I’m spending my summer in Canada as it is meant to be – swimming in refreshing northern waters, enjoying veggies out of the garden and spicy delicacies off the grill, and catching up with friends on their recent projects, latest travels and family happenings. I’m also enjoying the northern landscape – in Eastern Ontario, in July the fields are white with delicate Queen Anne’s Lace blended with blue chicory, and the woods are vibrant green and buzzing with insects.
Beautiful hot sunny weather has followed me wherever I’ve been, but thankfully not as scorching as what people have been experiencing in the south and central United States. I can only hope that many have access to clean water to refresh themselves naturally as I do, but I fear many more are cranking up their air conditioners and escaping inside. It is normal to seek shelter from the harsh elements but living in artificial environments to avoid nature can’t be good for us or the planet.
There are common themes that arise talking with people no matter where you go: the joys and tragedies of living, the burden of too much work or not having enough, the absurdity of what goes on in the world, and the petulance of the weather everywhere. Everyone seems to be witnessing this, some definitely in more extreme ways than others. Social networks help keep us immediately apprised of when a friend in Central America feels a significant earth tremor, another in the southern US is being blinded by the blaring sun, or another is digging through the ruins of a home assaulted by the wild wind. It was one thing when we used to follow these happenings in newspapers, and yet another when we could see the incredible images on television, but now that we can basically watch cataclysmic events as they happen – we can be talking face to face, skyping, with our friends as the waters rise around them – it’s as if we are all on a permanent voyage with Noah and the Arksters and forty days and forty nights may just be the beginning of it.
I was a couple of weeks in eastern Ontario and during that time a fast and furious storm growled its way down the Ottawa River valley. I was in the forest outside of Petawawa with Al and Jean Bair in their beautiful home. We had just finished watching the Japanese women out-kick the USA team in the women’s soccer finals, something I think gave most people watching a warm glow. Japan deserves whatever joy it can muster these days following their horrifying experiences with chaotic weather. And for those of us who like underdogs, this was truly the little guy beating the big guy, literally.
We were going to move on to watching the semi-final of the Copa America – big Brasil was about to get knocked out of the competition by little Paraguay (an apparent theme of the day) – but decided to get dinner together first. We had been inside watching the game, so didn’t realize how dark the sky had turned outside. As the BBQ was warming up on the deck, the wind picked up and within minutes trees were bending to the ground and anything not secured was flying. Pellets of water struck us and the sky crackled with electricity. Soon the drops joined together into a wall of water and as quickly as Al was drenched, the power also went out and we were searching for flashlights – we remained without power for 24 hours, the first time Al and Jean remember that happening in decades of living here.
At the same time, their son, Brad, who lives two hours away in Ottawa, was about to head out to the field with his daughter’s soccer team. Al called to warn him that if the wind picked up he should get everyone off the field since a doozy of a storm was coming. Turns out, as soon as they got on the field, the storm hit, debris started flying, hurricane winds and a downpour pushed them back to their cars just in time to watch a lightning bolt strike a tree on the edge of the pitch.
Not far away from Brad, at the Ottawa Bluesfest, the storm hit with a wallop. Thousands of people were rocking to Cheap Trick, and just as they left the stage, the whole thing collapsed in the winds and heavy rain. The band wasn’t hurt and fortunately only a few others were hit by flying debris, but I have no doubt it was a very scary experience for the thousands present, especially those just leaving the stage.
That storm could be seen from my friends’ home two hours north, up the Ottawa River valley in Mattawa. Thankfully, it didn’t hit Patti and Leo, but they could see the black churning clouds across the Ottawa River in Quebec and hear the sinister warning rumbles of thunder. They buttoned down their own hatches but fortunately were out of its range. As it was, Cheap Trick was to play the following Saturday night at an outdoor festival in Mattawa, and fortunately they had a beautiful clear starry night for their show. I can’t help but wonder if they were feeling vulnerable. Just as people suffer from fear of flying and heights, I would think that fear of
whacko storms is an anxiety condition on the rise.
My days with Al and Jean began with a get together with some other Canadian Monteverdians – siblings Margaret Adelman and Paul Smith. We gathered at their northern home near Lake Dory in the Ottawa Valley. It was a Friday afternoon, so Margaret and I were feeling the pull of the regular Monteverde Scrabble game. Alas, we were the only two players so we weren’t able to get a game going. Instead we all walked down the road to the lake for a late afternoon swim. After the cool waters of the Atlantic in Maine, I found the water very warm, especially for early July. Even a Costa Rican could swim in this water.
It was a perfect lazy summer day to sit and talk. Paul showed me his workshop where he continues to make violins and play them as well. Margaret and Paul make music together in their little home on land that belonged to their grandfather. It is always nice to see where people call home, even when they may say that about more than one place. Even though I don’t have a bed of my own these days, I don’t think of myself as homeless, but instead feel homefull, feeling serene and comfortable in a number of settings.
Another part of my eastern Ontario tour was seeing old friends from my days working at Wanapitei, a canoeing camp on Lake Temagami a few hours further north. I worked there for six summers in the 1990s and my working partner and best buddy during those years was Cathy Fretz, a Tasmanian devil when it comes to work and play. We had both wonderful and hard times working our butts off in the bush at this often insane place, but survived the wild summers at camp by sticking together.
Fretz and her second husband Gerry built a home surrounded by hay fields and woodlots on land where Fretz raised her three daughters from an earlier marriage. The new house is several grades of luxury up from the original one, and the land has never looked so good, but there is plenty of the past still being honored. Old tool sheds, mature pine trees planted when her kids were small, a collection of rusted farm machinery, mementoes of their lives everywhere.
We had dinner with three other Temagami camp alumni, Fretz’ sister, Lexa, and her husband, Matt, and her son, Dan. We all worked together at either Wanapitie or Keewaydin and have many tales of life in the camps and on that magical deep water lake to
They recently built a new home looking over marshlands with forested hills in the distance. What an amazing landscape to watch and listen to. With a cast of silent herons and a chorus of frogs, that watery bog will go through its seasonal transformations -hidden under a blanket of white snow then bursting alive in the spring, to lazy summer swampiness and colourful autumn stillness before returning to that frozen pristine state again. What a beautiful place to call home.
We dined on Lexa’s great cooking – more delicious dishes than I can remember, each one better than the last – and did what old friends are prone to do: laugh about the past, remember things in unique ways, feel like no time at all has passed since we were last together, even though the proof of everyone’s labour is all around us. Friendship is a lovely thing.
I got a chance to see another of my ol’ dog friends, Harley. About seventeen years ago, as a favor to Fretz and Lexa, I picked up Harley and her brother, whose name was always complicated and escapes me, from the farm where they were born near
Petawawa. They were a little young to leave home and they cried the whole five hour trip north to Wanapitei, where I thankfully handed them over to their new mothers. The other pup didn’t live long, but Harley has become a fine old dame of a dog and is finishing out her years on the veranda of Fretz and Gerry’s country house. We have been close since Harley imprinted on me in the van all those years ago and then spent summers together at camp. She never forgets me even if years pass between visits. I felt very lucky to have had a chance to see her, as it is hard to imagine she will go on much longer. Seventeen is a very respectable age for a dog.
Our time on earth is so short, delicate and unpredictable. I have learned to accept my vulnerability but tend to see life as a game of chance that can go any which way, rather than an endurance test, though it does often feel like that too. We can survive numerous drawn out calamities and then succumb to a bolt of lightning. Some live well beyond a normal life span, and if they are fortunate, live it well. Others live very short and ultimately tragic lives. I don’t sit waiting for that lightning bolt, but I do like the buzz of electricity in the air and the smell of fresh rain – it all awakens my senses.