Walking on Water - Wilderness North

Celebrating 30 Years of Wilderness North  –          

Walking on Water

I have always been an outdoorsman. In my last column I talked a little about my indoctrination into the outdoors as a boy. This apprenticeship has laid the groundwork for a lifetime of immersion in the outdoors. 

For the last 42 years or so I’ve worked for a living. I went into a carpentry apprenticeship directly out of high school. About four years later I put down my nail pouch and strapped on a gun belt having taken a position as a police constable. I did that for 30 years. By the end I was pretty beat up. I was a high ranking officer and rarely left the station. But it was there that I took my worst beatings. Yes cops see a lot of violence, death, and danger; but sometimes it’s “inside the compound”, so to speak, where you get gutted. Strangely enough I could kick down a door and take down an armed fugitive easier than I could handle office politics and back-biting. I used to say that I wore my bullet-proof vest inside the station – just with all the panels on my back.

After retirement I went back to my first love as a carpenter and have operated a small construction company for the past 6 years. While the actual work of being a carpenter is cathartic for me, operating a business is not. So I’ve decided to change course once again. A course that will involve more time in the outdoors, and less time in distress. I will still swing a hammer, a fly rod and a rifle – but on my own terms. Retirement – like marriage and having children – should not be based on financials. The richest blessings in life are not measured by a statement expressed in commas and decimals. 

The outdoors has always provided a source of rescue for me. It has been my shelter-in-place. You might say that throughout my life I have always had one foot in the water. As a devout follower of Christ, being on, in, or under the water is rich with significance. So when I power up an outboard to cross a lake and cast the far shore, I’m not just fishing – I’m walking on water. 

While my outdoor passion has taken me to a variety of places around the globe, the far north of Ontario has been my go-to place. Geographically this is the area north of Lake Nipigon to the coast of Hudson Bay. One of the big attractions here is that there are no roads, and no railway tracks. The primary mode of travel is bush plane. If you have lots of time and energy you can paddle some of these waters. There is nothing wrong with that kind of adventure but I like getting places quickly. To put things in perspective, you could drop the state of Texas into the area I’m talking about. So paddling might take you a while.

I’ve been to countless lakes and rivers in this area and never saw another soul except for my fishing partners. That said this past summer while fishing a remote lake in Wabakimi Park we encountered a group of canoeists paddling through a small narrows. It was about as surprising as a Sasquatch sighting (which I’ve yet to experience). I think they were as surprised as we were. As they paddled around the corner, one of my friends leaned over in the boat and said, “Oh no. I left my wallet on my bunk in the cabin.”

“I think you’re safe. Something tells me they’re not up here to burglarize fishing camps.” I said.

But aside from the solitude what is it about this experience that I am so drawn to? 

It really is hard to explain. But let me describe what comes to mind without sounding like a cheesy Face Book meme writer.

It starts with the lift off – be it in an Otter or Beaver or similar bush plane. You climb into the sky and the trip is actually coming to fruition. I’ve had trips that were so timely that I actually felt the stress leave my body as the plane lifted off the water, like I’d shed some kind of heavy overcoat. You switch your phone to Airport Mode because the signal is gone anyway. From here on there may be an opportunity to check in with family periodically, but otherwise you’ve just unplugged from the noise of constant messaging that has become the norm in our society.

As the plane levels out at cruising altitude I crook my neck to look out the window and watch all the lakes and rivers that ribbon the boreal forest as they slowly go by. Initially there seems to be several small buildings on each lake, but after a few minutes you’ve passed the limits of road access so cabins are few and far between. Their roofs remind me of coloured thumb tacks on a green map. You stare at these remote little shanties and wonder what the fishing is like on that particular lake. 

As you travel north the forest becomes less dense. It is concentrated around waterways, with lots of mossy bogs in between. Scientists tell us that these were once lakes that have slowly been overtaken with decaying vegetation and floating bog. We call them “moose meadows.” 

Strangely enough the forest from a few thousand feet looks quite sterile. I am always looking for game. Occasionally in the summer you’ll see a moose standing in a lake or pond in a weedy area. But somehow these thousand-pound animals can disappear into the woods and be virtually undetectable from the sky. 

When you land, however, the forest and lakes come alive. You’ve circled the lake and cabin that will be your home for a week or so and touch down on the water. Once the floats break the surface tension and gradually settle into the water there is a second layer of distress that melts away. The plane has landed and you are here. You can forget all that troubles you and turn your mind towards more important things: like what exactly are the fish biting today?

If you saw the north in the dead of winter, you’d wonder how anything could survive until spring. Yet everywhere you look there is life. Fish, baitfish, leeches, insect larvae – and the birds and aquatic animals that make their living in the water are present from shore to shore. The lakes here all have a dark, smoked-glass appearance reminiscent of weak tea. This is because all rain and snow-melt is strained through acres of mossy-floored spruce forest. These waters have a way of looking dark, black and foreboding on cloudy days; but shimmer blue when the sun is out it and sometimes you can see down ten feet or more. 

The shorelines are a combination of rocks and sand. I marvel at how many animal tracks you can find here. It strikes me that animals like walking on sand beaches as much as we do. Often you’ll spot a mink bounding along the rocks. It’s like they’re following you along the shore to see where you’re fishing. After all, you are their only real competition here.

On a fairly regular basis otters will pop their heads out of the water to check you out. This only seems to happen when you’re cruising along at trolling speed. Loons do the same thing. Whenever I see loons or otters I take it as a sign. They hold the real intelligence on where the fish are.

The forest is so dense on these lakes that you really have to pay attention to see wildlife. So instead of staring at the tip of my fishing rod, I am constantly scanning the lakes edge and following the shafts of light as they penetrate the forest. There you’ll see birds, squirrels, weasels, grouse and rabbits. There are predators too like lynx, martin, fisher, bear, wolves and even the rare wolverine. Woodland caribou will often walk to the water’s edge to investigate the sound of a trolling outboard motor.

I marvel at the thought that one black spruce tree can be the perch for insects, song birds, grouse, pine martins and even a lynx. 

These same black spruce trees form an almost haunting, jagged line on the horizon where the forest meets the sky – especially late in the day. It looks more like a painting than a real landscape. The low sloping limbs look like they were made with the light downward strokes of a fine brush on a deep blue pallet. 

Sunsets are so epic that there is no point in describing them. You just have to see one for yourself.

I have two commons positions when I’m travelling by boat. One is looking ahead towards the next bend with the wind in my face and the other staring backwards at the person running the motor with the wake emanating outward and back from where we have come. 

Yes, the fishing is good. Sometimes beyond good. But the fish are wild things and go where they please. You have to find them. But that’s your job now. A little tip: they’re often clustered in places with structure and current. These northern lakes are all part of a flowing system; in the areas I frequent, either the Albany or Ogoki river systems. It’s reassuring to know that the water is constantly flowing somewhere, cleansing and refreshing itself, and being rejuvenated with life. I’ve never really had bad fishing per se. But have had bad weather. 

Again, just like everything else, weather is part of what defines the north. I’ve had days so hot and still that I literally had to find the shady side of an island to stop from cooking in my own juices. Yet other days, even in mid-summer, I’ve been so chilled to the bone in driving rain and wind that my teeth chattered – which is significant considering I’m Canadian. I still think about a time on Makokibatan Lake with two guys in my boat, clenching the gunnels with white knuckled, prune-like hands in the driving rain and wind. Their raincoats done up around their faces so tight that you could only see glasses sitting on wet noses. Rain and spray from waves intermixed so that you couldn’t differentiate between the two. Miserable? Yes. But forgettable? Never. I’m not sure what it is about times like this that make them stand out in our mind. It’s the masochistic mechanism of the human brain, I suppose. The same wiring that makes us crave a good horror movie. But this is the wild. This is wilderness unplugged. You can’t manipulate nature. Pushing back doesn’t change a thing. You just have to ride it out, and tell a good story later on.

This is how the wilderness works. Every animal here has learned how to adapt. Even though you’re only here for a week, you adapt too. I’d say it takes a couple days for the residual tension to dissipate but by weeks’ end you’re fully into the rhythm of the wilderness.  

You have finally shed all the weight and baggage that you had when you boarded the plane. You’ve learned how to navigate the lake in both wind and calm. The boat cuts the water, rising and falling with the waves. You have truly taken on a form of weightlessness. 

You, also, are now “walking on water.”

*📸Photo credit: Timmy Smith

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