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first person

Illustration by Drew Shannon

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On the mighty Ottawa River in Western Quebec, there is an island called Calumet Island or Île-du-Grand-Calumet. Named for the ceremonial pipe that was occasionally smoked by the island’s Indigenous peoples, the island is shaped a bit like a boot. Not the fancy and vaguely elfin high-heeled boot of Italy, but the squat, steel-toed worker’s boot you don’t want in the butt. The right boot for the rough gravel roads and hardscrabble farms that make up the island’s core.

On one of those roads in the middle of the island, just past the graveyard where many of my family members are buried, is an unassuming yet beloved hill. The Giggle Hill.

You might know this type of hill, the kind that pops up on country roads everywhere. It’s one of those rises that picks up your stomach, pushes it over your liver and delivers it to your throat. It goes by other names among the island’s English-speaking residents: Thrill Hill, Ticklish Hill, Butterfly Hill, Whoopee Hill, Dipsy Doodle Hill, Fun Hill, Wheee Hill and, for obvious reasons, Wee-Wee Hill. To my sister and me, it was and will forever be the Giggle Hill.

We recognized it as readily as a family member. First, by its telltale left-leaning slant on the approach, and second, by the sudden increase in speed as Dad pressed his foot on the gas pedal as heavily as he estimated his marriage could withstand. We roared over that hill in our 1965 Volvo station wagon every other week, to the screaming delight of us kids and the white-knuckled terror of our risk-averse mother. It was a free roller-coaster ride with no lineup. We loved it.

“Roll up your windows, girls!” Dad shouted five seconds before takeoff, the dust rising in big, whirling clouds and the gravel pinging against the Volvo as he goosed the engine and picked up speed. When we hit the top, the laws of gravity suspended and the feeling of our organs floating up in our weightless bodies made us squeal and howl. It was like being an astronaut, but with screaming.

As I got older, I would often nap in the car on the way to my grandparents’ farm. This strategy had the dual benefit of shortening the biweekly trip to the island while also exempting me from having to entertain my younger sister.

But there was no sleeping through the Giggle Hill. My body, somehow attuned to the familiar bend in the road, sensed we were close each time and jolted me back into consciousness before my sister and I sailed upward toward the roof of the car, barely contained by our seat belts, then slammed back down into our seats. We shrieked and laughed every time, and the two-and-a-half years between us closed, for at least a few seconds.

“Yeehaw!” our French-Canadian father yelled, channelling the Ottawa Valley twang of his in-laws. In the city, Dad was a law-abiding citizen and law-enforcing traffic cop. On the hill, he was Evel Knievel. His transformation paralleled our own. At home, my sister and I were afraid of our own shadows, but in the country, we buried rats slaughtered by our cousin and dangled our feet over fences housing misbehaving bulls. Giggle Hill was the bridge between our city and country selves.

One day, my Uncle Weston was driving his truck ahead of us on the island when he floored it and flew over the hill. A flicker of competition sparked in my father, which my mother quickly tried to stomp out. “We’re gonna go in the ditch!” she yelled. But Dad was undeterred. The Volvo shook as it called each of its four cylinders to action. My mother hung onto the armrest and the car door, bracing herself and planning her divorce from the lunatic driving our car. “Wheeeeeeeeee!” we cheered from the back seat, obviously on Team Dad.

The feeling of wheels leaving road is unlike anything else — exhilarating and foreboding, like chasing tornadoes or giving your boss the finger. It seems worth it at the time, but it’s unlikely to end well. We crashed down hard, the exhaust coughing and sputtering as though the car had nearly drowned. Dad slowly nursed the ailing Volvo the rest of the way to the farm as its newly broken axle knocked and clunked in protest. He tried to blame Uncle Weston for racing him, but Weston’s defense was airtight: “I wasn’t driving your car!”

Once we were safely at the farm, Dad called a friend to come and pick up his family while he carefully drove the fragile, empty car back to the city. The car was welded back together for $25 and lived to see another year.

The hill took a few prisoners, too. “I broke my arm on that hill,” said my cousin, Nikki. She was about eight years old when she leaned forward from the back seat, head between her parents, cheering her dad on as he sped up the hill. At the peak, she shot upward and hit her arm on the roof of the car, breaking it. She wore a cast for two months. “Yeah, don’t feel bad for her,” said her sister, Crystal. “She chased us with that cast and beat us with it whenever she could.” A good knock from the Giggle Hill was a lesson in resilience.

The island has changed since those days, and so has the farm I spent so much time at in my younger years. Pickup trucks and tractors now share the roads with cottagers and busloads of whitewater rafters ready to take on the Ottawa River. My Uncle Allan has taken over the family farm; the animals are gone but the teapot is still on, as it always was. It had been several years since my last trip over the hill — and my first time in the driver’s seat — when I returned to visit the farm with my mom last summer.

“Don’t go too fast,” she warned. But this time she was smiling, holding my phone to capture the ride on video. I pressed the gas as hard as I estimated her goodwill could withstand. Up we went, just fast enough on the ascent to flip our stomachs and make us wheeze and laugh, like babies lifted safely overhead in the arms of their parents without quite being tossed in the air.

Today, my ancestors who trailblazed the Giggle Hill by horse and buggy are in their 80s. Their bodies might be slowing down, but the thrill of the hill remains. When I ask my cousins whether their parents still give ’er over Giggle Hill, a mix of horror and pride spreads over their faces. “You bet they do.”

Lorie Boucher lives in Ottawa.