On the Map
Amanda K. Jaros
We rowed past the entrance to Beaver Bay to get our first glimpse of the island just before sundown.
“Look, kids, there it is!” I channeled the first Europeans to spot land after sailing across the Atlantic to the New World and pointed past my husband, Rob. He had his back to the bow as he rowed, and his long legs were crammed into the stern with all our stuff: five days of food, sleeping bags, clothes and other miscellaneous gear. “That big rock. Do you see that big rock? That’s the swimming rock.” It had been four years since I had been to Belle Isle, and in some ways it was a new world. I’d been to the island as a child, a teenager, a young adult. Now, I was here as a parent.
From the front of the boat, my 10-year-old stepdaughter, Tahlya, pushed her long blond hair out of her face and squinted across the water trying to make out our island up ahead. “I can’t really tell,” she said, scratching at newly-acquired pink mosquito bites.
It had been a tiresome day in the car, and we were all ready to be there. But none so much as our 2-year-old son, Cedar. The toddler slid from side to side next to me, trying to see ahead.
“We’re almost there,” I said. I pulled Cedar close and noticed that he, too, had several bug bites blooming on his arms.
The bites were the result of the fact that we’d taken the long route to Stony Lake. We’d left Sault Saint Marie and headed north on a road that weaves into the Ontario wilderness past never-ending trees and unmarked side roads and deteriorates by the mile. At First Lake, the road continues on a few miles to the landing at Stony Lake. Though an easier access point to Belle Isle, the road to the landing also becomes almost impassable. So, instead of risking car damage, we rowed for fifteen minutes across First Lake, carried our gear a quarter of a mile along a forest trail, meeting the welcoming committee of friendly Canadian mosquitoes along the way, and arrived at a different landing on Stony Lake. From there, it was a thirty minute row to Belle Isle.
It was a lengthy travail, especially compared to my grandfather’s route. In the ‘50s, he and a few of his buddies had ventured to this land of wild lakes searching for great fishing. Impressed by the remote land, they bought the small island and built a ten-by-twelve cabin with four skinny bunks, a wood-burning stove, and one tiny window on each wall. They traveled there, often via floatplane, to fish and escape the work-a-day lives they led in Indiana, getting dropped off right at the island’s shore. My grandfather knew the value of a wilderness place removed from regular life, and he loved that Belle Isle offered it.
Coming here, we had indeed removed ourselves from regular life. We’d left behind our work, our cell phones, our vehicle; we were mercifully unconnected to modern life. Since leaving First Lake, we’d seen no one, and I fully expected we’d see very few people in the coming days. One other small island houses a cabin, but it’s hidden well, and rowing through the watery passages of Stony Lake there was no indication that other humans even existed. The dark coniferous greens of one rolling hill blending into the pale deciduous greens of another seemed all that existed.
In the dissipating evening light, the colors faded, but I’d know the outline of the swimming rock anywhere. I’d spent many hours lying on that granite, lichen-covered boulder, waiting for the sun to warm my shivering skin after a jump into the icy lake. It rose 10 feet above the water and so long as you jumped out far enough to not hit the rock directly below, it made an excellent diving board.
Now, my family with me, we skimmed across the water until the white pines and black spruces separated into foreground and background, and the lake opened to wrap around the curve of the rocky shoreline. We reached the swimming rock and saw the tangled verdant chaos of bushes at the shore hiding the path to the interior of the island. The aluminum tip of the boat scraped softly against rock as we alighted. One by one, my family climbed out of the rowboat onto the 3-foot-wide pebble beach of Belle Isle.
In the midst of the Ontario wilderness, Stony Lake, and all the surrounding lakes, are a part of the Canadian Shield—a geological formation that covers much of central Canada. Billions of years ago, as the land masses moved and shifted, what once were mountains eroded down to a volcanic jumble of dark gray basalts and pinky-white granites. As recently as ten thousand years ago, glaciers carved their way through Ontario’s rock, scraping the surface clean, their tremendous power smoothing everything in their path. Now, the vast expanse is a gently undulating labyrinth of inlets and coves and bays on thousands of sparkling lakes.
“Do we have a map?” Rob asked as he cracked eggs into a metal bowl. “It’d be nice to have one while we’re canoeing, and to look over when we get home.” He and I were pulling together our first island breakfast, fumbling over the two-burner propane stove and trying to sort through the various boxes of food.
“Can’t you find it online?” Tahlya responded, looking up from the table where Cedar was pulling all the playing cards out of their individual packs. “Google maps or something?”
Her comment snapped me out of my potato peeling like a slap. Belle Isle online? Had Google mapped this place? It was so unreachable, surely it was only the local fishermen who knew about it. I only knew how to get here because of the other times I had come, and I could barely find my way at that. It was my memory of the shoreline, the rocks, the cabins that had guided me. There was no map.
“I don’t know. Maybe in those papers by the edge of the table,” I suggested feebly.
I hacked at the potatoes on the tiny plywood kitchen counter in the tiny wooden cabin and thought of Google. At home I used a cell phone, I watched Netflix, I drove everywhere in my van, but was nowhere safe from modern intrusion? I needed somewhere to remain untouched. I needed to know that the mistakes and missteps of humanity hadn’t devoured all of nature’s ecosystems. I needed to know I could escape technology to enter a place that remained on geologic time.
But my kids. What could this far-flung wilderness possibly mean to them? Their lives were racing into our growing technological world; how could these trees and rocks and sunsets compete with the screens and tweets and apps that permeated the rest of the world? They would be able to see Belle Isle on a computer from 200 miles above. They could locate it by GPS coordinates. They would be able to recall the trip with the click of a finger via digital slideshow on our computer. And though our cell phones didn’t work here now, it suddenly dawned on me that in another few years, they might.
“The days here sure are long,” said Tahlya, as we tramped the pine-needle path through the woods. After breakfast, both kids had been bored. So far, I wasn’t impressed with their ingenuity, or lack thereof, in coming up with activities. Since she didn’t seem to know what to do with herself, I took Tahlya for a walk to show her the lay of the land and to help me open the Old Cabin.
The Old Cabin, the one my grandfather built, hides in the heart of the island, a short two-minute walk from the New Cabin. On this trip we would sleep in the New Cabin, which was built in the’90s. It’s only slightly larger, but its windows are bigger, its ceiling higher, and it perches on a rocky outcrop overlooking the lake. The 3-foot-wide porch on the front is perfect for watching loons on the water.
“There’s the cloaca,” I said, as Tahlya and I came to a small wooden building with a door on the front, big enough for one person. Its dark wooden boards blended in with the pines it was tucked between. “It’s a newer composting one, so it doesn’t smell so bad.”
A blank stare met my words.
“I don’t really know what cloaca means, either,” I said. “But that’s what we’ve always called it. It’s just an outhouse really.”
“That’s the bathroom?” Tahlya asked incredulously.
“Well, you know you can pee wherever you want. But yes, that’s the toilet.” I nudged her with my elbow. “Come on, it’s not so bad.”
We passed the cloaca and came to the Old Cabin, which stood in a small clearing. The gray siding was rotting in places and there was moss growing on the boards that touched the ground, but the green-shingled roof held strong, and the cabin seemed as sturdy as ever.
I gave Tahlya the key. She unlocked the hefty padlock. We pushed the wooden door open and a shaft of light slid into absolute darkness.
“What’s in there?” she asked, taking a step backward.
“Same thing as in the New Cabin. Only older.”
It was pitch black inside. I stepped in and the rich, earthy smell of old wood wafted over me. I showed Tahlya how to unbolt the wooden window covers, and we folded down the table that covered the back window. Our eyes adjusted.
We could easily have been in 1965. Old fishing nets hung from the ceiling, a wide-brimmed rain hat behind the door. A few kerosene gas lamps clung to the walls, ready to be lit. Metal bowls, cups, and silverware waited stoically on the few shelves, capturing dust. A white Cream of Wheat tin with red lettering and rusty corners stood apart from the other tins in the middle of the small counter. I wasn’t sure I wanted to look inside, so I pushed it back against the wall.
“This stuff is old,” Tahlya said, looking around. I couldn’t tell if it was awe or worry in her voice.
“Look at this!” I said, holding up a blue box of Jiffy corn muffin mix. “I might have left this here in the nineties. I used to make corn muffins in this wood stove.”
“Uh-huh,” Tahlya said. She seemed slightly intrigued, but less so when I showed her the tiny oven within the cast iron stove.
“You’ve got to keep the fire going at the same rate the whole time, or your muffins burn on one side and don’t cook on the other. I remember it being quite a challenge. But, man, they tasted good.” Compared to the plethora of blinking, beeping, lighted devices that filled our kitchen back home, this kitchen with its dinged metal coffee dripper, heavy cast iron skillets, and metal bucket for carrying drinking water up from the pump must have seemed like a storybook dwelling a 10-year-old could only begin to imagine.
“Oh, the logbook!” I went to the shelf by the table and dug out the original logbook. It dated back to 1952 and held entries from every visit of every party that had come to the island. Most of the early entries simply noted dates, names of those in the party, what fish were caught, what birds were seen.
“Did you sign that book?”
“Of course! I did more than sign it,” I said. Over the years, the entries became more storied and kids of my generation tended to write lengthier accounts of our visits. I flipped through the yellowing pages and found my teenaged handwriting. “There, you can read for yourself everything I did here.”
As she sat on one of the bunks and read, a wave of nostalgia wafted through the room. I remembered the time my cousin and I tipped the canoe and our trash bags spilled their contents into the water. Not wanting to contaminate the entire bay and not trusting us in the canoe any farther, my uncle had to swim all over collecting stray bits of plastic, while we sat on shore and giggled.
Other stories had a significantly riskier element. Thinking of them reminded me just how far from help we were, and how injury and illness here would be tough to repair. There was a time my cousin and I were alone on the island, and she split her toe on the swimming rock. It gushed blood, and I had to perform first aid before the grown-ups got back. Another time the boat motor caught fire while our whole party was in it, and my uncle had to drop it into the water to prevent us from catching fire. There had been some serious incidents; we’d been lucky.
Tahlya handed the book back to me and took another look around the cabin. “I’m sure glad we’re not sleeping in here.”
“I don’t know.” I closed my eyes. “I kind of like it. It reminds me of the other times I was here. It makes me think of my grandpa and what this place meant to him.”
I didn’t say it, but as we moved to leave, I could almost smell the sweet, dry scent of corn muffins baking in the oven.
The days did pass slowly. With a little urging, the kids settled in and created some entertainment of their own. They found a long-handled fishing net, and Cedar pulled it over his head. His blond, wispy hair flattened to his grinning face as he peered out through the holes in the netting. Tahlya held the metal handle to better direct her little brother’s movements. He danced across the wooden floor and yelled, “Cloaca! Cloaca! Cloaca!” over and over, spurred on when she laughed at him.
We each adopted one of Cedar’s Matchbox cars, and together built a miniscule, pine-needle city on a tree-root-covered incline. Bark chip garages protected the cars and sticks made for excellent signposts. And one warm afternoon, both Rob and Tahlya accepted the challenge of swimming the circumference of the island. Cedar and I skirted the shoreline, following their watery exercise to be sure they were safe. They both succeeded and earned an extra cookie for their efforts.
We keep a canoe on the island, so we ignored the rowboat we had arrived in and every day paddled to a new bay or island. In many places, the glacier-smoothed rock curves right down to the water, allowing for easy boat parking. We paused on tan and white granite humps to explore inland. The kids scoured low bushes for blueberries and shallow beaches for colorful granite chunks. We cleaned up a few rough fire pits scattered with trash, the only obvious residue of a human world outside of Stony Lake.
The predominance of billion-year-old rock along the shorelines is challenged only by the flora, finding foothold in the cracks and pulling it apart millimeter by millimeter. Pine and spruce prevail, tall and towering over water and rock. Birches and aspens fill out the forests and offer shelter to a variety of animals. A lot of the animals in this part of the Canadian Shield—Canada geese, songbirds, frogs and toads—we could see back home. One of my favorite animals, the Common Loon, loved these lakes, and already we’d seen and heard a dozen. We were, however, hoping for the thrill of seeing something a bit rarer, more electrifying: black bear, moose, beaver, mink.
One sunny afternoon, we all played at the edge of the lake, looking for loons and catching frogs on a rocky spit that juts out 50 feet from the east side of Belle Isle. The granite rounds off and slopes into the water, melding with square shards of gray basalt. The combination of smooth and angular provides a good place to sit at water level or wade in the shallows.
When rumbling stomachs indicated the dinner hour on its way, Tahlya climbed back across the spit with Rob close behind her. I took Cedar’s hand and we walked side by side picking our way across the uneven rocks.
“What do you want to have for dinner, Cedar?” I asked.
“Grill chee,” he said. He babbled his 2-year-old talk while I kept an eye on our footing.
Then I saw it. A curve of movement in rock. The same color, no angles. My foot about to step down next to its rising head. It opened its dark mouth wide, stuck its tongue out and threatened.
I screamed. The noise hung there for a split second, reverberating across the still forests and lakes of Ontario as the information shot through the wiring of my primal brain.
Rattlers can launch themselves six feet, my mind flashed. BABY!
Next instant I snatched up Cedar. Held him to my chest. Meant to run. But time slackened. The moment, the thoughts, the sounds melted into a dream where escape from pursuing death is rendered impossible due to leaden feet. I was weighed down by all the planet’s gravity.
The urge to protect my baby broke through the heaviness, and I launched myself into motion. My feet sought placement. One rocky step, then two. With the third step, I fumbled and the laws of nature took over. Cedar’s weight in my arms pulled me forward. Down. Rock. Down.
I held him tight as I fell. My knees smashed into the rocks, my left hand, my elbow absorbing the shock wave. My right arm curved around my baby instinctively cradling him, but it smashed too. My body came down last, on top of his. And I felt a crunch.
Time caught up. Cedar shrieked and cried. Pain shot through my knees and arms.
His arm is broken, I thought. My arm is broken.
“What are you doing?” Rob shouted. I looked up to see him hurrying across the rocks toward us and Tahlya racing up the hill for the cabin. I looked back to see if the animal was following us, ready for the kill.
It was gone.
“Snake,” I mumbled.
My leaping dance across the rocks should have caused severe injury. We should have been hastily digging out splints and bandages from our pile of gear. We should have been regretting our lack of floatplane and cell reception. Yet somehow, like the visits to Belle Isle of my youth, we were lucky; neither Cedar nor I had broken any bones.
Later, over grilled cheese, I dabbed at my bloody elbow and recounted the story. It wasn’t a rattler; there had been no rattling noise. It was a garter, a black snake, maybe a water snake. I didn’t get a good enough look to be able to say for sure. Despite what it had actually been, I saw it raise its head and I made the unwavering assessment that it was rattlesnake. Mouth stretched wide, tongue extended as far as it could go, I mimed the snake’s open-mouthed stance that had sent a shockwave through me. Cedar followed suit and hissed, then stuck out his tongue. Tahlya laughed and did the same.
From then on, every few hours one of the kids would ask, “What did the snake say?” Then they’d stick out their tongues and hiss. I realized that this would be one of those family stories—“The time Mom freaked out and almost killed the baby on the rocks.” We each referenced it in the logbook, except Cedar, of course, who added a squiggly line to the page.
I read Rob’s and Tahlya’s entries and formulated words of my own to put into print. The snake story lay side by side with all the others in the tattered old book—the bloody toe, the trash, the fiery motor, and a myriad more. In a day’s time, the island would retreat into memory again. We’d be in a hotel somewhere on the road home, in a room with a TV and electric lights and running water and anything we wanted at our fingertips. But the stories in the book would not soon be forgotten.
Rob sliced the water with the canoe paddle, pulling us forward across the still lake. Rosy pinks and daffodil yellows painted the world above us. A distant loon yodeled from another bay of the lake.
“Nothing like a beautiful sunset and a whiny two-year-old,” Rob said.
Cedar gave a rumbly squeal of unhappiness from the middle of the canoe where he and Tahlya sat. He didn’t like the thick life preserver we forced him to wear, and he had no qualms about protesting.
“Can I throw him overboard?” Tahlya asked with a grin.
“Aww. You want to throw the poor, innocent … ” I began. Cedar let out another discontented moan. “Oh, okay. That’ll get rid of the whining and the stinky diaper smell.”
She smiled a big 10-year-old smile that lit up her face.
I paddled from the stern, aiming us toward the Big Island, where we could look back across the water and see more of the sky.
“Cedar, what color is the sky?” I asked.
“Boo and ping and white. Yuh.”
“It’s so beautiful,” Tahlya added.
We drifted for a while. Moving wherever the water took us. Watching the sky’s show.
We’d eventually found a rough hand-drawn map of the lake with our island traced in black. There were a few copies, so Rob slid one into his pack to take home. We might look at it when we got home, but I knew it didn’t represent the island. Nor did any technological wonder we humans might come up with. Belle Isle was the scratch of pine-needle-carpeted pathways on bare feet, the surge of cold that accompanies a leap into the dark lake, the encapsulating stillness of waiting for a beaver to surface. Belle Isle was mapped on my children’s lives. On where they’ve been and where they’re going. It was alive, and it was here for them whenever they wanted it.
We turned the canoe back toward our island in the fading light. The land was dark, backlit by the fiery sky. I couldn’t see the New Cabin resting on its rock, or make out any shapes or forms on the island at all. But I’d know its outline anywhere.
“Cedar, what did the snake say?” Tahlya asked, as we paddled closer to shore.
Cedar opened his mouth wide and stuck out his tongue. Then giggled. Story by story, learning the lay of the land.
Amanda K. Jaros is an MFA candidate in Chatham University’s creative writing program. Her nonfiction has appeared in Pilgrimage, Literary Mama, Cargo Literary, and is forthcoming in Terrain.org. She lives in Ithaca, N.Y., where she divides her time between her writing and her life as a mother.