by Brenda Deugo-Mills
Do you have a favorite go-to natural space that provides a backdrop for a lifetime of family fun, leisure activities and mini-adventures? I had the privilege of growing up next to such a natural space, the Mississippi River and beach in Pakenham. The river and park have provided the backdrop for some amazing childhood adventures with family and friends, and continues to be a place of enjoyment for our family and community to the present day.
The way I see it, our natural spaces have stories and lessons to teach us about life, living and history. All you need is a sense of curiosity. If you really want to maximize the benefits, detach yourself and your children from technology for just a moment. While technology provides an essential part of modern living, never underestimate the power of nature’s complex, yet simple and profound ability in a single moment to nurture our lives in the most meaningful ways. Be it through the enjoyment of a hobby or just being in its company enjoying its beauty, sense of calm and peace when you need a little comfort.
In the summer a typical day growing up meant all senses were firing on all pistons, all day, every day. From the birds singing symphonies at the break of dawn, to the rich green landscape and the numerous forms of wildlife visiting our backyard, to being completely immersed in river activities and all of its enjoyment. One of my fondest memories with friends growing up is building aquariums using my mother’s kitchen bowls and an old wash basin. Pollywogs were in abundance and crayfish under every rock. Large fresh-water mussels filled the cracks in the rocks in the river bed, working endlessly April through November pumping water through their shells while eating tiny particles of algae and bacteria. We would spend hours catching flies to feed the frogs and turtles. We learned to recognize and help protect the endangered species, such as the Blanding’s Turtle, now rarely seen; however, I managed to capture a photograph of one in 2007.
For our parents, raising five children next to a river with rapids caused more than a few grey hairs, so swimming lessons and water safety were a mandatory summer activity. I can remember spring being fraught with anticipation as the winter ice melted, giving way to that first cold dip. Who in the village of Pakenham would hold the annual bragging rights for taking that gasp-inducing first dip? As the water levels receded and school ended, the Pakenham beach quickly came to life as the hub in our community. At the crack of dawn we were out of bed like a shot. The summer wardrobe was simple, a bathing suit rinsed out the night before, and a fresh t-shirt. Breakfast and out the door.
Mornings were serious as the swim instructors set up the structure needed to keep large groups of kids organized, learning and safe. Ruth Barr (Brown) was the toughest and the best of our instructors. As a teenager, I would become one of the instructors continuing to pay it forward. Teaching children in sports and recreation is one of the most rewarding growth experiences in my life. Children of each generation have something to teach us when we take the time to be involved in their lives and listen. Our parks are the muse that inspires the opportunities.
A brief pause for lunch and we were back at the beach for afternoon activities. Activities ranged from teddy bear picnics to learning soapstone carving, but for many of us our all-time favourite was building a water slide on the east river bank. The clay deposited in our area, thanks to the Champlain Sea that once occupied our area, provided the perfect backdrop for our own miniature and all-natural waterpark. Often a make shift dodge ball game with clay would break out until the lifeguards caught us. And no day was ever complete without the traditional team-building exercise of constructing a network of water dams and moats in the sand. A thunderstorm was the only reason we were not outside enjoying beach activities.
My husband and I chose Pakenham to buy a home and start a family. Fitting, since our first date was frog-hunting along the river banks. While raising our own children, we often created fun with family and neighbours on the river. One summer the water levels were so low that we took the time to study the rock formations in the river bed. This led us to discovering Civil War bullets in the cracks in the rocks along the east river bank. Like all things I did not know, I told our boys, let’s ask Grandpa, he will know. An afternoon glass of lemonade with their grandfather and our boys learned all about the Fenian War that took place between 1866 and 1877, when the US attempted an invasion into Canada. Pakenham was home to a group of men who formed a militia that fought in the war. The men had a firing range on the town side and practiced shooting their rifles into the east side river bank. Erosion continues to periodically expose the bullets. Given they are lead-based, we take every opportunity to gather any that have washed into our waterways.
Every day when I leave the rewarding but sometimes hectic world of a career in public service, I am grateful for our parks and river. They stand ready to laugh with us in good times or console us in times of reflection. Their rich tapestry of beauty provide an environment we must share and respect for the sake of our eco-system and all of its inhabitants. When you take the time to visit one of your community parks, may your eyes be open with a sense of curiosity to discover what stories they have to share with you and your family.