It probably happened in the summers of 1961 or 1962. I am certain it was either of those two years because the following year, as it was our last summer in Canada, we spent three weeks visiting relatives and friends in Alberta and British Columbia before moving to live in the UK in the October of 1963.
My parents used to rent a cabin on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake in northern Alberta for our family summer holidays for two or three weeks a year. The cabin was the last one on a point of land jutting towards the centre of the lake. Built out of logs it consisted of one big room which was the kitchen and living area and two bedrooms. No running water, no electricity and no gas. Just a wood burning stove, kerosene lamps, the water from the lake and the sun’s natural light to tell you when the day could start and end.
There was one sound that helped me wake up each morning. Every time I hear it several decades later it always makes me think of those long gone holidays and what the first morning of a holiday by water should be like. It was the sound of a small outboard motor on a boat. Every morning I would hear this solitary sound and rush down to the shore before anyone else was up. I would wave to the man standing in the boat near the engine steering it somewhere. He would wave back and I would watch him and his boat disappear beyond the point. I never saw or heard the boat come back so it was one of those light summer mysteries that danced on the mind of a seven year old.
We would always have breakfast, lunch and dinner outside. Adventures along the shore with my two elder brothers always started immediately after breakfast. There was a small wood between the cabin and the point covered in silver birch and maple trees. To us it was a massive wild wilderness with hidden corners where wild animals hid. In hindsight it was probably no bigger than an English village cricket pitch. We had a choice of beeches to play on and swim from. One was sandy and the other one that the morning boat went by was rocky. The days were never wet, were never cold and almost never ending.
One magic feature of the cabin was that it was built on the side of a slope. One side was attached securely to the ground while the other side was supported away from the ground on wooden stilts. This underside of the cabin was dark and damp and I was never happy venturing under there into this space of secrets. I had almost forgotten about this space until in secondary school in the UK when one of our set books was a collection of essays by George Orwell. One of the essays was about working in a coal mine surrounded by faint light and timber beams that could give way at any moment. At least from under the cabin you could see daylight, unlike the miners.
Another and more practical magic feature of the cabin was that there was a trapdoor in the floor in the living area. So, every morning after my Mum had swept up the sand and other detritus her three Huck Fin sons had brought in the previous day she would just lift up the trapdoor and return it all to nature with a stroke of the broom that any golfer would be proud of.
There is a Kodak cine film in the family boxes of my mother sleeping under the trees near the cabin one hot afternoon. Not a remarkable image to see but Dad had taken the pictures of what she had been sleeping under in the tree above her. Nestled in the branches, sleeping as soundly as Mum, was a porcupine. It eventually came down from the tree and shuffled off to another part of the wilderness before Mum woke up. All this time my brothers and I had been playing on the beech.
When we came back to the cabin Dad told us what had been going on and that he had caught it all on a movie that he would show us when we got home. We immediately searched around where the porcupine had been looking for any quills it might have shed during its sleep and walk. We found a few and put them away as souvenirs.
One morning, as usual, I was woken up by the quiet sunshine coming into the bedroom. Then I heard the outboard motor coming along the lake near the rocky shore. The boatman always went out in the morning but I never saw him return. I got out of bed, out of the cabin and went down to the shore. I waved at the man as he went past me. He waved back. My eyes followed his course past the small point and out of sight for the day. Halfway between me and the point there was a seagull sitting on the shore looking towards the lake’s distant horizon. Normally the gulls took off as soon as they saw me in the morning but this one didn’t. It seemed strange.
I walked back to the cabin to have breakfast with my brothers and parents. We all helped to clear up and wash up. My Mum swept up the floor, I lifted the trapdoor for her and whooooosh, yesterday’s sand was on its way home.
My brothers and I went for a walk along the rocky shore. I could see the gull still sitting where I had seen it earlier. It didn’t move as we approached it. Something was wrong as we were standing next to it and still it did not move. Perhaps it was having a really good sleep in the morning sun as it eyes were closed.
My brothers explained to me as best they could that the gull was not asleep but was dead. At six or seven years old being dead was something that was very difficult to fully take in. How could it be dead? Its white feathers were as clean as new fallen snow. The black feathers of the wings were like coal and the grey feathers looked soft. Everything looked pure and clean. Even the yellow beak was sharp against the grey of the rocks on the shore.
My brothers explained that we should bury it. I asked them not to do it straight away because if we left it there was a chance it might wake up and fly away. They told me there was no point in this as they could see the gull was dead. We decided we should bury it just inside the tree line behind the shore.
I walked back to cabin to get a shovel. Mum asked what we were doing and I told her we were going to bury a dead seagull we had found. Mum told me to wait, went inside the cabin and came back with some toweling that she said we could wrap the gull in. I walked back along the shore slowly still hoping that the gull had miraculously woken up and flown off. It was till there with my brothers standing over it. I bent down and gently stroked its beautiful feathers that were warm from the sunshine. If this was what being dead was like, it was very quiet and perhaps not so bad after all.
My brothers and I dug the grave in the sand. We went back to the gull, picked it up and wrapped it in the towel Mum had given me. We placed the gull in the hole, put a few stones over the top of it and then filled in the grave with the sand.
Soon, we were back playing on the beech. Swimming in the lake and messing about with the row boat that came with the cabin until lunchtime. The afternoon was pretty much the same and the day finished around a fire near where the porcupine had been. I was tired and had what I call ‘a fresh air tingle’ caused by lots of sunshine and fresh air. Just before going off to sleep I thought about the gull. What if it woke up in the grave and could not get out? I fell asleep.
The next morning the sun woke me up quietly. Then I could hear the approaching sound of the outboard motor. I got up and went down to the shore to wave to the boatman. He waved back and I watched him disappear around the point. The mystery of his return continued. There were a few gulls flying around but there were none sitting on the shore. I walked to where we had buried the gull yesterday. It was as we had left it yesterday morning.
Looking at the grave I kinda of worked out that when you die that’s it; everything stops but nothing really does stop.