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Summer reflections

ALGONQUIN PROVINCIAL PARK, Ontario, Canada -- For weeks the skies were gray, the days were wet, the summer sunshine a distant memory. Then -- perhaps because of Canada Day, which was July 1, or Independence Day, on July 4 -- everything changed. And here, in the country of winter, I finally found summer, and I fell in love with her again.

I remembered that the sound of summer is the cry of the lonely loon, or maybe the splash the paddle makes as it breaks the quiet water of early morning on Tanamakoon Lake. I remembered that the look of summer is the Cache Lake contrast of the blue water against the white pines, which of course are green. I remembered that the smell of summer is bug spray.

I remembered that the taste of summer is Muskoka Ginger Ale, made from pure spring water from artesian wells and bottled in Gravenhurst, Ontario, since 1873 -- what you might call the real Canada dry. I remembered that the feel of summer, even on the hottest days, is the icy cool of the lakes that are dropped like commas on the landscape of Canada's water wilderness.

We don't live in the bush, we only come and visit, hoping that its lore and lessons last with us all winter, which in these parts, some four hours' drive beyond Toronto, is only a few months away.

We aren't coureurs de bois, the explorers of Canada's colonial times, hunting for furs and alternative routes to the Great Lakes, but merely city people looking, on our few weeks off, for an alternative way to view the world.

We're not here to cut down the woods, as the British began doing when the French cut off the supply of Baltic timber during the Napoleonic Wars, but to respect and celebrate them.

And for us the canoe is a means of recreation, not a conveyance of commerce or war. It is, as Samuel de Champlain discovered, the ideal means of transport. We agree with John Jennings, who once held the enviable title of vice chair of the Canadian Canoe Museum, that the canoe, which appeared here long before the Europeans, is "an enduring symbol of wilderness and freedom throughout North America."

My summer meditations have often leaned toward the canoe, perhaps because four generations of my family have visited these wooded lakes, intoxicated by a country stuffed full of speckled trout and black bass in a land that otherwise turns out to be empty -- an emptiness full of meaning.

On summer days like these, I realize that the greatest gift I received from my mother, who turned 80 last week, is her Canadian heritage. Long before she moved to New England, married an American and started her family in Boston, she visited a land described in an old Grand Trunk Railway System ad exactly a century ago as "a woodland paradise."

Today this land where summer thrives is the most studied part of Canada, spawning well more than 2,100 scientific papers. It wasn't always this way, of course. According to a history of the area by Ron Tozer and Dan Strickland, more than half "the able-bodied men in Canada spent their winter in the bush 'hurling down pine' -- in the park area and everywhere else our hard-working, great grandfathers found majestic pines towering above the forest."

And so as summer began this year, I heard the cry of the lonely loon, and also the splash of the paddle. I looked at the contrast of blue water against white pines. I smelled the bug spray. I gulped a bottle of Muskoka Ginger Ale. Even when no one else would venture into Cache Lake, I felt the icy cool of its redemptive waters.

And this, too: I remembered that the sweetness and sadness of summer -- for it is fortified with ample measures of both -- are what shape the most enduring part of our lives.

The sweetness you know -- the way the days last long into evening, the way we linger in the downtown blocks of a summer town right up to closing time, the way we don't count the calories in a cone of fresh custard, only to count our blessings at sunset.

But the sadness is here, too. For two decades summertime was for us a combination of first-person rural and first-person plural. With our girls we climbed into the White Mountains and wondered at the geological formations of the western desert and braved the bracing water of Maine's shore and ventured into Algonquin lakes.

Now our girls are grown, and mostly gone. They view our home as an emotional Charlotte or Chicago -- the hub, to be sure, but also the place they go en route to somewhere else. They have their own summers, and we have ours, and happily ours are more sweet than sad.

Yet on these summer days I constantly think of them, discovering their own peaks and valleys, finding their own passages, learning how to navigate their canoes and, before long, their careers. I know that part of the light of their lives has been the time they almost were blown into a deep ravine by the wild westerly winds that blew across a shoulder of New Hampshire's Mount Lafayette, and the times they held our hands on the impossibly beautiful beaches of Maine, actually believing we were strong enough to protect them from the tides.

I hope this: Maybe someday in a time far away they might pause and recall the sweetness of their own summers, the ones we shared and the ones to come, and discover, as we have done these past few years, that it is not only in the winter of life that memories are strong. Perhaps they are strongest most of all in summer.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette. Email him at