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It was August and Joy & I were on holiday. We’d already had four trips together and now were planning another little five day excursion. Back to the Cariboo lakes east of Wendigo through Otter lake.
Our son Will would be coming with. He’s a seasoned tripper. As he grows, there’s so much more he can do on the trail. He really enjoys
the bush experience. Joy & I had been taking our children with us camping since they were very small, five of us in one 17 foot boat. As soon as a PFD fit, they came along. We’d all crowd into one tent and tell stories at bedtime, after the evening meal and campfire. It was great. Lots of memories. Of course, as they grew, their own lives became paramount for them, as it should be. For Laura and Ray, camping was what their parents did. It lost its charm for them and other things became more compelling. But, they’ve got a good grounding in the basics, know their way around a canoe and understand what being in the bush is. They've used a compass and maps, and they've been lost, too, without panicking. If they ever come back to it, they’ve got ready access to all our gear. Our youngest, Will, has remained keen and has tripped with us every year since he was an infant.
Now, Will was fifteen and able to portage the boat and the largest of the packs. He could paddle all day too. He’s turning into another partner for Joy & I on the trail.
We planned to run up to our current favourite haunt at the Rocks in Otter, then move up the trail to north cariboo and do some exploring from there. Many of the littler lakes east of the Bird system are unnamed on the topos. So, Joy & I have taken to naming places over the years. Sometimes the names relate to physical aspects of the lake or island or point, like cocacola lake; sometimes the name relates to who’s along, like raymond lake, or to something going on at the time, like tutte bene. Hey, if the DGS won’t name them, we will.
It’s great to have our favourite place in the bush; one we’re in often, sometimes several weekends in a row. The place is clean, no glass, fishing lures or garbage, nothing to spoil the wilderness feel of the site, and nothing to prevent going barefoot or lying unclothed on the ground. Sometimes, we’ve been there more than at home over a month, or a season. When we leave the site to go back to the city, we set things up for our return. Then, when we do come back, we find the firesticks not moved, and the wood where we left it. Nothing disturbed. Like our summer cottage except it’s wilderness. We discovered this little site while we were camped at another spot and
spending the day exploring, just pootin’ about. It’s off the beaten path so not too many others think to go there, especially those transiting to portages north or east. Makes you think there are places like this everywhere, one just needs to take the time to look for them. There are two basic types of trips we do: travel daily on a pre-planned route or sit in a site for a couple of days, both of which are great fun, although quite different the one from the other. When we want to sit, we come here to the Rocks in Otter, depending on how much time we’ve got. That, or up to the cariboos.
The trip up from home was uneventful besides the usual excitement. A Beausejour lunch stop, chiliburgers and fries. Meander in to the spot, set up. Meal, fire, talk. Stories & songs. Family fun. The Song of the Paddle.
Next morning, a lingering breakfast. A couple of huge snapping turtles, big as daypacks, bigger. Somebody’s feeding these guys. Then pack up & move off to the north. Four lakes and a half dozen portages or so later, we were at north cariboo. A large flat site, gently sloping in a new growth jack pine forest down to clear clean water.
Great swimming, over to the island on the other side & back, or around it. Joy & Will are avid and excellent swimmers, unlike me. I’m just in & out, to be clean. It’s a beauty little lake, not on a regular route, wild and seldom travelled. Lots of side trips in and around there, too. Real nice camping.
On the way up north that second day, just before the first portage, there was something in the water. Actually, what first caught my eye was an eagle in a tree. Not in a fishing spot, it was sitting off sun. Normally, they seem to like to sit with the sun behind them, the way terns or hawks hunt into the water, where they can see the fish beneath the water's surface, downsun. Then I realized there were several eagles, and vultures there. That’s when we looked around more carefully & spotted something in the water. It looked like a grey rock, except it had a hole in the top of it. As we got closer, I realized it was a dead animal, a moose, lying in about 3 feet of water, mostly covered. The birds had evidently been feeding on it, because it had a hole and it also had their white droppings on it. When we came into the bay, they lifted off, soaring into the air. Quite a sight, 15 or 20 large birds soaring around us. We gawked a bit and then left them to their devices. We had to move on.
Over that portage I wanted us to stay close together. I like to stay close anyway, but I paid more attention than usual that time, without making too big a deal out of it.
When we got up to Wendigo, I never really gave that moose another thought. We were moving through the bay where we’d seen the cinnamon bear the previous year. It was a large and beautiful animal with a red coat and a white face. A spirit bear. It hadn’t seemed too concerned about us either, as I recalled. So I had other things on my mind. Another close portage, keeping within a few feet of each other. And talking over loud.
When we got to cariboo, we went right through to the north lake and
its great flat site. It also has a beautiful ridge, high up. Great sunset. We stayed there two days, exploring the area a bit. There’s a pond we call the infinity pool. There’s a little back river off a bay, over toward 99 lake, a real old haunt. It’s like everywhere in the shield country. If you’ve got some time to look around, there’s plenty to see.
All too soon it was time to go. It’s never long enough in the bush. Back through the portage trail to the Rocks. When we entered that dead moose bay, the carcass was gone. The shore plants were all tramped down. Will wondered what could’ve killed that big moose. I was more interested in what could’ve dragged it from the lake. Had to be big because that moose was probably over 600 kilos. Joy wanted to go back ashore and find it. I demurred. Bears like to stay near a carcass, out of sight. Not smart to fool with their food sources. Joy teased me a bit. She can be a blue jay like that. We paddled away & forgot about it.
Our camp was on the other side of the lake. Back at the Rocks. After a few days in the bush, especially on the fifth or sixth trip of the season, the relaxation and absorption into the trail life can become so complete that the other life, in the city, fades. Wood, water, gear, trails: that’s life. Sweet elemental existence just makes one hanker for more. 55 days across Ungava anyone? Or pull a Scott & Kathy Warner?
Next morning we’d pack up and be gone. Back to our home and the other kids, to make them a nice supper. Comfort food to let them know we’d missed them too. Joy wanted to hit the car before noon so we’d be back in plenty of time to shop & cook. That meant an early start, which frankly isn’t my usual m.o. So we hit the sack early.
About 3:00AM, I woke. Our little nylon tent was about 800 meters from the dead moose bay. A pack of wolves was howling over there. This wasn’t some sweet , melodic howling like you might hear up in Algonquin. It was wild, raw, dissonant and loud, like the tearing of the wind, terrific and terrible.
Felt like they were right beside the tent. And there were several of them. I know wolves themselves are no threat to people, but this was exciting. It was hard to get back to sleep, in part because the pack didn’t stop for a good while. That and my mind kept running over the scenario: large bear drags moose out of lake, eats all it can, then gets pushed off the carcass by wolf pack, who then eat all they can & start to howl their happiness to the dark night, which probably p/o’s the bear more, so we’ve got a grumpy, large bear wandering around in the dark, maybe getting hungry, and maybe heading our way. And what's worse than that? Maybe a bear holding a shark. So who can sleep? Well, it seems like Will & Joy can but not me. Worry wart. The night passed without incident.
In the morning we were up & out. Back to the car and quickly on the highway home. The wolf howl made a great story for Will who’d slept through it all. Joy & I were planning to take Will & his friend Mike back out two days later for a few days. It’d be Mike’s first wilderness trip, so we were just going to head up to the Rocks, center there and day trip a couple of nice loops we know in the area. The kids had a great time. And sure enough, at night the pack serenaded us. I guess it takes a while to eat a whole moose, a week or so anyway. I was glad Mike’d had that opportunity because hearing a wolf howl doesn’t happen too often. Even though the area we were in has plenty of moose, white tail deer and cariboo, I’d only heard wolves once before there. But that’s another story.
Bill Mason said that nature films and stories dealing with the bush portray that the woods are running alive with animals. But they're not. It's a really big deal to see an animal, especially the more secretive ones like wolves, lynx or cougar. Sometimes I think that the animals let themselves be seen, indulging us. The more time I spend on the trail, the wiser and truer Bill Mason gets.
little trip made me think. I’ve been all around this corner of the
Little North, looking for the out of the way spots and wilder
routes, those sinewy back country ways open only to us self
propelled types. And yet, here at the campsite which to me was
most familiar and least "wild", I’d had a strong wilderness
experience. I got to thinking that I’ve got to appreciate every
paddle stroke, every step of the way more. Get excited about this
life. Look at each place anew, and shed the contempt implicit in
the familiar. While it's great to be easy in the bush, it seems
like familiarity and complacency can diminish the experience, rob
it of its wonder. I need to keep that in my mind. Like the Tibetan
prayer flags say: Remember. Or, to quote the Honourable Bob Marley "You got to lively up yourself."
2004 by Bob Grafton-