Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Week Away

Eight men lived in a three room cabin  for eight days and seven nights on a lake in western Ontario.  They had no television, radio, phone signal, or internet connection.  No outside voices, no news, no information from anywhere else came to them during that week.  You might think it would be awkward, boring, perhaps tiresome.  It wasn’t. 

Room one was a narrow galley kitchen.  Past it was the main room with four handmade log bunk beds built into the walls, a dining table with eight chairs, a wood stove and a shelf unit.  In the corner was a tiny bathroom equipped with hot shower (courtesy of propane gas), sink, and a urinal.  Outside, up the hill, was an outhouse.  A fine outhouse I might add, perhaps the best I’ve ever encountered.

The outhouse had a tiny solar night light, a double door, a plastic seat, and dehydrated lime in a bucket, the kind you use to make the batter’s box and foul lines on a baseball diamond.  We were instructed to sprinkle a dipperful in the hole after each use and did so faithfully, or at least I did.  Despite the outhouse visibly reaching capacity the odor was minimal.  It’s said that outhouses in these fishing camps keep out those who require the latest in modern convenience.  So be it.  If true, both the fish and the fishermen benefit from keeping out the faint of heart.
We were the only cabin on a giant lake.  The cabin, the outhouse, a boat house for storing fuel and equipment equipped with solar panels for electricity, a table for cleaning fish, the docks, four aluminum boats with 9.9 HP gas motors, and a good wooden walkway up the incline to the cabin were the extent of man’s intrusion into Job Lake.  Nothing else was manmade.  Apart from that little compound nature took over.

The eight of us quickly fell into a simple routine.  Eating, fishing, drinking, talking, and sleeping.  We did each to extreme.  I’m recovering yet today, days after our return.  With the exception of fishing, which I do exclusively on this trip, and drinking for some, aren’t the rest of those elements pretty much daily life as we know it? 
EATING - We eat well, but we eat too much.  Let me illustrate that reality by rattling off just some of the food we bring for eight people.  Ten pounds of bacon, five pounds of sausage, a six pound box of Bisquick (along with a one pound box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix for peace of mind), two picnic hams, eight big rib eye steaks from Handy Foods, 12 loaves of Canadian Rye bread, 72 eggs, ten pounds of potatoes, a dozen onions, hot dogs, brats, homemade chili, crackers, not enough cheese, Pringles, peanut butter we didn’t eat, jelly, tortillas, homemade pasta sauce, pasta, rice, 7 heads of lettuce, too many tomatoes from home, peppers, carrots, celery, apples, oranges, powdered milk, 9 dozen homemade cookies, and a cake mix.

*Photos courtesy of Nate Robinson

And last but not least a box of Cheerios for breakfast for fly out morning.  Add to that 52 fresh caught walleyes and you’ve got a lot of food.  Little of it went to waste.  And it goes without saying  no one went hungry.
DRINKING - Some of the guys in our group have been coming to Canada on these trips for upwards of 30 years.  Their talk of the old days, when the fishermen were young, is rife with stories of prodigious beer drinking.  That’s changed.  We flew in just nine cases of beer, dropping below double digits, and have stopped buying beer as a group (like groceries) because of the great disparity of consumption among us.  You buy your own beer, more or less, though it’s shared freely.  Lately in addition to the beer, we have increased the hard liquor supply.  This year we brought in four bottles (3,250 milliliters) of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, in addition to a couple of flasks of whiskey, and a liter of Vodka along with the makings for Bloody Marys.  It made for a pretty nice bar in addition to beer. I continue to advocate for hard liquor over beer for practical reasons.  Beer is heavy, and we have weight restrictions due to the size of both the fisherman and the plane.  The plane only holds so much, and we pay a penalty when we exceed it's weight capacity. This year, like most years, some of our stuff had to be flown in later by a second plane.  I argue the blame can be placed largely on the beer. 

A case of beer weighs eighteen pounds.  Nine weigh 162.  The comparative buzz that results from one and a half ounces of whiskey equals roughly twelve ounces of beer.  Buzz wise hard liquor is clearly more efficient in terms of volume and weight.  I lose that argument consistently, and I have to admit a cold can of Moosehead lager or two (or more) each afternoon tastes damn good.  OK, yes, sometimes in the morning too.  But not as a rule.  Suffice to say we drank liberally and well, those of us who drank, which this year was all of us to varying degree.  While we were at it we had a cigar or two.  That’s an after dinner deal, the cigars, which often come out when the whiskey appears.  I’ve observed that the drinking leads to…
TALKING - What do you talk about for seven days with no news, no new information from elsewhere, with the same guys you’ve been talking to since you stepped off the plane?  I can’t tell you.  I can however report we talked a lot.  Occasionally one of us would peel off to read or nap, but for the most part we talked as a group around the table after dinner and breakfast, moved outside to the deck and talked there until it got dark.  Talked, drank, smoked cigars, told jokes, many repeated from previous years, laughed.  You’d think you would wear out after a while, that there would simply be nothing else to talk about.  Not so.  We talked about the past a fair amount of time.  Especially the older guys.  I observed that the young guys talked more about the future.  That all stands to reason.  The older guys have much more past to talk about, and to be frank, a more limited future.  The young guys are in a different spot.  We learned a lot from each other.  And refreshingly, we were able to disagree and fail to come to conclusions.

When people converse these days there is hardly any argument over facts because someone will pull out their smart phone, get on Google, and determine the accuracy of statements within seconds.  At the lake we had only our memories and beliefs to go on.  We were left to our own devices when it came to the truth.  It was refreshing.  You should try it sometime.
In addition to talking as a group of eight we paired off in the boats, switching boating partners each day so we could all get to know one another if we didn’t already.   Nine hours or so in a boat with the motor off on a quiet lake is a great way to form an acquaintance. 

SLEEPING - My single biggest regret is that I didn’t make an audio recording of the cabin when we were sleeping to share with you.  You cannot imagine the cacophony caused by eight snoring men in an otherwise silent black cabin, all with different pitches of a unique cadence.  Being part of a choir, I could pick out the bass snorers from the tenors.  We didn’t have a true soprano, but someone, somewhere got close at times.  The animals around the cabin must have been fascinated by the noise, the rabbits, the ground hog, the whiskey jacks and ground squirrels.  We didn’t encounter bear of moose on this trip.  Good thing.  They may have felt threatened.  We were damn loud.
We were outside all day in the sun and weather, busy fishing, then cooking or doing dishes, then staying awake to talk.  Alcohol may have also been a factor.  Bedtime seemed to get earlier and earlier.  I for one had vivid dreams.  I’d go to sleep, have a series of absolutely wacko dreams which would wake me, then fall back to sleep only to dream the sequel.  I think it was the profound silence, the lack of ambient light, the feeling of isolation that made me sleep so good and dream in such wild detail.  Others reported the same thing.  We used silicone ear plugs to protect one another from the snoring.  I’m sure that helped.  Others had only to remove their hearing aids.  Be that as it may, no one appeared to suffer from lack of sleep.

FISHING – Despite making fish the main part of our diet the number of fish we sacrificed for consumption was right around fifty.  We all bought conservation licenses that allowed us a daily possession limit of two Walleye per person, four per boat.  By agreement we cut that down to three fish per boat and it was plenty.  With few exceptions we only fished for walleye, choosing the three biggest and fattest of those between 15 and 18 inches, and ate only them.  We’d run a stringer in each boat and as the day went on if we caught something better than what was on the stringer we’d release others.  On some days each boat would catch and release upwards of 35 fish.  It was a fishing bonanza.  We go to feel the fish on the line, to experience the challenge of hooking them and getting them in the boat, to go after the big one.  But we want them to live for us and others to catch in the future. 
The fishing itself is a challenge, determining where likely good spots are on the huge lake, gauging wind direction, positioning the boat so it drifts over hot spots.  Sometimes a boat would be doing so well it would stay in the same spot all day.  Often we would see our friends across the lake, motor over, and they would gesture for us to come in, telling us where to start our drift.  There were certainly plenty of fish to catch.  The fish themselves are clean and beautiful, caught from clean water, in a natural unstocked fishery.  The biggest Walleye of the week was a 24 inches, caught by a guy on his first trip.  If we caught Northern pike it was only by accident.  It was a Walleye trip and we were not disappointed.

So there’s the highlights.  After you write a blog for a number of years you realize this has become an annual piece.  How long can you find variety in an endeavor which essentially has the same elements?  I think for as long as you pay attention.  Every trip is different.  This trip was special for me because it represented a needed break from the "civilized"world.  While there we missed eight days of political chaos in America, a devastating hurricane in Texas, crazy and potentially deadly military actions by North Korea, all part of the constant barrage of news that you feel is beyond your control.  We were spared because our cell phones essentially went dead.
Instead of being persistent constant reminders of the outside world they became timepieces, flashlights, and cameras.  I have to admit I forgot at times and pulled out my phone to check for messages, to see the weather forecast.  I found myself wondering about the Cubs score.  That all faded.  Against our will we were completely isolated, cut off, and thrust into nature.  After a while we fell into its rhythm.  Nature in that part of Ontario, though inherently savage as nature is, was to our eye beautiful, quiet and soothing.  I’m convinced we need more of that these days.

That’s why do I keep going back.  In addition to the company of good people it’s the beauty of wilderness.  Given the position of the cabin we could not, from our deck, where we smoked cigars and drank whiskey, see the sunset.  But each night in which we cleaned and ate fish we had a final chore to do, which was to take the fish guts, the heads, spines, and fins that remain after we filet those walleye, across the lake to dump them on rocks at the opposite shore.  Fish guts can attract bears.  It’s a sensible safety measure to dispose of them well away from the cabin.  I went one night, three to the boat, and sat at the bow with the white plastic bucket.  We cruised up to a rock ledge where I dumped them.  Then we backed off twenty yards or so, killed the motor, and sat in silence.
The first to cruise in was a gull.  He was able to make off with a nibble of fish flesh before the vulture arrived, chasing him off.  They were wary though, and skirted around the fish gut buffet looking over their shoulder.  For good reason.  Within seconds we saw the big daddy bald eagle, proud white head, come over the tree line like a B 1 Bomber, scattering all the other birds.

He landed in the middle of the pile and leisurely ate his fill.  We sat and watched.

 Then we looked on the other side of the boat.  The sun was setting over the lake.

When you see a stunning sunset, or sunrise, in a thin place like a wilderness lake you develop both reverence and confusion.  When is it most beautiful?  Which picture among the many you take is the best?  Three of us were transfixed.  We said hardly a word.  We just sat in the boat, in the still and silent beauty of the lake, and took pictures.  We barely spoke.  It was a moment.  I thought of the people I love.  Beauty can inspire beautiful thoughts.  It was one of the moments I go there for.

You get to know other men well when you live that closely with them, spend all day in a boat with them, share three meals a day.  It was remarked during the week that one guy out of sync with the rest can ruin a trip, but I’ve not yet experienced that.  Every year the group changes slightly, yet each year all the men I’ve encountered I would go back on a trip with no problem.  I think we get closer as we listen to each other and share common experiences.  I’d go back to the lake with this last group in a minute if I could. 

That’s the story out of Ontario this year.

1 comment:

  1. If you would have recorded the snoring then your basso profondo would not have been part of the recording!!!