Once upon a time, two dads, two daughters and a baby brother heard about a mystical body of water called Crow Lake. They were camping in Nester Falls, Ontario, and the dads had brought the girls to a gift store so they could stock up on maple sugar candy, polished stones, and loon-shaped soapstone sculptures.
It was at that gift store that a clerk told one of the dads about the nearby lake and that dad, being the owner of a beautiful speed boat that sparkled in the sun, was keen to make a visit.
The lake, the man said, was fed by ancient springs with water so clear you could see 50 feet to the bottom. And if you happened to get thirsty while visiting this place, you could take a camping mug, scoop it into the water and drink down a refreshing sample. It was that pristine.
So Ken, the speedboat owner, and Gene, the psychologist, decided they would take their kids out to this place.
And we were never the same.
I vividly remember that first visit. The water was as clear and fresh as had been advertised by the gift store man. We took off from a long, lonely government dock and passed about three cabins, which were the only signs of humanity we saw all day. From there, it was just miles and miles of lake studded by pink granite islands topped with plucky pine trees.
The lake was deep and cold. Rocks jutted dangerously out near the islands, threatening to eat our propeller. Fish jumped and hawks glided overhead.
We felt like we had discovered all of it.
And then? We found The Island. I still remember what it felt like silently gliding up to it in the boat. We were hot, salty from eating a bag of sunflower seeds and wanted to go swimming, so the dads started the hunt for a docking point.
The Island was framed by a cove on one end. Gene jumped off the boat and tied the boat to a tree with an old yellow rope. Then he helped us descend and we took our first steps on this rounded hump of granite, warmed by the sun and frosted with lichen.
I was about 8, Kristin, my best friend, was 10 and Matthew, my little brother, was 4 and wearing his jaunty yellow lifejacket.
We jumped into the water right away, me holding my nose, Kristin graceful as a seal. The water was cold and shocking, but warm on the surface. With 60 thousand swimming lessons under my belt, I dove down under water and opened my eyes to see the boulders and tree trunks on the lake bottom, fuzzy with slime, otherworldly green.
Swimming at Crow Lake was always kind of an eerie experience. The aloneness you felt was overwhelming and, even as a kid, you knew to be careful. Everything was just so vast and deep and uninhabited.
We talked about that first day at Crow Lake for the next year. And the next summer, we returned, this time with plans to camp for a week on The Island.
The sparkle boat was sitting pretty deeply in the water by the time we had all of our camping supplies loaded into it. We had also added three people to our group: Mr. Barton, his daughter Sandra, who was my age, and his son Matthew, who was my brother’s age.
After hours of search, we rediscovered The Island and set up camp, with the girls housed in an orange canvass tent Mr. Barton, a principal, had “borrowed” from St. James-Assiniboia school division.
That week, we jumped from cliffs, we went waterskiing, we ate countless sandwiches and marshmallows, we washed dishes in the lake, we sat by the fire, we giggled in the tent, we went for hikes, we got mosquito bites, we got tan lines, we looked for wild blueberries, we drank Coca Cola Classic, we swam to islands, we hung up wet bathing suits on the clothesline and hoped they would dry at least a little by morning.
The next year we did the same. And the year after that. Always just the dads. Always The Island. And Crow Lake never stopped feeling like a magical, mysterious place.
Today, all three of those dads have passed on, hard to believe given with how much vitality and heart they approached those camping trips. But, happily, Crow Lake lives on every July. It just takes seeing a glimpse of a sparkling boat.