Bob’s Lake Redux

20 Sep

I first came to Bob’s Lake in the autumn of 1963.  J.F.K. had not yet been assassinated and my fifth grade teacher’s husband had not yet died of cancer.  Green Bay was cold but the air was warm and the goldened trees made for a fantasy kingdom.  My parents allowed my brother and I to take the fishing boat and row to the peninsula some 200 yards across the water, where we sprawled on a red plaid traveler’s blanket and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The next year we moved onto Long Bay and into a rented cottage built from scraps by the owners, a Cornell professor and his wife, and their friends.  It was perched on the shore, a location no longer allowed anywhere in the United States or Canada, for reasons that we were yet to discover: the perceived danger to the environment and the damage the water did to the foundation.  However, because of that location, we had a spectacular view that ran down the length of the bay.

The cottage was built of stained planks that we initially added creosote to when we became the owners, and a shingled roof.  The windows in the main part of the house were resurrected storm windows, a common practice at the time, that were fastened at the top and loose at the bottom, so that they could be pulled inward and fastened to the ceiling with bent hangars. The screens were, for the most part, sections that had been stapled to the outside of the house.  The fireplace, built from the quartz and pink granite from the land that surrounded us, was the focal point of both the inside and outside of the house.  A small boathouse had been constructed under the right-hand part of the cottage and was often damp up to the middle of summer because during the spring and early summer, its floor was covered by water.

There were three gates on the farm that lay between us and the cottage.  Our parents made us take turns. At first we would open said gate; then we would climb up on the lowest rung and swing through the air, leaving the road open for the car to pass through.  At the time the farming family whose land we went through had a fair number of cattle.  Once a gate was left open and some of the cattle wandered close to the shore.  My father and the farmer had a hell of a time corralling them and moving them back onto the farm.

When we arrived, we would quickly move our belongings to the bunkroom and grab pails from the boathouse on the way to the beach.  The ecosystem was intact, unlike the present environment at the lake, and the beach was literally jumping with frogs.  We would gather as many as we could, and then compare buckets.  Once we taught a frog to do the frog kick and were very satisfied with ourselves.  My nieces Gwynne and Rebecca continued with this tradition when they were small, but they had far fewer to work with.  For Rebecca, the amphibian became her talisman.

Uphill from the cottage, at the top of a path strewn with the last year’s leaves, stood a small cabin we referred to as the Tree House, not because it was in the trees, but because it had been built around three trees.  Its size made it more intimate than the cottage, but it was also more suited to “roughing it,” with its lack of running water and simpler beds.

Each camp had its own outhouse.  Now that we have a flush toilet in the main house I don’t think about them much, but in the past they were a regular part of everyday life in Canada.  At night I thought they were pretty scary.  We usually used a flashlight, but I still worried about goblins snatching me from the bushes.  When there was a full moon, the natural light was helpful but it also made the landscape surreal and otherworldly.  After walking into the outhouse, I would scan the inside walls with the flashlight looking for spiders.  I found it helped me to know exactly what was there.  The “known” is always less frightening.

During the day they were completely different to my mind.  The one that went with the cottage had two holes.  I don’t remember “sharing,” but I do remember wondering if anyone else had.  I liked the daytime use of the outhouse because of the privacy, especially since it was about fifty yards from the house.  After all, an outhouse is also referred to as a privy.  In the daytime I could make mental lists when sitting on the seat and philosophize about life.  Unfortunately, my sister-in-law didn’t have the same experience.  She had had a bad latrine episode in Girl Scouts.  In addition, my mother had to use a chamber pot at night.  Finally, it made sense to all of us to put a regular modern toilet inside the house.  One of my girlfriends in Wisconsin once had an archeologist ask if he and his class could excavate the remains of her outhouse.  People used to throw trash away in their outhouses, but I’m afraid if our two privies were excavated all that would be found would be feces and lime.

When my parents bought the cottage and it was finally ours, I felt like it was already a part of me, which I’m sure many people have felt about their visits there.  I’ve been thinking about the different buildings I associate with Bob’s Lake lately as I apply stain to the outside to try to preserve it for me and my family and others who will visit in the future.  The accompanying picture I am posting with this essay contains my family minus my father and they are posed in and alongside the cottage, leaving their various imprints in and around the building.

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