Monday, 19 September 2011

Echo Lake Cafe

The weather is cooling very quickly now, foreshadowing the coming of fall, which in these parts is virtually indistinguishable from winter.  It's a bit depressing, but it comes after several weeks of beautiful summer weather.  In particular, we were very fortunate to have temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s (80s and 90s for those speaking Fahrenheit) for the entire time we spent vacationing in Montana.  That made for perfect swimming and waterskiing conditions, and it also meant we could sit out on the "patio" at our favourite breakfast spot in the area: the Echo Lake Cafe.

I should first tell you a bit about Echo Lake, and why we go back there almost every summer.  My grandparents bought some lakefront property about 35 years ago, and their family continued to grow until sharing a camping trailer with nine grandchildren must have started to wear on their sanity.  Rainy days were especially bad, having fifteen or more people trapped in a 1970's Prowler-manufactured hell.  After my brother Brent had thrown up for the third time, my cousin Greg had bitten me once again, the baby hadn't stopped crying for a full hour, and the coffin-sized bathroom had been rendered uninhabitable by the effects of too much canned food, no jury in the land would have convicted my grandparents if they had quietly stepped out of the trailer, padlocked the door, and rolled the whole thing into the lake.

Instead, they built a cabin.

Notice I said cabin, not cottage.  This is the real deal, built out of alternating stacked logs like those popsicle stick shelters we've all assembled as kids.  Except, of course, if you lick the ends of the logs, there's no residual cherry or lime flavouring.  Nope, this isn't any frou-frou summer home like the ones you'll see on Home and Garden TV, and an appropriately tiny budget has been spent furnishing the place. The cabin's decor is best described as Swedish Folk meets 70's ski lodge.  I don't know where the Swedish motif came from; as far as I can tell, the Gregson clan is about as Scandinavian as Kim Jon Il.  And the 70's part just lets guests know when we last made an effort to spruce the place up.  (Actually, my cousin Laurie has attempted to add some class to the joint over the years, but it's a losing battle, like playing Red Rover against Siamese twins.)  As for appliances, supplying the place usually begins with a conversation like this:

       "We should get a new microwave oven.  Ours is making funny clicking sounds and won't 

         turn on unless you hold the door shut.  Who knows how much radiation it's giving off."

       "You're probably right.  We can look for one this weekend.  Hey, will the garbage man 

         take this one with the regular pickup?"

       "No, you'll have to bring it to the landfill yourself."

       "Really?  That'll cost $5 just to drop it off!"

       "Honey, I think you can afford $5 without cramping your style too much."

       "Yeah, I suppose.  But the landfill smells funny...hmm, why don't we just donate the 

         microwave to the cabin?  We'll pack it with the hairdryer that shoots sparks."

So, now the cabin has a microwave oven that frequently trips the circuit breakers, a variable-temperature (meaning it chooses what temperature it prefers) oven, a stove with 3 out of 4 working elements, a VCR that eats 2 out of 5 tapes watched, and a fridge that still smells like old cabbage even after applying enough Lysol to wipe out cooties in every kindergarten in the country.  But that's okay.  If all of the stupid things we've done playing on the lake over the years haven't killed us yet, an old Frigidaire sure as hell isn't going to do the job.

We've had so many near-drownings that we now know to keep an eye out for floating hats, a sure sign that a toddler has fallen unnoticed off the dock and is trapped under the dock or a boat. It's so commonplace that we just pause to carefully place a bookmark on the page we're reading, reach down in the water, pull the kid out by their ankle and shake him a few times to dry him off and get him breathing again. We've had a few trips to the Kalispell hospital, including one for 13 stitches after a bad waterskiing accident.  That last one was yours truly, and I can tell you there are few things as unsettling as having someone weave a needle and thread through your forehead while a motorcycle rider is screaming down the hall (there are no helmet laws in Montana...I'll let you fill in the details).  Oh, and once, my brother and I even tried to drive our motorboat on dry land.  "Say what?" I hear you exclaiming.

Okay, just one more story before we get back to the cafe.

My brother, Jeff, and I had a sometimes bitter sibling rivalry growing up.  I can recall a fight with screwdrivers (oh, those crazy Gregson boys!) and a trip back from a ski hill that involved a bloody nose.  (I think the number "7" is still imprinted on the back of my head where a TV remote once glanced off of it.)  The rivalry continued right into our college years, but after settling down and starting families, we finally called a truce and now get along just fine the once or twice a year we see each other.  I'd like to think we've matured and learned to appreciate each other's successes and challenges, but it might also have something to do with us living in different countries and 800 miles apart. Let's be optimistic and go with the former.

Anyway, this rivalry manifested itself horribly one day at the lake as I was driving, with Jeff in the passenger seat, our boat across the bay where our cabin is located.  What happened next depends on who you ask.

Jeff would have probably described it as him spraying a completely harmless disappearing ink on his brother as a practical joke.  His brother grossly overreacted, gunned the throttle in a fit of rage, and proceeded to pound on Jeff, leaving the boat driverless while it launched itself over several fallen trees to crash violently on the shore.  Ergo, Darin's fault.

My version went more like this: Darin was driving the boat responsibly (hands at the 10 and 2 for safety) when Jeff poured a noxious (possibly toxic!) fluid all over his brand new Quicksilver beach shirt.  In trying to prevent the spread of this staining  dark-blue sludge from making contact with the upholstery of his father's precious boat, Darin attempted to wrest the spray bottle from Jeff's hands, and, in doing so, bumped the throttle with his elbow.  The boat then launched itself over several fallen trees to crash violently on the shore.  Ergo, Jeff's fault.

We struggled out of the boat on the passenger side, and surveying the hull, we saw  - miracle of miracles - the boat appeared completely unharmed.  However, when we made our way over to the driver's side, our knees buckled at the sight of a hole in the bow big enough for a small child to climb through.  The inhabitants of Echo Lake are still haunted in fitful dreams by the inhuman wailing of two young teenage boys heard that day. 

My dad has since expressed regret for how angry he was with us.  Personally, I think the fact that Jeff and I can walk without medical assistance demonstrates great restraint on my dad's part.

For years afterwards, I blamed Jeff for wrecking the boat (and our summer), but in hindsight, I have to admit that it was at the very least a solid team effort.  In fact, maybe I should have spun it that way with my dad at the time: look, it's the first time Jeff and I cooperated on anything.  Yay us!

Then again, maybe not.

So this the scene of the Echo Lake Cafe, a bit of civilization in what is otherwise the chaos of Gregsons and watersports.  The cafe has been around in some form on and off for about 50 years, but the current incarnation first appeared in 1999.  They only serve breakfast and lunch, and we usually split the difference to join them for brunch, a truly inspired mealtime that combines two of my favourite things: sleeping in and food.

On the surface, their menu appears to contain the typical breakfast cafe fare: omelets, pancakes, crepes, eggs anyway you want them, hashbrowns, etc.  But much of it is given a Montanan twist, like their Cowboy Eggs Benedict (gravy instead of Hollandaise sauce), and Jack cheese is a staple in most of their omelettes. However, my favourite item (and Alison's) isn't particularly "western" at all and even breaks one of my usual rules: I don't like to order vegetarian versions of dishes.  Don't get me wrong, I have enjoyed some fantastic vegetarian meals over the years, but the crucial difference is that the good ones were dishes originally designed to be vegetarian, not a pathetic attempt to imitate or replace meat with a vegetable-derived substitute.  (Pine nuts will never be able to replicate the exquisite taste of suffering found in real beef.)  However, the Echo Lake Cafe's Vegetarian Eggs Benedict is, in my opinion, the best item on their menu, and the best Eggs Benedict I've had anywhere.  Instead of ham or smoked salmon, they place slices of avocado and tomato on the egg and smother it in Hollandaise sauce.  Simple but inspired. 

As for the boys, Duncan always enjoys himself a plate of syrup (there are pancakes in there somewhere, but he isn't happy until they completely break down and dissolve under the pressure of a lake of maple corrosion), and Will experienced his first taste of huevos rancheros at the Echo Lake Cafe.    With fresh-squeezed orange juice, a generous side of nicely-seasoned homestyle potatoes, and an optional huckleberry muffin, you can roll yourself back to the cabin, more than satisfied until dinnertime.  Just be sure your hat floats, though, because you'll be sinking to the bottom of the lake if you try swimming too soon, and we need to know where to look for you.

1 comment:

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