Tuesday, 23 August 2016


The Boys of Summer Have Gone Forever

We arrived late Saturday afternoon. At first Ann thought that maybe nothing had changed, but then maybe everything had. We wrinkled our noses at the smell pervading the village and agreed it was disgusting, something akin to the steaming waft of a city sewer or a stink bomb. So picturesque, this place, but no scratch ‘n’ sniff postcards, please.

Pigeon Lake 138A is a Cree reserve an hour’s leisurely drive south from Edmonton. The designated land is almost a perfect square of 1,920 acres, its western boundary the shore of the spring-fed lake. Its existence stems from Treaty Six talks and negotiations, when the Crown began cutting one-sided real estate deals with various First Nations bands in 1876, a time when massive, migrating flocks of now-extinct passenger pigeons reportedly blotted out the sun.

The village of Ma-Me-O Beach is a modest little rectangle imposed inside of and upon the edge of Cree reservation. A band of soft sand recedes from the shore to parallel two avenues intersected by nine one-block streets. Ma-Me-O is an English bastardization of a Cree word or phrase that may have meant ‘woodpecker,’ ‘white pigeon’ or ‘many shore birds.’ My admittedly cursory research opened up a linguistic rabbit hole of meaning. (If you’re prone to thumping your particular holy book, you might do well to be mindful that oral tradition transcribed later from memory and then repeatedly translated may not always be entirely accurate.) The village was founded in 1924.

Ann’s grandfather erected his family’s Ma-Me-O cabin by the water in 1922. Four generations of her family came of age in the Eden of Alberta’s premier cottage country. No one is certain but the land may have been obtained by virtue of a principle of British common law known as adverse possession, essentially squatter’s rights, one of the conditions of which is ten years of uninterrupted ‘ownership’ or squatting. Ann’s father, a World War II veteran, a lawyer, a judge and a humanist used to wonder when the Cree would “take it all back.” Ann and her siblings sold the property in 2008, a sensible solution to shifting family dynamics and usage informed by geography, her two brothers ensconced on Vancouver Island, her sister with another rural acreage of her own.

Our Ma-Me-O event was a reunion of the kids who spent their summer wild years by the lake. The old friends in the group were aged 60 and over, not 16 anymore by any means. Nature and suicide have exacted their tolls on the gang. The survivors spoke of hemorrhages and heart attacks. One impossibly thin woman trembled with Parkinson’s, spritzing up her goblet of wine. A bald, heavyset man with a fondness for pedicures announced that he’d ceased munching through bags of potato chips and had instead switched to pepperoni sticks for health reasons. One fellow who doesn’t drink anymore drank wine because it doesn’t really count, not like beer or whisky. Some guests had travelled a long way, some had never left; Ann from Edmonton now and Camrose then was from somewhere in between. Everybody paid too much attention to their phones making it even more difficult for an outsider like me to make a connection.

Too many people talk too much about nothing. Then they show you pictures on their cell phones to add another thousand words. I was staring up at the almost invisible darting bats above us, reminded of the ghostly hares that motor down our street during wintertime (Did I really see what I thought I saw?), when Ann asked me if I’d like to go for a walk in the twilight. Yes. Please. Thank you.

First Avenue was deserted except for a loose running dog, some shepherd in it, half wild, probably from the reservation. The ice cream stand was closed. The community hall was closed. The playground was deserted. There might have been one patron in the pub that makes pizza pies if you believe its window decals and I saw him leave. August was on the wane, a small town summer Saturday night dwindled into nothing, existing only as a horrid smell.

We strolled in step and held hands. I peered around as Ann reminisced about the teenage wildlife here back in her day. I’d just met some of the players and I tried to compose the tableau. The dance has begun but the room’s so hot the doors are wide open. Light and sound leaks out. There are muscle cars cruising the only avenue that matters, driven by boys in tight t-shirts who are too young to drink. Barefoot girls lean into the driver’s side windows for a puff of a half-smoked cigarette and a swig from a sweaty brown stubby bottle of beer. Eight-track cassettes blast Deep Purple and Foghat. Everyone is either good looking or better looking and they are immortal even as a Barracuda hits a highway ditch and somersaults. That’s just all part of growing up.

Ann and I found a public access pathway to the beach. She wanted pictures of what was once her family’s cabin. Where the water lapped the beach the sand was blue – and not just because of a function of the light. The inch-thick layer of blue scum on the placid water was like a crust. The smell was almost unbearable. The warning signs about toxic blue-green algae posted around Ma-Me-O suggest that the bacteria smells musty; it doesn’t: it smells like organic rot and death. Ann said, “When Grand Dad was here… it, well, we used to be able to drink the water. And we did.” She dropped her chin to her breastbone and exhaled. “I cannot imagine bringing kids out here and then telling them not to go near the water.”

Even the thickest child would hesitate before wading through the blue sludge encroaching the once pristine beach. The blue-green algae in Pigeon Lake is a bit like a glutton at a buffet in that it has overfed on everything that has found its way into the lake that never should have been in it in the first place. When we reached Ann’s family’s former property we saw Pigeon’s problems on a micro scale. The lot had been cleared of the trees and bushes whose root systems would filter the runoff from a fertilized lawn. There was a fleet of motorized water toys. There was no shade near the shore to prevent the muck at the waterline from photosynthesizing.

The new owners had done nothing illegal, just stupid. The village’s council consists of volunteers, itinerant summer residents; it is powerless to enforce non-existent regulations. We walked back toward the reunion along the empty avenue. Ann said, “I’m glad we came. I was hesitant, I wasn’t sure if I’d have regrets about selling. In retrospect, the timing couldn’t have been better. I guess the only regrets I have are about the state of the lake. It’s tragic because it was so easily preventable.”

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