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Flee from the wrath!

A trek to a remote lake recharges the personal batteries and reminds us of some basic truths about how we ought to consume the bounties of nature.

You won't read the lake's name here. Not that you'd recognize it. The lake is one of the least prepossessing of Ontario's quarter-million--a couple of miles long and a half mile wide, little more than a wide pause in the meandering flow of one of many rivers in the southern part of the province.

The fishing's mostly so-so. Acid rain, perhaps, or some other combination of factors has significantly reduced the populations of smallmouth bass, walleyes, and muskellunge since my first visit there some 25 years ago.

Fred and I hike the rutted trail from the woodcutter's home, where we had left our truck and piled our gear and food into an all-but-defunct two-wheeled cart held together with baling wire and prayer. Behind us we can hear the growl of Carl's tractor as he hauls the cart along the old logging road. Crimson maples and sumac and golden hickories, highlighted here and there in the low afternoon sun, wave a greeting. And the peeling paper birches stand clean and white against the darker forest, sentinels marking the familiar way. The birches don't grow well in Virginia, where I live now, and I miss them.

We top the last knob at the end of the four-mile trek and through the trees glimpse sun glinting from wavelets, and the old sensations begin to drum inside as we hurry downhill to where the ancient boat is pulled up and tied on the lakeshore. The pressures of making a living and raising families have kept us away for four years, but everything is the same--the island with the cabin on it, the house-size rock where the two big smallmouths grabbed our frogs at almost the same moment and leaped in tandem, that place along the left shoreline where the unearthly sound of some animal screaming in the blackness of a starless night scared the bejaysus out of us . . .

The sights and smells and memories flooding back in are washing away the detritus of the "normal" world--the boss's words a couple of days earlier ("Can't give you much of a raise this year"). . .the new car we need so badly. . .the two college kids with the big tuition bills. . .the small but persistent signs of the aging process.

All such thoughts are flat-out gone. Replacing them is unabashed excitement--the anticipation of seeing some toothy creature knife up out of the lake's rocky depths to take a lure, its bronze flanks flashing in a breeze brisk, sun-sparkling morning, each leap punctuated by shouts of unrestrained glee. It will happen tomorrow. I know it.

We load the old metal boat, crank up the little outboard, and push off into another world. This place is ours, in a way no material possession can be owned. We burble past Muskie Cove, where on another night Fred hooked a humongous fish that we saw only in silhouette as it leaped and threw the hook right at boatside. He had sat there stunned for a full minute, his knees tattooing the gunwale, then muttered, "Don't know if I want to cast out there again."

Dusk is dimming a magenta sky as we reach the head of the lake and enter the feeder river for the mile-and-a-half run to the camp. My tastes run to mountains and white water, but this stretch of meandering stream, averaging no more than 80 feet across, stirs me. Fair numbers of fishermen and hunters and woodcutters come here, and hulking old logs on the bottom testify to the river's historic use as a timber highway.

So it's not de facto wilderness, certainly. But it's wild enough for me, and as we round a bend where the water deepens abruptly, I see the place where something (muskie? submarine?) grabbed my spinner and, with more power than anything I have ever hooked in fresh water, towed the boat slowly and steadily up and down that part of the river until the hasp on my snap swivel straightened out. I never saw that fish, but my imagination's picture of it is something I will carry with me into old age.

The V-wake of a swimming muskrat catches the last rays of daylight, pointing the way around the last bend to the camp. Four weather-bent, russetcolored structures with white trim--two cabins, a shed, and an ice house--cluster on a little forest-enveloped bench on the right bank, seeming as natural there as the creak of oarlocks.

But something's different--our hosts have made some changes in the past four years. A little dock makes it easier to unload the boat. And inside the main cabin we find propane lights and refrigerator. These improvements generate conflicting emotions. Voices from an age earlier than my own whisper of the wisdom of learning to do without modern conveniences like electricity--instead using fire for light and heat, Coleman stoves for cooking, and digging down through two feet of ice-house sawdust to reach hundred-pound blocks of ice cut out of the lake the previous winter.

Fred has no such hangups about accepting the new comforts of camp --he offers to cut some firewood in case I prefer to cook and sleep outside. I make a comment about the quality of his ancestry. Then I notice that some of the cabin windows have old sawblades nailed across them--protection against bears--and my worries about the intrusion of the modern world seem to subside.

Dinner that night is special. Two thick steaks with all the trimmings and a bottle of wine. Fred does the honors. He and my other outdoor cronies won't let me near the cookstove, and for good reason--20 miles from nowhere is not a good place to come down with ptomaine.

After dinner we raise beer cans in a toast to our hosts, two brothers from southern Ontario whom we had never met until recently. I knew their late uncle a generation ago, when I first came here, but since then our visits have been arranged by a phone call or two. They leave the key--and we leave the rent money--with Carl, the woodcutter. We're the only nonfamily members to use the camp, as far as I know. I remind myself never to violate that trust. It's a rare commodity these days.

In the glow of the propane lamp, I notice the sign, cut from some longout-of-print poster and tacked to the rough walls of the cabin: "FLEE FROM THE WRATH!" I guess that's what we've done, Fred and I--escaped from the ratrace, the demands and pressures, the responsibilities. But I suspect that we are here not nearly so much to run away from something as because we are pulled toward something. . .

Fred and I have been friends since high school. Our wives are the best of friends, and our kids like each other. A man is richly blessed who has one or two friends with whom he can be genuinely himself, with whom he can share both thoughts and feelings, a belly laugh, and maybe a tear or two.

And there is something about the outdoors in general and this place in particular that cements this special friendship. We two have come here to renew an old kinship with this place. The turns and widenings and wild things of this lake and river. The sunken logs that break shearpins and provide lairs for muskies and walleyes. The echoes of past trips that are all but audible as I gaze unseeing out the cabin window.

We are indeed drawn here. I feel that pull every time I look at the oil painting on my livingroom wall--an uncanny likeness of the view downriver from this cabin. Fred found the painting in a gallery somewhere and presented it to me one Christmas.

Something waits for us here. The next morning we go out to taste it, braced by birdsong and windsong in the bright woods. A two-mile hike along dim paths takes us to a pool on the river. Two waterfalls keep boats from reaching this place; we used to think that no one else ever came here, but we've since found bootprints, and once, a soda bottle.

No matter. The smallmouths are here by the hundreds. The first time we found this place, Fred and I stood on a lavalike rock outcropping, which points into the pool's depths like a finger saying "Fish here," and caught a smallmouth bass on almost every cast for four hours.

The passage of four years hasn't changed anything--we stand on the rock ledge with light rods throbbing violently as 12-to 15-inch smallmouths soar skyward, their tails a butterfly blur in the morning sun. How many situations have you encountered in which you can let your joy out in spontaneous whoops and grins and gestures, without feeling intimidated by the surroundings or people nearby?

When the action slows a little, I pull a camera from my backpack. In an effort to get the right composition for the shot--grinning angler, bent rod, white water feeding the pool--I back up so far that I nearly slip off the ledge and join the fish. My partner nearly does the same, but because of spasmodic laughter.

The photos we take are mostly for the benefit of family and friends. For Fred and me, the important details of this place are imprinted on the soul. They are there for instant replay, to be called up to sustain us whenever the alligators are gaining on us. This place is part of the fabric of who we are as men trying to stay sane and solvent in a shrink-wrapped society whose often mindless, grasping values are yammered at us incessantly by the TV and print media. It's an anchor, a lifeline to the real world.

In a couple of days we'll be heading back to what most people think is the real world. My wife will be glad to see me--and I her. She's the greatest gift the good Lord has ever given me, and there's nothing we can't talk about together. But she'll never understand the part of me that needs this little chunk of wild country, why I need to return here every once in a while.

Fred understands. He and I will be back--next year, I hope. I'll return for all the reasons I've tried to tell about here. But it's more than that. I need to bring my sons here. The younger one, Brian, is 13, and growing up in an age that is losing contact with the natural world and its processes. More and more children in this nation are becoming insulated from that world; more and more of the next generation --the people who will be making the land-use decisions that will determine the fate of wild country like this place --are growing up believing that milk comes from a plastic jug, that eating wild animals is unthinkable, that getting dirt under the fingernails as you plant a tree or a garden is something people used to do a long time ago.

Kids learn by experience. Brian needs to know--before the "real" world gets its hooks too firmly into him--what it feels like to stand in the wilderness on an inky night and be unable to see anything. He has to experience the taste of walleyes taken fresh from the water he can see from the cabin as he eats, and understand that it is fare no restaurant in the world can duplicate. He needs to know firsthand that nature can be cruel and unforgiving one day, benign and giving the next. And he must understand that the freedom to take from the natural world brings with it the responsibility to conserve its gifts of woods and water and wildlife.

If he learns those lessons, surely he'll have a step on the world when he too must face its wrath.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:forest vacations
Author:Rooney, Bill
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Previous Article:The biggest western redcedar.
Next Article:"Fritz vs. the feds" - a rebuttal.

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