Kalamalka Lake, BC - David Foster
My Watermark is Kalamalka Lake, British Columbia.
Kalamalka is a companion lake to Lake Okanagan. Both deep cold and clean. Kalamalka has an unusual emerald colour. In 1943, there was a major Commando Training camp nearby, and a Boy’s School for perhaps 40 sons of soldiers who had died, or their mothers had died and they would be wartime orphans. Would the fathers come back alive to claim them? So the story provides the setting. Coldstream Creek near Vernon, and Lake Kalamalka.
‘Fun’ in those days was testing ourselves against the geography and the patience of the School’s staff. We planted explosives in the meandering little islets of the creek, live munitions we had found after the young soldiers had been through on some ‘exercise’ or other, mere boys of 18.
I wrote this 50 years later...
‘Grace’ was the name of the wife of the elder of two brothers who ran the School near Vernon in the 1940s. Already in their old age, they kept the school for the children of people off fighting the war. We would often hear Grace calling out ‘Austinnnnn!’ That was to tell the school’s Headmaster (the Reverend Augustus Mackie) that supper was served. Time to come and get it. And we all came, some 40 boys age 7 to 14. The school bordered a companion lake to Lake Okanagan, one that had a prominent rocky hill we were forbidden to climb. But we did anyway, especially on our long Sunday Walks.
The Reverend Mackie has long been dead, but he still lives on in my mind.
He taught us things he thought we should know, and things of another kind.
I remember him tall and old and grey with a Labrador dog at his side
and he carried a slender gun on his hip, and he walked with a youthful stride.
He warned us never to follow him when he went for his walks to the hill
(I suppose because of the danger there). In my mind I can see him still…
We’d trail him more than half a mile down the straight of the gravelled lane,
then we’d close the gap as he neared the lake with his dog and his walking cane,
And then as he took the hillside path to climb the rocky face,
a hundred feet above the shore, we’d have to quicken our pace.
His goal was usually the sunlit side where the rocks lay cracked and hot…
A startling clash with the placid lake in a land that time forgot.
We’d have to climb above his path where the drama would unfold
And we’d wait for the dog which led the way to do what it was told.
The scene began on a crevassed ledge where the dog would start to dance
And the old man took some bullets out, from the pocket of his pants.
He’d put five rounds in the slender gun, the cane in his other hand
And approach with the stealth of a Ghurka Guide, and give the dog a command.
The dog crouched low, his tail erect, would bark and bark again, as the old man got his weapon set at the mouth of a rattler’s den.
They played their parts with a practiced ease, the dog to distract the snake,
and avoid the strike of its poisoned lunge above the placid lake.
The man would move when the snake was stretched at the end of its failed attack,
and he’d pin it there with his walking stick and make the dog move back.
Then careful lest a ricochet might go where it should not
He’d aim his gun at the wriggling head and fire a single shot.
The smoke and dust from the shattered rock would hang there in the sun
While the echoes rang around the lake from the noise of the slender gun.
He’d wait awhile with the snake still pinned until it ceased to bleed,
Then stuff it rough in a burlap bag and pat the dog for its deed.
The sack would hang from the old man’s waist as he’d once more climb the trail
and again the dog would lead the way, soot black and wagging its tail.
And four more times they’d play the scene, and four more shots would fire.
And four more snakes would go in the bag before they’d both retire.
The smell of the shots would come to us as we’d hide on the brow of the hill,
and the smell of the powdered rock would mix with the smell of the blood from the kill.
When they’d left the hill, we’d mark the place where each of the snakes had died,
Then we’d dive and swim in the placid lake, (another Rule defied).
While back at the barn, the five new skins lay drying in the sun
and the aging priest for another week would put away his gun.
We’d shake the scaly hollow tails, entranced by the sound they’d make
And tell the other boys we knew our tales of the rattlesnake.
Mackie had charge of a boy of his own who had died on that rocky hill,
a boy like us who had come to play, and that was why he’d kill…
If anybody can find me a workable set of snake tail rattles, I’d like to keep them with this memory of long ago.