One of my favourite places in the world is our family cottage on Clear Lake, in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park (which was obviously named by someone who had never seen a mountain, but that’s besides the point). It was built by my great-great grandfather, BJ Hales. He has a museum in Brandon, apparently. It’s full of dead animal specimens.
Anyhow, I digress. The cottage is wonderful. Built in 1930–31, it’s made of logs, like a proper cabin should be. It has a proper door, but it also has screen doors, and the slap of those doors is one of my clearest and longest standing memories. The slow, rusty scraaaaaaaang of the spring stretching out, followed by the slappedy-slap-slap-slap–slap-slap of the door snapping shut and bouncing about. That is truly the sound of summer.
The best part is probably the screened-in porch, a wonderful room that runs the length of the front of the cottage. It has a view of the lake (much improved since a recent forest fire safety kick that saw much of the undergrowth removed from the area), and is open to the breeze. At night you can flick the screen and watch a thick horde of mosquitoes lift off in a single, buzzing layer.
I love to sit on the screen porch and read. The porch, like the entire cottage, is full of a hodge-podge mixture of furniture, most of which is assuredly older than I am. One of my favourite pieces is an old metal baby crib that’s had one of the side rails taken off and now functions as a rather small sofa. One end is for reading and socializing (many an alcoholic beverage has been consumed there), and the other has a large dining room table, perfect for feeding lots of people a lot of pancakes. The porch is also excellent for napping.
The centre of the cabin is a living room of old couches, a television, and a fireplace. In one corner is mounted a photo board. It started off as one board, but wings were added as the years passed. There are photos of my great grandfather, of my grandfather as a wee lad, and of my father, aunts, and cousins, as well as many of me. Though it’s always full, there’s always room for more photos. Most are labelled with who is in them and when it was taken, which is always helpful. Most of the names are familiar to me, but many of the faces are not.
Off of the living room are the bedrooms; five in total, none much larger than the bed (or bunk beds) they contain. That’s more than fine, though; who goes to the cottage to sit in their bedroom?
The kitchen is opposite the bedrooms, on the other side of the fireplace. There’s a wonderful wood-fired stove, as well as a more modern electric and a relatively recent microwave. The cupboards are stocked with vintage Fiestaware—the plates are significantly smaller than the ones you can buy today. The knives are antiques, dating back to the 1800s. They were made by the official royal knife makers of the time, Joseph Rodgers & Sons: Cutlers to Her Majesty. The shelves on the wall are always stocked with Hawkins’ Cheezies, and there’s always beer in the fridge.
If it’s too nice to sit on the porch (not that it ever gets too hot, but it’s just too beautiful to justify being indoors), you can always go down to the dock. You won’t regret it, I promise. Take a book, put on some sunscreen, and go lounge about in the sun. A beer would be a good idea as well (just take care to make sure nothing goes and drowns in it, or you will end up spewing out a mouthful of beer along with a disgustingly large horsefly or wasp).
You can also go for a swing in one of the many hammocks strewn around the area. Some are so old that the trees they are attached to have absorbed the fixtures. Somewhere in a family photo album there is a photo of my father and I napping together in that hammock. I’m so small that I’m sleeping on his chest, and his Tilly hat (the same one he wears to this day) is tipped over his eyes.
If the shore gets too warm, you can go for a swim. The water will be cold (sorry), but everyone insists it’s quite refreshing. When you get out, resist the urge to sun dry, as our lovely wee lake has swimmer’s itch. Let me explain, for the uninitiated. Basically, it’s a water-loving parasite that comes from duck poop. When you get out of the water, the parasites hitch a ride with you. They quickly realize that was a very bad idea, as they like water, and you are now walking about in the air. So they seek moisture in your skin. And then they die. And then you itch. And itch, and itch, and itch. A bad case of the itch requires a steady supply of antihistamines and will easily ruin your day. You can avoid the itch by towelling dry the second you step out of the lake and then running off and taking a shower ASAP.
And while we’re talking about the water… don’t drink the tap water. It’ll give you “beaver fever”, or giardiasis. You’ll have the worst runs of your life, and left untreated, it can kill you. You’re best to stick with the stuff in the jugs. We used to pump our drinking water from a big metal pump in the centre of the circle, but unfortunately the park shut those down, so now we get it from a friend across the lake that has drinkable tap water.
When it rains at night, you can hear it on the roof, loud and clear. It can be exciting or annoying, depending on how much sleep you want that night. Sometimes the wind makes the entire cottage creak. But when it’s calm you can hear white-throated sparrows in the trees and loons out on the lake, and perhaps the crackle of the fireplace.
And after all of this, I think my favourite thing about the lake is how it smells. The fresh, clear air off the lake mixes with the musty familiarity of the cottage. The trees (mostly white spruce) fill the air with their turpentiney-like scent. The smoke from fires around the circle mingles with barbeque from somewhere else, and it all comes together to create what smells just like heaven to me.