We live in an incredibly beautiful environment. Surrounded by protected national and provincial parks, you could easily pick a different destination every day of the year and not visit the same place twice. Some people choose to do just that. To adventurous personalities there is an irresistible draw to conquer something new; setting foot on a slice of soil no other human being might have touched, or dropping down an unknown waterfall that was formerly thought to be instant suicide.
I approach things somewhat differently lately. I’m finding out new discoveries can take place in familiar places. The coordinates on the map might not change but the seasons come and go. The natural world evolves and changes; a fact the spring floods starkly reminded us of. No doubt being an adrenaline-fueled adventurer would soothe my ever demanding ego, but my current physical limitations perfectly match my desire to be more present and appreciative rather than always looking for change. It is as if the universe has a way of presenting you with what you need to learn.
For me personally, there are a handful of cherished places I return to on a regular basis. Goat pond is one such place. Even though Goat pond (“The Goat” as I call it) is surrounded by mountains, forest and wetland, at first glance it cannot match postcard-pretty cousins such as Moraine, Peyto or Emerald lake. No turquoise waters, no lazy chairs and cappuccinos, no cute ground squirrels begging to be photographed. One person might look at the Goat and see an artificially controlled lake with a dam and a dusty road along one shore. Another person might see a jewel of a lake with many secrets and surprises. The choice, as always, is in the eye of the beholder.
Close to the dam “The Goat” doesn’t look all that appealing, but hidden at the back of the lake is a marshy area, shallow enough to get your kayak occasionally stuck on pebbles and rocks. A field of tree stumps line the shallows of the lake on one side. On cloudy days they look like the tombstones of a cemetery, reminding us of former forested days. Ironically, nature has made itself a beautiful home here. An osprey nest sits precariously on an old telephone pole, a beaver dam decorates one of the two quaint islands. A common loon commonly hangs out in the deeper parts of the lake. In late summer moose frequently visit the shallows in search of refreshments and aquatic plants.
The lake can be rippled and breezy, feeling cold on the hands and feet. But as if the power to a blowing fan is abruptly being turned off, the wind often dies in the evening. As the sun sets in the early evening behind guarding mountain peaks, a shadow casts over the lake. As a photographer it is easy to get discouraged by the lack of light. It is tempting to leave early. However, in the shadow, with the wind dying, the lake turns into a real beauty. Cars stop driving by, nature comes alive and the water’s surface transforms into a perfect mirror. Only then I start to hear the water cascading from the mountain walls. Only then I hear my kayak slice softly through the water. Only then I notice my own breath and heartbeat.
I often paddle alone. But occasionally my friend Graeme joins me. He has come to appreciate the pond. Graeme is built like a brick wall. His Scottish face shows evidence of boxing: boneless nose, some crooked teeth. His legs portray years of football. His biceps are twice the size of mine. His hands are clearly those of a plumber, big and weathered enough to shovel coal into an engine. If it comes to a pub fight, Graeme is the guy you want to have on your side. Still, he is a good-looking gentle giant. Though he appears hard as rock, I also know he is soft as an M&M on the inside. He likes solitude and time to reflect. He sometimes goes missing for days.
Even though I am the one exploring and chasing the concept of mindfulness, on the water Graeme seems come closer to grasping the practice of being in the present. He just floats in his kayak, his paddle never seems to touch the water. My camera, like my ego, is always reminding me that it wants to be acknowledged and utilized. Driven by potential photographic opportunities I circumnavigate the lake only to find Graeme in the same spot. Like a lifeless doll stuffed in a kayak, he is staring into the distance. I wonder what he is looking at. Perhaps I should take a photo of it. A faint current has moved the tip of his kayak in a couple circles. Sometimes he observes an osprey perched in the top of a tree on the shore. At other times he seems to listen to the call of the loon echoing off the vertical mountain walls. He is obviously in la-la land. When I ask him what he thinks about, he doesn’t know. All he says is “wow, beautiful”. I envy his ability just to let things be.
Today is another stunning summer evening out on The Goat. The lake appeared rippled and moody for the first hour. Wildlife seemed to have other plans tonight. It was oddly quiet. But in the last half hour the lake has settled into her formidable mirror look again. Some far away forest fire smoke lingers on the horizon. The sky has turned to a warm inviting pink. A bald eagle has appeared out of nowhere. It graciously circles the lake, no doubt keeping a keen eye on the numerous sucker fish it supports.
I’ve been here enough times to know no bald eagles nest here, so I’m happily surprised to see this lonely visitor gracing us with its presence. It’s the surprise appearances that make me come back to this place time after time. The eagle has settled on an old tree stump, merely a foot above the water. Graeme and I slowly float towards it. Graeme is in a much better position than me, simply because of my frantic search for photos and his ability to just sit there. Once no paddles are used anymore, our kayaks settle into a silent speed. We coast slowly towards the wonderful creature. Graeme is on the best course. Like a floating feather being softly blown, the lake magically stirs him almost within touching distance of the eagle. The bird is plucking away at a fish. You can smell the meat, hear the ripping of the flesh. It’s a beautiful raw spectacle and Graeme is right in the middle of it. The lake has pushed me behind a tree, partially obscuring my view. Great things come to those who are patient, my mind reminds me.
I love this lake. Not just for it’s convenient proximity to town. Not just for its mountain magnificence. Not just for its wildlife. It’s a secret gem that only reveals itself to those with patience. Sometimes a place just wins you over. There are no obvious explanations. Maybe it’s a solitude I experience here, yet so comfortably close to the road and home, the safety of civilization within arm’s reach. Even though this lake is visited by a handful paddlers of the sit-down and stand-up kind, there is a faint feeling that this lake is mine. It is part of me. Next year it might be different; change is both natural and inevitable. My heart might get stolen by another place. So while it lasts I’ll take it all in: the splendour, the friendship and the subtle lessons.