Each year I venture at least one time to these north woods. The Canadian boreal forest is the last stop before the tundra. A forest comprised mostly of black spruce, balsam fir, and tamarack, it is not completely devoid of deciduous trees like paper birch and trembling aspen. Lakes are found nearly everywhere in this back country. From one acre ponds to lakes containing hundreds of square miles of deep blue water there can be no doubt that aquatic environments are plentiful in these wooded wilds. The lakes are generally oriented north to south and signify a geomorphological tale left by glaciers some twelve to fourteen thousand years ago. Some lakes sit in deep, long grooves cut into bedrock under the weight of a mile of ice. Other lakes were formed where gigantic ice blocks fell off retreating glaciers and sorted gravel filled in around the large beached icebergs. Eventually the ice monoliths melted. A huge depression was left behind where the blocks once stood,and these areas filled with groundwater held in the stratified drift. Peat wetlands took over large areas of the countryside hosting sedges, grasses, bulrushes, and shrubs like labrador tea, leather leaf, and sheep laurel.
That the land was far to the north, abysmally cold, had forests so thick that they were nearly impenetrable, and hosted so many mosquitoes and black flies that the first maps produced by trappers and missionaries designated thousands of square miles to be uninhabitable for humans. These seemingly hostile conditions might be considered to be miserable by most but were perfect for wildlife. The deep forests hold moose, black bear, martins, snowshoe hares, lynx, and wolves. The lakes hold walleye, northern pike, lake trout, brook trout, bald eagles, loons, and arctic terns. The wetlands are host to green frogs, a diverse group of dragonflies, damselflies, and more mosquitoes than could be counted in a million life times. The Cree that settled in these northern woods were hardy and resourceful. They knew how to negotiate the cold winter climate and bug-filled spring and summers. Spring and autumn were likely a little easier for these ingenious people of the boreal forest.
And so here we were. It was the first trip to the boreal forest for my wife Maureen, my brother-in-law Rick, and his good friend Ed. The long drive over the dusty dirt logging roads got their attention. As we drove through miles and miles of conifer forest I could see by the look on their faces that this was something quite different than they had anticipated. Several hours later when we reached the outfitter where we would load our gear into boats for the long trip across the lake where our cabin waited for us I noticed each one of them was remarkably quiet. Taking all of the untouched natural beauty of the north woods in is simply a breath taking experience that leaves one lost for words. There are no words that can adequately describe the grace and elegance of this back country. The solitude is mesmerizing. I could see their reaction was much the same as mine the first time I encountered this last vestige of wilderness.
Our camp was located on a bay that faced west where we could watch slow lurid sunsets turn the sky into a canvas of orange, red, pink, and purple. We had a long sandy beach to the south of the camp with a backdrop of pointed, dark green conifers. The cabin had a few solar panels that charged two batteries. These were used to power the lights during the late evening hours.
While we boys went out fishing in the morning, Maureen would do yoga on the beach. This nearly perfect setting was very serene and provided a once in a lifetime yoga and meditation experience. Her constant smile and look of extreme content was all the evidence I needed that she was having a wonderful time. During the afternoon she would practice drawing. The wilds some how turn on the creative side of the brain.
There is no shortage of walleye in Lake Wetetnagami but that does not always translate into excellent fishing. Walleye are extremely sensitive and do not do well with weather changes especially those that involve rapidly changing air pressure. We had a number of low pressure areas move through the first few days so catching walleye was a real challenge. Persistence paid off for me and I steadily caught fish although not in large numbers. Still the walleye were all fairly large and I was just happy to soak up all of the beauty around me. Ed and Rick fished in one boat and I fished in another. I have many years of walleye fishing experience and know this particular lake well and so had a steadier catch. The real trick to walleye is consistency. Knowing what works and doesn’t work is the entire game. Coming up with a good game plan and sticking to it for long periods of time is critical for success. The worse thing you can do when fishing for these jewels of the north is to get impatient and start changing gear every five minutes. “Throwing the contents of the tackle box” at them almost never works. Staying with the game plan and making simple adjustments like distance of your jig off of the bottom, s slow steady drag of the jig, or trying some different little jerks of the line will produce results if you have the confidence to stay with the program.
But it was not the good fishing that was the main attraction for me. The wilderness setting, especially these northern coniferous woods and the clean blue lake, was a tonic for my soul. I could feel the wild settling into my body from the first day that I arrived. I absorbed the wilderness surroundings and the spirit that they hold like a sponge takes on water. I was insatiably thirsty for this world of natural purity. Each day I was able to hold more peace than the day before. Each night I reflected on the day and wondered why we humans want to alter such a perfect system. It seemed to me that “progress” was not progress at all. It seemed that the human notion of success had nothing to do with the trappings of my present surroundings or the serenity that was held here.
The weather of the north country is beyond unpredictable. The skies can be brilliant blue with big white puffy clouds and the sun reflecting off of the clear water one moment and five minutes later the sky is consumed by dark ominous cloud cover with high winds, lightening crashing all around you, and thunder that seems to dislocate your ear drums. We had violent storms on most days. Some were in the evening, some were in the afternoon, and some were in the morning. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to when they would occur. Rain gear and a bailing bucket were prerequisites in the boat as was a solid life preserver in case things really went south. On several occasions we found ourselves racing across the lake trying to stay ahead of a storm. Lightening and small aluminum boats are not good companions.
One afternoon Maureen went fishing for me around noon. As soon as she dropped her pink spinner jig into the water a large walleye grabbed the lure. She set the hook like a pro and began to reel the fish towards the surface. It took a run or two but her persistence paid off. I held the net while she guided the fish into it. The look on her face as she caught her first walleye was precious. She had the appearance of a determined hunter/gatherer who was in need of a meal. It appeared as if some sort of ancient instinct took over and she knew just what to do. After a brief celebration of her new found skill we cruised over to the outfitters main camp to tell retrieve some sunglasses that we had left behind in our truck. Two of the caretakers, a married couple named Diane and Luc, came out to greet us and to see if we needed anything. While we discussed the wonderful weather their retriever dog, Zooey, spied a mother black duck and her five ducklings in the lake. At first Zooey just stood on shore and watched the mother duck and the babies swim around but before you knew it instinct kicked in and she went for the group of ducks. The mother black duck feigned a broken wing, splashed around, and swam in circles to keep Zooey’s attention while the ducklings hid themselves in a stand of soft stem bulrush. The mother led Zooey further and further out into the lake and she appeared to be tiring. Diane seemed distressed and I asked her if I should go out and try to retrieve the dog. Luc had a bad knee injury the day before and wasn’t too steady on his feet. Diane jumped in the boat with me and we quickly motored out to where the tiring dog was still pursuing the mother duck. I pulled along side Zooey in the boat. She would have no part of our rescue and swam off, gasping for air, in the direction of the black duck. I pulled along side of her again, picturing a nautical rodeo in my head, and grabbed Zooey by the collar and tail lifting her into the boat. We used a fish stringer for a leash so that Diane could keep her from jumping back in the lake. She attempted to do just that several times. In a few minutes we were back to the dock and Diane led a disappointed Zooey back to their camp where she would be safe. Maureen and I said our goodbyes to Luc and got back into the boat to begin our water trek back to our cabin when I heard Diane calling Zooey from their camp. There was Zooey running hell bent for leather towards the lake and before we knew it she jumped straight in and headed back for the middle of the bay where she had last seen mother duck. I started the boat motor and Maureen and I cruised over to where Zooey was in fast pursuit of the duck. This time she knew what was coming so she zigged and zagged to avoid capture. I headed her off several times only for her to dodge the side of the boat and get away. I’m new at the nautical rodeo business but stayed on task and eventually scooped her up by the collar and tail again. Maureen held Zooey by the collar as she struggled to jump back out of the boat. We gave her back to a thankful Diane and Luc before heading back to our cabin. We laughed most of the way on our way back at the thought of Zooey the nautical rodeo dog.
That evening as we all played a game of Rummy in the cabin after dark I realized that this was the longest time I had ever spent with my brother-in-law Rick. He is the manager of a large retail store in the Washington DC area where he and my sister live so this was a unique opportunity to get better acquainted to the man that had been with my older sister for thirty plus years. Rick was very relaxed and laughed out loud as I relayed old stories about my sister during our childhood. I told him about the time we were playing “Annie, Annie Over” where you throw the ball over to top of the house and the other person, not knowing exactly where it was coming down, had to catch it. Miss it and your opponent gets a point. We modified the game slightly and we were playing the game with an extra large marble called a boulder. It was as hard as rock. I threw the marble as high as I could and yelled “Annie, Annie Over” to which my sister was supposed to yell back “Annie Caught!”, but she did not respond. I yelled again and there was still no response. I walked around the side of the house and there was my sister splayed out on the lawn like she was dead. At first I thought she was faking it. I walked over to her. She was lying on her back with all her arms and legs spread eagle. There was a huge two inch wide and two inch high bump right in the middle of her forehead! She was out cold! I yelled for my mother who came running outside when I said “I think Cheryl is dead!” As my mother approached my sister she was just coming back to consciousness. She later recounted that she had picked up the giant glass marble when it was about four feet from her head and rushing in at about 100 miles per hour. My marble collection was taken away for a year and we were relegated to playing “Annie, Annie Over” with a tennis ball for the rest of the summer. Rick had never heard to story and howled as I relayed each delectable detail. I may have exaggerated the details a time or two to make the story more delicious, but that’s what story telling is about. Ed listed on and I could hear him laughing away also, as did my wife.
The next morning after coming in from fishing there were 7 or 8 loons in the bay in front of our cabin. There were two adults and five or six near adults, the results of this year’s brood. They were calling, and laughing like only loons can do. It’s the strange sound of mourning and laughter simultaneously. A rather haunting sound that stays with you forever. One of loons was trying to learn to take off to fly. He flapped his wings, paddled his feet and scrambled across the water for about 75 yards. When no flight resulted from all of his efforts he’d do it all over again with the same conviction and still would not get his small body off of the water. Over and over again he tried but never lifted off. After each attempt he would laugh out loud; sure sign that he was sorely disappointed. The fact is that loons need a very long area to take off and it takes lots and lots of practice to sort out the details for a successful experience. It would be quite a while before the young loon would become airborne and we were not going to be there long enough to see it!
That afternoon Rick and I got into a bunch of walleyes and came home with a full creel to clean and filet. As we pulled up to the beach the sun was getting near the horizon. The western sky was a mix of golden and blue colors. The reflection of the sunset palette on the water created an unforgettable image. Maureen was sitting on a log on the high side of the sandy beach. I walked over to sit down next to her and she smiled at me. She gave me a funny look like she wasn’t sure of herself and then she spoke anyway.
“I was sitting here taking this all in. The world is almost perfect here. And as I was considering how wonderful the earth is in it’s natural state the story of the “Garden of Eden” found its way into my thoughts. And I realized it’s true meaning like never before. There was this perfect planet with all its beauty and wonder and along came man. He was just asked to keep it that way. Don’t mess with the forbidden fruit. That forbidden fruit was greed. And from that point on the earth was no longer what it once was!”
I looked at her. Her thought sure worked for me. The question remains can we put the greed back onto the tree and start over? Only time will tell.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in July of 2011.