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A month of discoveries (and snakes) on a Georgian Bay island

Georgian Bay, Ont.

Carolyn Ireland/The Globe and Mail

At first, I breezed right past that clump on the forest floor. The small, mottled snake probably hoped I would mistake it for a pine cone or a cluster of moss and keep walking. And so I did - at first. But on second glance, I had no doubt. This was a rattlesnake.

Rattlesnakes are threatened in Ontario and have a reputation for being timid. So what was this one doing in the middle of a busy construction site on an island in Georgian Bay?

I tried to sound nonchalant when I mentioned it to the tradesmen building a cottage. They crowded in to have a look.

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"Your wife has a good eye," the stonemason cheerfully told my husband, the architect. "She spotted a rattlesnake."

"That's for sure," the carpenter said to me. "I've been working on this island for a year and I've never seen one."

"You must be a snake magnet," they all agreed.

People wondered how we would cope with the isolation when James and I decided to spend July on one of the 30,000 islands along the eastern coast of Georgian Bay. James needed to be close to his work and I wanted to experience the landscape that has been endowed with mythical status in the paintings of A.Y. Jackson and other members of the Group of Seven.

We would have no electricity, no satellite television and no nearby neighbours. We would have only an old tin boat for transportation and the sun's heat for power. Our friends worried we would be bored. I worried about the snakes.

But, as James pointed out, the Georgian Bay islands in the summer are as beautiful as any place in the world. Today, the world's largest freshwater archipelago is a UNESCO biosphere reserve. It's also one of the only remaining habitats of the protected eastern massasauga rattlesnake and the eastern fox snake.

"I've been climbing all over these islands for 15 years and I've rarely seen a snake," James assured me before we left Toronto.

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On the first of July, we arrived at the island to find a charmingly ramshackle wood cottage on a dramatic point of land. There were three picturesque sleeping cabins, stunning views and about four acres of unfathomable wilderness. The shoreline was so craggy that James had to climb down and rescue our golden retriever every time she went for a swim from the rocks.

It seemed to me that my first rattlesnake sighting had come awfully early in our stay. Still, I arrived back at our island feeling strangely exhilarated. "At least that's over with," I thought. "Encounters with rattlesnakes are exceedingly rare." I would go on to have four more brushes with snakes that afternoon. (Don't ask.)

The next day, we went for a boat ride with Don Scale, who is a resident of such long experience on the Georgian Bay islands that he became the inspiration for the character of Andy Grant in the novel Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving.

I told Don about one practical jokester of a fox snake that coiled around a log right beside my leg and buzzed like a rattlesnake. I didn't know if I saw one snake four times or many different ones. Was the one I met on the stairway at the rear of the cottage the same one that slid out from under the barbecue in front later that day?

It probably was the same one, he said. He explained that fox snakes roam over a wide territory when they are hunting. They are non-venomous, grow to about five feet long, are good swimmers, and sometimes vibrate their tales to mimic rattlesnakes. When they find a den they like, they will go back to it again and again.

I'll just stay on the deck.

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But retreating to safety proved to be no solution: I had nightmares every night. In my imagination, it seemed that serpents were everywhere. Better to get off the deck and prove that they weren't.

To reprogram my brain, I took up birdwatching. If my eyes were focused on the trees, they couldn't be trained on the ground. I read Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time and followed our ecstatic dog down to the bay for endless sessions of fetch.

While James worked, I became obsessed with photographing the captivating beauty. I would be pulled off the deck to capture scenes that seemed transformed by each transition of the sun or shift in the wind. The slower life on the island became, the more keenly I noticed the vivid colours of lichen, the tiny rock pools teeming with life, the micro-gardens springing up in the crevices, the pine trees struggling to survive in the larger cracks.

One night, we were invited to a dinner party on a neighbouring island. Our lively hostess told us about venturing out in her tin boat with her three small boys. When she and the boys wanted to explore landlocked Mallard Lake, they climbed out of the boat and dragged it across a bridge of land into the marsh. I resolved to become more brave.

Meanwhile, endlessly fascinated friends from the city would phone with offers of artisanal bread and fresh reading material. We don't need anything, we told them: Just come.

"Will we be able to do our 10-kilometre run on Sunday?" the committed runners asked. "No, and don't bother to bring your bicycles," we told them.

Our island experience seemed transformed with each new set of guests. Baby Malcolm tasted blueberries for the first time after James picked them from bushes growing wild all over the island. Eight-year-old Graeme had no sooner arrived than he announced that he was going to kayak alone to the next island. The architects were amazed that a wood-frame cottage had withstood the ferocious storms and howling winds for 50 years.

It has to be said, I saw more snakes. I figure James thought that I was hallucinating until I led him by the hand right up to a northern water snake folded into the crease of a rock.

"I've been climbing all over these islands for 15 years and I've rarely seen a snake," James said, more feebly this time.

"Now we know that's because you can't even see them when they're pointed out to you," I parried.

Some time during the month, we slipped into island time. The dog had figured out pathways up and over all of the rocks and conquered her fear of the tin boat. We went for treks to every massive boulder along our shore and dove into the clear, bracing water. Our boating excursions led us through the evocatively named Hole in the Wall and the preternaturally green Hemlock Channel. We ventured to the eerily beautiful outer island of Kishkadena, where the rocks flatten out to create a barren and almost treeless landscape.

By the time we had to leave, we felt anchored to our chunk of rock.

"Packing up a cottage seems like the very definition of melancholy," my husband observed.

Only after we had arrived home did James confess how close he came to stepping on a rattlesnake. He was running down the path at dusk when he heard the warning buzz and saw the snake just as his foot was coming down.

Still, we all emerged unscathed. And we never did grow bored. I did not get over my fear of snakes, but I won't let it keep me from returning. The best way to learn to comfortably co-exist is to hang out with more snakes.

"That's the only way," Don Scale tells me. "You have to spend more time on Georgian Bay islands."

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