** A rendition of this story first appeared on the Northern Ontario Travel blog magazine in 2014 for Algoma Country. It has been revised for this blog. **
I've spent many nights wrapped in the comfort of a sleeping bag underneath the stars on the shoreline of Lake Superior. I have witnessed the phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights, countless times. But you never ever forget the first time you see those magnificent lights.
My family spent their summers and weekends at Old Mill Bay in northern Ontario. The shallow, warm water bay is five minutes past Harmony Bay on Highway 17, and about a half-hour drive from Sault Ste. Marie. Growing up, it was a popular tent and trailer park, nestled against the Trans-Canada Highway. We lived for the warm breezes, sandbars, and the dark skies.
My mother rarely spent nights with us at Old Mill Bay. My sister and I grew up with a very ill mother, who battled and beat Ovarian cancer when we were mere children, and later endured kidney disease into our early pre-teens. Her kidney failure meant regular dialysis treatments and lengthy hospital stays. My mom often stayed in town while my sister, father and I enjoyed life on Lake Superior. Mom would sometimes visit us during the day on the bay, sometimes early enough for breakfast, and stay until early afternoon, before she retreated back to the Sault for another treatment. She was rarely present for the evening campfires, where my sister, father, and I would eat s'mores and roast spider dogs on the open flames.
Not having our mother around for these traditional camping activities was normal. We understood our mother's illness and the need for her to be in the city to receive treatment. However, things were about to change.
My father donated a kidney to my mother in 2001 after undergoing extensive testing in London, Ontario. The two had a rare, brother-sister match and were the first-ever laparoscopic kidney transplant in north America. The procedure was a success, saving my mother's life.
After they recovered from the transplant, we returned to our second home at Old Mill Bay. Only this time, my mother stayed the night.
In fact, she stayed every night. And took part in our evening rituals that she'd missed for so many years. It turns out my mother loved s'mores. I believe she ate three the first night she stayed at camp!
That first night was just before Labour Day, and the evenings were beginning to cool. The sky was particularly clear, speckled with thousands of stars, and the old man's face on the moon watched over us. The water was perfectly still—a rarity for Lake Superior. The thousands of crickets were singing their evening tune, while the toads croaked in the creek down the beach from us. It was peaceful.
Then, the sky opened up in all of its glory: the Northern Lights. My father, my sister, my mother, and I lay still on the beach, gazing awestruck at the sky. The colours were so vibrant, so spectacular—like nothing we had ever seen before.
We stayed out under the stars for hours watching the lights dance. We forgot about everything else in the world. It will remain one of the most perfect and fond memories of my childhood.
As different cultures have beliefs about the lights and what they mean, so too do I. For me, they embody simplicity and perfection. Awe and amazement. Family and love. And perhaps most importantly, health.
Every time I've seen them since, I remember Old Mill Bay. And the joy of that night spent in my favourite spot in Algoma Country.