About 10 years ago, I left the Lake of Bays in Ontario, Canada for the last time. I was reflecting about my love for the memories I have for the area and I decided to re-read a piece I wrote for my old blog years ago. I decided to edit it a bit and repost it here.
There is a picture of me, at around 2 years old, on my first international adventure. I am sitting on the linoleum floor of my family’s cabin wearing a backwards baseball hat. I grew up in Buffalo, NY and my family vacationed to Lake of Bays, Ontario. My father started going to Totem Lodge, a series of primitive log cabins, in 1962 with his parents and brothers. My grandfather and the owner of the property, a man called Ed Weiser, had been best friends since college. The story goes that they became friends because Ed had a boat and my grandfather had the water skis. By the time I made it up to the cabin (referred to simply as “Canada” by my family), my father had been going for 30 years. I don’t remember my first trip but when I was seven, we went back again. I was hooked.
Lake of Bays was out of the way for most vacationers in Canada for a very long time. It was located in Upper Muskoka – most Canadians made it only as far as beautiful lakes of Lower Muskoka. When I was growing up, it took seven hours to get up to Lake of Bays from Buffalo. The commute for Torontonians was five hours. Despite the fact that most of the houses were modest on our lake, the log cabin we stayed in was obviously one of the most rustic. There was no running water; we carried buckets of water from a well to feed into the kitchen faucet and we bathed in the lake. The outhouse was an adventure of its own – once I saw a spider so gigantic above my head that I stopped peeing, ran back to the cabin and changed all my clothes.
In spite of all of its idiosyncrasies the cabin was perfect to my family. Every morning we woke up and dragged ourselves into the lake, which was always freezing. (There are baby pictures of me floating in a tube wearing a sweater for warmth). In the afternoons my sister and I would fish or canoe or kayak. We would explore the swamp at one end of the lake or blueberry island (our backyard had a blueberry patch grown from stolen saplings from there). We often would rent a boat and take it past Bigwin Island or to Dorset at night for ice cream. On Thursdays, there was Bingo, my mother’s favorite, at the local community center where you could win paper towels, bubbles or Canada socks (featured above). In true Turner style, all of us brought books to read during rainy days. At night, we would play pinochle or Trivial Pursuit until 1 or 2 in the morning. And then it was time to look at the stars.
Really, when I think about it, Totem Lodge was Roy Turner’s happy place. For most of my upbringing there was no cell phone reception. He probably read three personal books a year in Canada. He always squeezed in an hour or so a day to read me some Tolkien, an author perfectly suited to the thick nature that was all around us. Dad knew every root to watch for on the way to the beach. He knew exactly how to steer clear of the eyeball plant fields in a canoe. He bought one of the very first Langford canoes from Dwight, Ontario. Dad drank the water directly from the lake, dipping his favorite metal cup off the dock, claiming it was the cleanest water in the world. He was friendly with all the locals – from the owner of the local junkshop to the 16-year-old who worked the counter at the marina. He knew exactly how much 6 sticky buns cost at Henrietta’s Pine Bakery. At night, he knew always knew exactly what time to go out to the dock and watch the stars.
The stars seemed infinite in Canada. You could see the Milky Way clearly. We watched constellations and always looked for the North Star. We always went around the time of the Perseid meteor shower and every year, we saw shooting stars. We bundled up if it was cold and made sure that every light in the cabin was off. If we forgot, dad made us run back, which inevitably involved tripping on at least one root, and flip the switch to off. He would even be annoyed if the moon was too bright. I think it was a time of pure thoughtfulness for him. He contemplated the existential questions that were always too big for me. We spoke in whispers talking about the constellations and were gleeful every time we saw a shooting star.
It’s hard to pin down the turning point, but slowly our lake became more developed. I think it was when Shania Twain built a complex down the street from our humble cabin. Or maybe it was when the Canadian government built the 407, a road that bypassed Toronto traffic and cut the travel time to five hours from Buffalo. Suddenly, Lake of Bays was a happening place to be. Perfectly nice cabins were town down to build “yuppie palaces” (my dad’s term). The little villages became more commercialized. The flight patterns from Ottawa to Toronto changed to fly directly over our lake. All this added up to more light at night. Dad couldn’t turn them off. The stars became dimmer. With each new year, he spoke about Canada like it was ill. He would threaten to stop coming because of all the “damn yuppies.” He complained that the water was less clean than it used to be. There were too many boats going back and forth all day because of newly built mansions in the swamp. He couldn’t see the stars anymore.
2009 was the year that dad didn’t come. My dad was struggling with his health and was due for a new pacemaker in the upcoming months. He insisted that we go without him. We had graduated from the log cabin to the house which had running water. We all made the most of our vacation but there was a big piece missing. There were more lights than ever at resorts around the lake but our light wasn’t there.
Then, the next year changed everything for our family. In March, my mother passed away from cancer. I don’t equate her love of Canada with my dad’s, but she still had been in Canada with me every year since I was two. She was the one who came with my sisters and I to Huntsville to shop. She was the one that made tuna salad for hot dog dinner. She endured bathing in the lake and sleeping on a piece of foam from the 1950s just because she loved my dad. My mother was the only thing more important to my father than Canada. I wish the only reason my father didn’t go to Canada was the overwhelming emotion he felt because of my mother’s absence. Unfortunately, he was battling with his deteriorating health all summer. My sister and I spent more hours in the ER with him than I can remember. He told us to go on without him – we would have fun in any case. So we packed up the kayaks and we went up to Canada.
The problem was that Canada was dad’s place. It was a place that seemed really empty without him. The year before, we had dad’s other half. But even she wasn’t there. I just wanted him to be on the dock reading Lord of the Rings while Molly and I floated in the middle of the lake. I wanted him to be in the canoe with me watching Sammy swim to Fire Island. I wanted him to say “Joe Palooka” whenever he didn’t know the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. I wanted him to kill all the spiders I was afraid of. I wanted him to specially burn my hot dogs for me. That year, we watched the stars only one time. For me, it wasn’t the same without dad there.
In one of the only instances of “good timing” in my life, we got the letter about Totem Lodge’s sale after my father’s death. It would have killed him anyways. It’s not the whole property – our little log cabin would still be there for us to visit. But the boathouse will be sold along with half of the property. If I had to guess what would happen to the property, a developer will buy the land and the house that sits on. Any buildings on the land will be torn down. A McMansion will be Totem’s new neighbor. It would have broken my father’s heart to see it.
Since my dad’s death, I’ve thought a lot about the last conversation we had face to face. He was driving me to the airport to go to my sister’s wedding in Germany. A story came on the radio as we were merging onto the 219. I can’t remember the details of the story but it involved the murder of a child. Because I was 20 and had an attitude I said, “I can’t believe in god if he allows terrible things like that happen.”
My father was quiet for a long time. He eventually said something like this: “Madeline, you are smarter than that. Don’t be so narrow minded to think that there is nothing out there greater than you. There is. You have to search it out. It may not look like what you think it looks like – Jesus Christ – you know I’m not a Catholic. Or even a Christian in the traditional sense. Maybe I’m a Buddhist. But I believe in something. There are places that you can feel something greater than you – a spirit or a feeling or a calling. There are people who will be saints to you when you need them to be. It took me 35 years, 3 kids and more growing up than you’ll know – but I know that there is a god and a heaven. I know mom is up there. You need to find that faith.”
After a lot of reflection and now almost 10 years– I am starting to understand what my father meant. There are more people than I can name who helped me through the heartbreaking loss of both parents and my childhood home. There were people who brought food. There were people who allowed me to spend holidays with them. There were professors that allowed me to make up work months later, sometimes on their own time. My boss at the time called me only to check up on me – she never asked me when I was coming back to work until I was ready. Somebody anonymous paid my tuition to the university for my last semester, which allowed me to finish my education. I sincerely mean it when I say: all of those people are saints to me.
I’ve thought about the higher power that my dad was talking about. I think one of the greatest reasons my father could speak with such conviction is that he found a place where he was completely at peace. Canada was his Cathedral. The stars were the inspiration for his belief. I hope someday to find a place that inspires such faith in me.
Buffalo, NY will always have a place as my hometown and Canada will always be my home away from home. Since 2010, I’ve been to dozens new countries, mostly in Europe. I worked on archaeological digs in the Rhineland Platz and stayed for several weeks after each to explore the exotic with company or without. I’ve gotten lost in the pouring rain in Salzburg and overcharged in the old town of Prague. I’ve slept in a former brothel in Hamburg and I’ve gone on an excellent pub-crawl in Copenhagen. I’ve watched Germany win the World Cup from Ljubljana. I’ve been on a chiva for my friends’ birthdays in Cartagena, Colombia. I’ve met people along the way or people to travel with who have made my life so much more full of love and light. I have enjoyed every second.
I still haven’t found my place 10 years later. I really think I’ve come close a few times. Places that would be perfect if it weren’t for the practical but inevitable visa problems which are still plaguing me in Spain. I’m not living in my ideal place. But there are places in Spain that are pretty close.
It’s been about 10 years since the last time I went to Lake of Bays in Ontario, Canada. To be honest, I don’t know if I have it in me to go back. I think it would break my heart to see the changes that continue to happen up there. It has this wonderful spot in my memory as this paradise. Frankly, when I picture my parents now, it’s in a place that looks a lot like the Canada of my childhood.