1. Getting To Canada (again and again)
Had it really been five years since we’d been to our wilderness fishing camp in Ontario? Linda and I were there in the summer of 1999. Now the summer of 2004 was approaching. Five years. Yeah! Definitely time to check up on it. When you think about it, it wasn’t all that much to check up on. The camp is situated in a pristine forest on the edge of a lake within a hundred miles of the U.S. border. It’s some fifty zigzag miles long and full of islands and back bays, rocks and shoals, some deep water and abundant fish of cool water varieties, like walleye (pickerel, as the locals call them) and northern pike, some of which are of gigantic proportions.
The lake and wilderness part is a lot to check up on — an awful lot. It’s the trailer that isn’t that much. Several years ago my friend Bob owned it, a seventeen foot little beauty with a full complement of appliances and cramped room enough to sleep four. When it was fairly close to the end of its pretty life, he took it to Alaska during the winter. Forty below temps popped the water system but good, and somewhere along the way he lost the use of the furnace, oven and refrigerator. It took a beating. When he got it back to Virginia and found out I had bought a wilderness lot in Ontario, he “donated it to the cause,” and the next summer he, his son Bobby and I headed for Wild Lake in his truck, trailer in tow, to deliver it to the area and take in a bit of fishing as a bonus.
That was in 1997. In those days, there were no roads to the property, but there was a long gravel road to a marina, which still left six miles of open water to cross to get to the vicinity of the lot. We could rent a boat at the marina and motor over to see the property. We arrived at the marina with enough daylight left to make the journey and explore the swampy, alder choked bay that was the site of my lot. In spite of the difficulties that would obviously be encountered in using the property, I fell in love with the lake and the property too, wherever in that labyrinth it was.
We explored what we could get access to in the boat and went back to the marina and set up the trailer. We stepped inside just as a storm broke over us. The wind lashed and the rain poured for the next three days. It penned us in until the deck of cards we had was as worn out and frazzled as our tempers. Our time allotted for the trip was almost up anyway, so we packed up to head back to Virginia. Of course, the lake would be frozen in winter, so I contracted with the marina owner to haul the trailer across the ice and set it in a small clearing I described for him that was “on the property.” We drove out of the marina parking lot just as the sun broke through and beautiful blue skies opened up, apparently for the duration. We looked wistfully at the lake a moment, and said, “Ah, to heck with it,” or something like that, and headed south, leaving the trailer in the marina parking lot with a tarp over it.
The next summer Linda and I got word of a new road being constructed in that area that would eventually provide access to our lot. We made the trip up and took the new road as far as a MB Resort, a vacation resort not far from our lot. We met some other lot owners and also Dale M. and his employee, Mike. They had been contracted to extend the road to several properties including ours. During our discussions of property lines and such it became evident that the trailer had been deposited on a different lot than the one I owned. Bummer! I had misunderstood the lay of the land and had misrepresented my lot location to the marina owner.
Not to worry. Dale would use his equipment when the roads were complete to move the trailer to its rightful position on our lot. In the meantime he cut a temporary road to get to it and moved it to a shaded spot at the boat ramp on his own lot. Linda and I stayed in it and enjoy its skimpy comforts in its temporary location and finished our vacation with much fishing and a few beer parties with Dale and Mike.
Next summer, Linda and I drove up and were able to navigate the new roads in to the property, sort of. We found Dale’s property, his motor home camp, and our trailer still parked where it was the year before. Everything was fine, except he had not finished the road to our property. So there, for the most part, Linda and I enjoyed our vacation, fishing, swimming in cold water, having a few impromptu beer parties at the boat ramp.
Toward the end of our stay, Dale opened the road to our lot and hauled the trailer to its permanent home on a flat knoll “near” the water, then cleared some of the balsam trees around it, leaving a number of beautiful clumps of large white birches. We immediately closed the trailer down, locked up, took a last loving look at our Shangri-la, and headed for Virginia. That was in 1999.
Poor Linda. She loves that place as much as I do. The problem is, after back surgery early in 2000 she could no longer tolerate a stiff truck ride from Virginia to northwest Ontario, some fifteen hundred miles plus, one way. A pickup truck is a necessity to transport our clothes, fishing tackle, the tools and equipment we’d need to care for the place. The roads in to the camp are also much better navigated in a four-wheel drive vehicle than in the more comfortable Honda sedan, which would be at considerable risk of being damaged by the last several miles of the trip.
We considered an option to fly Linda to Minneapolis, where I’d be waiting to meet her for the last leg of the journey on to camp. In the final analysis we decided that too, might be too tough on her, and the consequences not worth the risk.
Besides, to power the boat I was to rent from the MB Resort nearby our camp, I’d bought an outboard motor through E-bay and I had to pick it up in Fort Frances, Ontario. There is a Customs entry point there and it would be somewhat on the way to the lake. Still, it was an extra wrinkle in the trip and the hassle might be the straw that would break her back, or more literally, just might be too excruciating to endure. No, she would be more comfortable at home and I would make the trip alone.
I’d take my voice recorder to keep a journal. It would be kind of like having Linda with me — she just wouldn’t be talking back. Some might say that maybe that wouldn’t be all bad, but not me. I knew I’d miss her voice. But, I anticipated that after five years, this would be more of a working trip than a leisurely fishing trip. The place would be grown up in bushes and who knows what the local wildlife had done to the trailer during that time. I might have to sleep in a makeshift tent made from the tarp I was taking along. And after all that, I had it in the back of my mind to build a boat dock. A dock would cut down on the trail time needed to traverse the woods around our bay to the point where it was then possible to harbor a boat, some two hundred yards from the trailer. And a fishing camp without a boat dock is a sadly deficient fishing camp.
I’d have my work cut out for me, because the dock would have to span a wetland alder thicket to reach navigable waters, some eighty to a hundred feet from the dry land at the camp. There was plenty of raw material to build with, as the woods around the camp were thick and I wanted to do some modest clearing to make the lake view more appealing. This would also allow the breezes to come ashore to make it a little more difficult for some of the millions of mosquitoes that infest the area to get a foothold on one’s ear. I thought that would definitely be a plus.
So I looked forward to the challenges ahead as I packed up my tools, fishing gear, and enough clothes to handle whatever weather was likely to come. I roughhoused our four Jack Russell Terriers in a farewell session, kissed Linda goodbye and was on my way early that Monday morning, June 7, 2004.
Travel is best enjoyed in an incident-free environment and that is pretty much what I encountered on the way to Fort Frances, except for the head-on collisions. Fortunately for me and not for them, my vehicle considerably outweighed the red-eyed black cicadas that had waited seventeen years to challenge me at Interstate speeds. The results weren’t pretty, but at every pit stop along the way the truck grill and windshield were efficiently picked clean by an expectantly waiting crew of sparrows and starlings. After more than half a century I’d found something good about these particular species of birds.
The other less than satisfying condition I found on the trip was the necessity of pumping gasoline at a spirit-chilling $2.00 plus per gallon. Oh, well, plastic is cheap. I did consider that it was entirely possible that I would some day look back at the good old days of $2 per gallon gas, or perhaps gasoline would soon be obsolete. With these exceptions the trip was uneventful and I rolled into the border crossing between International Falls, Minnesota USA and Fort Frances, Ontario, Canada Tuesday evening.
I had been there a number of times before on trips to Ontario, so it wasn’t like I was some greenhorn tourist there for the first time. Yet I was still buffaloed by the maze of angled streets with imbedded rails for trains carrying material between industrial buildings. This maze was sign-less except for those telling you to beware of the robot-controlled trains. Oh, there was one small cardboard sign, hand-written and precariously placed by some empathetic soul (bless his/her heart) at the most critical juncture of the crossings that says, “To Canada.” This entire complex is sitting on a toll bridge astride the Rainy River, so it’s not like there’s anyplace to escape to. You just have to guess your way on toward the tollbooth and Canadian Customs beyond.
“That’ll be six dollars, please. U. S. dollars.” I wasn’t quite into Canada yet.
I have to say that they, the Canadian Customs Officers, were very nice. Most Canadians I have met are. But they disemboweled my carefully packed stuff to examine everything. They took my drivers license and checked me out on their computer database. In response to their pointed questions at a window that said something in French like “blah blah de émigré”, I explained just what my business was in Fort Frances and Ontario and Canada and Virginia. And I explained, no, that was not Virginia, Minnesota, but a genuine, full fledged state in the United States, one of the original thirteen, and on and on.
Turns out they knew the guy I was in Fort Frances to see, but as far as I could tell, that didn’t carry much weight with them. Anyway, they eventually returned my drivers license and let me go. Believe me, there weren’t any offers to straighten out and repack my cargo. (It rattled around in a very irritating manner all the way to camp and I didn’t get it back in order until I pulled it out of the truck when I got there.) I found a Pizza Hut and a motel there in Fort Francis and zonked out.
Next morning I was up early and located the outboard motor place, which turned out to be a dealership. They weren’t open yet, so I went to the local Walmart to do my grocery shopping. (Weird, huh? Grocery shopping at Walmart!) I loaded my cart with staples (things like salt, pepper, flour, olive oil, mao, mustard, a small ham, milk, eggs, bread, ice, bologna, etc.) which, with all the fish I’d catch, I figured would last me two or three weeks. I even bought a couple of neat-looking mousetraps. (I think I might have had a premonition of sorts even then. More on that later.) I checked out and went back to the outboard dealership.
Mr. S. was very nice and walked me through the paperwork and the controls on the motor, which was new, just out of the shipping crate. It was a 2002 Honda 15 hp with electric start. Seems he had in 2002 bought a half dozen new Honda motors to lease to a client. The client had backed out of the deal. The hassles between the parties took all of 2003 to resolve, and he still had the motors in 2004. He was an E-bay regular and ergo, I bought the new 2002 Honda outboard for some $2600 Canadian dollars (about $1945 US) in mid-2004.
Now the reason I mention the price is that in Canada there is a combined Federal/Provincial GST (Goods and Services Tax) that amounts to 15%. As a US citizen I would be eligible to get a refund of the 15%, but to avoid paying it in the first place, he would have to export it to me. To do this his employee Billy would escort me back to Canadian Customs at the border and check it through them into no-man’s land between the two countries. Then I would have to import it into the United States through U.S. Customs, after which I could do a loop and bring it back through Canadian Customs again, as its legitimate owner.
This was apparently old hat with the dealership. With Billy’s help I got all the papers signed and the Canadian Customs Officers checked the numbers on the motor in three places and they made extra copies of everything (when I asked, they said they would later shred them. Hmmm!), and they let me go back to the United States.
A hundred and fifty yards back through the maze and I was in the capable hands of U.S. Customs. They listened to my story with rapt attention and checked the motor numbers and paperwork two or three times and filled out some more papers. Then they asked me if I was bringing any insects or plants into the US. No, I asserted. I don’t even really like insects most of the time.
“Any tobacco products or alcohol?”
The bare minimum, I assured them.
“Any poultry or beef?”
“Oh, I just have a ham and some bologna, that sort of stuff.”
“Sir, you cannot bring beef products of any kind into the United States.”
“But it’s just bologna.”
“Any kind! We are screening to protect against Mad Cow Disease.”
“Well, I’m going right back into Canada. Is it all right if I go up there and eat it?” I could see my bologna winding up in the trashcan — or worse, used as evidence of my malformed conscience in a court hearing somewhere.
“If you’re going to Canada and will not be consuming it here in the United States you may take it with you.”
“Thank you.” They let me go then and watched carefully while I made a U-turn and headed for Canadian Customs.
But first, I had to stop at the tollbooth. Sigh.
“That will be six dollars, please. U. S. dollars.”
I forked it over and drove on across the border to the Customs booth. I don’t know if the Canadian Officer manning it was aware of my previous detention by his compatriots a couple of hours before or not, but my business in Fort Francis and Ontario and Canada carried a lot more weight with him than it did with the guys on the other side of the building. About three answers and I was a free man heading into the Canadian wilderness.
There was a sign soon after I pulled off the paved highway that read, “MB Resort 36 miles.” By water MB resort was about a mile from the trailer, by road about seven miles. This was interesting terminology though, considering the sign was in Ontario, Canada. Most signs you see expressing distances in Canada are stated in kilometers. Of course, the resort’s clients are mostly American. Makes sense that they would speak miles. What the sign doesn’t tell you is in 36 miles you’re going to find some mighty rough stretches of road.
Since my last visit they had smoothed some of it. Many of the head-sized boulders had been swept to the side, where they lined the road ditches like stone fences in the Virginia countryside. Those are made with generally flat, dark gray or brownish stones, the stones in Ontario are mostly roundish and white. And there were still stretches of road where the heads hadn’t rolled yet. They were scattered all over and it was like driving Dodgem’s at the amusement park to keep from bouncing them off the undercarriage of the vehicle. Those places were just as I remembered from five years earlier. But, all in all, there had definitely been an improvement to transportation in that part of the world.
Early Wednesday afternoon found me pulling in to the camp area. Yes, there was Lawrence and Cindy F.’s driveway. They had really spruced it up with plywood cutouts of painted cartoon characters attached to nearly every tree as far down their road as one could see. Mr. Magoo, Bugs Bunny, the little sheriff with the red mustache and big six-guns, Spiderman … I got the picture. This was a fun-loving family — quite creative and energetic as well. But I already knew that from the previous trip. I continued on without turning in. They probably wouldn’t be at their camp until the weekend anyway.
There were a couple of new driveways cut off the main road. I went down one to see what was there. I found a surprise — a cleared quarter acre at the water’s edge with a nice new bungalow and utility house. I had been under the impression that lot owners were not allowed by the Crown to clear to the water’s edge. I must have been wrong. No one seemed to be home so I turned around and headed back to the access road.
A couple more driveways had been cut in farther on. When I reached Dale M.’s driveway, his sign was still posted on a tree so I went down it to where Linda and I had spent that summer at the boat ramp. Where the motor home had been was a nice three-room vacation cottage with picture windows. A couple was in the yard sawing boards so I stopped and introduced myself.
Mr. and Mrs. Richard F. had bought the lot from Dale. I explained that I was the lot owner at the end of the road. Oh, yes. They would stop by and say hello later. They wanted to finish the dinette area they were working on right now. After a few minutes I bid them good day and continued toward the trailer site.
I passed two more new driveways, one had a sign announcing it was the property of Indian Joe. That was where our trailer had first been deposited. Indian Joe had bought that lot from the original owner. Like property everywhere, these lots were already changing hands. Amazing what a few roads could mean to real estate commerce in an area. I suppose that has good and bad aspects, depending on your point of view.
I passed the ATV trail that leads across my property to Mike K.’s place and finally arrived at my own driveway, which as I indicated, is an extension of the main road. It had narrowed to barely a vehicle trail by bushes and trees on both sides. Then — dead end! Or I should say, a dead tree, a big balsam fir lay in the drive.
I couldn’t even get to the space in front of the trailer. But considering that the tree could have flattened the trailer had it fallen southward instead of northeastward, I felt very lucky indeed. The first tool I took out of the truck was my chain saw. In retrospect I wish it had been my camera. It would have been nice to have a record of just what it looked like when I arrived. As it was, I later took a few interim pictures of the before and after variety.
I was anxious to open the way so I could get to the trailer as it wasn’t that long until darkness would be upon me. I walked past the downed tree to see the root ball it had turned up (it was actually more disc-shaped than ball-shaped) was almost as high as the trailer. Also, there was a different medium-sized tree down — resting right on top of the trailer. Its limbs and trunk hung upside down in front of the trailer door. I couldn’t even get in the door.
I stared, and sighed, then turned to examine the storage shed that Dale had built as contracted, 8’ by 8’ out of untreated pressboard. There were no hinges on the door, just square-drive screws holding it in place. Great! I didn’t bring a square-drive bit for my portable drill.
Okay, nothing to do but get busy. I tested the heft of the tree lying on the trailer. There is a surprising thing about balsam fir. Once it dies, it dries. And when it is dry it is relatively light. I grabbed two limbs and rocked and rolled what was quite a substantial tree right off the trailer. A few zips with the chainsaw and I heaved the pieces onto a brush heap in the woods behind the shed.
At least now I could get into the trailer. The key to the padlock worked. The hasp had been badly beaten and bent. Someone had obviously made a determined effort to get in without a key. This was a new fact of some concern! But the regular door key worked in the doorknob and I was in.
Everything appeared much as we had left it. The generator was in its box, the water pump was still there, beds were made. I noticed the scent of conifers, like pine, only it was balsam fir cones. I opened all the jalousie windows and vents to let fresh air in. There was a small amount of water damage to the ceiling in back and also in the front. The inner skin had puckered and discolored a bit in places. So something had happened to the roof and there was at least one leak, maybe more. I’d have to get up there somehow and check it out. But not right now.
I pulled out a drawer under the refrigerator. It was level full of balsam cone litter. Mice had gotten in and had a picnic for five years! I looked in one cabinet with access to a wheel well. Yep. The hole in the wheel well that I had crammed Brillo pads into was wide open. The little varmints had pushed the steel wool pads out of the hole and had a perfect entrance for all that time. Damn!
I wondered how many trips they had made from the woods to the trailer to account for the amount of litter brought in. The cabinet over the back bed contains a foldout bed. It had at least a bushel of balsam debris in it — obviously beyond salvage. The damage to everything else would have been far worse except that the material they left had a nice aromatic scent to it that tended to absorb and neutralize the scent of the urine and droppings. I dumped that drawer and several others outside, retrieving all the items that were just dirty and not chewed to uselessness.
I took a five-gallon bucket and headed for the “well.” Dale had previously dug a pit at the edge of the alder swamp and placed two sections of concrete culvert in it. They were about six feet in diameter and four feet long. He set one on top of the other on end in the pit, leaving the top one just above ground level. The cylindrical pit was now filled to within about two inches of the top with relatively clean water I could use for dishwashing. Of course, it would need a healthy dose of bleach and it wouldn’t hurt to boil it to render any pathogens and little water critters inert. At the trailer I replaced an empty 20 pound propane tank and used the stove top burners to boil dishwater.
I spent the next many hours cleaning and trying to salvage what I could of the many small necessities and luxuries of camp life we had stored in those cabinets and drawers. I did what I think was a yeoman’s job, but was unable to clean all the cracks and corners of the debris. For that I would have to bring a vacuum cleaner next time up. For the most part it was fairly clean debris and its only lasting impression was that slight coniferous odor, which either went away after a couple of days of leaving the windows open, or I got used to it and couldn’t smell it any more. Either way, I had a place to get in out of the bugs and rain. Or so I thought. More on that later.
Once the trailer was ship-shape enough that I could stand to stay in it, I got back to the big fir in the driveway. I sawed it in two some eight feet from the roots. The “ball” flopped back in place with a mighty thump, the stump now standing vertically. After a bit of work, I got the trunk and limbs lopped into five foot lengths that I could handle and carried them off to the brush heap. Finally, a clear path into the “yard” for the truck — just in time to roll out the sleeping bag and light a mosquito coil* for the night. It was 11:30 p.m. and still twilight. That makes for a long day.
Some questions had been answered. The trailer was still standing and relatively unharmed by the elements during our absence. It was now clean enough to sleep in. Our belongings were in tact. The storage shed did exist. So, what were my options for building a dock? How difficult was it going to be? Just how deep was the water in that swamp anyway? How many bears were in the area? I had set the cooler with my food in it just outside the door. Maybe I should bring it inside. No, it would probably be okay tonight. I made my journal entry with the voice recorder and went to sleep.
* Mosquito coils are flat spiral coils of insecticide laced material. Each one is about six inches in diameter. They are packed two per package in a Ying and Yang fashion with the heads in the center, like a pair of little green snakes that make a solid disc. To use them, you carefully separate the two (the material is brittle) and suspend one at the head on a metal support. You light the tail and a smoldering coal takes several hours to burn its way to the head. The smoke is toxic to mosquitoes in an enclosed place. The odor is tolerable, even pleasant for humans, but I wonder how much of that toxicity accumulates in the tissues. It’s a tradeoff — mosquito free sleep, or smoke free misery.
© 2004 R. Leland Waldrip