Notes on Manitoulin Island

My family and I have just returned from Manitoulin Island, where both my parents were raised and where both sets of my grandparents still live.  We stayed at my Mother’s place in Providence Bay, an old family house that she purchased a few years ago as a kind of cottage and will now be using as a full time residence and a place to run art workshops and summer programs.  She calls the place Providence House, and she was gracious enough to let us use it for a week and to bring along our friends the Humphreys.

Manitoulin is a deeply significant place for me.  I spent almost every summer there as I child, either at the farm of my Grandparents Hill, which is just outside of Mindemoya, or at the hunting camp of my Grandparents Gordon at Carter Bay, which is on the south shore of the Island east of Providence Bay.  I am by no means a farm boy, but it was during my summers on the island that I learned to ride the workhorses by leaping onto their bare backs from the apple trees, to drive a tractor poorly, to help birth a breach position calf, and to mow more hay than I care to remember.  I am no more a naturalist than I am a farmer, but the island was also the place where I learned to identify some animal sign, to distinguish one tree from another, to cut trails, and to fish.  My most vivid memories are of picking raspberries from along the dirt roads, of fishing in the little Mindemoya river, of wandering among the dunes at Carter Bay, and of reading in the old stuffed arm chair at the camp, the night already black, the moon hidden by the trees, the only light coming from the coals of the open wood stove.  It is into these memories that I always return when I come to Manitoulin.

It has been meaningful to bring others, first my friends, then my wife, then my children, and now my friends’ children, as I have returned to these memories over the years.  The island that I can introduce to them is not the same as the one of my childhood, of course, but it connects to that childhood in strange ways, and it connects to the person I am now as well.  It is no longer possible to get fresh fish from the dock at Providence Bay, for example, because there are no boats that still fish from there.  It is no longer possible to get icecream at the dairy in Mindemoya, because the dairy has now been demolished.  It is still possible, however, to find fresh fish, even if it is now sold from a truck in the grocery store parking lot, and it is still possible to get icecream made by the local dairy, even if it is no longer quite as local.  These things are still important to me now, though perhaps for other reasons, and it was a real pleasure to share them with the Humphreys.

It was also a pleasure to begin building some entirely new memories with my family.  I returned to Carter Bay to take some photos with my eldest son after the Humphreys had left.  While we were photographing, we met a woman on the beach who was able to confirm my uncertain identification of the sandcherries.  We collected several handfuls of them, my son biting into them, making faces, spitting them out, then biting them again, while I filled my shirt pockets.  We also caught crayfish.  We threw rocks from the tall stones into the water.  We found a stick that looked like a sword.  We saw a bear on the road.  Most importantly, when we returned home, we turned the sandcherries into a startlingly red syrup that went beautifully on icecream before bed and only slightly less beautifully on pancakes in the morning.

It is these kinds of memories that have made Manitoulin so important to me.  I feel it most strongly now, just after I have left it.

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3 comments
  1. Mum said:

    One of the reasons I have moved back to Manitoulin is expressed perhaps best in a poem called The Lake Isle of Innisfree by Yeats.

    “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
    And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
    Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
    And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
    And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
    Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
    There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
    And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
    I will arise and go now, for always night and day
    I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
    While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
    I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”

    It is the hearing of the lake in my deep heart’s core which draws me home to Manitouin. And in the re-integration with my community there I am happy to wait on the dock for an old man, cousin of my father, who brings whitefish and salmon caught because he loves to fish not becuase he loves the cooking an deating of it.

    I am not so sure the berries you picked on Carter Bay were sandcherries…sandcherries are deep purple black and ripen at the end of august…you most likely had pincherries which are bright red. They are just as good. Little do you know that right under your nose some bright red currents and dusky gooseberries were growing wback in the corner of our yard, beyond the labyrinth and under the spruce trees. Planted there by your great, great, great grandmother one hundred years ago. I’ll bring you some jam next time I visit…you can have the taste of Manitoulin from the hand of the mother who loves you…double blessing.

  2. Mum,

    I did a little research. The berries at Carter Bay are actually a kind of sandcherry (prunus pumila var. depressa). You can see a picture here (taken, ironically, at Providence Bay): ontariowildflower.com

  3. Mum said:

    indeed these are sandcherries…but I don’t know how you got a startling red syrup when all I ever get is deep mahogany…the ever deepening mystery.

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