Here are some photos of us at our cottage in Clearwater Bay, Lake of the Woods where we kids spent all of our summers growing up. As it turns out, this annual migration from the city was the greatest education a young man could have. I may stand corrected by my sister Anne when she reads this account but I believe that my father & mother purchased our lot in about 1956. At the time it was very remote, as the area was just being opened up to the public by the Ontario Government and ours was one of the first lots to be purchased in the area. There was no road or electricity and no portable power generators like they have today so residents built their cottages with hand-tools and a chainsaw, utilizing local timbers wherever possible and hauling in the rest of their supplies and materials by boat, barge or over an ice-road in the winter. The closest demarcation was Pye's Landing which was along the Trans-Canada Highway at the north end of Clearwater Bay, about 5.5 kilometers by boat. Â
Going to the lake was quite the ordeal and had our father not been such a determined individual, we would never have made it. When Dad was going somewhere it was like a mission from god - nothing stood in his way. Three kids, dogs, groceries, materials, tools and everything else one needed to survive for weeks on end, had to be packed up and what didnâ€™t fit into the vehicle ended up tied to the roof. For us kids, the trip was very unpleasant, as it included first, loading the car, then a 3 hour drive on the narrow and twisted old Trans-Canada Highway that has long been abandoned, then unloading the vehicle at the landing, just to reload it all into the boat which preceded a lengthy boat ride (usually after dark) and then unloading it all again at our dock and then again carting it all up the hill to the cottage. In order to stop us kids from bickering for hours on end in the back seat of the car, Mom and Dad had to be creative. It usually started with a roll of Lifesavers. If one sucked on each candy one-by-one and was careful not to bite, one could make that roll last at least a couple of hours. As though it were yesterday, I remember cradling Lifesavers on my tongue until they simply disappeared. It was damnation for anyone who finished theirs first, as the inevitable gloating generally turned into a noisy debate, then a scrimmage followed by a louder â€œSHUT UP!â€? followed by a backhand from the front seat for anyone unlucky enough to be within reach. At best it turned into a constant chatter, which still echoes to this day - "Are we there yet?"Â
If we were fortunate to be travelling during the day, Dad would pay us for spotting wild animals; $1 for a moose, 75 cents for a bear, 50 for a fox, 10 for a deer and 5 for each individual species of bird we could identify, and so on. Nowadays, such an activity may seem fruitless but in those days the wildlife was plentiful. That game not only kept us busy but it was lucrative at times, especially near dusk when creatures were foraging. I became very efficient at spotting game, so it is no wonder that Dad eventually lost interest.
The boat ride was a bit scary at times, as our open wooden boat was only 19 feet long and sometimes we where so overloaded that the gunwales were inches from the surface of the water. I remember bailing out the bottom of the boat with a little tin can in hopes that the breaking waves would not eventually swamp us. Â
While the cottage was under construction, we lived in a tent mounted above the ground on a wooden platform. In those days, tents were all made of heavy canvas, which had a very distinctive smell. There was nothing like waking up in a tent. The smell of the damp canvas steaming in the morning sun and a cool forest breeze sneaking in through the mesh curtains filled the senses - there was an exciting new world, full of things to discover and I was determined to leave no stone unturned. Â
In recent years, I have tried to describe to friends, the incredible diversity of creatures at the lake in those days but there is no way to adequately quantify it. When I try, I am always overcome by sadness for I have both witnessed and been a willing participant in the total destruction of a wilderness habitat in less than one lifetime. We didn't have to look for wildlife â€“ it was everywhere. Several mornings we woke up to find that bears had done there business in such places as the middle of our path to the outhouse and one inquisitive individual actually climbed the stairs and left a massive pile on our landing by the screen door, which was all that separated us. Bear business was easy to spot. First, it was an enormous pile and second, it was an enormous pile. In season, it was indistinguishable form blueberry pie filling â€“ it tasted similar. Several times, Dad had to grab his gun and chase them off the property and we often encountered them at an uncomfortable distance. On the east side of the cottage, the bush was full of Garter Snakes and walking near the shoreline in front of the cottage set off a chain reaction of frogs leaping in all directions. Sometimes I would catch a Garter Snake and a frog and hold the frog by the hind legs in one hand and with the snake in the other, I would slowly bring them together. The snake, captured or not, could not resist the temptation. It would coil up and spring towards the frog swallowing it whole. I would sit for hours watching this huge bulge in the snake dwindle as it moved towards the tail, all the while keeping my hands form my face to escape the foul stench that the snake had secreted for my benefit. Snakes were easy to catch but I could see why they are not high on the local menu. Â
One morning I woke up and peered out the front window, only to find a fully racked bull moose feeding on the reeds along the shore - he was no more than fifty feet from my window. Another time, I encountered a bull moose in the woods at the back of our lot. I couldn't see him at first but I could hear him chewing and snorting. Foolishly, as that was my M.O., I started making noise moving in his direction as though I knew what I was doing. Anyway, if that poor creature had had the opportunity to see his assailant's scrawny 3 foot nothing frame, he would probably not have taken off like a bull in a china shop and lucky for me. No path necessary, he ran through heavy bush, hooves pounding and branches breaking as he cleared his own. I know now that it was fortunate for me that it was not the rutting season, otherwise he may have stomped me to death. Â
I remember entering the boathouse one morning and being startled by the thundering "SMACK", of a beaver who, prior to my entrance, was probably planning to turn it into a den. Fox, wolves, otters, mink and on and on, the woods were loaded with life and a spring visit with my dad to the home of a local trapper really brought it home for me. He had dozens of pelts of all kinds stretched over racks that hung from the ceiling drying in long rows in preparation for market. I had never seen anything like it in my life and hopefully I shall never again - too many dead creatures to count.
The forest was really something but it paled by comparison to the life in the lake. Our lot was not the most beautiful waterfront on the lake, as unlike many, it did not have a rocky shoreline. Instead we were on the edge of a large swamp, which was just to the west of us. We had a broken shore, a mix of boulders and reeds, which was something less than a beach but it had enough sand mixed with the mud that we referred to it as one. Because the marshy shallows of the swamps provide warm still water for breeding and plenty of cover for smaller fish and crustacean. It turns out that swamplands are incubators of life and much of it spilled over onto our shoreline. This fact was good fortune for adventurous kids. One could stand on the dock and watch numerous species of minnows and small fish moving back and forth in huge schools containing countless members. The bottom was littered with Perch, Pickerel and Crayfish sitting almost motionless. If you looked between the floorboards of the dock you would find schools of bass lurking in the shadows and ready to pounce, should an unsuspecting beetle, leach or crustacean happen to venture by. But if one hung a lantern or spotlight at the end of the boathouse at night it was spectacular. Minnows would gather by the millions, schools upon schools moving through each other and emerging on the other side in formation as though the other were invisible. On occasion, a Pike (Jack Fish) would flash by the dock so fast that it appeared to be nothing more than a streak, never knowing if it hit is target. Northern Pike are the Lions of the marsh - top of the food chain. Long sleek and full of energy, they rely on a swift attack. Their keen vision allows them to wind up speed from afar and for any prey foolish enough to venture out from behind cover, it was over in a split second. Yes, so many fish, I would imagine myself walking on the water. Â
We had a canoe and often I would take it deep into the shallows of the marsh where it was fed by a small creek. I weighed so little at the time that all needed to stay afloat was about 4 inches of water. If one was very quiet while entering, it was common to see a turtle or even a mink swimming through the glades; but for sure, there were bugs of every kind, many, I have never seen since, not even in books. Â
To talk about those experiences to people who have never witnessed them, or to the many latecomers to the lake that have since populated it with cottages, is a futile exercise. They do not believe a word of it, as my description of it comes across as an imaginary wonderland, and there is some truth to the fact that wonder was a huge part of my experience. They see the lake as a place where they can pull up in their SUVs, turn on the air conditioning and proceed to entertain themselves and their guests with hot tubs, wake-boarding, Ski Doos and, barbeques - if they could only see what I have seen. I do not blame them, as we are all a product of our own experiences. Unfortunately, the days when Mother Nature ruled Lake of the Woods are long since gone and I am no less guilty than the next person for my participation. I do however carry the burden of having witnessed its destruction and the sadness of knowing that I shall never relive the past. I shall always be forever grateful to my parents for their adventurous spirits, which made all these memories possible.Â
To be continued.Â