After a particularly hellish week at work, my buddy Stan turned to me and said,
“I know a lake…”
The far off wistful look in his eyes told me almost everything I needed to know.
“Is it hard to get to?” I asked.
“Almost impossible,” he said.
I couldn’t think of two more compelling words.
A few weeks later, we clunked ashore at the far end of a large lake in Northern Ontario. Beyond that lake, hidden behind a shroud of mist lay another – and beyond that another and another.
Without saying a word, Stan slung a pack over his shoulders and humped off into the forest.
Now normally, a portage is a trail or at least a trodden path that leads from one lake to another – but this was more of a maze constructed out of lichen stained boulders and moss covered pines. Some trees were standing, many were not – but all routes through them led in every direction but the one we wanted to go.
I called after Stan, “What do I carry?”
“The canoe,” he yelled back.
There were several packs each weighing over fifty pounds and each requiring its own trip across the portage but there was only one canoe. It weighted sixty pounds and only required one trip, so I thought I had the better part of the deal.
Until I flipped it over and put it on my shoulders.
Let’s just say it is not easy to pick your way through a pine maze wearing a sixteen foot aluminum hat..
Then it started to rain.
It is always raining somewhere in Northern Ontario and that somewhere is always wherever you are.
Again, I couldn’t believe my luck, sheltered as I was by the canoe- until every mosquito in Northern Ontario also couldn’t believe their luck as they took refuge under the canoe.
Let’s just say it is not easy to pick your way through a pine maze wearing a sixteen foot aluminum hat – full of hungry mosquitoes.
And oh by the way, do you know what a no-see-um is?
I thought so.
By late afternoon, we had enough and put ashore to set up camp.
The first order of business was to stash our provisions beyond the reach of bears. So Stan climbed one tree while I shimmied up another. Each of us carried the opposite ends of a rope. I tied off my end then Stan tightened the line and tied off his.
With a high wire strung about fifteen feet off the ground, we threaded another rope through the shoulder straps of our packs, tied it off and tossed the other end over the high wire. We used this to hoist our provisions well beyond the reach of bears before tying the hoist line to a tree.
It did not take long to test our system.
An old sow bear soon came crashing and snorting through the underbrush. This was her way of telling us to discreetly step aside and allow her to inspect our camp.
She sniffed here, rummage there and walked in confused circles until it dawned on her to cast her gaze skyward.
That is when she spotted what she came for.
We followed her eyes as they focused on the backpacks then methodically traced the hoist line from the packs up to the high wire then diagonally down to the tie-off near the ground.
She sauntered over to the tie-off and….:
The packs hit the ground and she pounced. We shouted and waved our arms about – but this only annoyed her.
Despite our impolite behavior she was kind enough to leave what amounted to a meal or two apiece.
From there on in, every canoe stroke and every step of every portage became a deep dive into the study of human misery – but keep in mind that the word miserable is a close relative of the word impossible and whenever you venture into territory described by such words, you know you have finally gotten somewhere.
I would like to say we caught fish – but we didn’t. Not a one.
I would like to say we spent our evenings sipping whiskey around a crackling campfire – but it never stopped raining. Not once.
I would like to say we paddled across sky blue waters as the sun danced among the waves – but the sky was never blue and it was not the sun but us who danced frantically among the waves. The entire way.
I would like to say that a gentle breezed whispered through the pines and blew the stars across the sky – but I can’t lie. Not like that.
All we can say about the trip is that we experienced what the words miserable and impossible were built to describe.
Yet from that day to this, whenever we speak of it to our friends and family, we still get a far-off wistful look in our eyes as we say,
“I know a lake…”