Day 18 - How I Walked on Water One Winter Morning

There is a large lake in Northern Wisconsin, Lac Du Flambeau, so named by the French trappers because the Chippewa would fish at night by the light of pine pitch torches as they crossed the still waters in their birch canoes.

It is my spiritual homestead.

Lands on the lake have been in my family for three generations. As a young child I would be sent up by myself to visit my Grandmother, where she lived alone for decades after her husband died. I’d listen to her stories of growing up on a planation in Texas in the 1890’s… going to speakeasies during prohibition and hiding bottles of booze in special pockets sewn into her racoon coat… taking her family on fishing trips to the Canadian wild… and baby-sitting Ernest Hemingway who lived a few doors down in Oak Park and who, according to her, was mean to cats.

I watched her shoot red squirrels off the roof with an ancient breech-lock 22-short rifle. I watched her learn to waterski in her seventies… and knead bread on the spotlessly clean, flour-strewn linoleum kitchen floor. I have one of her well-wrought watercolours hanging on my wall. When she passed on, the big house with grey asbestos shingles passed on to my own parents who made it their home.

On visits to Flambeau I would, from time-to-time, take the Old Town wood and canvas canoe out at midnight, paddling till the shore had slipped away into the darkness. I’d lie down in the bottom, drifting across the unblemished surface as the star-saturated sky soaked into my soul and meteors streaked across the obsidian. 

I would regularly make the filial journey to visit my parents during the Christmas holidays. In the days before global warming, the snow would often be three feet deep by Christmas. For a time, we even had our own cross-country ski trails in the back woods till they grew over. 

Winter activities included building a massive bonfire on the lake with the cousins. Ice bowling, which consisted of using logs for pins and snow-chilled vodka for warmth. And clearing the snow with shovels and brooms to make a central skating rink with long looping, overlapping outlet paths that snaked out into the lake before returning home. I think we often did more clearing than skating.

One winter holiday the lake had frozen over before the snows, a somewhat rare occurrence.

When we woke up, the trees had been coated with a fine filigree of glistening ice, as though each bare branch and each pine needle had been decorated with the breath of angels. The sky was sharply blue, the air crisp and the light brilliantly dazzling. The lake was mirror smooth and caught the reflections of the all the frosted glory.

We put on our skates and bladed freely across the surface at amazing speeds. 

Out to the centre of the lake where it was 90 feet deep; where a record sturgeon had been speared by a member of the tribe. We skated around Strawberry Island, the scene of the great battle between the Chippewa and the Sioux, which lead to the expulsion of the Sioux from those Northern woodlands. We skated over to Medicine Rock, a granite boulder higher than a man that seemed to have been dropped from the sky onto a jutting bar of sand.

Below our feet the ice was frighteningly clear.

The waters’ depths seemed to reach right up to our skates and yet through some divine suspension of nature’s laws not be able to pull us down. Our blades carved traceries in the brilliant surface as we followed the flow of our hearts. Booming thunder from the expanding ice sheet broke the enchanted silence; we hopped over the running fractures without a break in stride, our giddy cries of surprise echoing off the far shore. With joy overflowing, legs aching and laughter ringing we returned home to a crackling birch-log fire and large cups of cocoa.

In all my years of returning to Flambeau, I had never experienced such a crystalline miracle.  And now when I visit, I visit the grave of my parents, who are buried together beneath a totem pole at the head of the circular drive.

The lands have since passed from my parents to me, and from me to other members of our greater family. The lands are two days’ drive away and the property too great to keep, except in memory.  

Harry H. Cornelius, Principal of Sideren Inc.

Precious memories are worth celebrating. Let us not forget those with Alzheimer's or other dementias who suffer from a loss of memory. For more information, visit the Alzheimer Society of Toronto.

What was the flavour of your childhood Christmases? Let us know by commenting below!


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