As the Amherst Island ferry pushes away from the dock at Millhaven, my heartbeat gradually subsides. Mine is the last car on board. After paying, I go over my notes again, of questions I should ask Joka and Hubert, or Joyce and Hugh as they are more commonly known. As I look at the Amherst Island horizon, I wonder if they were attracted to the flat island because they hail from the Netherlands, and if they laughed when the windmills appeared a few years later.
The vibration of the ferry calms me further, shaking me, settling my thoughts into place. I watch the ice dip and scatter in the sunlight on this inland stretch of Lake Ontario. I think about my first time on Amherst Island, for the DryStone Festival two years ago. Our daughter was six months old and delighted everyone around us with her wide eyes and wider smiles. We attended a dinner with the “dry-wallers,” which was plentiful and free of charge. There were long tables set out in the Hall, which was really a Victorian building with a sitting-room, kitchen, and large screened-in porch, with a deck overlooking the little bay. At least 150 people were there, eating and talking and going back for seconds of pie (of which 40 were available).
“Who owns this building?” I asked one of the locals.
“Well,” she looked up, thinking. “I guess Molly does. But she lives in Toronto. Victoria manages bookings and we all clean it and use the kitchen. We think of it as ours, I guess!”
Her laugh made me grin, thinking of Chaffey’s Lock, where I grew up. I looked beyond her at the water. Swans were gliding slowly through a stripe of sunlight, snowy white through the boughs of a tree.
The ferry docks and I rouse myself, following the commands of my iPhone. “Turn right in 10 meters,” she said, and suddenly I’m in the country, a farm nestled onto a jut of land to my right, and windmills circling off to my left. Luckily, I drive slowly. Two adult does, lithe and muscular, bound across the road in front of me, not 5 meters from my front fender. My heart races to see such graceful energy. If I lived here, I thought, I would run more.
Arriving at the Groots’ home, I notice bright flashes of water between each house. Sumac would bloom in the fall to the left of their little lane, and enormous trees reach their arms across the lawn. The house looks modern, and I’m surprised. For some reason I was expecting a farmhouse, tired but familiar, settled into the land like moss on a rock. This house is all clean lines and bright windows, almost every room smiles out onto the water.
Joyce greets me and tea is swiftly prepared. “How was the crossing?” she asks and I mention that I almost missed the ferry. “Oh,” she waves her hand. “We have a saying here. ‘There will always be another boat.’ I suppose you can say that’s how we live.”
I tour the house, marvelling at how much of the outside world enters in, the light from the water and through the bare trees is dazzling. I can easily imagine the sound of the wind in the tress and the fresh smell of the lake in the summer. “Friends think that Amherst Island is so far away,” says Joyce. “They say, how can you live here? And then when they come here they don’t want to leave!”
I sit and talk to Hugh and Joyce, my prepared questions unnecessary. They tell me how their grandkids spent their summers on the beach which is a few dozen paces from their back deck. They tell me about all the artists and events that happen around the island. “When you move here,” says Joyce, “You are buying a community, not just a house.” She tells me about the time Hugh needed to buy a ladder, right after they moved in. “He was standing in line at the store and a man piped up behind him, ‘Oh, I have one that big. I’ll drop it ‘round.’ And Hugh didn’t think anything more about it, but the store didn’t have a ladder so he went on about his that day. Well, when he returned home there was a ladder standing against the house! He was so shocked because he didn’t even tell the man his name or address or anything.”
This theme, of returning to a time when you were known and looked after by neighbours, returned again and again in our discussion. I wondered about that. For some, that could be cloying, but then I am biased, having grown up in a similar community. When I thought about my childhood, and how safe I was to wander the woods and play in the streams, and how outraged I was when neighbours would (justifiably) admonish me for any indiscretion, my eyes misted over with nostalgia. What seems overbearing as a child seems generous to me now, as I think about raising my own toddler in this kind of community.
I take my leave of Joyce and Hugh. On my drive home, Joyce calls to say she forgot to tell me how good the schools are, how advanced the 29 pupils are upon graduation simply because they are so supported here, and so engaged. I thank her and mentally begin writing as I drive home, scanning the edges of the road for deer and finding none.
I know Joyce and Hugh will miss their island home. Their parting words were that they hope that whoever is lucky enough to live here next gets the same joy out of their stay on this Island, the ferry crossings, the community, and the way of life that they have.
Read more about 9060 D Front Road or contact Jake directly at 613-449-6588.
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