CLEAR LAKE

The lake, Clear Lake, is not large, scarcely a mile in length and a half mile in diameter, much smaller than nearby Ribstone Lake, but slightly larger than another neighbor, Arm Lake.   The location is east central Alberta, roughly 30 miles from the Saskatchewan border and 300 miles north of the US border. The nearest towns are Wainwright, 16 miles to the west, and Edgerton, 7 miles to the east. The area is quite distinctive geographically, with small, densely-spaced rolling hills and deep bowls that suggest the last ice age ran into some trouble either advancing or retreating from this area. One imagines a massive braking action cutting into the ground. Go 30 miles in any direction and the prairie returns to a more normal flatness. If only glaciers could talk!

Water soon filled these bowls and where they could be nurtured by underground springs, a prairie lake was born. Surrounded by poplar, willow, aspen, ash, and birch, some of these lakes are astonishingly beautiful, with sand as soft as talc. Clear Lake is one such lake. One doesn’t see these lakes from a distance. Driving toward it in the shimmering heat of summer, its sudden appearance is an unexpected and pleasant sight, a blue gem out of place in this land of weed-infested sloughs and dense poplar thickets.

Our family moved to Wainwright in late 1946 when my parents purchased the dairy. Davidson Dairy sat on the southwest edge of town and was our home for the next 10 years. Our first visits to Clear Lake were Sunday drives where we picnicked at what was superfluously called the Main Beach. At that time, it was the only beach.

At this time, most of the land surrounding the lake was occupied by cabins, the only undeveloped areas being sharply rising land adjacent to the water. Three farms overlooked the lake, one on the south, one on the north and another nestled behind the Main Beach to the west.

To form an idea of what living at this prairie lake in the late 1940’s, imagine the sandy, double-rutted roads girding the lake, the absence of any electricity or motor boats, and the awesome abundance of bird and insect life. When darkness fell, only the moon and stars illuminated this world, as cabin owners set about lighting kerosene lamps and earlier versions of Coleman gas lamps. The star-filled sky was often graced with the aurora borealis.

Clear Lake promised – and delivered – peace and quiet. Being set low in that glacial bowl, even radio reception was poor.   No power boats or ATV’s meant no noise pollution save the occasional motor vehicle roaring to tackle yet another mud hole on the sand and dirt trail connecting the cabins.

Ah, the road. Circumnavigating the lake by auto was always guaranteed to be an adventure. Modern-day motorists would take one look at this road and retire to purchase a 4-wheel drive SUV with 2 feet of clearance. And hire a navigator. But the motorist of those days worked with what he or she had and, with or without the help of neighbors, usually made it to the destination. Coping with mud and bad roads was a required life skill. This was not a road laid out by civil engineers. This two-rut affair was carved out by determined motorists and went where the obstacles – trees, stumps, mudholes, and sharp fall-offs – were fewest. The result was a serpentine life-line that would challenge today’s Hummer. Rains created dozens of daunting mud holes and, at least once each year, the road took a new route as desperate drivers, needing to find a way around an especially fearsome mud hole, launched their mud-splattered cars into the surrounding bush to carve out a fresh path. The miracle was in how often they succeeded.

After spring arrived, Clear Lake became an inviting escape from the dusty towns. Arriving at the lake at the top of a hill on the north, visitors looked down onto a blue expanse where dense foliage crowded the shore. Looking closely, one could see cabins set back into the bush, appearing as small animals hiding in the undergrowth.  When so much of the prairie presented a utilitarian look – farms, cultivated fields, and pastures – Clear Lake in full summer dress was a powerful sight.

In May, the cabin owners began visiting on the weekends, brushing away the detritus of winter and letting fresh air renew their summer homes. As June emerged, friendships were rekindled while children roamed free in the endless evenings, racing through the sandy paths that skirted the lake.

My parents loved Clear Lake and were happy to spend what leisure time they had basking in its generous bounty. They especially loved the clear mornings when a gentle mist would rise off the water and a pair of loons would serenade the new day. My dad would fire up the wood stove and after coffee had perked, they would sit outside the front door to enjoy the crisp clean air.

Our family’s first cabin was a rental on the Edgerton side of the lake (The east side was referred to as the Edgerton side while the west side was the Wainwright side). It was a very nice old 1920’s era cabin but it wasn’t ours.

In 1952, our parents purchased a cabin, this one, to, on the Edgerton side. It was another older cabin set far back from the lake.    It had two distinguishing characteristics. The first was a tiny beach reached by descending a sandy path for roughly 20 yards. The cabin was actually about 20 feet higher than the beach and poplar logs were anchored into the slope to prevent sand erosion and provide a staircase of sorts. The second characteristic was that the back half of the cabin extended over a gully and instead of a foundation, a series of poplar poles supported the cabin, room enough beneath to store firewood and park a car during a storm. We felt very fortunate to have acquired it.

Inside, the cabin was the regular compressed three-bedroom model.

The front third contained a living room and the master bedroom. The middle held a dining room and the kitchen while the rear would have boasted two bedrooms if one can “boast” about two smallish rooms with screen-only windows and interior shutters, two lumpy double beds that probably first saw the light of day with John A. MacDonald’s grandparents, and two apple boxes set on end and hiding under a cloak of faded cotton.

The kitchen had a sink but no taps, and enough counter space to accommodate a pail of well water. A heavy cast-iron wood stove, a leaky icebox, and some cupboards rounded out the room. The dining room highlight was a picture window that looked out into the hollow beneath the cabin. The table was finely carved oak, which was unfortunately hidden under an oilcloth. Two open shelves on the back wall collected dust, mystery novels, and an assortment of knickknacks common to lake cabins.

And, as befits a leisure refuge, the living room was forever strewn with magazines of wild variety and vintage, worn playing cards, and more mystery novels. Ashtrays were everywhere, their origins a subtle measure of the owners’ worldliness (Harrah’s Club, Reno; The Star-Lite Motel, Medicine Hat).

Cabin owners tended to entertain regularly.   Relatives from afar and neighbors from next door streamed in and out, invitations being assumed, and lengths of stays dictated largely by mood and libation supply.   This steady influx of visitors meant kids were expected to play outdoors.

Which we did. Like all kids in the 50’s, we were expected to find our own entertainment and only bad weather – really bad weather – prevented this.

Swimming was perhaps first priority but its practice was impeded by any number of interferences. Mother’s wisdom in those days said children must wait one hour after eating before swimming lest they cramp up and drown. We believed this.

Cool days weren’t as much an impediment as you might suppose, the theory being the water was warmer when the air was cooler. This, too, we believed, at least until it was time to get out of the water. To appreciate the next stumbling block to swimming, you must realize that Clear Lake wasn’t universally clear. Several areas were weed-infested and although the water in front of our cabin was clear and the bottom sandy, a strong west wind would cloud the water with algae and weed particles, to the point where swimming was less than pleasant. The last stumbling blocks were bugs, specifically mosquitoes, wasps, and the dreaded horsefly. Any one of the three could ruin a day’s swimming and all three ganging up on kids was a call to head for the hills.   On the prairies, an idyllic swimming session was a rare thing.

But there were options. And “heading for the hills” was taken literally when we climbed the hill behind the Edgerton cabins to find a baseball diamond and a thousand footpaths (originally many of them cowpaths) that led into the poplar woods. Or we could hike to one of the farms and buy fresh milk or eggs.

Back on the lake, we could go boating. In the very early days, there were no motor boats and even in the mid-fifties there were only a few 5-hp outboards, the ultimate in raw power.   The humble rowboat was standard issue for most cabin owners. They could be either wooden or aluminum.

Ours was wooden, painted dark green (as was the cabin),

Unusually narrow amidships, it was often mistaken for a modified canoe. But we loved it and if it was a struggle to keep it lake-worthy, we still took pride in the speed we could be generate with vigorous rowing.  Unlike the super buoyant aluminum boats, it pulled true and you didn’t have to expend so much energy keeping it on a straight path. Still, much of its time was spent in dry-dock, slumped forlornly on the little beach waiting for another calking.

Fishing wasn’t as popular as it should have been. There was no shortage of fish, albeit wary of little boys dabbling lures. No trout, but lots of Northern Pike, Perch, and Pickerel. The frustration came from continually extracting lures tangled in the weeds. Sometimes the line had to be cut, so firmly snared were the lures. Fishing was a ‘default’ recreation, something undertaken when nothing else was beckoning, a way to pass the time on a rainy day. In fact, ‘rainy days’ were quite popular, because fishing wisdom in the 50’s also dictated the fish were more susceptible to lures when the weather was wet. This may have been true but it is also true that a summer rain on the prairie was rarely a gentle one and fishing while being lashed by a ferocious prairie storm wasn’t as attractive as finding shelter.

When the weather failed to cooperate, parents had contingency plans. After all, a cabin full of anxious-to-be-outside children was no recipe for the serenity of a lakeside cabin. Sandwiches and Freshie (the forerunner of Koolaid) were laid out and board games retrieved from beneath beds. If everything went according to plan, the parents would retire to one cabin, leaving the children in another.

Evenings on the lake were as special as the mornings. By late July, the sun was still well above the horizon at 9:00 pm. It was futile to send children to bed. Special for the children was staying up until 11:00, tearing about in the dusk and darkening paths.

As night fell, gas lamps were lit. All cabins had a supply of kerosene lamps and one or two Coleman lamps. Some, like ours, had a gasoline lamp, an ugly black two-mantle contraption that resembled a flood light when it were working but required nerves of steel to light. My father (my mother wouldn’t touch it) lit it by first taking it outside where any potential mishaps wouldn’t threaten the cabin. Next, he pumped the tank fiercely. Then a small valve was turned and gasoline spilled out onto the lamp. Ignited, the flames shot skyward, as if the entire exercise had gone haywire. This was always a frightening moment. But the flames would eventually subside and the mantles began to take on a faint glimmer. More strenuous pumping set them glowing. The powerful light the lamp delivered was always a pleasant surprise.

When the skies were clear and the winds soft, evenings were a spectacular star-filled world caught somewhere between light and total dark.   It was often an invitation to build a bonfire and enjoy the clarity of the heavens. It was a time to gaze over the tops of the trees silhouetted against a sky awash in stars. A shimmering glow reflected from the lake. Above all, there was silence, broken only by the crackling of the wood in the fire, the beeps of nighthawks in the air, and the sound of a distant freight train hurtling through the nearby town of Heath.

Heath was a hamlet three miles north of the lake.   Not much was ever going on in Heath – other than a small general store that did a brisk summer business. But it was on the CNR main line that was on a long downgrade for many miles. Eastbound trains would often cut their engines and coast through Heath, only the sound of their whistles and the clacking of hundreds of steel wheels being heard at the lake. Westbound trains could be identified by their strenuous chugging. Either direction, the distant sound of a whistle from a steam-powered locomotive was an always-reassuring and poignant sound.

The end of August came too quickly. Nights grew colder, stove fires were built up, migratory bird populations swelled, and the leaves of the aspen trees began to turn gold. The time had come to pack up the cabin, seal it for the winter, and return to town.

Our family had one final ritual. Driving away from the lake, they would stop at the top of the hill.   Silently, the family would look back at the lake, each lost in his or her own memories and hoping a return would be swift.

Robert Alan Davidson

Orig 2002 – re-written 2015.

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