Not all my travel writing comes from personal observation. I mix in research as long as it’s not too difficult. I was anxious to find out more about Century Lake when I returned to the shack: its size, history, estimated fish population, whatever I could turn up. Google makes it so easy to identify sources and shop facts these days. My search however turned up nothing. A search of Century Lake Ontario quickly devolved into various shipwrecks over several centuries found in Lake Ontario. There is a Century Lodge on Eagle Lake Ontario. But Century Lake, the one I came to know? No footprint at all on the web. Pretty amazing.
I found a lot of general information. There are an estimated 3 Million lakes in Canada, 250,000 of them in Ontario, and 3,899 of those greater than 3 square kilometers. Ontario Province lists but 155 lakes on its lake management webpage, which leads me to believe Century Lake and others like it are unmanaged. The Canadian Wildlife Federation page had one of those (who cares?) discussions on the definition of a lake versus a body of water in a larger flowage system, which I stopped reading quickly. Wikipedia only listed Ontario lakes greater than 150 square miles in surface area. The on line maps didn’t help. Many, no most, of the lakes in Canada are unnamed. So far I have no objective proof that Century Lake exists save for the tiny laminated map we carried in our boats put together by our outfitter that shows only the east side of Century Lake but does contain the name. That and the fact that my friends and I fished it. Others surely know about it. But there is nothing specific to go on.
At first I was frustrated at finding no information but then grew to like the fact that it is obscure, has escaped notice in this new world of so much data. I hope I don’t contribute to its fame. I don’t think this blog is much of a threat. However in searching for something particular I learned a lot in general. That happens a lot here in the shack. Here’s what I know.
Century Lake is near these coordinates: 51.4603 N and -94.795189 W. It’s in Ontario’s Woodland Caribou Provincial Park. A guy in Red lake at the outfitters told me Job Lake, within miles of Century Lake, is about 52 miles north and west of Red Lake as the crow flies, although if I’m not wrong it is too far north for crows. What look like crows up there are ravens. And “as the crow flies” is the only practical way to travel. There are no roads. Birds and float planes have it the easiest.
My personal history with Century Lake is limited to eight hours, and my experience in the area only 21 days, three annual fishing trip of a full week over the past three years. Century and its neighboring lakes have been there a lot longer. Much longer as it turns out. Way before rods and reels were invented that’s for sure.
As I fished I became obsessed with how long walleye as a specie has been living in Century Lake, but no one seemed to know how long fish have existed let alone walleye. At some point I said who cares and moved on. But my hunch was that walleye and Century Lake go together like bread and butter, and have for some time. Time is, of course, extremely relative. I devoted an unusual amount of it studying the genesis and development of the main elements of my trip: the lake, the fish, and the men who catch them. In doing so I learned a lot.
My curiosity was kicked off by a history teacher on the trip who said while talking in the car (it’s a long drive) that the Canadian Shield, a huge rock cap covering the earth in the area through which we were driving, was Pre Cambrian rock.
“What’s Pre Cambrian mean?”
He explained by describing an exercise he used while teaching to illustrate geology and time in the minds of his students. He would put a timeline on a long banner of paper wrapped around the walls of the school gym with different colors representing the earth’s various geologic periods up to the current year. The earth’s Pre Cambrian period was the timeline’s longest section, 7/8ths of the history of the earth. Man’s time on the earth was but a narrow strip in contrast.
“What’s Pre Cambrian mean when you talk about rocks?”
“It means the rocks contain no fossils whatsoever. From that they assume the rock existed when the earth was first formed but before life as we know it existed on earth.”
“No kidding. So Pre Cambrian rock is how old?”
“Anywhere from 4.5 Billion years old, when we think the earth was formed, to the beginning of the Cambrian period which started 540 million years ago.” (A billion, for those of you who forget like I do, is a thousand million. 9 zeroes.)
“So what first showed up in rocks that changed Pre Cambrian to Cambrian?” I wish I could have been a student in that gym to see for myself.
“Simple stuff that began in the sea. The sea leached minerals out of the rock and it became something of a soup that grew bacteria. Algae. That was all there was for about a billion more years and then multi celled organisms began to evolve. More complex life forms.”
“Wow. And the lakes up here formed when?”
“Well, glaciers advanced and retreated several times over Ontario and the Great Lakes area. After the last one subsided these lakes we fish would have been formed. Hard to tell exactly when they first showed up as lakes really, but a very long time ago. Five million years I’d say.” I checked. He was right.
The Cubs’ World Series drought sounds a lot shorter when you think in these terms. When you talk about geology and the beginning of life you’re talking about big, big stretches of time. They’re hard to imagine.
“When did walleye show up in those lakes?”
“I have no idea.”
The story on fish is a whole other thing.
Fish started in the ocean when an organism like coral, commonly known as the sea squirt, changed into something else and remained something long and tube like for a hell of a long time. If men existed then, which they didn’t, they would have had little fun catching those fish ancestors. Catching the earliest form of fish fish would be like hooking a worm. Ironic isn’t it?
I’ll spare you the details, but it took at least 121 million years million years, from 541 mya to 420 mya (mya is short for million years ago) for fish to develop jaws, which is a big deal to the folks that study the evolution of fish. They’re pretty sure jawed fish were flourishing in freshwater 383 mya, but after that my sources went off detailing how fish grew feet, evolved to breathe air, became amphibians, walked on land, and then morphed into mammals. That’s all fine and good but it’s a hell of a long story and I just want to know where and when walleye came about. It turns out to be complicated. Fish back then had a tendency towards going extinct, dying off and coming back differently, messing up everything linear. We love stories that are linear.
One of the oldest fish now alive, the fish with the longest evolutionary winning streak you could say, is the sturgeon, which lives and looks today just as it did 245 mya in the Triassic period when it was first identified by fossils. Did walleye come from sturgeon? I don’t know. Let me put you directly on the walleye track.
The walleye we were catching on Century Lake are one of five species of the genus Sander, ours being Sander Vitreous. Sander Vitreous has two sub species, make that had two subspecies as the blue pike was declared extinct in 1983, whereas the yellow pike subspecies (like #82 from the previous post) lives on. Shit happens still, like the blue pike’s extinction from changing weather patterns and overfishing, in the world of fish. Evolution goes on.
From fossils the experts have it figured that Sander diverged and became its own species 24.6 mya, and that the European and North American species diverged 15.4 mya, making the walleye in Century Lake a relative rookie to the fish game compared to the Sturgeon. I digress, but I got this material from some biologist’s dissertation on the 4th page of a Google search. In it I also learned that the North American walleye have a higher level of genetic diversity suggesting “fewer Pleistocene glacial bottlenecks” in Europe. You learn something every day.
Ontario and the Great Lakes area being one of those glacial bottlenecks, when Century Lake emerged from the glacier that covered the part of North America now northern Ontario, walleye as we know them were ready and waiting to live in it. Walleye had 10.4 million years, give or take a few I’m sure, to perfect themselves before taking up residence in Century Lake.
The final piece of this puzzle not explained is how and when fishermen arrived. How did we get there, other than the obvious and smartass answer “by plane”? As it turns out man is by far the biggest newcomer. Here’s that story in a nutshell.
Somewhere a sturgeon is laughing. 256 mya sturgeons were the same as sturgeons today. At that time the closest thing to man was a mammal like egg laying reptile. It would take another 36 million years for an animal with a constant body temperature and milk glands to evolve up. Finally at 85-65 mya (what’s 20 million years?) a flying lemur that lived high in the forest canopy and only came out at night showed up with digits that grasp and was hailed as the ancestor of primates. 65 mya ago and man’s ancestors are not yet down from the trees. Skip forward.
· 25 mya Your old world monkeys and apes show up
· 10 mya Chimps and bonobos join the party
· 7 mya Something different with a larnyx appears-Hominina
· 3.6 mya A hominid foot print found in Kenya means it walked upright
· 2.8 mya Homo Habilus, with less body hair uses stone tools
· 1.5 mya Homo Ergaster controls fire (1.3M years to figure out fire?)
500 ka (500,000 years ago) Neanderthal appears
500 ka (500,000 years ago) Neanderthal appears
· 160 ka Homo Sapiens evolve, and learn to FISH
· 40-25 ka Neanderthal dies out
· 20-16 ka other humans die out. Homo Sapiens=the only game in town
Whew. That was a quick trip through human evolution. But it still doesn’t get people to Century Lake. That didn’t happen for a while. If experts are right about this (and who am I to argue?) man began in Africa and made his way to Asia and Europe a relatively short time later. North American human habitation? Probably after that, 16,500-11,000 years ago. The most popular theory is the land bridge deal. You know this one too. It was damned cold. Water was sucked up into ice formations, the sea retreated, human beings could walk from Asia to North America across a 1,000 km. wide strip of land (roughly where the Aleutian islands now are) without the sea in their way, and they did.
You saw a drawing of them in your social studies book. People wrapped in animal skins, snow blowing around them, walking into a new land. That theory is pretty well nailed down these days. In 2007 a DNA test concluded that virtually all North American indigenous people share the genetic code of Eastern Siberians. Tough boogers those early men and women, and adventurous besides. They could have been looking for someplace warmer, but most likely it was a quest for better fishing. That is the McClure theory by the way, with absolutely no evidence of any kind to back it up.
Those that made their way to Ontario 9,000-8,000 years ago were later known as the Cree, Algonquin, and Sioux people. When you travel to Northern Ontario you are well aware of their presence. Although they lost control of their country and their culture was forever altered as a people they maintain their native rights to fish and trap the lakes and rivers that are leased from the Canadian government by individuals and companies(primarily white people) to promote the tourism and sport fishing industry. On Job Lake we put our boat on shore one day to stretch our legs and look at a campsite local native people established there and no doubt frequent when the season is over.
On previous trips to other lakes in North Ontario we have seen native trapper’s cabins jammed with steel leg traps and other gear. In the wilderness of North Ontario I feel as if I am trespassing on native land.
South Ontario is much different. The southern portion of the province has cities like Toronto and Ottawa. The land is arable and farms dominate the countryside. But both people and soil thin out dramatically as you head north towards Hudson Bay. Our band of fisherman cross the border at International Falls and go north stopping at Dryden on the Trans Canada highway to buy groceries. In the 216 kilometer 2 1/2 hour drive from there to Red Lake we encounter no more towns and few farms. 90% of Canadians, it is said, live within 100 miles of their border with the U.S. I’m not sure there would be a road North to Red Lake if it wasn’t for the gold. Red Lake is one of the world’s most prolific gold mining districts. In 2015 the area produced 375,700 ounces of high quality gold.
The town of Red Lake, now with a population of 4,700, boomed in 1926 with the discovery of gold. In addition to gold mining and light logging Red Lake has become as an air hub for fishermen, canoeists and kayakers exploring the wilderness inside and out of Woodland Caribou Provincial Park. The highway essentially ends at Red Lake, though a dead end spur goes west to more mining sites.
Here’s the good news. The miners, and the French and British fur trappers and loggers that came 300 years before them, though changing forever the life and culture of native peoples, appear to have done little damage to the land and lakes of North Ontario. Henry Hudson claimed the region in 1611 and in 1670 the British Government essentially honored that claim granting the Hudson Bay Company free rein to develop the area. But they did little. Historically it seems in North America an area’s best protection against the rape, pillage, and exploitation of white men occurred when white people couldn’t figure out a way to wring money from a locale. They took out a lot of beaver and mink. But the mining industry is interested only in what can be extracted from shafts deep below the beauty of the Red Lake district. The wilderness with its Pre Cambrian rock shield, pine forests, remote lakes, the walleye, the moose, the bears, the ducks are relatively safe I think. Unless I’m wrong no more roads are slated for construction. The fishermen are growing old from what I observe. If a huge boom in flights to fly in fishing camps occurs in the future among young people I would be very surprised. There’s no Wi Fi up there, or cell phone service of any kind. Besides, the camps are equipped with outhouses. They manage to get lake water running to a faucet in the cabin but flush toilets and septics are safely out of reach. They’re not going to build a Hilton up there. Thank God.
And the white people flying into the lakes, an industry that began in earnest after World War II with the development of safe nimble airplanes, barely scratch the surface of history. 60 some years of fishing from May to September? I think it has altered the area little. Our group, American immigrants of Scotch Irish, German, Norwegian, Mexican, and assorted lineages were mere visitors to the wilderness for seven days. Hardly a blink in the enormity of time. In that gym illustration of the history of the earth we would be a barely visible. A slender streak of color drawn by a Sharpie. I don’t think we matter much in the grand scheme of Century Lake. I hope not.
I think of Century Lake now when I’m home. The ducks (Buffleheads? Mergansers? We’ll never know now) will be flying south soon along with the loons. The Whiskey Jack, cousins of the Blue Jay, whom we fed peanuts in the shell on the deck railing, will stop hanging around the cabin and go back to the woods where they’ll hunker down for the winter.
The ground hog that lived under the cabin, the squirrels, the wolves we heard howling at the Northern Lights, will prepare for the coming cold. Bears will hibernate. The walleye will slow down and spread out in the lake but live comfortably under the ice and snow that will cover the surface of the lake, as they have in that lake for how long? 5 million years? In the spring when the ice goes out they will school up, be ravenous, spawn, and get fat s the days get long. Occasionally during a few months of summer out of shape fishermen will pull old boats off the sand, catch walleye but let them go, and leave laughing. It’s life. I hope it goes on forever.