What Deer Lake Taught Me

August 17, 2015

Aunt Luci

August 31, 2015

Learning To Laugh In Deer Lake

August 24, 2015

All morning, I tried to write, and all morning the world was too vast, my thoughts too uncategorized and vague, to put anything into sequence. All I could think was: Who cares, anyway? Who cares but me?

Not very encouraging words for an author.

Writing requires only two things, really: courage and stupidity.

Since I have been gifted with both, I write.

Today the one thing that comes to my mind again and again, the one thing I really want to write about, is Deer Lake First Nation and my summer there. But the memories are too many and too sprawling. I cannot write them. Where would I start?

Would I start with the brown-skinned wet kids coming out of the water, their noses stuffed wide with the wadded paper towel they use as nose plugs? With Janet, her small body and straight black hair, her laughter and her craziness? With Annie, her broad body and high cheekbones and the way she teased me? With Jericha, turning back at the door to say, I will miss you? With walleye burgers and bannock with raisins, with booming loud music and watching the circling shapes of the Holy Ghost dancers through the white canvas walls of the meeting tent? With Jamie, peeling off his wet socks on the cardboard mat inside the door, his face joyful and triumphant when he told us he shot a moose?

It is too much. I can’t begin.

I will tell you only about the first Saturday there, the Saturday Steve and Liza took us fishing.

“I’ll take them fishing,” Steve told his sister that Saturday morning. Laura and I were at a pancake breakfast, and Steve was flipping pancakes. He had an angular face, intent on his business, not acknowledging us. When Laura and I had eaten our pancakes and lingered too long, he told us to get up from the table so others could sit down. He did not say please; he did not smile. I was a little bit afraid of him.

But he proved his kindness by offering to take us fishing, and he and his wife Liza picked us up later that afternoon. Liza was small and round. She sat next to Steve in the back of the boat and nibbled on grapes and other food. She laughed frequently, about nothing much at all.

Deer Lakers are like that. They laugh for sheer enjoyment; they laugh at every tiny joke; they repeat every witty comment and laugh all over again. Before Deer Lake, I never met adults like this: adults who revel in the moment, who laugh as hard and have as much fun as little kids.

At first, when I was petrified and shy, this made me nervous, because I felt obligated to laugh also, and laughter didn’t come naturally. But that Saturday, hitting the waves at high speed in a small boat with a big motor, Laura and I laughed at the thrill of it. Leaning forward, wind and mist whipping our faces, laughed while Laura screamed in the midst of her laughter.

The lake was dotted with fishing boats, because that Saturday was the fishing derby and Deer Lakers were out in force. But Steve took us past all the other boats to a river where we parked the boat and hiked up a trail a ways to cast our lines. I was worried about how I’d do. I fished very seldom back home, and when I did, I always seemed to get my line tangled. My brother Jeff was patient with me, never complaining if he had to get me untangled or put on a new hook–but this was Steve, and I was scared of him. I wanted to come across as capable and outdoorsy–not some wimpy white woman from the south.

First cast, I felt my line tighten, and my stomach sank. Snagged already. I had known this would happen.

I reeled, hoping the line would loosen and come in, and it did, and there was a fish on the end of it! I hadn’t been snagged at all.

I laughed then, with amazement. I cast again, caught another fish, threw again and caught another. Laura did the same. Both of us grinning, then laughing, with the joy of it. In twenty minutes’ time, Steve, Laura, and I had caught seventeen walleye between us. “When I tell my dad, he’ll be so jealous,” Laura said.

Steve broke a forked branch from a tree and stooped to pick up a fish, slipping one of the forks through its gills and mouth to hold it. He stooped to pick up more fish, and I bent to help, working fast, handing him one walleye after another, trying to prove my usefulness.

Back to the boat and Liza, walking fast to keep up with Steve. Excited and happy, showing Liza our catch. Then back on the water again.

Steve pulled the boat up to an island where there was a small fishing cabin. Outside the cabin, two men sat by a fire, boxes of soda stacked beside them, a big kettle over the fire. They were cooking for the derby feast. Two men sat at a table inside the cabin, dicing potatoes on a wide square of cardboard that covered the table. One of the men was missing part of an arm, and I was fascinated, watching as he held a potato steady with his stub, slicing with the other hand.

“If you have another knife, I’ll help cut,” I said. They gave me the only other knife they had, a whale of a knife with bits of something still clinging to it from its last use. And I stood and diced potatoes on a strip of cardboard on a table in a little fishing cabin in the middle of nowhere, and for the first time in Deer Lake, I was relaxed, included, a part of something.

We left soon, headed back out on the lake and fished some more. Relaxed now, having fun, laughing with Liza for the sheer joy of laughing, me waving to the boats we passed just to see if the people in them would wave back.

Most of them did.

We pulled up to a rocky strip of island in a light rain and stood with Liza under a blue tarp while Steve, in his yellow slicker, cleaned fish. Then the rain came harder, pounding, until even Steve had to retreat and stand with us under the tarp. We huddled in blue closeness, holding the tarp away from our bodies, growing damp where it touched us because even the tarp wasn’t waterproof in that torrent–until finally the rain stopped.

That day was one of my favorite memories of Deer Lake, the first day I was able to relax and have fun in that place so far from my home; maybe the only day I will experience what it is to catch seventeen fish in twenty minutes, to slice potatoes on a strip of cardboard in a fishing cabin, to huddle beneath a blue tarp in pounding rain; a day where I learned to laugh for no other reason than that I was having fun.

It was a moment of joy.


  1. Hey! I care! And I love reading your writing. Was looking for it yesterday morning…Especially love reading about your experiences this summer. Brings back a ton of good memories!

  2. Your cousin Krista introduced me to your blog. I spent 3 years with NYP so I’m especially loving your posts of the summer. Northeastern Ontario is an amazing place. And believe me, catching that many walleye in that short amount of time was amazing! I caught more tree branches than I caught walleye. But I caught quite a few jack too! 🙂

  3. I never knew I was courageous and stupid. Now I know.

    But glad you pushed back the writer’s doubt (isn’t that a better definition than writer’s block – and yes, I’ve been there in the “who cares” mode – many times).

    Love your stories of Deer Lake and hope you share more.

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