“Paddle harder! The current is fighting us!” I said to my younger brother and cousins, the four of us piled into our red canoe. I was the oldest at 9 or 10, and they ranged in age down to 4 or 5 years old.
I was so proud. I was the oldest and the tallest so I was the leader, the one in the back steering. That was always my dad’s job. I took my responsibility very seriously. I’d assess the current and make comments to my younger crew. We liked talking about the current because our parents talked about them whenever we went out together. To us, that was grown-up conversation and, since we were in the canoe by ourselves, we were grown up.
We paddled hard, focused and determined on our destination. We’d lifejacket-up, our parents checking to make sure all of our straps were tight enough, including the ones that went between our legs. We gripped our paddles, kneeled at the ready, and waited for our parents to push us off. As they eased us off the shore, we set our sights on the island we named Treasure Island because we pretended to bury treasure there every year. (I know, weren’t we original?).
This trek was always the adventure of the summer. I’m sure we zigged and zagged all the way across our tiny Kawartha bay, but we felt like we were adventurers fighting the wild ocean. We were canoeing to the island on our own, no parents needed.
“Paddle on the right!” I’d order my crew. And then, as we started to zig, I’d call out, “Now left!” And then we’d zag. And I’d repeat these orders all the way across the bay.
At about halfway, my little brother or cousin would look back and say, “Look how far we are!”
And I’d look back, smile, and puff my chest out a little bit. I always felt just a little bit more grown up than I did leaving the beach.
We would also, of course, spend a few brief moments looking over the edge and chatter about how deep the water was. Inevitably, we’d wobble and the lake water would threaten to spill over the sides of our canoe. We’d yell at each other to stop moving – there was no greater shame, we thought, than tipping the canoe. Only children tipped the canoe. As soon as we were stable, we’d check to make sure our time capsule was still safe and dry. That was, after all, the purpose of our trek.
We’d spend our entire holiday together finding the pieces we wanted to bury that year. We only ever buried natural things – pretty rocks we found, slingshot sticks, crawfish skeletons, etc. We’d hunt around the edges of the property and in the shallows of the beach looking for unique finds we could share proudly with our parents and then, ultimately, bury on the island.
I can’t remember what inspired us to create time capsules, but I know it was something I’d read that made hiding and digging up time capsules seem like some sort of adventure. But, in reality, it was more about going to the island than keeping memories. We weren’t very good at finding what we buried, or even remembering what we buried. We were like squirrels. We buried lots of items, but we did such a good job hiding them that we never remembered where to look. We never wanted anyone to find our treasures, so we used under-the-radar markers like a criss-cross of sticks, or maybe – if we were feeling bold – planted a stick straight up in the shallow dirt like a little flagpole. I think we even made a pile of pine needles one year.
We were too focused on hiding our treasures to consider the weather. Our grand “Treasure Island” was actually just an oversized rock with a handful of sparse trees at the edge of our small bay. Any rain or snowstorm, or even a stronger-than-average breeze, would have blown away our evidence. But we never learned from our failure. Instead, our being unable to find our items became a little bit of magic to us.
Maybe, just maybe, some other kids found our treasures and love them just as much as we did, we mused. The thought that some other kids might have seen our markers thrilled us, so we tried harder to hide our treasures. Yet, every year, we couldn’t locate them. These other treasure hunters became legend to us.
We took these trips for several summers, but, eventually, we got older. We became less interested in hiding treasures and more interested in exploring bigger, farther islands – ones we couldn’t get to when we were 10 and alone in a canoe without an adult.
And then, a few years later, we went back. We didn’t bring any treasure, but we wanted to see if we could find where we’d hid them, now that we were older and wiser.
We didn’t, but we saw other buried treasures marked by large sticks and, in one instance, chalk. We smiled at each other. It wasn’t our island anymore. It was a new generation of children’s turn to get lost in their imagination on Treasure Island.
We then got into our canoes – we were too big to take just one by then – and left, never looking back.
We’ve now moved to a new cottage at the other end of the lake and it would take hours upon hours to reach Treasure Island by canoe. But, whenever we boat by the island at the edge of the little inlet, I smile. There are often paddle boats or canoes pulled up on the rocks, and kids playing on the island, and I remember how big the island once seemed to us and how wide we’d thought the bay was.
Now, as I’m getting closer to thinking about having children of my own, I often look around our new property and wonder to where my children are going to “adventure,” where they’re going to get lost in their imaginations, and what they’ll be imagining. Because that’s our Canada – a place where kids can get dirty, learn to love nature, and leave their toys inside in favour of the sun, the sky, and their imaginations. Our Canada is one where kids can run free.