Two Sides of Lac Brome
by Lital Khaikin
Scenes of asking for help, staying in place, and women conversing on the Brome-Missisquoi
Queenie claps the geese away from my tent first thing in the morning.
Queenie commands the registration desk at the campground and smiles bemusedly every time I peer through her window to tell her I’m staying just one more night.
I’ve been lying awake for about twenty minutes, listening to the gurgling and munching of the creatures stampeding around my head, but swept over with a profound apathy. As the only tent in an RV park—a testament to one side of “camping” in Quebec—I am left to contend with the local wildlife more or less on my own. Two nights ago, I learned that skunks hate the smell of citrus and lavender. The other night, I made a maelstrom of noise to spook away the marmots growling and nibbling at my tent in the middle of a thunderstorm. At this point, I couldn’t care less about the army of geese marching around my $50 refuge from Canadian Tire, as the clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap-clap announces another day on Lac Brome.
Early in the week of August 8, I was recovering my pride from having ambitiously overshot my intention to push on to Orford in a downpour. Instead, I ended up at the Thirsty Boot somewhere on a highway outside of Knowlton. Actually, I had been on the way to the legendary bar two days prior, when an incident of nothing-really-happened-but— changed the sense of environment.
“Life is old there, older than the trees / Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze / Country roads, take me home …”
“They have one spot left!” says Kristine, as she finagles a late arrival at a nearby campground and her husband loads my bicycle onto their Jeep, all of our limbs hanging out the missing sides as we barrel up the darkening road.
I arrived in Knowlton almost by accident—the classic “just a little bit further” that brought me into town with dusk setting in, and far too many closely-surveyed private properties to feel comfortable with getting sassy. Far from being a deterrent, late arrival can work in favour of finding a safe, isolated place to rest on the road to nowhere in particular, but this time things had been feeling uneasy.
“Restez avec nous!” a van of young men screeched by at nearly the instant the road diverged from the Yamaska River onto the highway leading west, as if marking the turning point in the mood. Pushing on from Cowansville, I had been looking for a landing ground east. Anywhere east. The hills and rolling mountains pronounce the isolation of the region. Due south from the main throughways, gravel roads undulate across the mountains that spread on from Sutton and through the northern border of Vermont. Antique stores punctuate roughly the tenth kilometre between destinations.
There might be a field along the route away from Knowlton, I thought, as had proven to be the case in the friendly hamlets spotting the Montérégie where almost every stranger shouted out a greeting, some good luck, or a candid invitation to pitch up on their farm. But Lac Brome is a different story altogether, with the encroachment of mountains on Quebec’s agricultural heartland drawing a subtle divide between a certain sense of free-range movement and a protective insularity.
Just off chemin Lakeside, the region collides into an uncanny combination of quaint New England farmland, mountainous isolation and a feeling faintly evocative of the heavy forests of Washington State and the moody towns like Everett that mingle the shadow of the Wild West with the romantic tinge of ascending toward water. Knowlton itself is a collision of gated English countryhomes, remnants of the New England drawl that staggers over a class divide both sides of the border with Vermont, mansions with Mercedes and Porsches, golf courses and private tennis courts, and miniature chalets for the children. Giant signs, mostly in English, advertise who has the right to park where, prohibited fishing areas, what one must and must not do, and the ubiquitous use of surveillance cameras. On close inspection, cameras do indeed point varyingly toward a public trail, over the lakeside, in all directions over private docks, and even into the lilies where deer emerge without fear at dusk. The self-effacing refrain of “sorry, sorry, sorry” from grocery cashiers contrasts against the rousing and boisterous, but far more infrequent, pattern of “ben ouai, c’est sur, c’est sur”. With an “Um, excuse me, next time—“ I am chastised for riding my bicycle over a five metre footbridge.
Knowlton stands in absurdist contrast to the Harleys and trailers making creative use of land zoning along the highway. and the town of Foster that sits on the lake’s north shore. About eight kilometres to the north, the hamlet of Foster—where Kristine and her husband dispatch me in the Jeep—shrugs out of the rolling hills with aging chalets that don’t seem bothered by their own disrepair, rusting Volkswagens flaunting support for well-water, and vultures staking out the next rodent to be railed down by an oversized pick-up.
Compelled by the strangely evocative name of the town Brill, the road I turned down was romantically illuminated under a golden sunset, splayed across a sky that sighed into the evening. The fields were pristine and tempting, but there was something uncanny about such stunning land being unfenced. What’s the catch? Sure enough, faded signs peer out of the wood that veers in and away from the roadside, warning of hunting grounds. It is as if any land that is not obviously occupied by a mansion or a palatial ranch is marked as hunting grounds.
With the sun setting quickly, I had yet to find a place to sleep. Veering my bicycle back toward the main road that skirts Lac Brome, I passed a man on horseback. Seeming to be in his early thirties, he was stylishly dressed, his sharp gaze flitting behind golden-tinted lenses. Would you happen to know somewhere I can pitch my tent? The feeling of being saturated by kindness of the past days, a strained knee that had begun to whelp roughly 10 kilometres outside of Knowlton, and an exhaustion had crept in to me; at that moment, asking for directions was just that—asking a question, and not the prelude to what could have become a B-rated thriller.
“I can find you a place,” he said after a pause, hypnotically flicking his whip, in a coy voice that had the faintest tone of coldness. Flick. Flick. “But I may have to…” If a voice could lick its lips. The phrase left hanging, he looked me up and down.
The reminder of being a woman alone comes very simply, very quickly. Even comically. It can catch you off-guard on a bicycle, on a trail, even on the usual road home, a block away, or just outside the front door. The subtlest of unstated things can shock, provoking with the cold water of a primitive instinct.
“I think I know a place, it’s just up this way,” he beckoned. Flick. Flick.
It is difficult to tell when turning away immediately could be more of a mistake than following along and turning away at an unexpected moment. Would a man on a bicycle have to negotiate a vague gut feeling while calculating how many more kilometres a strained knee will push? I followed the man on horseback for a few metres, until he veered slightly to the right, and I took the opportunity to spin the loaded bike around to hurtle 5 kilometres south—toward a hill where Kristine saw me taking a breath, and told me how much she loves adventuring alone.
All’s well that ends well, but the incident left me with an unease about the cascading hills of ranches and shooting ranges that skirt the mansions of Knowlton, and a sudden awareness of my gender, which I had otherwise left behind for safekeeping with the old boys at Bar Du Coin. In addition to worrying about the legitimacy of waterproof claims, wrong turns, where to store fresh food for the night, and where to restock water along the way, women have to think about the almosts, could have beens, nothing really happened—but could haves. The nothings that shouldn’t be upsetting, the feeling of over-reacting or embarassment at flight, because technically nothing happened.
With a mug of black tea on the dock before bed, I think back to an intimate conversation from a few nights ago in Bromont, and the desire to move freely through a world where it’s not necessary to second-guess intentions.
Several gambles with the weather and a frustrated sense of needing to move on resulted instead in staying in place for a few days as the rain opened over Lac Brome.
Marooned by the rain in Foster, I set up in a wood-panelled diner, nearly empty in the early morning in the downpour. A poster advertises music in Granby about 30 kilometres away. A hunting vest hangs on a row of empty coat hangers, cutlery rolls tower on a janky cupboard, stake-grown tomatoes and China Green Tea boxes marked Noël jostle overhead. The bell of a spoon spins sugar into a thin coffee, punctuating the quiet. Arhythmic chatter is sparse, drifting over in muffled tones. A handful of patrons are scattered across the two rooms, with one booth directly facing the entrance occupied on a regular rotation over the course of two hours.
A serious and prim woman with a bun of grown-out blonde dye pulled tight onto the crown of her head sits at the first booth facing the door. When a couple enters after about fifteen minutes, she greets them enthusiastically in French, responding with not much more than a “ça va, ça va” that returns into silence as the pair launches into English with the staff.
A solitary man pulls his pick-up in for a coffee and a sandwich. The men who come into the diner alone share in a sturdy type of solitude. Quiet, confident bearing, a little glum, with a gaze focused decidedly out of the windows. When I glance toward his booth in the first room, I see him looking over with a gentle curiosity, but we both shyly avert our gaze and it doesn’t meet again.
The soft, forceless voice of a small white-haired man breaks over breakfast. “My son, he bought a car,” he recounts to a companion over toast and eggs, stout and red-faced with a bristle of a moustache, his serious bearing offset by an unconscious swinging of his feet just millimetres off the floor of the booth. “A man died in the back of that car,” he concludes, wiping bean sauce from his moustache as his wife peers without reaction over circular glasses, under a dandelion-white bowl cut.
A reservation of two elderly couples comes in. Regional intonations of Quebecois colour the conversation as unruly laughter slaps against the rough wooden walls and plastic tabletops. The boisterous group peppers their conversation with tabarnacs and indistinct references on rich Anglos, interrupted by the arrival of steaming plates of eggs and sausages. The conversation turns back again to what everyone did last summer, breakfasts past, and the best brunch restaurants just across the U.S. border.
“It is as if the moon is radiating warmth,” says Harriette, an elderly lady who has come over to the dock where I am cutting vegetables and resting my sore legs. Harriette has lived on Lac Brome since 2017 and has a multitude of portraits of the evanescent sky over the years. Just the past few days have gifted a different composition each day, each night, never once the same. “The moon is reflecting the sun’s light,” she adds, “but it is as if it is sending us its own warmth.”
She is right. One night away from the full moon, the enormous disc that seems to be flying so swiftly from behind the mountains, and the dancing reflection on the calm water of the lake, beam with an uncanny temperature that reaches us on the opposing shore.
I had made a certain peace with being stuck on the lake here in what would be considered New England, and not tearing down my tent every morning. Trading movement for movement’s sake for the witness of change from one place, and a base for sojourn.
Two or three boats had banked as Harriette walked out on the second dock to take photos of the reddening sky. She was wearing green, with a flirtatious rim of green shadow around her eyes, which narrowed with enjoyment but always preserved a subtle sense of guardedness or hesitation. Her silver hair was pulled back in a cheerful ponytail. Taking photos of the changing clouds, there was a girlish curiousity to her.
“I saw you and thought I’d come over,” she says, a bit shy. We witness the moon’s ascent together, sharing a sense of awe as the enormous disc crests over the edge of the mountain.
Harriette used to live on the river in Drummondville, but like many of the retirees in the park, she visited Lac Brome once and decided to never leave. In the winter, she’ll walk out on the frozen crust of the lake, with snowshoes or skis, a small woman making her pathway alongside the fishermen who trade the rumbling boats upheaving the waters of summer for the stillness of huts on the ice.
“On the river, you couldn’t see the sky, there were so many lights. Here, it is dark,” she describes, as we peer into the rouging clouds to see if we might get a clear view of the stars when the night sets in. Just the other night, the lake was veiled with an immense curtain of white pointillist lace, spreading a wide bridal veil between air and water, curling and contorting into the patterns of mythological creatures and the hem of the Milky Way catching on this corner of the planet.
But the water of Lac Brome is deceptive. A thin line of slick grease traces the quiet breathing of the water. Kristine had advised against swimming in the lake. “There are just so many boats, and the water is so polluted.” “Maybe out toward the middle,” said a man the other day, with a lilting skepticism, relaxing under a sun umbrella by a tiny roadside pool. The campground, churning through retirees and fishermen, is under a boil-water advisory. Motorboats revv in and out every day. Farms and residences located directly on the water seep pollutants and garbage. A nearby duck farm has historically contributed to elevated levels of phosphorous in the lake.
Cruise by Tiffany Park at Fisher’s Point, and you might spot an elderly woman reading a newspaper from a folding chair half-immersed in the water, the rocking waves lapping at the seat every so often, leaving a puddle around her thighs. Signs indicate that boaters should avoid disturbing the lake bed, but this does not deter the traffic. The smell of gasoline mingles with the aroma of fish and wet rocks that precedes rain.
We get tangled in a conversation on pollution. The days prior were full of headlines on public servants making sojourns to Rouyn Noranda. Harriette describes how frustrated people are with the government not doing anything significant about the lung cancer-causing arsenic poisoning where Glencore maintains the Horne Foundry copper smelter—one of the many single-industry towns that trace the industrial heartbeat of Quebec.
“The elections are coming up,” she refers to the CAQ’s campaign for October, with a pointed look down at me from under her green lids, as I’m sitting cross-legged like a girl at her feet. “So the Premier sends the Health Minister to Rouyn-Noranda—”
She glances for a moment at the moon.
Another report published the week of July 4th, in time with Public Health Director Dr. Luc Boileau’s second visit this summer, recommended that Glencore reduce arsenic emmissions. Yet, “They analyse, analyse, analyse. So many years of analysis, and yet nothing has been done!”
“You are alone?” she ventures, after a pause. The same question has been raised by nearly every woman who has stopped to comment on or ask about the trek. Harriette admits that she has wanted to travel alone, but hasn’t worked herself up to do it. I tell her about my nothing-happened encounter with the man on horseback. “J’comprend,” she says, her look suddenly serious. There is a quiet, thoughtful anger that is particular to older women, a full heavy silence that replaces words.
We talk about the spirit of making the journey anyway. That so often, the mentality of it is to wait for another day, a better day, a better moment, and that rather, it is important to seize the moment. “Ok, let’s go!” She exclaims in English, throwing her arms out from her chest as if releasing a tightly-wound spring.
Harriette wants to get a second kayak so that she can invite friends onto the water. Each is a means toward some fateful correspondence of events that leads o a moonrise over Lac Brome, a detour into Bromont, or perhaps a visit to a friend on Îles-de-la-Madeleine who insists that Harriette must come visit. A second kayak is an invitation and a possibility.
Fishermen on a quiet lake, following a stormy day prior
But as the sky darkens and the air grows cold, all the talk dips toward a note of sadness. A sadness over losing time, losing what one loves to do, and losing one’s self in relationships. Over the things women stop doing because they capitulate in the large and small ways to their partners, ways that are unseen even, or especially, by themselves until so much time has passed. They are then seized by an urgency to recover their ‘own’ doing, their ‘own’ way, the nature that is true to them, which has been softened or tamed in order to accommodate—be it their partners’ natures or schedules, the conditions for survival, obligations and the trick of being indispensable for resolving someone else’s mess.
The craving for adventure, for shedding four walls and sleeping under an open sky, for getting drenched and coated in dust, for laughing at frustration and crying at joy, for straining muscles and earning scars. How many women receive a figurative pat on the head for chasing adventures as a cute quirk, or something to tease, an endearing quality that should really be fixed or reigned in a little bit, matured or a phase to grow out of—and ultimately be left to the men? How many women have had to contort themselves into a particular image of an adventurous woman that serves men’s egos, emphasizes traditionally masculine qualities, or demands they choose between poems and hill reps, always making sure to take it easy? How many women have had to retrace their pathways over years to instead embrace their neglected natures as an essential path to vitality, as necessary as oxygen?
Along the way, women of different ages have repeatedly confessed to me the ways they have set their own limitations. “I couldn’t do it alone.” “I thought about it, but never did.” Procrastination. Depleted self-confidence. Comfort zones. Dependency. Fear. And under it all, buying into the belief that if one identifies as one ‘thing’ that one cannot try other things, cannot also be ‘something else’ at the same time.
As for writers, few are shocked that Haruki Murakami, for example, runs marathons, including the notoriously tough to qualify for Boston. Look up a list of “authors who were athletes” or “writers who liked sports” and the lists are dominated by men. Tennis: David Foster Wallace. Track and field, and football: Jack Kerouac. Soccer: Albert Camus. Boxing: Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov. Each activity enriched the creative life and profound insights of these men into our inner and outer worlds.
You don’t seem the type—You come across as this quiet writer, I didn’t expect this from you—You’re into that? It is well-known that nourishing the body is also nourishing the creative spirit, the chemical cocktail that dances with inspiration in a delicate balance between muse and precise, controlled neural activation. With every note of surprise, there is an undertone from which the contradiction stems: You shouldn’t be into that—I’m uncomfortable with being confused or surprised by you—Stay in your lane.
Looking back at the moon, now dipping behind the clouds, as if a shell being momentarily covered by the liquified sand of a rippling beach, Harriette smiles. “Now I am inspired. Now I will have to go out and get that second kayak.”
About the Author
Lital Khaikin is a writer based in Tiohtiá:ke/Montréal. Her literary experiments appear in and around 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and the “Vestiges” journal by Black Sun Lit. Her journalism appears in Canadian Dimension, Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and elsewhere. She is completing a novella called flight, and embarking on a second novella called nigredo.
A version of this essay was first published in Just Passing Through. Subscribe here. Republished with permission.
 Name changed.
 The beautiful name of Yamaska is an Abenaki word that is roughly translated into a place of many rushes. Abenaki is considered to be a critically endangered language by UNESCO. Wliwni, n’pedgi.
 Lakshine Sathiyanathan, “Some Canadians used to speak with a quasi-British accent called Canadian Dainty,” CBC, July 1, 2017.
 Name changed.
 Nicolas Bourcier, “La santé du lac Brome s’améliore, mais demeure fragile”, La Voix de l’Est, 27 mai 2022.
 “50 ans d’effort de conservation,” Tempo (traduction par Guy Côté), 29 mai 2021.
 As I was packing up my gear and tent into a rough-shod, duct-taped, DIY bike-packing situation on the last morning on Lac Brome, a woman from the neighbouring lot came over to chat. Before bidding adieu, she left me with a book called Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers (1994) by Jane Robinson. In the introduction, Jane writes: “It has been too easy in the past to label crowds of that creature ‘the woman traveller’ together to create some vast package tour of them, curious and plucky enough to think of leaving home but hardly serious travellers. The odd eccentric may stand out from the horde (there is always someone in any group like that who insists on embarassing the rest) but, on the whole, they are just harmless sightseers. Their writing, if remembered at all, has for too long been relegated to the cheap and cheerful end of the literary market—or, even worse, to the realms of the freak show.”
 Haruki Murakami, “The Running Novelist,” The New Yorker, June 2, 2008.