Childhood Memories of Shuswap Lake

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PHOTO: DEANNA KAWATSKI
The author and her two siblings by the lake in 1957.

Summer rapidly approaches. I’m sitting by Shuswap Lake in
southern British Columbia and breathing in the aquamarine
air. This has long been my favorite season here, and as I
stare toward Blake Point a half-mile across Magna Bay, I
thrill at the thought of my daily swims there throughout
the last warm days of 1978. One in particular I will never
forget: The tourists have all migrated back to the city and
I have the lake to myself. It holds me in its frigid grip
as I fill my lungs with apple-ripe air and stroke toward
the far side.

Blake Point is a slender sculptured arm of
sand that stretches out from a stand of crowned cottonwood,
to loosely embrace the bay. As I approach, voices ring out
to me across the surface. Drawing nearer I see no less than
100 Canada geese strutting on the farthest reach of sand.
Closer yet, I watch half of the dark-headed flock leave the
rank and begin swimming out toward me. Rhythmically they
form a V, their black eyes shining in concentration above
their white chin straps. Astonished, I find myself in the
lead, at the very apex of their design. Then a clatter of
wings and trumpets shatters the calm as they fly low over
me, nearly brushing me with wing tips in passing. Elated, I
continue to the point, then turn to swim back. Not far from
shore I am astounded to swing around and see the remaining
geese following. Once again I find myself at the apex of
the V We glide through the lake for a few moments until I
again feel them take flight around me.

It was with memories such as this that I returned to
Shuswap Lake three years ago. Apart from reconnecting with
my family, I also longed to lay eyes on the lake again, and
to be immersed in its time-steeped waters. I was the fourth
generation to regularly stand hypnotized by its shimmer
against the multihued mountainside. But this was 1992, and
baffled I watched battalions of high-powered boats veer
across the bay. Every size and description of toy
imaginable was out there creating havoc with the natural
serenity. After 13 years in the wilderness I simply
couldn’t grasp it.

Time Marches Onwards

Sadly, Shuswap Lake’s reputation as a party place has grown
substantially over the years. Sicamous on the most
southerly arm, has been dubbed “Houseboat Capital of the
World,” and advertising for “booze and cruise” trips on the
lake have brought the yahoos in from far and wide. It is no
longer safe to swim more than 50 feet from shore. All this
past summer I watched a mother mallard with her brood of
eight navigate nervously along the bay, negotiating wide
passes around the tightening intrusion of wharves and
fences of plastic buoys. Submerged in the stench of
gasoline fumes, and buffeted about by the crazed wake of
throngs of motorized missiles, the mother mallard struggled
to stay in tune with the natural rhythms that had flowed
through her kind for aeons.

Sitting in the sweltering sun this summer I watched
incredulously as a house boat decked out in a neon pink
banner pulled into the bay. In large black letters it
proclaimed SEADOO RENTALS. A clutch jet-ski boats hung like
baby leeches off of the larger vessel. The operator,
without considering the already chaotic state of the bay or
the wishes of the residents, was willing to add to the din
to make a buck. Soon beach-goers were tearing over and
paying for a whirl on a seadoo. Mounting one seems to
induce instant insanity. With the persistence of giant
mosquitoes they spun around in idiotic circles, intruding
on every level of life and rights in the land. But with
luck the marvelous happened. From the west side of the bay
a canoe made a beeline for the houseboat. In the distance
they merged. Within minutes the houseboat retreated out of
Magna Bay, its gaudy sign still screaming.

Madge Noakes, who lives with her husband near Blake Point
(she grew up on the point and it was named after her
family), looks as delicate as porcelain, but she has a core
of steel. Vibrant with anger she told me about the seadoo
she had seen chasing a family of geese. In the past she had
actually witnessed a speedboat running a Canada goose to
death. One summer, with her aura of white hair and frame
that looks as though it could be knocked over with a
feather, she single-handedly took on a gang of rowdies who
refused to leave her private beach. One of the brawny beer
guzzlers had even threatened her with a fist, to which
Madge responded, “Go ahead and hit me.” When they delivered
the even more articulate insult of mooning her, their lewd
gesture backfired. Madge had her camera poised and the
perfect shot put the power in her hands. After that they no
longer crossed her property line. But as Madge summed it
up, “We can write the summers off until we get controls
in.” Apart from business people dependent upon the tourist
dollar, there are few members of the North Shuswap
community who meet the annual invasion with anything less
than dread. Granted, tourism is inevitable and it wins
hands down over other resource-based industries, but what
the locals want is respect for the area. Let it be known
for its natural beauty and the lively population of artists
and crafts people gracing its shore, rather than a lawless
out back where some venture only to “party till they
puke.”

Every morning after seeing the kids off to school, I begin
my day with a beach walk. It helps to clear the cobwebs,
and also to stretch my legs before sitting down to write.
Best of all, I never know what surprises wait for me once I
step outside the close confines of my trailer. Across the
road the Lake beckons, ever alluring no matter what the
weather.

One frigid morning I stood by an intensely steaming lake
with an amicable border collie named Cedar. I had agreed to
dog sit Cedar for awhile and he made a point of following me
most mornings. As we walked and watched the ghosts of vapor
rise from the waters, a movement in the lake brought us to
a halt on a rocky beach near the red railed wharf. Beside
the structure I could see two dark heads in the water. Then
another, and another, and I soon recognized them as animals
rather than birds. As their sleek bodies, followed by a
flow of tail, wove in and out and slowly closer to us, I
finally recognized them. In all, five otters were
frolicking in the still lake. Cedar, who was a water dog by
nature and would plunge in after a tossed stick no matter
what the season, was as baffled as I was by how close these
animals were. He plunked passively on his haunches to watch
as the otters followed a path of sunlight and swam directly
towards us, and continued on their course until they were
no more than two feet away. Their limpid eyes, it seemed to
me, were gleaming with curiosity and I could hear their
breathing clearly over Cedar’s soft whining. Then, without
warning, they switched their course and headed east, and we
stared after them until they vanished from sight.

We continued our stroll another half mile to Blake point,
but every few feet our walking rhythms were interrupted by
heavy cables securing raft after raft to the shoreline. One
false step and I’d be sprawling on sand scattered with
multi-hued rocks and salmon carcasses. All the while the
child in me remembered racing along this very beach and I
suddenly resented the influx of people who had come to
claim what, in truth, can never be owned by anyone.
Prominent PRIVATE PROPERTY and KEEP OUT shouted their
commands as we continued our way past Madge and Stan’s
place. Around another bend, Cedar stopped and nervously
sniffed the air. I turned and saw a bald eagle staring with
scorn from the fractured crown of a cottonwood. Cedar and I
could now chalk up two remarkable sights on this short
trip.

A short distance further was the outflow of Onyx Creek,
where nearly apple green water took a meandering rocky
course to the lake, and my thoughts again swirled back to
childhood, when the creek was still called Manson. Only one
family lived close to the mouth then. What I remember most
about George and Annie William’s place was how submerged it
was in the cottonwood trees and choir of creek voices.
Today, I could only describe the William’s home as a shack,
but the creek cast a spell on me then. Who needed wealth
when one could live surrounded by such natural beauty.

A Remarkable Sight

I turned and saw a bald eagle staring with scorn from the
fractured crown of a cottonwood.

George and Annie were of Scottish descent and they called
their shaggy collie Bobby, Booby. Their daughter Irma was
crippled but when we went to visit, she always smiled as
she navigated out to the front room in her wheelchair.
Annie was tiny as a sparrow, and with her hair tied back in
a bun, she would pour rich cream from her own cow into our
tea. My sister and I had caps of shiny brown hair,
gap-toothed grins and the insatiable thirsts of six year
olds. When we were finished with several helpings, George
would inevitably insist upon hitching his horse to the
wagon and driving us home again, though it was only a
half-mile away.

The William’s made little impact on the land and their tiny
home no longer stands. Much of the point has now been
occupied by large, opulent houses, some of which could no
doubt sell for $300,000 or more. In many glowed small
lights left perpetually on to trick potential prowlers into
thinking someone was home. A saving grace is that the
developers preserved the property bordering the creek, but
as I stood there I could hear the progress of electric
saws, drills and the thunder of trucks hauling
landfill.

Cedar and I turned and traced our path home. An electric
merganser, head submerged, darted along the shoreline,
slipping back into the water with grace and speed of an
eel. The sky was furrowed with freshly turned rain clouds
and I wondered what the future holds for Shuswap Lake. What
will become of the otters, beaver, loons and myriad forms
of life as developers continue the seemingly inexorable
course of snuffing out their habitat?

I, for one, can live happily without a seadoo, all terrain
cycle, and a variety of other instant gizmoatics. What I
cannot live without is the increasingly elusive wing of
wilderness.