If summers spent at the cottage were fun, winters were a blast. There were hikes and hours spent on the snow mobiles, ice fishing, snowball fights and long nights spent in front of the fire, talking, playing cards and drinking hot chocolate by the gallon.
My favourite winter pastime was tobogganing. The cottage was set up high on a hill, near the road, with the river at the bottom of a long, gentle slope. I loved that toboggan. Old fashioned wooden slats held together with metal rivets, it’s steering wheel a simple length of twine. It curled up in the front like the point of Aladdin’s slippers with green racing stripes along its edges. It looked clunky but with so many years of wear, it was slick and fast, if not the most maneuverable.
I lost that toboggan the year of the big snows. January and February never let up. Skies of leaden grey let forth flurries and blizzards. It seemed that there wasn’t a day that went by without some measurable snowfall. The only saving grace was that it stayed relatively mild. Cold enough for snow but not the bone chilling windy wrath of the year before.
By the time March break rolled around, the hill was covered in a pristine white blanket. Marred only by the criss-cross tracks of little sparrows or the telltale prints of the local rabbit population.
We got to the cottage late on that Saturday afternoon and I begged and pleaded with my Dad to unstrap my toboggan from the roof of the car. He was too tired from the long drive and promised I could take it out the next day. I was twelve at the time, but I pouted and carried on like my four-year-old nephew who had joined us on this trip.
Sunday dawned crisp and clear. Cold enough to fog your breath but warm enough to enjoy the day.
My nephews and I took turns riding my toboggan down the slope. Mitch, the four-year-old, never seemed to be able to get the hang of steering. There was one lone tree in the middle of the hill and no matter where we started him from, he always seemed to be able to hit it. It was like a magnet for him. The last run gave him a big goose-egg on his forehead and Mitch cried bloody murder. I was sure our fun was about to come to a quick end, but I found a piece of candy in my pocket and that managed to get the tears to stop.
Brian and I decided to take one last ride before we took Mitch in to be administrated to by an adult. This time we’d do it tandem. I was in front (it was my toboggan) with Brian behind me, holding onto my waist. Neither one of us were very big (Brian was only six after all) but our combined weight was enough to send us screaming down the hill.
Faster and faster we flew, snow flying through the air, Mitch cheering us on from the top of the hill. It was simply exhilarating and I never wanted it to end.
The river was coming up fast in front of us. Impossibly fast. I didn’t think, just acted. I pushed Brian off the toboggan, trying to slow my momentum. It wasn’t enough and that wooden sled carried me ten metres onto the frozen water.
I sat there for a moment, trying to catch my breath. Brian was on the bank, stomping his feet and cursing me out as only a six-year-old can, mad at me for pushing him off. I tried to stand up but I couldn’t get a purchase on that snow-covered ice. Then a sound came that made me sit right back down and stay as still as I possibly could. It was the sound of a gunshot going off, but it came from underneath my feet. It was the dreaded sound of ice cracking.
I called to Brian “Go get my Dad, go get my Mom or my Uncle or my Aunt. Go get anybody! Please! Help!”
It took him a bit to understand but the panic in my voice and the tears glinting on my cheeks were enough to get him running back up the hill.
Even though I wasn’t allowed to drive the snow mobiles by myself, my parents had warned me of the dangers riding on ice can bring. I knew I was in trouble and I needed help fast. The ice wasn’t solid enough to hold my weight, the mild winter had seen to that.
I cried harder as I saw the ice begin to spiderweb where my boots had cleaned off the snow. I wasn’t just scared, I was petrified.
It wasn’t actually that long before I saw all of the adults come pouring out of the cottage and down the slope, but it felt like an eternity.
“It’s ok Dolly, you’ll be ok, just stay still.” My dad called out to me, he called everyone Dolly. He was looking right and left, it was as if he was searching for something in the snow. He ran over to the small boat shack and struggled to pull the door open against the snow. From within he pulled out a length of rope and began coiling it up in his left hand.
He threw one end towards me, but it came up short. He pulled it back, the rope making snakelike trails through the snow. He threw it for the second time and then a third, but each time it wasn’t close enough for me to reach.
For some reason my mind went back to the summer, swimming in the river. I had donned a pair of goggles so I could see through the water. There, right in the middle of the sandy bottom was a big, dark circle. It looked as if the riverbed just dropped away into nothing. My cousins and I spent the summer trying to swim down to that hole but none of us ever made it. We kept each other up with stories of the sea creatures that lived down there. There they’d lie in wait to grab a leg or an arm and pull you down into a watery grave.
I was sure I felt a thump beneath me and I was convinced that the sea creature was trying to break through the ice to drag me to his lair. I screamed.
My Dad began walking towards me, his thick boots crashing through the thin ice with every step. He got too close and his spiderwebs were threatening to join with mine to send me plunging into the icy water.
He threw the rope one last time and I grabbed it and held on tightly with both hands in desperation. My Dad gave a mighty pull that sent me sailing through the air into his waiting arms just as the ice gave way and the river swallowed my beloved toboggan whole.
My mother rushed to us, smothering me in kisses, promising a big batch of chicken soup to warm me up. Chicken soup was her answer for everything.
We still had fun the rest of the week, even if we couldn’t go tobogganing anymore.