Of swimsuits and knitted socks

The difference between weather in eastern and western Canada was never more evident than in my choice of clothing for a weekend outing.  I pulled on long johns and tucked them into my homemade ‘Nan Tucker’ knitted socks, preparing for my first winter’s excursion on a snowmobile to cabin country.  I packed a knapsack with extra-warm clothes, first-aid kit, and a digital camera.

Socks like these are a common sight on the Great Northern Peninsula.
Socks like these are a common sight on the Great Northern Peninsula.

In March 1969, our church youth group chartered a bus to Cultus Lake, British Columbia.  I packed an overnight bag with a swimsuit and towel, transistor radio, hairbrush and a Brownie camera for a weekend at the beach.

The trip took us an hour east of Vancouver towards Chilliwack.  Along the Trans Canada highway we passed dairy farms with cattle standing along the fence-lines swishing their tails and chewing their cuds.  Raspberry and strawberry farms with their gridline-pattern rows ran as far as the eye could see, holding out the promise of a harvest of fresh fruit.  Mennonite farmers waved as they stood in the middle of fields of glorious yellow daffodils.  Gradually the farmland gave way to fir-covered hills, and then the hills slid into the background and the mountains reared up, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as we followed the highway to our destination.

At the lake, sun gleamed off the water as we scrambled off the bus and changed into swimsuits.  The soft spring air and the clear, cold water were thrilling.  We picnicked by the campfire and sang songs and imagined the legendary ‘Bigfoot’ coming down from the mountains to the campsite.  Cabins, framed by a brilliant riot of daffodils and tulips, stood back from the beach, while playgrounds on lush green lawns were alive with the shouts of children.

Cultus Lake was no stranger to visitors, and fishermen came from afar to fish for Rainbow Trout and Sockeye Salmon.  The Cultus Lake sockeye salmon is an anadromous fish—that is, a fish that lives part of its life in fresh water before migrating to the sea.  That day, I watched fisherman casting their lines, waiting for fish to bite.  I listened to their laughter floating across the water as they traded fish tales.

*****

Now, forty years later, the Newfoundland landscape lay concealed beneath a heavy blanket of snow as a shower of snowflakes fell like eider-duck feathers from the sky.  I followed Route 430 west and found the rendezvous site on the side of the road.  Within minutes I was pulling a heavy helmet over my head and hoisted myself onto the back of a snowmobile, hanging on for dear life and bouncing over the barrens; amazed that there were traffic signs on the trails in the middle of the wilderness.

At Stock Pond, we pulled up to ‘Da Tilt’, a cabin owned by Carl and Millicent Tucker, in the center of a magical wood of moss-hung trees and snow-laden branches.   As he got off the snowmobile, Carl asserted, “I think it’s time for tea!”  Millicent greeted us at the door and, as we took off helmets, mittens, scarves, caps, coats and boots, put a kettle on the cast-iron stove to boil.  In the kitchen, we drank scalding tea and nibbled on buttered buns, watching a grey jay tilt his head and peer through the window, begging for morsels of bread.

After tea, Millicent brought forth a platter of fisherman’s brewis and, while we ate, Carl told stories of fish and fishermen, dog teams, seals on ice, and life on the Northern Peninsula when he was a young man.

After lunch we piled onto snowmobiles and headed to Pistolet Bay to go smelting.  Alyssa, Carl and Millicent’s granddaughter, and Len, lowered their hooks into the icy water.  Alyssa pulled up smelt after smelt, while Len only managed one rock cod, which came up with jaws flapping.  “You can’t have that one, Len,” advised Carl, pulling out the hook and forcing the foot-long cod back down through the ice.  A group of snowmobilers dropped by and one feller in a space-age helmet, noticing Len’s lack of success, insisted on showing Len the way it’s done by hauling in three smelts in the space of a minute.

Back at the cabin, we warmed our toes by the wood stove as other cabin-dwellers and snowmobilers dropped by to visit.

Looking back, I’d say that whether we pack an overnight bag with swimsuit and towel, or long johns and worsted socks, there is something in all of us that yearns to get back to the land; back to simpler ways.

Winter descends on a frigid landscape

Winter 2009 has come in with a vengeance.  Outside, I hear the whine and growl of snowmobiles, see the snow swept along by the wind or falling like feathers to the ground; I smell wood smoke as it curls from chimneys, feel the chill in my bones as the wind freshens and the mercury spikes and then plummets like a gannet.  The White Hills are laden with snow and trees along the highways are bending under its weight.  Moose stand silent at the perimeter of the woods; snowmobiles snake through trees pulling sleds behind; finishing touches are put on smelting shacks as ponds and bays harden and the promise of ice fishing looms.  Snowploughs roar by, shedding snow along the roadsides in giant arcs.

Just a few evenings ago my daughter and I were out driving.  She begged to be allowed to drive, but I have not had the courage yet to relinquish the wheel on these snow-covered roads.  To be sure, her eyesight is superior, and her enthusiasm out-distances mine by a long shot, but as the Grey Power commercial says, those over 50 have experience, and in my opinion that has to count for something and, sure enough, it did.

Night had fallen and snow lay like a white quilt over roads and ditches as we drove along.  Out of nowhere two white bunnies zigzagged helter-skelter across the road in front of the car, testing my driving skills to the limit. Not once, not twice, but three times I swerved and braked to miss them, but they were determined to die.  Add to that scene a 16 year-old passenger shrieking, “You are going to kill the bunnies!  Stop!” and you have a pretty good idea why she is not driving at night on snow-covered roads.  I do not know how the rabbits managed to avoid the wheels of the car, but they did, and they are still out there waiting to test someone else’s driving skills.  Consider yourself warned.

I grew up in south-western British Columbia, just east of Vancouver.  One winter we moved out to the country and what made that winter so memorable was that it snowed, and we had our first brush with a mountain lion, or cougar.  For anyone born and raised in that area of B.C., snow was as unexpected as a Sasquatch in Newfoundland.  A west-coaster knows very well how to cope with a deluge of rain, but has no frame of reference to deal with snow.  Nor did the province possess any real snow-removal equipment, so when the big snow arrived in the winter of 1968-1969, everything came to a standstill.

We missed a month of school because we lived six kilometers off the main highway and buses could not make it up the steep hills.  My brother Peter set up his telescope in the middle of the road each morning to spy out the bus situation; his reports were more accurate than any radio announcement and far more interesting.  The paper girl delivered the newspaper by horse and sleigh, which was quite a sight.  When the imported snow removal equipment finally came down our road, the snow was well above the height of any vehicle. When the road was finally opened, we lay on top of the snow banks and looked down at the cars and trucks passing on the road beneath us.

That winter, the cougars came.  We were out walking along a back country road, and our mom was explaining that it was a hard year for wildlife because of deep snow.  My Siamese kitten strained ahead on a leash when suddenly she stopped; the hairs on her back and her tail stood straight up.  Mom whispered, “Cougar tracks,” and pointed.  Each paw print was the size of a saucer.  I tell you, nobody needed to tell us to start walking in reverse.  A cougar is a big cat, and you might be interested to know that it is capable of killing a 270 kg (600 lb) moose.  Even the big cats were having a hard winter, prowling around the farms looking for a quick meal.

So, whenever I hear the whine and growl of snow machines here on the Northern Peninsula I consider that, even though we live in a world of light and power and noise, there is another silent world that exists right on the perimeter of our lives.

You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t really take the city out of the girl.