Friday, April 30, 2010
They eat small fish and tadpoles, as well as insects. They move with lightning speed, and can illicit the expletive "Holy sh**!" from the bravest and strongest of men. There are people who have summered on lakes all their lives and have never seen one, because these monsters are skittish. Fortunately. They are dock spiders.
More correctly known as fishing spiders, the adults can be about the size of a splayed hand! I can verify that since I have seen them. The first time was as a young wife enjoying a romantic holiday at a Muskoka lodge. My husband and I were canoeing in the calm of late afternoon, absorbing the sublime beauty of the lake and the thrusting granite cliff that sparkled in the sunshine. He said, “Wow, look at that spider!” pointing to the rock wall mere inches from our canoe. I’ve always been afraid, although not phobic, about spiders, so I was immediately on the alert. I didn’t see it at first because it was SO big. But I finally did, shrieked, and nearly tipped the canoe. I’m sure I would have won a regatta race in my haste to get as far away as possible.
It was at least thirty years before I saw another one. Some lakes, or at least areas of them, seem to be more popular with these critters. They like calm water and wood, and often live under docks, which is how they acquired their nickname. They can submerge themselves underwater for 10 to 15 minutes when frightened, and can even "swim"!
If you’d like a laugh, have a look at this brief video of me at a Muskoka resort - after I had seen a huge mother dock spider guarding her egg sac - about the only time that they don’t skitter away immediately upon hearing noise or feeling the vibration of interlopers on their docks. I’d also seen a few sunning themselves on the lovely rocks where I am perched in this clip, as I had kayaked by the previous day.
My reference to a dock spider in The Summer Before The Storm is definitely symbolic.
Saturday, April 17, 2010
I’m obsessed by something that can be dangerous, powerful, deceptive, but also gentle and soothing and exquisite. Water. I love watching it tumble vivaciously over rocks or stretch lazily to distant shores. As soon as I’m near it, I need to divest myself of footwear and plunge in - not always the wisest thing to do. Once, after a week of torrential February rain, we hit a beach in San Diego. I’d walked the length of most of it, unshod, of course, before I saw the warning signs. Beware! The water was contaminated by the run-off from all the flooding. Another time I waded into an enticingly clear and shallow stream in Northern Ontario, and was nearly swept off my feet by the swift current. Even I wasn’t adventuresome (or foolish) enough to frolic on a Welsh beach like a group of schoolchildren did - amid snow flurries in April. But watching from a warm seaside hotel, I could appreciate their joyful enthusiasm as they rolled up trousers and splashed about in the frigid water.
It’s no surprise that swimming is my favourite activity. How sublime it is to be immersed in the silky softness, caressed and buoyed, floating between earth and sky, teased by waves. The next best thing is being in an open-top lake kayak, which makes you feel as if you’re suspended in the water. Just reach out and dip in your hand to cool off. And if you stop paddling, a loon might suddenly surface nearby and treat you to his “insane laughter”, warning you that you’re invading his territory.
I wish it were mine for more than a few snatched weekends each summer. I long to live by a lake and watch the changing moods of sky and water, enjoy the exuberance of summer activities and savour the solitude of snow-shrouded winters.
Water haunts my dreams and speaks to my soul, so it’s little wonder that it always figures in my books - never more so than in the Muskoka Novels.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
The following is an excerpt from a scene in my novel Elusive Dawn, which is set during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Apr. 9, 1917. Captain Justin Carrington is a young lawyer whose family summers in the lake district of Muskoka, Canada. British aristocrat Antonia Upton is with an ambulance corps near Calais. This has been abridged, leaving out some military details and mention of other characters.
Justin Carrington was thankful to be out of the deep subway and cave where the slimy chalk walls had begun to close in on him, reminding him of the suffocating mud of the Somme, making him ashamed of the panic that he had to force back into the pit of his belly. By now he should have been used to the sweat and latrine stench of war, but with men packed so tightly together in these underground tunnels grey with cigarette and candle smoke, the oxygen seemed to have been used up. So he breathed deeply of the cold, pre-dawn air.
Like most of the men, he hadn’t been able to sleep, even if it had been physically possible to find a comfortable place to rest. For months the entire Canadian Corps had been training for this day. Over and over they had practiced behind the lines – their objectives carefully laid out, the timing of their advance coordinated to the split-second – so that every last man knew exactly what to do….
The men had had their rum ration, and boxes of Canadian Lowney chocolate bars had miraculously appeared. Justin savoured every bite of his, while relishing the reminder of home.
So now they all stood silently in the trenches, in the rain that was turning to sleet, many up to their knees in icy sludge. 30,000 Canadian infantry strung along the four miles of Vimy Ridge. With another 70,000 soldiers in support roles behind – the gunners, engineers, medics, cooks, and so forth – it meant that the entire Canadian Corps was here, together for the first time….
Justin checked his watch yet again. 5:15. Almost Zero Hour.
His company of four platoons would go over in the second wave, leap-frogging those leading the assault at a predetermined line. The first battalions were already in the shallow jumping-off trenches and craters in no-man’s-land.
After a week of constant shelling that had pummeled the German trenches and defences with a million shells, the silence now was eerie. And taut. Every one of them knew only too well that the Allies had tried and failed to take this strongly fortified and tactically important ridge during the past two years…. Despite some trepidation, Justin felt confident that their intense preparation and unprecedented bombardment would surprise and overwhelm the Germans.
And he felt buoyed by the latest letter from Antonia Upton. She had written, “We have been evacuating the wounded from the base hospitals in large numbers recently,” which, in the parlance of censorship, insinuated that she realized space was being made for an onslaught of new casualties. She went on to say:
We often hear the remorseless guns, and I wonder how you can stand the diabolical noise that surely threatens the very sanity of civilization. When we have air raids here, I sometimes find it difficult to muster the courage to keep going, cherishing the sanctity and preciousness of life too much to lose it. There is so much yet to experience, so much promise to fulfill. It seems almost treasonous to admit that I don’t want to sacrifice myself or any of my friends to the dubious glory of the Empire. Forgive my womanly heart, for I do not mean to diminish what you men are trying and dying to achieve.
I expect you will soon be preoccupied, and trust you will be careful as well as lucky. I enjoyed our perambulations about the Hampshire countryside, and hope we can repeat those when the wildflowers are in bloom and the trees, lushly green. And perhaps you will take me sailing and canoeing when I come to visit your magical Muskoka. I have presumptuously included a photograph of myself in the event that you may wish to recall your correspondent.
He had chuckled at the formality of that last sentence, which was no doubt intended to make the gesture appear less intimate. But he was delighted by the photograph and studied it frequently as if he could delve better into her psyche. To him it was evident that she was transparent, her inner beauty reflected in her outer attractiveness. From her perceptive, forthright gaze shone humour and a joie de vivre that captivated him. He had the picture tucked into his breast pocket, and felt the intoxicating stirrings of love.
Joyfully he had replied to her:
Your photo has brought me much cheer, but I hope that I may see the real you before long. Not in your capacity as an ambulance driver, however!
I applaud your womanly heart, and agree with your sentiments. I have done much soul-searching over the past two years, caught between my civilized conscience and the dictates of war. I have seen both the best and the worst that human beings can do, the many and ever more mechanized ways we can slaughter one another, although we are more alike than dissimilar.
Your friendship has revived in me the determination to survive this war and to make a difference in a world changed forever, but open to new possibilities. Our generation must try to right the wrongs that brought us here and for which so many, as Rupert Brooke so aptly said, ‘poured out the red sweet wine of youth’.
Be assured that your thoughts and words comfort and sustain me, Toni. I long to sit in the sunshine with you, listening to the birds, but without the guns which now disturb their songs. The larks here seem forever hopeful. So shall I be.
It was snowing now, the wind whipping up a blizzard.5:28. Two minutes to go. After a passing whisper, the tiny clinks of bayonets being fixed to rifles coalesced and tinkled down the line.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
That’s the tagline for the legendary lake district of Muskoka. I can attest to its veracity, as could Ruth Gaunt Bennett when she became enchanted by it in the summer of 1932. In her memoir, Adventures as a Muskoka Maid, she wrote of her first sight of the lakes, “Suddenly I saw that the so blue water held the blue sky captive within its depths…. I wanted to store all this new, exquisite beauty deep within me.” Even as a maid catering to a well-to-do family at their summer home, she was able to enjoy the delights of cottage country - swimming, canoeing, moonlight cruises, corn roasts, and so forth. Muskoka worked its magic on her, as it has on countless others, and she eventually settled there with her family.
It made me think of my own introduction to this land of sparkling granite, fragrant pine trees, and island-studded lakes. My childhood friend has a cottage, built by her great-grandfather in 1879, on an island on Lake Rosseau. She, her mother, and brother spent every summer there from the time that school ended in June until it began again in September. Her father went up on weekends.
I was first invited there when I was 12, and was instantly captivated by the scenery and the lovely weathered cottage that held within its walls the essence of a different era. It was as if the past still lingered in the scent of old wood and musty books, on the expansive veranda and bedroom balconies, in the vanished spaces that had once housed servants. On rainy days we played vintage records on the ancient gramophone. The cottage still resonates to those long-ago tunes, like “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”.
I heard stories from aged aunts about the old days - the Age of Elegance on the lakes. Even then I knew that one day I would write about that fascinating time. My novels The Summer Before The Storm and Elusive Dawn pay tribute to that era. I’m now working on Book 3 in the series, which takes place in the 1920s.
In some inexplicable way, Muskoka has touched my soul. How lucky that I can reside there in my imagination.
To see more lovely photos of Muskoka, watch my short book trailer on YouTube.