It was the third year in a row my brother Micah and I had come to Canada with our dad and joined our grandparents, our dad's cousin Randy, and his daughter Sarah. We'd been before the past few years, but both of us, only fourteen months apart, were too young to remember. It sounds pretentious; "we went to Canada over the summer." That's a whole different country, and we go there every summer? In reality, it isn't as glamorous as I imagine it sounds to people in our small school. Of course, the lake is beautiful. I should say lakes, for we visit many lakes. Each has its own personality. Some are dark green, brown, even black. Others are clear and blue. There are shallow lakes, deep lakes, sandy lakes, rocky lakes, muddy lakes, weedy lakes.
Besides the lakes, everything else is different, too. The trees are taller, sharper, older and greener. The rocks are granite of pink, blue and gray. The clouds are taller, whiter and softer. Even the ground is different; wetter, darker and spongier.
Our cabin is on Spring Lake. The lake doesn't seem big from the cabin, but it's in a bay. Spring Lake is one of the biggest lakes within miles. One of the most developed, too. Rich Canadians build their summer homes there, shiny mansions of glass and stone most of which sit empty in the winter. The bay only has two, and our cabin.
There are two cabins, actually. Both have peeling, faded yellow paint with tin roofs sitting on a relatively treeless patch on the hill. Looking from the dock on the lake, a giant, weathered barn sat behind and to the right of the big cabin. The big cabin was two stories with a deck wrapping around the first floor facing the yard and the lake. A grove of trees grew on the right of the big cabin, under which sat three fishing boats. Across the yard to the left sat the single story small cabin with a screened in deck facing the lake. Further up the hill sat the Detta's house with their small vegetable garden. They own the cabins.
The cabins had electricity, but no plumbing. Each cabin was accompanied by an outhouse for toilet activities, a sink indoors for dishes, two plastic buckets for water, and the lake for bathing, complete with the dock for full speed run rinsing. The water around the dock was sandy and weedy with a few round rocks scattered here and there with the clams.
The big cabin smelled woody, old, nostalgic. The ceiling was low, the walls weren't square. There was lots of light from windows on every wall. The kitchen was on the left with its fridge, spoutless sink, and peninsula, and the couch was on the right facing the wood stove. Behind the stove, under the stairs, sat a chair and ottoman with a box of magazines. In the corner sat the dining table. Up the crooked, steep stairs were three bedrooms separated by thin plank walls that didn't go to the ceiling. The doors were curtains as old as the blankets and the couch.
It happened one morning, as grew the breakfast custom, that we all talked about what we'd do that day; there was never a plan. Officially and historically, these were fishing trips. The several lakes mentioned were all partly defined by their population of hungry fish. In the past, from what I've gathered, these fishing trips were very serious. My dad's family, the men, came to catch fish and eat fish. However, in recent years, the trip had evolved to be more relaxed. Fishing was fun, but we'd fish when we wanted or do something else if we wanted.
The year before, we "did" Fairy Lake. Fair Lake was of course a lake, but getting to it involved a ten minute motor boat ride to the end of the lake, a two mile hike over logging trails through the woods to the hidden canoes, and several hours of winding floating through streams and over peaceful lily pad covered beaver ponds. That day there was only my dad, my grandpa, my brother, and me. It was cloudy, but that didn't take any of the beauty from the waving swamp grasses, the glassy water, or the brilliantly colorful wildflowers. It sprinkled that day, too. It was a wet year.
We decided to do it again. Everyone that went before, and Randy and Sarah, who had never done it before, all wanted to. This presented a problem. There were too many people for just the two hidden canoes. Fortunately, to some extent, we had a solution. As it turns out, Spring Lake flows right into Fairy Lake! We had an extra canoe that lived under the small cabin. Four people would hike, and two would take the canoe to the end of the lake and float the whole way. Unfortunately, by any extent, this caused some disagreement between my brother and I. He wanted to go with dad to the end of the lake in the canoe, but so did I. I won, I suppose since I had shared a canoe with grandpa last time, so it was my turn to float with dad. I still feel bad for not just letting him go with dad.
Everyone went about gathering up life vests and snacks and fishing poles in preparation for the journey. We dragged one of the boats from the grove and tied it to the dock. My dad carried grandpa's motor and gas tank and fastened them to the back. The canoe was already out from a little bay exploration the day before. With a rope we attached the canoe to the rear of the motor boat. Everyone piled into the motor boat except for my dad and I, who precariously boarded the canoe. Grandpa cranked the engine and we set out across Spring Lake.
The boat ride always feels longer that how I remember. The constant droning of the motor and cool of the wind probably make it seem like one quick step in the journey to Fairy Lake. We did have to be cautious around certain areas with submerged rocks. The ride actually did take longer than before partly because we went further, the full length instead of three quarters where the trail begins, but also because of the added weight.
The lake narrowed at the end, but it still looked like a pretty good channel. The water was deep, clear, and bordered by blooming lily pads. They untied the rope from the boat, turned around, and revved away, relieved of the extra weight.
I was excited, optimistic. My dad and grandpa had seemed a little skeptical back in the cabin, but it looked to me like this was going to be a nice, peaceful float trip. Obviously the final verdict had been, "heck, why not?" We paddled down the watery corridor with ease. I gazed in wonder at the looming walls of spruce and the open blue ceiling like it was the first time I was seeing them. It was the second.
Soon, the lake was well behind us, out of sight as the canal curved about through the bush. Then there was a grinding noise. The canoe was scrapping the bottom. At first it wasn't much of a problem. Although we were scrapping we were still moving. But as we came upon a shallow turn, we had to get out and drag the thing. My dad offered that if I wanted, we could turn back, it case there was a lot of this. I was perhaps too optimistic, but I was energized with the thrill of adventure and exploration. I didn't mind having to drag the canoe every now and then. It was worth it to see a part of nature I'd never seen before. We put the canoe in the deeper water around the curve and kept paddling.
We stopped. We repeated the process of dragging the canoe to deeper water where stones weren't poking out of the water and resumed paddling. I didn't lose any heart, constantly being re-energized by new landscapes: hill and flats, small granite cliffs, fallen trees bridging the stream, even the very rocks that forced us to carry our loaded canoe interested me. But as it became routine to carry the canoe every five minutes or so, we reached a point where we didn't get back in for quite some time. At least we didn't have to get our feet wet, being that there were so many stepping stones. I wasn't complaining one bit.
The landscape changed drastically. The rocky, wooded creek suddenly opened up into marsh lands. It was very peculiar indeed. Long waving grasses taller than any man, dead trees peppered here and there, the creek changed to a winding, muddy stream that sat a foot or two below any more or less solid ground.
Paddling was smoother now, but we faced new challenges: beaver dams. We must have dragged over ten or more of them. At one point the stream got too shallow to float in. This was a little easier to handle than the rocks, since by dad could let the canoe float while he simply pulled it. I walked up in the grass, offered to help, but he said it wasn't too bad.
Past a few more dams, the water was deep enough to float in again. The marsh was getting wider, too. That was good in the sense that it meant we would probably be meeting up with the rest of the party soon. The stream started to branch into a maze, but it was all flowing in the same direction. Unfortunately, that didn't make it any less of a maze. There were streams that acted as dead ends with too many weeds to pass and we had to turn around. The farther we went, the more the stream opened up. Now the obstacles were floating root masses with the grass on top. We dodged them easily, but what we couldn't dodge was the weeds. Most of them were lily pads, which mostly floated on top, but still slowed us down. The other weed, which we tried to avoid, had purple flowers and stuck out of the water, quickly making some areas impassible.
As the streams turned into a pond, we were struck by a terrible, sulfurous stench. There were lily pads covering the pond. They looked sick or dead. We were past the worst weeds, but paddling became more and more difficult. We were in the middle of the pond, but the water was turning to mud. Mud made entirely of water and dead, rotting plants.
Quite suddenly, paddling became completely ineffective. There simply wasn't enough power to pull two people in a canoe through mud. We sat and did nothing for a few minutes, had some granola bars. We tried to go backwards; no good. We really couldn't move. There was only one option. We got out.
The mud went up to our waists. That was especially unfortunate as it put our noses that much closer to the stench. But we were able to move the canoe. We started dragging it toward the shore on our left, the shore that, a year ago, we had hiked on. It took some time, and some energy, to pull the canoe to land. It was hard enough walking in mud without the added weight. I distinctly remember worrying that at any point I could step on the carcass of a moose, rotting in a muddy grave. Fortunately I did not.
We got to land and rested. We had a game plan. A really sucky game plan that was really our only option. We were going to find a trail, and hike back toward Spring Lake. Carrying a canoe. We ate some more granola bars.
We shouldered our backpacks. I grabbed the back of the canoe, my dad grabbed the front. We hiked into the woods and up the steepest hill I had ever climbed. With a canoe. That was the steepest part of the hike, but it didn't mean the rest was easy. We found several rutted trails on top of that hill, the only thing distinguishing them from each other, an occasional make of paint or plastic. Generally, we stuck with trails that took us in the direction of spring lake and kept the water on our left.
The easiest way to carry the canoe, if you happen to be carrying a canoe over several miles of land, seemed to be for just one of us to carry it upside down on the shoulders and trade off. And so we hiked trading off the canoe for maybe an hour. And then we saw them. Coming towards us. The rest of the group. We met at a "T" in the paths. They were of course headed the wrong way. But they knew that. They were trying to get back to where they had missed a turn.
As it turns out, they had hiked all the way to the hidden canoes, and quickly realized that it would be impossible to take them out. With no way of contacting us, they headed back to the boat expecting we'd come back the way we came sooner or later.
Now that we were all together, grandpa took the lead, as his father led before him. After all, he had a compass! Additionally, we could hear motor boats to our left, so we knew we were back by Spring Lake. As we hiked, dad and Randy started to tell grandpa that this didn't seem like the right way. But he assured us that he did, in fact, have a compass. We stopped in a brightly lit raspberry patch to evaluate our situation. One good thing was that we now had two extra people to take shifts with the canoe, Micah and Randy. Eventually we found a trail leading toward the lake, which meant the motor boat wasn't far.
The lake came in to view and we all gathered on the shore under the canopy of evergreens. There was no boat. Upon inspection of various landmarks on the lake, it was concluded that we actually had overshot the boat by a good half hour of hiking.
Now the canoe came into play. Everyone got to take a little bit of a break while my dad and Randy paddled up the lake to get the boat. It wasn't long before we were all settled back at the big cabin, listening to stories on the long list of misadventures to which we had just added.