Many Canadians who live in Ontario are privileged to have a cottage experience at one of the thousands of lakes spread out throughout this great province. Many cottages are on lakes only several hours away from Toronto but others can take five or more hours of driving to reach.
In summer, the Friday-night-drive from the city to “cottage country” is a ritual many people do in order to have a few days of fresh air, swimming and boating. They also sit around camp fires at night roasting marshmallows while stars shine above, sharing barbecued meals of hot dogs and burgers, in a secluded setting surrounded by a variety of evergreen trees with either a big or a small lake in front of each cottage. Many families stay for the entire summer, until Labour Day Weekend, when the kids have to return to school in September. Summer is also the time for inviting friends who do not have cottages to come for a few day’s stay.
As grateful as I am for an invitation, a cottage visit for me is not so much about visiting my friends as it is about connecting with nature in a way that I can’t in the city. And, on those rare occasions that I get to go, I mostly look forward to visiting the solitude I encounter there while everyone is still asleep or busy entertaining, and I awkwardly excuse myself so that I can be at the lakeside on my own.
There is a special lake I particularly enjoy visiting. It’s intimately small and narrow, sheltered by trees and a few scattered cottages, where I feel surrounded, wrapped in a rare kind of nature, as raw and primal as the day God made it.
I go quietly on my solitary walks down to the dock from the cottage, first thing in the morning, while the lake surface is still and shrouded in mist rising from the water like incense wafting up to Heaven. My bare feet feel the coolness of a soft pine needle path. Silence becomes sound by the intermittent plop of a frog coming up for air, a fish jumping up to catch a fly or a mosquito, a crow cawing as it flies above the tree tops. A family of loons glides by silently on the water, stopping at intervals while the parent loons dive below the surface to catch a fish, swim over to their two little ones waiting for their breakfast, too lazy to fetch their own meal, and showing a sense of entitlement in their aloofness, just like their human counterparts. The sight brings a smile to my face and I watch them until they are out of sight.
I then put on a life-jacket, with the reverence of a priest putting on his stole before Mass, a sacramental conduit to grace, for without it, I could not be in the deep waters of the lake unaided. This simple floating device of foam allows me to fall into the water as if I am entering God’s womb, and after the initial splash sound of body hitting warm liquid, there is absolute silence again. I remain as still as I can in the water so as not to disturb it with my moving arms and body. I gaze in awe at puffs of fog lifting over a pearl-white sun hanging above the line of fir trees. The sun reflects on the glass-like surface of the water, and I can cup my hands and have the illusion that I am cradling it.
A loon calls in the distance. It’s a melancholy sound that rises up and echoes in the air with sharp longing, and I recognize the meaning of the word saudade in it. A lonesome call that penetrates my being and stills my breathing so that I can better hear it. Sometimes, the loon shrieks in laughter, sounding like a crazy Looney Tunes character, which breaks the solemnity of the loon’s otherwise serious being.
I don’t want to ever leave the warmth of the lake, my head bopping above it, shrouded in the mist, caressed by the water that leaves my skin supple and fresh and with a cleanness that no soap can achieve. The water hydrates my parched soul from months and even years of tired living, of tension and anxiety, frustration, anger, loss, and the angst of the search for meaning. Suddenly, the calmness around me is deeply intensified and I incline my ear to hear the unexpected hushed whisper of wind moving through the trees. The sound takes away all the pent-up emotions I have been carrying inside of me for so long and my spirit feels light again – new born.
Eventually the mist disappears and the sky is crisp blue with white clouds hanging above the row of trees, reflecting the blue and the white on the lake surface. The sun changes to golden yellow, bringing clarity and definition into everything that a moment ago had been hazy and shrouded in mysticism. It’s time to start the day.
I force myself to swim away from the water, dripping as I make my way up to the dock again. I sit for a while, shivering because the air is cooler than the water, until I feel my skin dry, except for my feet which continue to touch the water, unwilling to let it go.
I hear a voice calling me from the cottage. Coffee is ready, but I don’t rush to get back. I stay a bit longer, until I am satisfied that the loons have stopped calling, and only then do I reluctantly walk up to say good morning to my friends, not because I don’t want to be with them, but because I had to leave the lake behind.
With gratitude to Marcia and Jeanno.