Two months ago, today, I was sitting on Kailua beach with my friend Powell,working our way through a bottle of wine, watching our big babies splash in the surf. Hawaii is eternal summer.
This morning I am sitting on the bench of the starboard cabin of the Wolfe Islander III, watching my island slip aft. The long arms of the windmill blades flash in the sunlight with every turn, as if the ladies are trying to keep warm in the Arctic wind barreling off of the lake.
The ferry is late.
I tracked her sluggish progress back and forth across the channel this morning while I sipped my tea, finally deciding that I’d hope for the best and go. I haven’t seen my friend in two years, we’re having lunch at Wooden Heads, and besides that, my mom needs milk, and bread, and lentils for the dal she has planned for dinner.
I suggested to my dad, as he was suiting up for a polar expedition, that he might rather wait and follow me out (our truck has 4WD) but, being a daddy, he was determined to break the trail for me in “Old Green” first. Kelly came and had coffee yesterday, and blew out the lane way (about a quarter of mile long). Naturally, the wind blew it back in last night, with drifts above my knees in some places. Old Green is firmly stuck within spitting distance of the road. So it goes.
Tony is fast becoming a heroic son in law. He’s almost recovered from the frostbite he procured on Christmas Eve climbing the roof to melt the ice off of Dad’s Internet antenna. When I pulled out onto the road, having pressed the 4WD into service to circumvent Old Green into to the windswept fields, Gabe was applying himself to the business end of a shovel as Tony and Dad contemplated the problem of the van.
Riding the ferry in summer is a glorious affair. The upper deck is loaded with foot passengers, the warm wind licks at my skirt hem and every windmill waves hello. Sailboats dot the horizon, birds wheel and turn overhead. The horn honks loudly, scaring the tourists, everyone laughs. The sun smiles.
This morning it sounds like riding inside my husband’s hand crank coffee grinder as the old girl muscles through the ice, well over a foot thick in some places. She slows to a crawl and I can hear the engines revving as we strain forward. The St. Lawrence is wide at this point, as she opens her mouth to gulp in water that’s poured hundreds of miles through all of the Great Lakes on the way to the sea. The channel between Kingston and Wolfe Island is about three and a third miles. The island is seven miles wide at its widest point, and then there’s more river on the other side between us and New York State. It freezes in the winter. All of it.
We used to skate over to Garden Island to visit friends. Once, it was so windy that we couldn’t get home and we ended up skating all the way to the city and then taking the ferry back. In the dark.
When I was a kid people used to put out their Christmas trees in January to mark a path between the island and the Canadian mainland. It became an ice road that locals drove through the rest of winter. I remember crossing it when we’d miss the ferry sometimes. My dad always insisted that we have our seat belts off and be ready to roll down the windows fast in case the ice cracked and we needed to bail out. We never did. My friend Jeff’s family went through one winter, only a couple of hours after we’d crossed on the same evening. I remember his funeral. We were nine.
The wind is bitterly cold and I’m walking: from the ferry dock up to Tara Foods where the lentils are located. I browse a while and buy two bags of Montreal bagels just to have an excuse to bask in the warm interior a little longer. The frost catches my breath as I race on to the pharmacy: contraband medication for American friends. Then the bank. It’s surreal to open an account in my maiden name and realize that it’s the first step of many to calling Canada home again. I have to really concentrate to sign my name correctly, three times in a row.
Erin is a beacon of warmth on a bone chilling afternoon.
Her eyes are golden, like candlelight; she is always smiling. We talk about kids, work, travel, Duane, her mother’s death in my absence, and a million other quiet things that are earthshakingly ordinary. She reminds me of all of the best things in the world. I remind her if how she threatened to have her podiatrist father cut my toes off when we were in third grade. I had said something saucy to her. She laughed, and apologized for her eight year old self. I laughed and reminded her that I’d deserved it!
Miraculously the two o’clock boat is on time. She has not gotten stuck in the ice yet. Last night she struggled for nearly three hours to free herself from the jigsaw puzzle. River ice is not like other sorts of ice: it is moving. The ferry channel between Wolfe Island and Kingston boasts the longest bubble system in the world, but even that cannot always keep the way clear, and an ice floe is a powerful force.
I’m writing this as we creep past Garden Island. I can see Curlew, the steel hulled boat we would like to purchase from Mrs. D’estaire, is frozen in tight to her dock. There are no lights. It looks like Meg might be elsewhere this winter. My backpack is full of bagels and milk, cheese and lettuce, mandarins and a pomegranate, among other things. We never waste a trip to town, especially in winter. I’ll be hiking in from the road, I’m sure, so I’m fortifying myself with a cup of hot chai. I’m glad I only bought one ten liter container of water. Perhaps the boys will meet me with skis and a sled.
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