Bunny Lake

When I was a little girl, my grandfather took me to see Bunny Lake. I couldn’t have been more than three years old, so he carried me most of the distance. On the way, I fell asleep in his arms. I remember his voice: “Wake up, Bertie. We’re here.” He set me down on the forest floor and stooped next to me. We had paused at the top of a steep incline thick with boreal spruce and lodgepole pine. With a single finger, my grandfather pointed through the trees to a tiny log cabin below — a miniature house crouched beside a clear, still lake within the sheltering woods.

The cabin appeared magical, perhaps like the candy-covered cottage in Hansel and Gretel. I squealed with delight and ran down the hill. Grandpa called after me. “Wait, Bertie. Slow down.” For once I didn’t listen. I ran toward the cabin as fast as my small legs would take me. This was the first time I saw Bunny Lake.

My grandparents moved to the Rockies after my grandfather bid on and received the position of operator for CN in a small mountain community not far from Jasper. This was right after the war. Their family was still young. My oldest uncles — Phil and Brent — were boys, just twelve and eleven years old. Not long after the move, the two built the cabin we call Bunny Lake. They hammered every nail, and they sawed every log. They hauled the shiplap flooring and linoleum to the cabin on their backs. Phil carried the wood stove, which remains there to this day, up the mountain. He was only fourteen years old.

When hikers stumble across Bunny Lake, they assume it’s an old trapper’s cabin, but it isn’t. It was built by two boys — Phil, who was born with a cleft pallet and always felt awkward around girls, and Brent, who became a surveyor, raised a family and on this trip, today, is eighty years old. They built the cabin.

Before he died, Uncle Phil could run up the mountain, and often did, with a fifty-pound pack on his back. Even now, I’ll watch Uncle Brent haul load after load of cut wood from the forest. His face will redden and sweat will stream from his forehead, but he won’t quit, and there’s no point trying to stop him because he won’t listen.

Phil has been gone for many years, but Brent is on the hike with us today along with his wife, Marge, and two of their three children: David, who I used to give noogies to when we played together as kids and Kathryn, who is now articling at a major law firm in Edmonton. My aunt, Anita, and her partner, Tom, are also with us, as is my daughter, Nastassja. I’m happy we’re together on this trip. It feels right. My daughter will record the coordinates of the cabin on her GPS, and we will find our way back again. But Anita and Marge have both said this will be their last trip to the cabin, and although it saddens me, I know they are probably right. Nothing remains forever.

When I was a little girl I didn’t know about death or loss. I thought the people I loved would always be with me. I thought the cabin would remain in its spot beside the lake in the woods. I thought my grandfather would forever hold my hand and lead me through the forest. But since the day he pointed to the little cabin in the woods, I’ve come to understand impermanence. All we have is what we have right now. It may be cliché to say so, but we can never know what tomorrow will bring. All we can safely say is that it will be different than today. If we can’t treasure what we have in this moment, we are lost.

Our band of hikers reach the hog back, and we rest for a time. I can still hear the far off hum of trucks on the highway, but as we move deeper into the forest, the distant sounds of human activity muffle. We continue our walk along the ridge, and even our footsteps are quieted by the thick cushion of moss under our feet. We’re far ahead of the rest — Tom, David and me — but I hold back. I want to remember this moment.

When I am alone in the forest. I am never alone. I hear the thrum of the trees, and I feel a part of something larger than myself, something more important, something more precious. The wind moves through the trees now. “Husha, husha, husha,” it says. It is the breath of the forest. I watch the swaying branches. Framed above me is that polarized, heavy blue sky that only comes with autumn. It is a warm day today, but the cold and dark will soon be here. I breathe with the forest, and in this moment, there is nowhere I’d rather be.

I hear the others catching up now, and we walk the rest of the way together. As the ridge narrows, I look down. There is the cabin below. I’m standing on the spot my grandfather placed my little feet forty-five years ago. My heart is filled with joy and a terrible sadness. My chest tightens, and I’m nearly suffocated with the moment. I wait for my mind to calm and my body to become my own once more. Then I run down the hill to join my family.

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