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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

The formidable Rocky Mountain west wind transformed Lee Lake’s gently rippled surface into bullying waves. I’d had enough. Throwing the few essentials I had brought with me to my lakeside cabin just a day earlier, I exploded up the cabin’s 36 unsteady wooden steps to the makeshift parking lot. Here, up higher out of the shelter of the thick pines, the wind with renewed vengeance shrieked as I struggled to open the car door against its force.

Driving away from this godforsaken place, obscenities whirled through my head. I felt the cabin screaming back at me. “Ingrate! Hypocrite! You love me only when I’m beautiful. Good riddance to you!” For me the cabin is both wonderful and terrible. It offers solace but cannot be fully trusted. And like a siren’s call, within days of leaving, I will feel its pull and know that soon I’ll return.

On the two-hour drive back home to Calgary, I take my usual route, Cowboy Trail, a scenic two-lane highway offering magnificent views of the mountains and the undulating slopes of the Foothills. It’s Ian Tyson ranch country with miles and miles of grassland sporadically dotted with homeplaces and horse-backed cowboys rounding up their cattle. But treachery lurks along this highway.

Winds of up to 150 kilometres an hour have toppled lightly loaded semi-trailers and passenger vehicles pulling travel trailers – crushing and tossing them into adjacent ditches or empty fields.

When I first saw the cabin 16 years ago, we were of similar age, both over 50 and visibly deteriorating. Its walls were painted a deep purple, the peeling lino revealed bare plank boards. The kitchen cupboards were the handiwork of an accidental craftsman. Yet while age has stiffened my legs and stooped my back, the cabin has maintained its enduring appeal.

Sitting on leased land, it is steps away from the pristine spring-fed Lee Lake, a two-kilometre-long lake in the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains between the communities of the Crowsnest Pass, a collective of five mining towns to the west, and Pincher Creek to the east, a gateway to the wildly beautiful Waterton Lakes National Park. Lee Lake has been called the candy store of stocked lakes and is one of 780 sites in Alberta conserved for wildlife, fishing and responsible recreation.

In summer my cabin is at the height of its appeal. The lake, with its 12 kilometre-an-hour speed limit, is safe for slow moving crafts and swimmers. Evelyn, my recently widowed neighbour, regularly navigates its length – Huck Finn style. Barefoot, wearing a well-travelled sundress and a baseball cap, she balances gracefully on a small section of an old, splintered dock that she carefully propels with a long, ancient paddle. If I see her get onboard, I involuntarily maintain a vigil, checking periodically over the next few hours, willing her safe return.

Some evenings she rewards me by playing classical pieces on her old piano that is housed on her deck. The notes flow over the glass-like water and offer an eerie ambience to the star-filled, summer night. The accompanying calls of the loons complete the symphony.

But such bucolic tranquility is not guaranteed. Caution must be a companion of the lake users and dwellers. Without warning, a powerful wind can create a tunnel that poses considerable risk. A while ago such a wind swooped in, caught the glass top of an outdoor table, carried it over the cabin roof, and deposited it in the parking area above, leaving behind thousands of glass shards. And while walks in this pristine morsel of raw nature can soothe a troubled heart, danger lurks. Grizzly and black bears roam freely with their young. Crossing their paths can be perilous for any human.

In winter, walking the rough gravel roads, the strong westerly winds push against me and soon I’m like the sparse Foothills spruces nearby that lean perpetually eastward. The razor-sharp wind slices my face, bringing tears that slowly roll down my cheeks. I’m grateful to turn home, walking eastward with the wind at my back.

Over the years, in piecemeal fashion, the cabin has received a complete renovation. Gifts from visitors and family members cover its walls and rafters. Just last year a friend brought over some elk antlers she had recently inherited. “Who else,” she asked, “would take these?” With prime real estate on the walls already claimed, the antlers were hung, humbled, over the bathroom doorway.

The cabin plays on the emotions of invited guests, luring them with silent promises of refuge, rarely showing them its capacity for treachery. A blank-page book, entitled Irish Erotic Art: When You Care Enough to Give the Very Least, sits prominently on a side table in the living room. Visitors cannot resist the temptation to peek inside and have responded with enthusiasm to my short invitation to contribute a line or two.

Without regard for generational boundaries, the cabin shamelessly lures the unsuspecting. Last summer upon arriving for a week’s stay, my eight-year-old grandson sank heavily into the well-worn couch. After looking around as though in silent greeting to an old friend, he stated simply, “I just love this place.” A thread of envy rested in my heart as I watched him squat on the dock’s edge peering into the cloudy water searching for fish, turtles and other lake life. Here he seems to have found a reliable place of shelter that to me has been elusive.

Increasingly, I grew curious about my intense and conflicted feelings about the cabin. In time, I came to understand that I needed the cabin to be beautiful and calm. Always. Its natural ruggedness unbalanced and frightened me.

So last year in early October, with a Lee Lake weather forecast warning of winds of up to 80 kilometres an hour and heavy rain, I packed my bag and headed out to it. Several hours after my arrival the sky grew sombre, as the brutal wind rocked the water and harassed the pines. This time, with the support of a blanket and a sweet tea, I sat at its window choosing to witness the thundering and blustering.

My thoughts floated and settled: “I will sit with you, in the growing darkness. I will face my fear of you. I will accept all of you. I will not abandon you.”

Constance A. Barlow lives in Calgary

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