From Cross Lake to Shoe Lake

20 04 2013

Cross Lake to Shoe Lake 1981

Planting potatoes in June in Cross Lake, Manitoba, is a dangerous job,  especially in Katherine McKay’s garden.  She lives beyond the Sinclairs’ shack, close to the Narrows where the Nelson River bellows at the shriveled forest and the wind picks up speed for its morning charge through the town.

Raging like an angry bull, Katherine’s husband is leaning over the fence, shouting something unfriendly in Cree, then doubling over with laughter as he points at us gardeners in the enclosure. The villagers had warned us about him.  “He hates white people with a vengeance.”  No trace of Katherine who had ordered the garden.

Brad and I are on our honeymoon.  Book–blearied university students, sick of the stale atmosphere of libraries and labs, and looking for a summer of fresh air and adventure, we impulsively volunteered with a relief organization to create kitchen gardens with the Cree in order to promote local food production, healthy eating and active living, and to decrease dependency on the Hudson’s Bay Store.

Just days after our May wedding, the bush pilot dropped us off with a bag of seeds, rakes, hoes and a rotor tiller.  He promised to pick us up at the end of August, then rattled his plane up into the clouds and was gone.  Swarms of black flies descended to welcome us.  Nobody else.

But that was last month.  Right now, I am shivering in Katherine’s freshly tilled garden, despite three layers of sweaters on my back. But it’s a garden, another precious garden to add to our other three.

Gardens are not a real hot item on this reservation. We’ve tried everything to promote them: a booth in front of the Bay Store, radio announcements, community involvement.  It was only when we dressed up like a tomato and a cob of corn and paraded through town, waving our garden-promoting banner, that a few kind souls took pity on us and signed on.

This morning, however, something other than potato pieces was seeding itself –  a memory.  I recall another village in a forest –  also on a narrows.  Cedar Narrows, Brad had called it.   I visited Dorset two years ago with Brad and his family.  We stayed in a primitive cottage on Shoe Lake.   I did not connect with it then.  Recently moved back to Canada from Europe,  I secretly found the endless, Canadian wilderness terrifying and the cabin awfully dingy.   But here, half a continent away, Dorset and Shoe Lake are reconstructing themselves in my memory, in all of its quaintness and natural beauty.”

“Hey, Brad”, I holler through the wind. “I think I’d like your uncle’s cabin in Dorset now. Could we spend some weekends there this fall and winter?  Would your uncle Gord lend us the key?”

Well, I can quickly see that my comment is setting off firecrackers in Brad’s imagination..  It is taking immediate root and growing into an idea, a whole plan in his mind. Shoe Lake is his favourite place in the world, where he has spent all his summers since he was a baby

“Elizabeth, let’s post-pone our studies for a year. Move to the uncle Gord’s  cabin and spend the year learning about the bush, canoeing, hiking, and hunting, instead. We’ll have time to think, read, paint,  and pursue whatever we want.  We’ll live simply on our savings, get paying jobs next summer, then pick up our university studies,  refreshed.  Anyway, I don’t know if engineering is right for me.

Our reckless and spontaneous plan warms us to the core.  The  Dorset Venture becomes a beacon of light that illuminates every activity with purpose.  Suddenly it is important to learn about survival and the ways of the bush from our Cree neighbours.   We borrow Mother Earth News magazines from George, the Metis, and start eating lambs quarters at lunch and catch fish from the Nelson.   I read about the benefits of cattail silk and sew it into my sleeping bag for warmth, that is,  before I notice the tiny worms in the silk.    After one week, when we feel totally sure about our plan, we phone home.

“What? You’ve gone mad with love.”  “Finish your education first.”  “We don’t like that plan at all.” were the responses.   Uncle Gord was the worst.  “Old Charlie Bean froze in his sleep up there.  Could happen to you.  You could burn the cabin down and no one would even know.  Neither of you are familiar with wood-stoves.  If something happened to you kids up there, I’d carry that guilt around for the rest of my life. “

But, in the fall, he hands over the key when we offer $60.00 a month to rent the cabin and assure him that we’ll keep an eye on his own big cottage.

One cold, October evening, Brad gallantly carries me over the threshold and sets me down in the middle of an uninsulated, dark and damp, mice-infested shack with no running water, except for what is leaking through the holes of the roof and the broken chimney. I hear a strain in Brad’s voice as he welcomes me to my first home.  No surface is without mouse droppings.  Night is falling.  My quivering candle guides me to a musty bed in the corner and I crawl in,  button-lipped. Before I fall asleep,  a mouse runs down my leg.   The luster to our dream is starting to fade.

All of that happened thirty-two years ago.  We cleaned, polished, and patched, that cabin, hauled water, built an outhouse, and made a warm, happy home.  We had a fabulous year and learned a great deal about ourselves and each other, but it will be the subject of another blog.

We did, indeed, go back to our formal studies at university,  and on to our professions, but  we vowed we would return to Dorset to raise our family.  Six years later, we bought the lot with the cabin from Uncle Gord.  Two years after that, we quit our professions and moved back into that cabin with a toddler, Katherine and a newborn, Sarah Jane.   But that story will also have to wait.

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2 responses

22 04 2013
Lois McGarvey

Hello Elizabeth,

We were thinking of you since we heard about the flooding up north. I searched the Internet and found you.
How is your lake? How are you?
Your paintings are wonderful and your blog is brings back memories.

Thank you,
Lois

23 04 2013
ejohnsonart

How lovely to hear from you, a voice from the past. Yes, only our basement flooded. We needed to get rid of stuff anyway. Please email me and tell me how you and your family are. Thanks so much for responding.

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