This story is the first in a series about swimming in Lake Ontario. For more about the author, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, please take a look at her bio below. We hope you enjoyed this year’s swimming season!
Spring at the cottage was mostly a mess. The window sills were piled high with dead ladybugs and mice lay moldering under dressers and beds. If your elbow knocked the wall when you turned over in bed, you could expect a rain of hollowed-out hickory shells, the nuts having sustained the chipmunks lodged behind the barn-board through the winter.
To clear out the dampness and find a bit of warmth, we’d stuff the wood stove with balls of newspaper and firewood, but more often than not, a bird’s nest blocked the stovepipe and we’d run out of the house choking from the smoke rolling like waves back into the house.
Driven outside, looking for some warmth, we’d go to the shore where the sunlight was unhindered by the still-bare but still-shadow-casting trees. We’d always marvel at how low the waterline was in the spring. The flat limestone rocks lay stretched out in their skewed and broken checkerboard pattern. Flagstones for giants maybe, not for kids whose stride wasn’t big enough to move from stone to stone without slipping into the cracks every once in a while.
Sometimes all the ice was melted by Easter. Sometimes, the ice floes were still packed into the bay, creaking, cracking, splitting. The best was when they had a little space to move; free to jostle around for position, getting close, then drifting apart. Now they were our cold white rafts – and we didn’t have to share, but we still did, sometimes. Branches dropped to the ground by resigned maples over the winter served as steering poles and we’d hop on the ice, pushing off from shore. On a warm afternoon, slush formed beneath our feet until we’d feel a kind of softness prescient of crumbling. Time to jump, if we could push close enough to another block of ice. Once I made the thrilling leap across freezing water only to land in my socks, leaving rubber boots behind.
It was warmer than usual in April of 1973. By Easter, all the ice had melted and we’d had a few days that felt more like early summer than spring. Our grandfather, “Olie” Mattson was with us at the cottage that weekend. A fit Norwegian of ample charm and mischief, like many Scandinavians, Grandpa loved cold-water swimming. He was always in the water at the cottage on Wolfe Island (where, strictly speaking, Lake Ontario ended and the St. Lawrence River began) and at his home in Newcastle, just east of Toronto, where he would laugh at our horrified faces as he pulled eels off his legs after a long swim. It was only after I was older and presented with a dish of eels in green sauce by our Belgian relatives that I realized the creatures had more reason to fear Grandpa than he had to fear them.
In 1973, the Canadian Mint introduced a new quarter to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the RCMP. I was nine years old and the only money I was making was the two cent deposit on the milk jug when my mother sent me to the store. I would like to think that my grandfather’s offer of twenty-five cents (in the form of a new coin or old) was not the main reason I went into the water that weekend. But I know my spiritual flaws, and hoping that others will see my motives are pure is one of them; now that I’m older, I know a lot more about self-justification. In any case, I’m sure that I loved my grandfather, and almost always responded to his call to join him in the water. Floating on his back, his toes pointed to the sky he would yell out, “Ingy, come on, it’s warm as toast!”
The photo of that day shows me and Kris in the river. Without that documentation, I wouldn’t remember who ran out on winter-white legs and not-yet freckled bare shoulders into the freezing water. But I remember how it felt: burning, biting, stabbing and then, an immediate exploding face-ache when I dunked my head below the surface. No doubt I screamed and shrieked like the little girl I was, but I know this too: none of my brothers went into the water that day. I remember being proud that I was as tough as my grandfather. The lake gave me that opportunity to test myself, and it gave me many more for years to come.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson is Director of the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. She founded the Islamic Chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary, the first Islamic chaplaincy program in the United States.
In 2001, Dr. Mattson was elected Vice-President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and in 2006 she was elected the first female President of the organization. She has guest lectured at such institutions as the US Naval Academy. Dr. Mattson -- sister of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper President, Mark Mattson -- is the first convert to lead the ISNA.