontario. It was a desert valley, full of sandstone canyons and dust. Cutting right through the middle was a green gash: the path of a glacier, leaving behind a fast-moving creek, and groves of poplars and aspens. I asked at the desk if I could swim in the river, and was told it was not recommended, as it is fast-moving black water. We spent two days in this rugged moonscape, craving water under the beating sun, until the sun went down and left us shivering by the fire, spent from hours of hiking and exploring the hoodoos, canyons and lookouts.

Only a few hours from the badlands, mountains finally loomed into view: we had arrived at the rockies. There was something so thrilling as we spotted the snow-capped peaks, the prairie flats having been traded once again for lush green forest. As lakes began to sparkle into view once again, I noted that the water was not the dark, clear blue I was accustomed to, but an opaque, almost artificial looking turquoise. It seemed that someone had slipped blue kool-aid into the lakes, and had followed suit with the rivers. Everything was this beautiful, bright, green-blue, contrasting against the deep green pines. We drove to north to Lake Louise, having seen stunning photos of it and wanting to see for ourselves. The photos were right, it is a stunning lake, framed by snow-capped peaks, and dotted with canoes drifting this way and that, but we were all but crowded out by tourists. We hiked up the mountain to Lake Agnes, where there is a small tea-house, with no running water or electricity, and a small group of nature lovers who run the café and sleep out back in a cabin I noticed on my way to the outhouse. It would have been charming, had we not been shuffled along in a steady stream of hikers, all heading in the same direction. So we continued our ascent. We intended to follow the “Little Bee Hive” hike, but by some wrong turn, ended up at the top of “Big Bee Hive,” 2270 metres in elevation. From here, Lake Louise was tranquil below us. The canoes were nothing but black specks, the crowds of people just moving dots, and the looming Fairmont Hotel a dollhouse.

The final lake before we began our long journey home was in Jasper National Park. Here, the tourist crowds thinned, and we were able to hike Wilcox Pass, an amazing glacier trail, almost alone. We later drove from our campsite to little Lake Annette, which I had spotted on a map of the campground and surrounding areas. Without the endless people, phones and cameras, I was drawn to the water, the lake framed by rocky giants. I slipped out of my jeans, felt the sun warm on my skin and the grass dry and brittle on my feet before stepping down into the icy, glacial waters. My muscles instantly tensed with the cold, and when I finally plunged in, I found myself gasping with the weight of the cold on my chest. The purest feeling. I gazed up at the mountains, I gazed across at the opposite shore, probably close enough to swim to, and over to the small beach, where I could see a few kids splashing around, inflatable animals in tow. This, was serenity. This was my Canada. Blue waters, high mountains and whispering pines.

Though the summer, as always, seems to have slipped away between my fingers, the shock of seeing leaves already slightly yellow, orange or red as we made our way home, a crisp, chill feeling in the air, I will never forget the sound of waves and fires, the smell of the mountains, the icy glacial winds and the bluest Canadian waters; the feeling of drifting off to sleep, warm in my hammock, or the sound of the ukulele as dusk became dark; sleeping giants and dancing foxes.

These water days of summer I will carry with me as I leave my home behind once again, for another year, to explore new waters.

Share on
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookPin on Pinterest

Allie Vandersanden is a freelance editor and creative writer from Canada. Allie completed her undergraduate degree in English literature, and pursued her post-graduate studies in creative book publishing. In addition to books, dancing, good food and cuddly cats, she loves to travel, and is currently living in Rome, Italy, teaching English at an arts university.