On Thursday morning we set off for Redberry Lake with Jo Ann, her children Andre and Amelia, Heather, her children Jackson and Felicity and Jo Ann’s dog, Colleen. Getting ready to go was almost as bad as packing to come to Saskatoon. Every child had to be sunblocked from head to foot, sun-hatted, sun-glassed and equipped with a towel, togs, goggles and a change of clothes. I needed to bring bug spray. And a picnic. And gallons and gallons of water. I was exhausted before we even got going.
Off we went on the highway to the lake, through miles and miles of rolling prairies, interspersed with the odd Dutch barn and grain silo. “Is that a rocket?” from Rebecca. “No pet, it’s for storing grain”. “Oh. It THAT a rocket??”. “No sweetie, that’s for storing grain as well”. “Ok. So it THAT ONE A ROCKET??”. Shades of Nicholas and the plane landing. There were constant yells of “Jo Ann?” from the back seat. She has the patience of a saint – she just broke off our conversation every time, and answered the next question from the curious passengers.
After miles of straight highway, we suddenly crested a hill and saw the lake in front of us. We turned off the highway and trundled along a gravel road for miles, eventually arriving at the lake, emptying the cars of children, food and equipment and hauling it down to the water. It was incredible. There were boats moored along the edge of the lake, one anchored in the water, and a floating dock further out, which immediately became the goal for all the kids. Off with the clothes, into the togs and off they went, while the adults were still getting organised. Jo Ann had warned me in advance that she wears a “jellyfish suit” while swimming at the lake – not because of jellyfish, but to hide her skin from the sun – so I couldn’t wait to set eyes on her in all her suited glory.
Well. Have you ever seen this picture of Nigella Lawson on the beach?
It was kind of like this, except for the headwear. It was brilliant. I need one. She bought it in New Caledonia, so if anyone is heading there, let me know.
Off she went after the kids, and Heather and I struggled into our togs and started all the sun-blocking shenanigans. “Here, let me do your back” she says. At this point, I should tell you a bit about Heather. She’s this lovely, tall, blonde, slim American, who had shimmied into a black bikini and applied suncream to her tanned limbs. I’m not even going to describe what the pasty, plump Irishwoman looked like in comparison. Suffice to say, I presented my back to her and tried hard not to think about it. In fairness to her, she didn’t blanch once. Not even when I mentioned that I hadn’t had time to shave my legs that morning. What a trooper. To add insult to injury, she was funny, smart and vivacious, with beautiful children and a great sense of humour. I had asked Jo Ann to make sure to bring someone a bit haggy, but she failed spectacularly on that count. Jo Ann did suggest later, when I picked that bone with her, that we get a jellyfish suit for Heather, but I felt it would need to be a padded one. I think I could market that actually. “Going to the beach with your attractive, slim friends? Buy them this, the perfect antidote to your angst. Sold at all good retailers. A snip at 49.99”
Heather and I waded gingerly out into the water, expecting seaweed and suspicious-looking creatures, and instead found ourselves in a clear, see-to-the-bottom oasis of warm and gently rippling water. It was like the Caribbean, only nicer. (I had to take Heather’s word on that). We arrived at the dock, to be met by dive-bombing kids and an army of loaded water-guns. There was great splashing and shrieking and fun going on, when Jo Ann appeared from the depths, in her jellyfish-suit, using her teacher voice.
“Ok, everyone, onto the dock! I need to talk to you all about a couple of things”. We all clambered on, sat in the sun, and prepared to be given a lecture about swimming alone, eating before a swim etc. Boy, were we deluded…..
“Now, there are two kinds of animals I need to talk to you about”, declared Mme Gagnon. Animals, I thought fuzzily, enjoying the sunshine on my back. “Anyone know what kinds of animals I’m talking about?” “THE BEAR!” yelled her daughter, Amelia. Oh yeah, the bear, I chuckled to myself. As if. “YES. THE BEAR”, came the voice from the water. WHAT!? Heather and I struggled upright and focused on the lunatic in the lake. “A bear? A real live bear? Here? With my KIDS?” Was this her way of getting our attention before the swimming lecture? Oh no. This was for real. A real bear. In the woods. Well, we just weren’t ever getting off the god-damn dock again, were we?
“So”, says Jo Ann, conversationally. “What do we do if we see the bear, kids?” Silence. The kids were rapt. She threw her arms up in the air and ROARRRRRRRRRRRREED at us! I would have given my back teeth for a video-camera. “Well, do we throw our arms in the air and roar back?” she demanded. “Em, no?” they meekly offered. “That’s RIGHT!” she bellowed. “We back away, slowly, speaking very quietly to whoever is beside you. Mom, there is a bear on my right.” I felt weak. “So, we all keep backing away, forming a group, to lessen the chance of the bear attacking”. At-TACK-ing?! I would never be able to explain that to my mother (she’s obsessed with us getting eaten by a bear. I have been pushing the no-bears-in-Saskatchewan line for some time now). “Of course, the bear won’t attack” said Jo Ann confidently. Oh. I started to relax a bit. “BUT, if it DOES attack” she continued blithely, “what do we DO?” Wouldn’t matter, I thought morosely. I’d have already died of fright. “We curl up into a ball, protecting our faces and heads, and wait for our moms to come and beat off the bear with big sticks”. Ohhhhhh. Well, THAT’S ok then. Not. I looked at Heather and weighed up her stick-wielding abilities. Hmmmm. She could be good in a tight spot. I eyed up Jo Ann in the jellyfish suit. The bear would want to be nuts to go anywhere near her. “Ok, talk over” she smiled. “What about the coyotes? What’s our strategy there?” I panicked. “Oh, that’s ok. That’s why I brought Colleen. She’ll keep them away for us”. I looked at the beautiful, placid, gentle Labrador. Seriously? Could she not have mustered up a Rottweiler somewhere?
Picnic time next. For us, thankfully, and not the bear. We ate, chatted, drank loads of water, and geared up for some berry-picking. Lots of bug spray – smelly, awful stuff. Jo Ann and Heather swopped stories about various restaurants in Saskatoon. Heather’s parents had been visiting from the States, and Jo Ann was eager to hear their opinions on the various eateries. Heather offered the name of one in particular, that apparently provided beer and wine. “Really?” said Jo Ann, surprised. “I didn’t think they sold alcohol there. “Wellllll”, said Heather, “I strolled up the counter and asked what kind of wine they had. The girl looked at me. ‘Beer’, she said. No, no, said I, what kind of wine do you serve? ‘BEER’ said the girl, adamantly. Look, I said, starting to get exasperated. It says WINE on your sign. The girl peered at the sign, as if it had magically appeared from nowhere. ‘Oh, wine‘, she mused. Yes, said I, what BRAND of wine? you know, what’s the name on the bottle? The girl thought hard for a moment. ‘Red’, she said with finality. I gave up. Ordered two glasses of red. Out they came, we drank them and asked for more. The waitress strode off into the kitchen, and, in front of our eyes, washed and dried the two wine glasses, refilled them, and brought them back out to us. We had the only two wine glasses in the whole restaurant. “
Off we strode, hats on, containers at the ready, fearlessly ready to take on the bear, the coyotes and the myriad weird insects that abounded in the woods. 100 paces in, the boys found some very large bones. The excitement was incredible. Was it the bear? An elk? A moose? A DINOSAUR? (Nicholas). “It might be a cow” offered Jo Ann. Didn’t matter. Half the bloody bones are out on my deck right now, being waved at the Skype camera. Shudder. Anyway, onward to the berries, which were plentiful and easy to pick. I kept hearing weird noises. “Cicada” offered Heather. “We have 17-year cicadas in Virginia”. I looked at her blankly. So she told me the most incredible story about these cicadas that only emerge every 17 years in some of the U.S. states, and come out in their thousands, decimating crops etc. Here’s the link:
It sounded like something out of a horror film. Added to later by Jackson informing me that he loves eating deep-fried cicadas. I just can’t do the whole crunchy-on-the-outside-gooey-on-the-inside food concept. We filled our containers, avoided the wildlife and headed back to the lake for a last swim.
The evening had started to fall, and the children on the floating dock were black silhouettes against an perfectly azure sky, with the sun still burning and the water like glass. I stood in the shallows and watched them, thinking “I am standing in a lake in the middle of Saskatchewan, in the middle of Canada”. It’s all a bit mad, Ted.
We loaded it all back up again, and headed back to the highway, to a gas station in the middle of nowhere. “Ice cream” announced Jo Ann, and indeed there was – 32 different flavours and flavour combinations. The kids were in heaven. Bubblegum ice-cream, cotton-candy ice-cream, peanut-butter-and-chocolate ice-cream, grape ice-cream, espresso ice-cream….the list was endless….and delicious. We all indulged.
We finally hit the highway home, tired, dusty, sated and quietly euphoric. A perfect day. Merci beaucoup, Madame Gagnon.