Seasons of the Lake


By Chris Galvin

Smoke on the Water

From the kitchen window, I could see the tall, ornamental grasses bowing their fluffy, white seed-heads to the ground. Normally standing six feet high, they were held horizontal in the autumn gale. Inspired by a sense of adventure, I accepted the invitation of the wind and ventured out for a brisk walk at dawn.

Hat pulled down over my eyebrows, nose buried in my coat collar, I made my way down to the lake-shore. There, I stood transfixed. Against a backdrop of sky on fire with the incipient sunrise, the choppy water was black with ducks. Thousands of them. They sojourn here each autumn, gathering energy for the migration. As the weather turns colder, their numbers increase until, one frosty day, they are gone.  Perhaps they were gathered in preparation for the great departure. As I stood watching, a few of them suddenly flew up into the air. Then, more followed. And more, and more. Soon there was a column of rising ducks connecting the thick flock on the water to the cloud forming in the sky. The column roiled and twisted like dense smoke, the smoke from the dawn-fire on the lake.

As the first ray of sun turned the peaks of the waves into glittering shards of glass, the ducks had become two separate masses, one in the sky and one on the lake. The ones below bobbed on the turbulent water, while the ones above swooped this way and that, looking for a new and vacant area to alight. Within a few minutes, they had flown far enough away, so that each duck appeared to be the size of an insect, and the flock, a swarm of locusts, ebbing and flowing in the now blinding sunrise.

As the airborne ducks began a downward spiral, eliciting frenzy in another group that had not left the water, I became aware that I was shivering in the chill and, hunching against the wind, headed for home, leaving the drama of ducks behind.


It’s coming. Winter is lurking. Valois Bay frozen, no movement. Landlocked ducks. Snowflakes swirling in streetlamp-light. It’s coming. Spruce tree branches in the back yard will fall victim to gravity, weighted with snow, until, horizontal, the branches release the excess weight. When the balance is perfect, the tiered branches become artfully iced cake layers. Because the lake is nearby, winter holds off a wee bit longer than it does just a mile away. My yard is a microclimate. Frost has not yet struck. I saw some on the roofs as I rode the bus through the city, but my dahlias were spared. So far. But it’s coming.

Late autumn is spent preparing for winter: putting the garden to bed, winterizing the house, never enough time. On warm days, I don’t want to harvest the last of the carrots, and on cold days, I wish I had already done it.  Every night, I bring in a few more of the pots of geraniums and impatiens, which will overwinter in the basement. I tempt fate by leaving a few outside, but still, the lake has held the frost at bay.

I leave the tall stalks in the garden until spring. They hold the snow in place, protecting the roots. They supply visual interest: winter’s palette needs all the help it can get. The stalks also bring life to the garden all winter long. Birds come to peck at seed-heads. Squirrels gnaw on the seeds of an acorn squash that somehow escaped harvest. Mysterious paw prints criss-cross the yard.

I have raked up the last of the leaves, and piled them around the bases of the butterfly bushes. Not to insulate against cold, but rather, quite the opposite. I’ve insulated them against premature thawing, which causes the roots to heave out of the ground. I wonder how many creatures will take refuge in the leaf debris. Hopefully, the mice who scrabble in the soffits every fall will take up residence here instead.

Each year, in mid-November, when the nights are nippy, the mice start looking for warmer lodgings.  They wait until I am in bed, halfway between waking and dreaming. Then the scratching noises start. It’s always in the same place. Always seems to be near my head. The creatures are tiny but the racket they make is huge. The first few times, I thought it must be racoons on the roof. I went outside in the middle of the night, prepared to throw stones. Nothing there.  Back to bed. Silence. Nodding off. Damn! There it was again, sounding like a whole party of animals clawing up the shingles. Back outside. Nothing there. They come every year, but normally, the action only lasts for a few weeks, and where they go after that, I don’t know. This year, they have moved right into the ceiling somehow.


Ice breaking up on the lake. Choppy waves, newly freed, push piles of it up in jagged pieces against the shore. All winter, across the field of ice, I see the channel where the water runs, a distant ribbon of steel grey. Skaters and hockey players make their own rinks, close to shore. People erect ice-fishing cabins. Some years, it happens gradually, the line where ice meets water moving inward by a few yards every day. Other years, spring arrives suddenly. A neighbour once lost his fishing shack when the big thaw came in late February.  One day, the temperature rose suddenly and drastically, and the first rainfall of the year came, long and hard. All night, the ice melted, and in the morning there were just a few patches left, bobbing against the rocks at the shoreline. The shack was gone.

The scent of thawing earth fills the air. In winter I leave in darkness, but now, when I wait for the bus on Lakeshore Road, the sky lightens earlier every day. There is always something to see. The moon setting as the sun rises, or the outlines of clouds dark on dark in the sky. Ducks waking on the bank, plopping softly into the water, one by one, for their first swim of the day.  Sometimes, waves crash as if they thought they were part of an ocean tide released from the ice.  Sometimes this happens in the absence of wind, and I wonder how this can be.

One morning in April, the water surface is textured like wire mesh. A  Great Blue Heron stands with one leg tucked up, out on the line of boulders that extends into the bay. Someone walks a dog too close to the shore, and the heron lifts off, ungainly. Then, following the shore-line, legs trailing out behind, it flies with deep, slow wing-beats, plumed head tucked into its shoulders.

A few years ago, there was just one, but now I sometimes see as many as four or five at one time. Some years, the water level is high, just covering the rocks, and the herons appear to stand on the surface of the water. I stand still, and the bird lands nearby, resuming its one-legged pose close to the shore. After a few minutes, I glimpse a beady yellow eye, as the bird angles its head to one side. Slowly the folded leg unfurls, stretching down and into the water and the heron leans forward. Suddenly, it thrusts its head into the water, comes up with a flash of something silver in its beak, throws its head back and swallows the fish.


A pool of orange and pink spread across the sky, chasing the last of inky night down the western horizon. I carried my coffee out to the patio and positioned a chair for the first rays of sunlight reaching through tree branches to dazzle my eyes.

The air was already sultry. Dewdrops on the lettuce glinted and twinkled in slanting shafts of light. Something rustled in the foliage, and pulled a few leaves down from behind, revealing a brown head with beady black eyes and round cheeks full of greens. The groundhog tore off another shred. In a quandary, I watched. It was close enough that I could see its long yellow teeth, and whiskers, moving in rhythm with its placid chewing, but I didn’t want to lose my vegetables to this furry intruder. As I started to rise, the animal lifted a forepaw and turned towards me.  I took a step. It froze, a tuft of lettuce poking through its teeth. I moved slowly, without specific intentions. When I reached the edge of the garden, the groundhog, reluctant to abandon the feast, retreated only as far as the tomato vines.

My garden is my patch of countryside in the city of Pointe Claire. There is little room for the lawn that serves only as a path meandering around tall perennials, past flowering shrubs, and through the arbour. It leads me to the vegetable garden, where a wall of coriander springs up from seed fallen the year before. Potato vines, also self-seeded, sprawl across the earth and compete for space with the strawberry plants. Purplish-green perilla, with its toothed leaves and pungent scent, fills in every space left available between other herbs.

Wild things abound. Squirrels steal tomatoes, take one bite and abandon the fruit on high fence-posts. Stepping stones set in the grass lead into dazzling sunlight and a dance of Monarch butterflies. When following the grass path to the compost bin after dusk, I tread carefully, wary of a low black shape with a white stripe down its middle; the skunk that waddles its way across the yard every night. Raccoons skulk through the patch of white phlox that glow in the moonlight, and stand on their hind legs to drink from the birdbath.

The night garden is an enchanted place. Lush growth quickly blocks the path that I battle to keep clear.  The trumpet blossoms of the datura release their heavy perfume only after nightfall. Clematis vine tendrils reach out into the air, grasping at anyone who walks through the arbour. In the brightness of full-moon nights, spiderwebs glisten with dew.

A scrabbling sound disturbed my reverie, and I looked up in time to see the groundhog disappear under the shed. I sipped the last drop of coffee and picked up the clippers to trim back some of the burgeoning growth.  The sun had already reached the vase-like flowers of the Himalayan impatiens that harbour bumblebees at night. As it warmed the flowers, the drowsy humming bees backed out and hovered for a moment before darting off in search of pollen.

I tackled the raspberry patch, trimming out the old canes that no longer produced fruit. As I fought the tangle of prickly growth, my shirt grew damp from the rivulets of moisture running down my back.  Seeking respite from the sweltering heat, I took a break from the garden work and strolled to the lake, where the curve of Valois Bay meets my street on the perpendicular. Though it was still early, kayaks dotted the water, along with a few kitesurfers trying to read the wind. Ducks bobbed on the waves.  I gazed at the sparkling water, but my mind wandered back to my garden. The exuberance in the vegetable patch needed taming, and the tall grass awaited the lawnmower. Yet, I love its wildness, and I wanted to leave it just the way it was.


As I left the house, it was not yet light. The weather-man was predicting rain. Hoping that he was wrong, I ran along the road by the lake, taking pleasure in the unseasonably warm air and the approaching daylight.

Lake and sky merged in one nebulous, greyish-blue mass. It was impossible to see where the one began and the other ended. There was rather a progression in texture. Only a slight breeze intermittently disturbed the surface of the water, creating alternating bands of stillness and gentle ripples. Farther out, there were broader swathes of wavelets, where the lake is deeper and there are undercurrents. As for the sky, I could see vague patterns in the shifting mist, but I couldn’t find the horizon.

As I revelled in my solitude, a lighter patch appeared in the eastern sky, where the sun did battle with the blanket of cloud, to no avail. There was brief hope, as a pinkish tinge began to spread in the greyness. Then it was reabsorbed into the mist. I became aware of the dearth of ducks, unusual for this time of year. I noticed, too, that only a very few leaves still clung stubbornly to the branches silhouetted against the now leaden sky.

Rain was imminent and I headed for home. The increasing traffic disrupted the tranquility. For most of the day, this road is busy with motorists, cyclists and dog-walkers, but in the early hours, only the occasional jogger or the odd car breaks the silence. It is my reward for getting up so early.


  1. Posted December 15, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Alan, thanks for your kind words! I love the comparison to a Monet painting.

  2. Posted November 18, 2012 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    I’ve read this before and was so enamoured by it then, that I keep coming here to read this exquisite fluid imagery of the seasons again and again. Beautiful writing, Chris. :-)

  3. Solange Noir
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Reading this makes me yearn for your view from the kitchen window… for the scents and sights of your garden, for the sounds of geese and water lapping at the shore. Thank you for sharing such beauty and wonder. You are indeed blessed.

  4. Posted September 30, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Chris, for this serene and marvellous journey through the shifting seasons. I imagine a world in which we all paid such attention to the natural beauty around us. Of course, there’s a lot less of it in the city.

  5. DW
    Posted September 8, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    a beautiful meditation through the seasons. especially enjoyed how the first and last parts brought me around a full year, and how the time of the year in those two parts is right now.

    enjoying the Winnipeg Review, and hope to see more like this. actually just what my addled brains needed to calm down in the middle of a very busy time. great piece. thanks Winnipeg Review and Chris Galvin!

  6. Chris
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    Alan, thanks for your kind words! I love the comparison to a Monet painting.

    Yamabuki, thanks so much for your poem. It makes a perfect sixth section to Seasons.

    Berit, thanks for reading and commenting. The ducks are also my favourite sections. Glad you enjoyed it.

  7. alan
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    This sounds like a description of heaven to me. Or just any perfect place. Shambhala, paradise… I love running, and the last section especially reverberates for me. This story is so impressionistic, it’s like a group of paintings by Monet. Fantastique.

  8. Posted August 22, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    Beautifully written
    I feel there with you
    tasting the air
    the tang of cloud and duck
    a faint scent of mouse and raccoon
    and even the hint of skunk
    Beneath the clouds
    Past morning and evening
    Past Summer’s heat
    Past shivering Winter
    We could walk past it unknowing
    But you show us its eternal magic
    Thank you for your beautiful words
    That reflect the beauty of your soul


  9. Posted August 22, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing a year by the lake with us!

    Loved the moment with the ducks in the first section and the solitude of the last section, and that it started and finished with the ducks in the lake, coming full circle, nicely illustrating the cyclic nature of the seasons. Well done!

    The winter descriptions also bring to mind the header image of your blog. Very appropriate!

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Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin lives and writes in Canada and Vietnam. Her work has appeared in magazines including Asian Cha, Room, and previous issues of The Winnipeg Review. Chris is author of the forthcoming book Breakfast under the Boddhi Tree.