We hop into the car late on Friday evening after picking it up from the rental company. A dog, five humans, lots of bags. Another human and two dogs will be joining us the next day up north, coming from a different route in a bright red beetle of a car. We drive through a night punctuated by countless blurred yellow lights as we get further north, the radio set to the rock station I listened to in high school.
The lights used to mostly vanish after Saint Jêrome, but urban sprawl has really ballooned in twenty years. The lights follow us well past Saint Adèle, and then Saint Agathe. We stop at a dépanneur in the middle of a tiny town, to pick up bacon and milk and eggs for the morning after. R and I entertain the passengers with horror stories from our highschool, and how we discovered afterwards that the teachers were bullies who had instigated some of the worst shit we had experienced in those years (and how our school librarian was the head of the resistance against the bully administration — the lesson? Protect the librarians!) At one point I get distracted and Leif takes a wrong turn, and the satellite map redirects us to an unlit gravel road through the forest that will take us back towards the 319. We joke that this is the customary start of a horror movie.
Above us hangs a creamy half-waxed moon.
Later, on the 319 we have to double back once when we realise we've driven by the entrance. It's an old wooden gate with the words Ker Izela written there in raised black script, impossible to see in the dark.
The tires crunch over a deep carpet of leaves as the car crawls down a steep slope. We park between conifers and birch trees. We can see the hundred of stars we could not see in the city, and across the lake, blinking, a dusting of yellow houses light up the mountain like a slanted Christmas tree. Those are recent, too, clashing with hazy childhood memories.
I fish out the keys and it takes me a few tries to open the front door in the dark. Everyone is unpacking the car and carrying supplies down the hill as I go looking for the breaker panel to turn on the power. Once that's done, I climb into the fireplace to push open an ashen iron panel, breathing in cold dust as the chimney exhales, its vents open and ready.
I get a fire going in the frozen hearth without too much trouble — Carolyn helps — but the house takes its time warming up. We're wearing all of our layers indoors. It takes Leif and Carolyn almost an hour to get the water pipes going again, and by the time the faucet in the kitchen turns on properly it's well past midnight. Joachim finds the comic books. R's dog investigates the room excitedly. I've known this dog, called Angel, for almost twelve years. She's getting on to be a little older now and has cataracts in one eye which means she doesn't always see where she's going, but she still likes to test her boundaries and know what's what, standing up against chairs and couches to peak what's on top. With her charming smushy face, Angel begs us to let her explore on top of the furniture, but at R's insistence we don't let her.
We call it a night. We've brought extra sleeping bags and sheets and blankets because the cabin isn't insulated against winter nights, or even most winter days.
I fall asleep almost immediately, the refrain of the wind a dim whisper on my mind.
I rise early. I don't sleep easily but the mountain air helps, and I'm up before everyone else, just as the sun rose above Mont Jasper on the other side of the lake.
Ker Izela, the name of the cabin, is on old land — Algonquin land — full of history that continues to resist Québecois settler cottage culture and its eco-tourism industry. Ker Izela is old language too, a language that the French almost successfully eradicated in Europe during my grandmother's lifetime. I don't miss the hideous colonial irony.
Where I'm sitting on the shore I can see the dusting of mist being swept off the lake as the wind picks up, creating waves out by the small island. I don't know the island's name, but in the late summer we've found deer and moose tracks there, as those creatures swim across the lake looking for quiet. At the edge of the island is a large rock that my mother used to swim to when we were children, a swim that would often take an hour or more to accomplish.
My walk leads me to a pile of logs just at the edge of the trees, and I grab several to bring back inside, where I need to get a fire going. The house feels even colder than it did the night before, but with the sun filtering in finally it will warm up soon.
By the time the others are up (encouraged by my clumsy clanging about in the kitchen) there's a pot of tea warmed up and the fire is going strong. I get started on the bacon and eggs (which I fry with slices of apples for added yumminess). Folks filter in as we get settled and eat breakfast, and we make a list of food we'll need for the rest of the weekend as well as for the hike up the mountain we're preparing. R and Leif head to the nearest town to fill the list. Joachim finds a copy of Le Schtroumpf Financier, which actually contains a pretty good introduction for children — and adults — of what primitive accumulation of capital can look like (and how immoral it is in general).
Vedis arrives just as we're about to take off for the mountain, her two dogs barking at her heels. We pack up our sandwiches and follow the highway for over a kilometre before reaching the start of the trail, two dogs (one of Vedis' dogs has arthritis and wouldn't be able to climb the mountain) and six humans and three backpacks.
The October sun is strong enough to burn my nose, and just before we start the climb, already warmed up, we take off most of our sweaters and layers.
We walk up, all of us at different speeds. I haven't been here in a long time. The last time I tried to go hiking my heart couldn't handle it for more than half an hour. I keep an eye on my heart rate this time as it skyrockets up and down. I have tachycardia and my heart is not very efficient, and I am winded within minutes. But the nausea is miraculously kept at bay, in part thanks to the cold wind, and my head doesn't spin. Even though I forgot to bring braces for my knees I can manage this. I did remember to bring some chaga tea to help me deal with the inflammation later in the evening, so I'm pretty confident I can push myself a little to keep up with the others and not regret it later. I focus on not slipping and falling, and on the trees all around us. I can hear blue jays snarking at each other, and the odd fluffy chipmunk.
Sometimes my mind wanders to the past, or to the novel I'm going to be working on this November. Sometimes Jasper (Vedis' dog) trots up next to me, and keeps me company a while. Jasper is one of the keenest minds I've ever met in a dog, and he's a lovely walking companion in the woods. Off leash, he sticks to the path, respectful enough to stay out of the woods where his presence is unwelcome, though he does like to stick his nose into anything interesting just on the edges of the trail. He likes to trot between the first and the last person on the group, wanting people to try to stick together as much as possible in a little herd.
We stop early for lunch, at a lookout point that gives us a view of mountains and lakes for several kilometres all around.
After lunch, we keep climbing up towards Lac Lézard. We don't have enough time before the sun set to reach the summit, but Lac Lézard is a respectful point to reach before turning back. At some point, Carolyn and I realise we can no longer hear the sounds of the highway anymore, which we could still hear even after our first two kilometres up the mountain. The silent backdrop behind the wind and leaves feels immense and wonderful, like an immense pressure has vanished from your mind. It feels like relief from a splitting headache so pervasive you'd forgotten what it was like before you had the headache in the first place.
We reach the quiet lake, my eye on the slowly setting sun behind the mountain.
All in all, from Ker Izela's door to Lac Lézard back to Ker Izela's door, we walk 9 kilometres, which is pretty respectable for an afternoon hike. We fetch more wood and build up the fire again upon our return, and enjoy the last of the sun's rays by the shore of the lake while we wait cool down and watch the sunset.
I stay out of the kitchen while dinner is being prepared (though I volunteer for the clean up afterwards) and do a little bit of writing, just a bit of prepwork for NaNoWriMo by the crackling fire. Angel, the littlest and oldest of the dogs, is quick to pass out on her little pillow on the floor, and the other dogs excitedly watch the cooking, ever hopeful for scraps of food falling off the counters.
After dinner (absolutely delicious : homemade hamburgers, stir fried rainbow chard and bok choi, boiled potatoes, apple pie) we sit around the fire with books and music and conversation, and it doesn't take long until most of us are falling asleep in our seats, exhausted from the hours on the mountainside.
Fountain-head and source of rivers,
And napkin spread by fays;
Drifting meadow of the air,
Where bloom the daisied banks and violets,
And in whose fenny labyrinth
The bittern booms and heron wades;
Spirit of lakes and seas and rivers,—
Bear only perfumes and the scent
Of healing herbs to just men’s fields."
Henry David Thoreau "Mist"
I wake up with a start just after 6 in the morning. I don't remember if I had a dream, but I feel like I did. I put on my clothes in a hurry, and go outside to greet the day.
The morning of the 29th of October I begin a new cycle around the sun. I am 27 years old, now.
I don't see the sun through the heavy fog that circles Ker Izela. Even the mountains across the lake fade in and out of sight. The air tastes like rain when I fetch more logs for the fire. The cabin has warmed up considerably compared to the previous morning, though the weather outside has taken a turn for the colder.
R and Vedis and all three of the dogs find me outside. We take pictures of each other on the lawn, laughing as we watch the dogs goof around.
Eventually, we return inside to make some tea and warm up. Carolyn joins us. As it's my birthday, and since I made breakfast the morning before, I decide it would be fair if Joachim and Leif make breakfast on my birthday. The others agree. R hopes they wake up soon.
There's an old horn hanging on the wall, a relic from a far away era, and it is suggested that Vedis should sound the alarm (so to speak) and wake the men up so that they can make us some food. Vedis agrees to play the horn, and unsurprisingly it's a very efficient alarm !
The weekend went by far too quickly.
Too soon, we doused the fire and made sure the coals were cool. We closed up the chimney, and turned off the power. We unplugged the fridge. Clothes and books were put away, and bags were filled again. We removed the sheets and covers from the bed, and furniture was put back where they were supposed to go. Too soon, we were back on the road to Montréal, hoping to miss the worst of the Sunday evening traffic, rain pouring heavily against the windshield.
And in the back of my mind, Mary Oliver's words echoed, a refrain to carry me into this new year:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”