Saturday, October 11, 2008
The Muskoka Cabin
An uneven wooden bridge runs from the mainland to the small island that my grandmother bought almost 70 years ago. The deep, dark waters of Lake Oxbow surround the island and extend up along the long, narrow lake named for its oxbow-like shape. In Autumn, the surrounding hills are thick with brilliant orange, red and yellow leaves. Entering the forests is like walking through a cornucopia of thanksgiving colour with the sun shimmering off every leaf. They were in their peak while we visited the old family cabin on Ginny's Island last week.
My grandmother was 22 when she bought the Island from her employer, Limberlost Lodge. She used her entire inheritance to do so and was terrified to tell her father how she'd blown the money.
Eventually she did tell him, and he loved it so much he built two other log cabins for his other two children.
Out of my entire family, my grandmother is the most like me, and vice versa. Just as she was in young adulthood when she made a wild decision, I was 23 when I travelled to Africa for the first time. Like her, I went on to blow a significant chunk of my inheritance. I however did it on various adventures throughout Africa and the Middle East. It was my age of rebellion, sixty years after hers, which bond us together. It goes deeper than merely rebelling from mainstream Canadian life and pursuing a dream. She, and the cabin influenced me throughout my childhood.
The cottage is a step back in time for me. The smell ranges from musty moth balls for sheets, to cedar, birch and pine for the wood that we burn in the fireplace. The smell itself takes me back to what life was like for early settlers and pioneers in Canada.
A rumour passed around the family claims that the cabin was built by a family trying to escape the WWI draft.
The inside has had electricity for over fifty years now, however the hallmarks of a time before are everywhere: An old oil lamp hangs behind the cast-iron wood stove. The wood stove was the main source of heat in its day and still quickly warms the cabin on a cold day; A now derelict outhouse stands in the middle of the island, it has been replaced by a composting toilet inside; Old knicknacks sit on the mantle above the fireplace: a guest book that starts in 1940; an old metal box that says rifle on it; old clay mugs we use for pens; faded oil lamps; and a clay pot for matches.
The old logs of the cottage are decaying and it needs a lot of work. The roof leaks in numerous places. The floor never was straight. Each winter, expanding ice causes the cabin to shift in places. Mice can get in everywhere. The steep, chalet-style roof is covered with tar paper instead of shingles.
The Island's highlight is a screened-in sleeping porch built right over the shallow shore of the island. The call of the loons echoes through the summer nights. When it rains, raindrops batter the lake and stream off the roof.
My great grandfather fed porridge to my mother and her cousins on a wooden bench in front of the big stone fireplace. I think he built that bench himself.
The family cabin on Ginny's Island, named after my grandmother herself, is a big part of my inspiration.
It's where I was introduced to witty poetry, with my grandmothers funny poems sprawled around the cottage, particularly in the outhouse to give guidelines on its use. My grandmother was also well travelled. In her youth, she freighter-hopped around the world.
When I was nine, the "real" Africa was introduced to me on an old black and white television with bunny-ear reception. The movie had a tribe of African warriors who went into battle barefoot. In the film, being barefoot show toughness and fearlessness. For years after that, I ran around the island and the mainland without anything on my feet. My souls became blackened by the dirt paths.
It's also where I picked up my first Wilbur Smith African Adventure novel and became a fan, reading his other twenty-something novels over the years.
The island was where I learned ingenuity, fixing things as they needed fixing. It's gradually fallen into neglect since my grandmother's death in 2003. This is evidenced by the leaking roof, broken plumbing and decaying walls. It's been passed around the family, and I regret that I was financially and geographically (in Africa) incapable of taking over ownership when it was offered to me. It's since gone to a close cousin who, after having a baby last week, hopes to restore it in the coming summer.
This was the first autumn I've spent up there since I was young. I chopped firewood, swept pine needles from the roof, cooked on the wooden stove and collected water with buckets from the lake. The experience returned to a time when life was, in many ways, simpler and more routine. Today, we pay increasing amounts for heating and electricity. Back then, it was about chopping enough firewood for the winter and keeping enough lamp oil on hand to provide light during the long winter nights.
All of these factors had a dramatic effect on me. I sought them out in life, sought out a historical look on what the world was really like in earlier times. Influenced by my grandmother's spirit, the historic cabin, and the life it showed me, not to mention a smattering of timely African movies and Wilbur Smith novels, Africa somehow became mingled with my destiny.
People have asked me, "Why Africa?" The above is as good an answer as any I can provide.
This blog has morphed from my memories of the cottage, to my motivation for travelling to Africa, and now I take it to my love for writing. They are all linked, I know this like a man knows how pieces of his past effect what he is today. I hadn't put them together so neatly until just now.
There are other factors, but these are the biggest ones I can think of.
It brings me to a new blog theme. I've been struggling with the beginning of my book. The rest is fine, it's just getting the ever important first chapter bang on in order to draw potential readers and agents. This blog gives me another idea on an angle for the beginning.
I'll post a variety of different beginnings for my book, "Beach Buggy Safari" just to show how much damn work I've put into this. If people are actually reading my blog, which according to the fifty visits per week, they must be, I'd love to hear feedback on which beginning, if any, is decent.
I'll get started tomorrow. Time for bed now.