COURTESY POULI FAMILY

Not everything is what it appears to be

The snowy owl, sensationally magnificent, swooped silently past the picture window. The wonder of it made me hold my breath, but then I yelled, “Boots! Boots! Get on your coats and boots. Let’s follow the owl.”

Coats on and booted-up, our family and the girls who lived with us scrambled over each other to get outside. There we stood, heads back, eyes big, mouths wide open as the owl majestically soared across the road. There wasn’t even a whisper as it floated, almost invisibly, out over the snow-covered pasture, towards the woods. Its marvellous broad wings calmly folded as it dropped into a poplar tree.

We struggled through the deep drifts to the tree, where we looked up. The owl caught us with its piercing yellow eyes and unblinking, mesmerizing stare. Shivering, rubbing our mitten-less hands, buttoning up our coats, and finally bored with oohing and aahing, we turned toward home. Pristine snow covered the field. Its purity renewed every morning by exquisite hoarfrost crystals that the smallest breath would shatter. Come spring, there would be a quilt, bejewelled with wildflowers. Our home, also a group home for teenaged girls, was in the country, near Cochrane, five miles from the end of the road. Anyone wishing to travel further north from this Ontario outpost needed to take the Polar Bear Express or fly.


We trudged back to the house, carefully evading the hole around a long pole poking out of a windswept snowbank in the side yard. A magical snow cave with ghostly blue light hid below this ventilation hole. Another opening led down into the little cave. The shelter had snow seats around its edges and a snow table in its middle. Digging was an unusual way to build a snow house, but it was far less challenging than cutting snow blocks. There, five small children lit candles, ate winter picnics, had tea parties, and enjoyed living in their own fairy tale.

When the snow finally melted away, it revealed a great fishing hole a few miles away—Lillabelle Lake. The Ministry of Natural Resources, which had closed all fishing there for some years, had just reopened the overstocked lake. Our twelve fisher kids jostled for a place on the dock, anxious to get their rods baited with bits of bacon or worms to catch the first fish. Giggles and shrieks filled the air from our five small children and the seven girls who had lived conflict-filled lives and had never experienced happy families. We relaxed and listened to the laughter and the cheerful talk. This was good. Really good.

Because fish were so numerous, fishing was simply dipping and flipping. Feisty little Shida solved the problems of yucky worms and prickly perch spines. Shida came to us at one-and-a-half from Bangledesh, heavily medicated for the flight. Abandoned at an orphanage with no individual attention, she had screamed for nine months. Our little Bengali Dolly spent the next months continuously in my arms, gradually healing. She became the daring and darling, tiny four-year-old whose wee little fingers put worms on hooks, who cleverly grasped the spiny perch to remove fishhooks for her sisters. She would then gleefully and triumphantly drop the fish into a bucket. Everyone got to keep one fish to have for supper.

The author’s daughters Lia, and Shida, the brave fisher girl. POULI FAMILY COLLECTION

It wasn’t only snow forts and fishing that kept the children occupied outside. One spring day, after the gang escaped the house with dad for one of his nature hikes, I put on my jacket and boots, grabbed a camera, and stepped outside. I took a deep, deep refreshing breath of the sparkling, crisp air. Pity the Ontario southerners who do not breathe this air or see the brilliant blue, vast, truly northern skies. I hopped into the car and took off. Freedom!

After driving past Lillabelle Lake, and Cochrane, I took a forestry road, headed towards Quebec. A solitary, derelict store stood in a small clearing. I pulled over. Locked doors disappointed me, but rubbing away the dirt on the windows created sight holes, through which a big mess could be seen. Cans, boots, hats and tools were littering the floor, and an old metal Coke sign was hanging sideways on the wall. Memories of work in a north Alberta country Co-op at 16 meshed pleasantly with this new experience. I wandered through the countryside most of the morning, filling my camera.

My final stop was one concession road from home, next to woods and a field. I parked, slid down the ditch, landed in a hole getting two booters of muddy water. Drat! But this was not going to stop me. After sloshing up the other side of the ditch, my boots wouldn’t come off. To drain them, I sat down, lay back, put both feet into the air and brilliantly got my pant legs soaked and muddy. What’s a bit of water to an explorer, I thought, as I slipped under the fence and entered the quietness of the woods.

Spooked, I stood absolutely still, remembering the little lecture we’d had in Algonquin Park

After meandering a bit through the trees, enjoying the new growth and sweet smells of spring, I walked down an embankment towards the field. It was mainly covered with low plants and with tiny trees around its edge. But strangely, I noticed the small plants were not field plants. As I walked, wondering about this, my vision suddenly became blurred: the ground and tiny trees were swaying. Blinking and rubbing my eyes seemed to clear my vision. Good. And no ground movement. Good again. But as I resumed walking, the motion also started again—my eyes weren’t the problem. Yes, the land underfoot was actually and definitely undulating as I stepped.

Spooked, I stood absolutely still, remembering the little lecture we’d had in Algonquin Park, as we crossed a bog on a boardwalk: marsh is water invading land, and bog is land going over water, which, with a quaking bog*, could even cover an underground lake.

Imagining an actual lake beneath my feet, I held my breath and stupidly bounced a little, again. Yes, the ground moved. Nausea, sweat, and a numb brain took over. Then the thought, If I should suddenly break through this ground and sink into an underground lake, I would disappear with no one ever knowing what happened to me. My poor husband and children would spend their lives wondering what happened to their wife and mother and mourning her loss.

My solution?

I tossed my camera and coat onto the ground, thinking this might give them a clue if I disappeared. On second thought, I took back my jacket, as it was cold outside. Then, instead of sensibly crawling to spread my weight, I foolishly walked back to the woods, jumping a little now and then to see if the bog had ended. I stopped at the top of the embankment at the edge of the woods, where a tree trunk gave me support as my pulse gradually slowed down. Enough adventure! I was going home.

I walked along the edge of the woods, towards the road. Suddenly, with no warning, my feet plunged through the ground. I was up to my armpits in a hole!

“Help me! Help me! Someone, please help me. I’m drowning,” I screamed, but no one heard me except the animals.

This couldn’t be real—the trees were too large for the bog; the plants were wrong; I had climbed a bank at the edge of the woods; I was in the woods. But nevertheless, somehow, I must have fallen into the underground bog lake.

Howling in panic, arms still above ground, I frantically clawed at the undergrowth around me

Howling in panic, arms still above ground, I frantically clawed at the undergrowth around me in an attempt to climb out of the hole, scrabbling desperately for roots and weeds. I couldn’t even throw my camera into the woods for my family, as I had left it on the bog. Slowly, root by root, weed by weed, I clawed my way out of the bog hole. Once out, I crawled (this time) to the base of a tree, stopped screaming, sat down, caught my breath and looked at myself. Something was wrong with the picture. Amazingly, I wasn’t wet, except for my feet and pant legs from the ditch dip and some fear tears on my face. I wasn’t wet! How could this be? I had fallen down into a submerged lake and didn’t get wet? Impossible: lakes, by definition, are bodies of water and therefore are wet. Then why had I broken through the earth? What was beneath the hole?

Cautiously, going from tree to tree, I went to the ridge and climbed down. There I found the answer: a fox den. Well, I thought, this is the home of those scrawny red fellows who slink along the woods behind our house.

Their hole started at the embankment and tunnelled back a bit to where I had broken into it. No foxes to be seen— they had flitted, leaving a neat little cave with tiny fox footprints. Oh great! First, I got booters, then almost disappeared into a bog, and now my feet were nearly eaten by foxes. I climbed back to the woods and again sat down with a mammoth adrenaline overload. Adventures were great, and I loved them, but this was too much. Just too much! What next? The Cochrane Polar Bear coming through the woods? Again, time to go home.

At home, waiting for the family to return, I was close to tears, not from all the adventures, but because I couldn’t remove my muddy boots. They were still stuck. Too much! I felt near hysteria, but by the time the family came home from their ramble, I was calmly waiting on the steps. My husband tackled my boots. After teasingly checking their bottoms for fox teeth marks, it took him more than one try to finally get them off.

Needless to say, I did not get any pictures. Well, I did, but they would still be in my camera, on top of the bog, if you want to look for them.