For the life of me I can’t figure out why three generations of my family are awake before dawn and gathered in the front porch of my grandparents’ cottage on Washburn Island. They sit in the dark on old wicker chairs, with me, and my sister Maeve atop the double bed at one end of the room. I strain to see through the screens that overlook Lake Scugog in the pre-dawn light. Why don’t we light the lamps?
Squinting, I detect a large beaver scurry over the land ridge at the front of the cottage. It crosses our sandy beach to enter the shallows of Lake Scugog. I call out to my family when I see the large rodent followed by a smaller female and then a third very small one I think is their offspring. They paddle like three arrows into deeper offshore waters.
My family gathers at the windows across the porch, excited next to witness an unexpected bear sighting. A shadowy creature lumbers into the water and follows the gentle wake behind the beavers. We point and babble when more bears step out of the darkness and follow the first. Awestruck, we watch a giant moose followed by a few more: black, tall-legged silhouettes with antlers, wading with bears and beavers. An endless march of gray-brown shapes silently part the calm waters as they head into the channel.
What is happening? It’s like a tidal wave of wildlife swimming away from our island before the sun rises over the eastern rim. Animals keep coming out of the darkness from both sides of the cottage: more than twenty fleeing bears and a dozen mooses stream into the water and cross Lake Scugog. I can’t tell if the bears mean to harm the beavers that have disappeared into the pale shimmer of fading night. My family stands mesmerized by the mysterious migration.
When I turn away from the window, only my sister and I are in the room. I warn her that I saw a bear turn back. It heads up the side of the cottage and I don’t know if the back door is locked. Maeve rushes across the living room to the kitchen door to lock it, but when the bear pushes through the screen, she shrieks and runs. Fearful, I pull shut the glass-paned door to the porch — leaving Maeve with a wild bear that follows her across the kitchen and living room. Where are the others? Maeve sends me a disgusted look through the glass panes as the bear leans up against the door that separates me from her and the invader. She grabs at the brown furry neck, as if the animal wears a collar. I think the bear will kill her — but I don’t move. She drags and shoves the animal back to the kitchen door as if it is a wayward puppy. The chastised bear submits and exits the way it came.
I run to the kitchen door. My family is outside where rangers with guns tell my father what needs doing about the bear invasion on our island. It’s still dark in the cedar forest where we gather. The rangers point to the treetops. Furry black shapes sway precariously on branches over our heads. I think the rangers will shoot them down. Instead they talk to the bears. One by one the bears loosen their grips and tumble to the ground around us, making oomph-noises, and laying docile at our feet.
I hear the first ring but I want to know if the bears are dead or alive. The second ring makes me count: one, two. How did the rangers charm the bears out of the trees? But the bears fade. Light invades dark on the third ring: one, two, three. I pick up the phone beside my bed and say hello. It’s my financial advisor.
“Did I wake you?”
The true story:
What seems so ridiculous about the dream of beavers and bears and mooses is that in all the years my family spent on Washburn Island, Lake Scugog (60 years), there is not one story (or sighting) of beavers, bears or moose, that I know of. That’s not to say they might not have been there in the early days, but they were long gone with the decline of forestry and invasion of settlements.
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