Night Passage

The French version of this  essay appears here.

Every Friday evening of my childhood, from May to October, my family followed a set pattern. We ate an early dinner, then piled into the car to drive from Montreal to Lake Labelle. We made three stops. The first was at a bakery in the village of Labelle where we divided a loaf of warm bread amongst us, and bought cinnamon cakes for the next morning’s breakfast. The second was at Terreaultville, along the “bumpy road”—the dirt road that began at the fork to La Minerve—where we picked up eggs, milk, and a jar of fresh cream from Mme. Terreault’s cows. The last stop was at our parking space, a mile or so south of the Desgroseillers farmhouse.

Where we stopped, and how long we stopped for, changed during my childhood. But once we reached the lake, it was always the same. Papa turned off the car engine, leaving the headlights on, facing the lake. We climbed out of the car and, carrying groceries and duffle bags, we made our way down several flights of wooden and stone steps to our boat, waiting for us at our dock. And then we’d cross, by moonlight, starlight, boatlight, and sometimes by flashlight alone, to our chalet across the lake.

The passage was a study of black on black. We learned to look for the unmistakable silhouette of Blueberry Island as we approached it, looming up against the western shore, and we’d maneuver between it and the presqu’isle that sprung up to our left, staying well away from the rocks that waited for the unwary. As we turned, the southern hills loomed up in turn and then, as we passed our beach, the western shore receded and we rounded the peninsula to reach our pier. Occasional lights from other chalets might guide us, but mostly we knew our way by the patterns of the water, shoreline and sky.

We carried our bags and groceries from the boat to the house where we lit gas and kerosene lamps. Mummy placed the Terreault’s cream into the fridge, now whipped solid by the car and boat rides. Then we tumbled under eiderdowns until morning.

My parents, Herbert and Gila Bauer, came to the lake in 1958. They purchased several lots on the southwestern shore and an island (then Russell Island), which we have called Blueberry Island ever since. By 1960 they had built a chalet facing the southern end. They joined the Association des Propriétaires du Lac Labelle, and my father served as president from 1972 to 1974. I still remember the spring we placed the Association’s bright red buoys across the shore from Blueberry Island to warn boaters of the shoals.

My siblings and cousins and I learned to swim on the lake, to canoe, to drive motor boats, to sail, to waterski. We were taught how to pump water, to start fires, to clean a kerosene lamp, to handle propane tanks. We learned to respect the power of the winter ice, to expect the blackflies and mosquitoes, and to marvel at the beauty and grandeur of our surroundings. But mostly, as children, we reveled in our freedom. We swam, and played, and explored. We caught frogs, fished for minnows, and tried to convince generations of squirrels and chipmunks to eat out of our hands. We built a treehouse high above ground with leftover wood. We played imagination games around the property, traveled to the island to pick innumerable blueberries, and spent as many waking hours as we could on, in and around the lake waters—weather and horseflies permitting.

It’s harder now to imagine a life without a road, where everything was brought in by boat. Everything. The lumber for the chalets, the tiles, the siding, the cast iron stoves and fridges, every stick of furniture, every plate, glass, knife and fork, our pans, the glass for our windows, the mattresses and blankets for our beds, the water tanks and pumps, the porch chairs, cords of firewood, 100 lb. propane tanks, everything. Except for those things that we found on the property.

The first chalet was built over log posts from trees cut down on the property. Strong men honed by years of work in lumber camps, sawed down trees, stripped down their bark, cut them to post size lengths, and planted those deep into the ground as a foundation that held for better than 40 years. Eventually we shored these up with cement blocks, leveling the house that had shifted and settled over time. But the posts are still there, and have shown no sign of rot.

We cleared paths, and the trees were cut into fireplace-length logs. My father chopped these into firewood which we stored under the house or on its side. We took bets on how many swings it might take him to split a fresh log. He taught us how to chop as well, and I still use his axe to make kindling.

The lake has remained central in our lives. As we grew, family and friends spent time with us there. We brought life partners and eventually, our own children. They too have grown up on the lake—from the first summers of their first years, they have come with us. They too have learned to swim and boat here, to light fires, catch frogs, and experience unparalleled freedom. They’ve rebuilt the treehouse and, as each generation must, have added improvements.

A road leads to our chalet now. An electric fridge has replaced the old gas one. We no longer take weekly boat rides to Chez Desgroseillers, or Terreaultville, or Chez Bourdon, where our father gave us each 10 cents to spend on a treat of our choice. But our children now have other treats, picking out something special at the Patisserie du Village, or choosing some of the same junky candy we all chose, but now at the Marché Bruneau.

What they are not likely to experience, however, is those breathless few seconds on the black lake as we approached the island and waited for its silhouette to finally break away from the western shore—that moment which meant that we could finally find safe passage further south to our chalet. The thrill of those crossings still remains with me, many years since I made my last one at night.