Thursday, April 20, 2006

Part I--Land O' Lakes Lodge, Canada, 1992

Image of Crotch Lake from

[From a growing and unused store of crazy travel experiences]

We're pretty remote, the four of us in a 10-foot aluminum rowboat powered only by oars and at times a battery-driven low-wattage engine we modified from an inflatable raft kit. This is only good for puttering around in shallow water where the oars are useless, though we can cruise slowly across the lake with it if no one feels like rowing. We're up some narrow tributary off Crotch Lake, about 100km north of Kingston Ontario. It's after 2am and the only light we have is from a deep black sky full of stars.

Jay's in the stern, shining a lantern down into weedy fronds along the shore, looking for bait frogs. Kevin is in the back, desultorily casting a spoon out again and again back over his left shoulder. His girlfriend Dawn sits next to him, swatting absent-mindedly at mosquitos and occasionally giggling at some whispered intimacy inaudible over the hiss of his line and clicking of the reel. I'm baiting my hook, astride the middle bench in the still boat, using the backdrop of stars to see by. Betwixt my luminous fingers a dark shadow of worm twists itself quickly away from the sharp jab of the hook before sliding easily along the back-leaning barbs to his doom. When the boat moves gently in a wind-pushed roll there's a glinting clank of empty cans and bottles jostling up against and under the benches. I smell beer and bourbon, wormshit and fish blood. And pot. Dawn hands me half a smoking fatty and I wipe worm slime off my fingers onto my T-shirt before accepting it.

"I do believe," Jay says, scanning his lantern along the heavily forested bank, "that we're out of beer."

Kevin, in the midst of a cast, swears as his line breaks and the heavy spoon splashes somewhere over near the other side of the tributary. "Goddamit. I may as well ball up twenties and throw them in the fucking lake."

I pass Jay the bourbon, still about a third full, but he shakes his head, steps backward to sit, and hears a crack. "I just stepped on my lighter," he says, and we all laugh.

"No beer, no fish, no lighter. Time to head in?" There's general agreement, most enthusiastically from Dawn. I draw deeply from the joint, pass it up to Jay, and cast my line fifteen feet out into darkness. I can just see the white float as it moves against black water. Occasionally we hear an owl or the crash of some heavy beast in the trees. We're not sure if it's a bear or moose or if we really want to know either way. This is as far away from it all as any of us has been, and we've been to Canada 10 times on these family trips. The last hour of the 16-hour drive up from Maryland was on a road that didn't exist yet. About 12 hours earlier we'd stocked up on cases of Molson XXX and Brador and Labatt's Blue at a huge outlet conspicuous as the only retail establishment in the nameless town on the way in. We'd had a good chuckle over the poster at the counter, featuring a sodden distraught cartoon fisherman sitting in a sunken rowboat, X's on his eyes, an upended cooler of empties floating near his head. Beer and Boating Don't Mix was the threatening big-fonted caption. Around about the finish of my first six-pack as Jay rowed us out into the lake that evening I'd been surprised to find myself drunk. "What's going on with this beer?" I'd asked. "I'm bombed early and hard." We looked at the labels and saw the XXX was more than 8 percent alcohol. I adjusted.

Now we begin prepping for the trek back to the cabin, pulling in lines, stowing the rods, pushing empties around. I take the joint from Jay and pass it back to Dawn who passes it to Kevin who finishes it and flings it out into the lake. Seconds later a fish jumps at the roach--our first action in 12 hours on the water. Jay pulls the anchor up out of the reedy muck, and hangs it off the side like a heavy drenched mop. "That's a hairy anchor," I say, and he replies "That ain't the anchor" to our mild amusement.

I start rowing, enjoying the warmth in my shoulders, the quiet immensity of the sky, the fresh unfathomable taste of the air. I'm stoned, drunk, happy. Jay, affixed in the garish yellow uplight of his lantern,tries to roll a Drum cigarette. "How the fuck are you going to light it?" Kevin asks from behind me. Jay squints at him with a quiet contemptuous look.

"Don't worry about it." Once rolled, he fits the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and starts flicking the flint of the broken Bic against a crumpled paper towel. There's the swish of the oars, the groan of the wood and plastic in the metal oarlocks, the clank of empties, and Jay's steady rasping flick-flick-flick. We've got at least three miles to home, and I get us out of the tributary and onto the deep still lake. No cars, no planes, no streelights.

[Part II tomorrow]

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