It’s the end of September and the day is achingly beautiful. The sun is rising, the fog is lifting. The wind is in my favor and in my canoe I glide north along the shore. I have no other destiny than eternity.
At this hour and at this hour I am the only boat on the lake, but not the only life. A kingfisher clatters out of the back channel behind the island I live on. I know the young loon is fishing, and through the mist I can hear the flocks of geese heading south: some migrating, others to end up in the marshes where hunters wait. Like me, hunters get up early.
Geese aren’t the only ones that fly high. The trails of the jets are already drawn in the sky and at the end of today they, or other more recent ones, will still be hanging, ragged but motionless.
I slip through the mouth of a small bay and head east along a long finger of lake. There are cabins along the north shore and although most are closed, smoke slowly rises from a chimney. I feather my oar and go smoothly. My real hope is to sneak up on a deer at the water’s edge, but I’m always happy to slip by some peasants’ dock and scare them away with a “good morning” in this seemingly empty scene. No luck today, but once in Haliburton I floated quietly up to an early morning fisherman on my back and almost said good morning and got him out of his boat. The pleasures of canoeing.
Is the canoe the ultimate, er, pleasure craft?
There are no fishermen in this bay, it is too shallow. The canoe slides over rocks, logs, beer cans, old tires, and Styrofoam cups. I know people, concerned and committed, who would pick up the smallest pieces of trash and bag them up. For a moment I feel bad for not being one.
I row almost to the end of the bay in six inches of water and then turn around. The only animals I see are a red squirrel swimming across the bay and a mink floating on a rocky shoreline. As I walk out of the bay I take off my gloves. They were needed an hour ago; the temperature was 40°F. Now the mist lifts and the sun is real hot. On the way back, I talk to a peasant on the south coast who saw me approaching. It’s ordinary, pointless conversation, but it fills me with importance, because he’s standing on the deck of his cabin drinking coffee and I’m kneeling in a cedar-canvas canoe, leaning forward on my paddle across the central bank. . The pleasures of canoeing.
This peasant is only willing to spend a long weekend or maybe, although I do not ask, to hunt a little. He is younger than the peasants he might see in the middle of the week, since most of them are retired: snowbirds who spend six months in the cabin and six months in Florida. As September turns into October, I will see fewer and fewer lights along the coast. In fact, there aren’t many after Thanksgiving.
When I was young, Labor Day marked the end of the cabin year, but Thanksgiving is now the time to pull out the water pipes and have the last big home-cooked meal. Thanksgiving is such a popular time at Kennisis Lakes that in the early 1990s, before Hydro beefed up its service, the power could be counted on to fail on the weekend when all the farmers put the turkey on. the oven at about the same time.
Not that the weather changes much with the arrival of Thanksgiving. Yes, it is a bit colder and there is a risk of frost, but the oaks and maples are still gorgeous and the sky is only a slightly harsher blue, a precursor to the icy blue of winter. The loon still fishes and the great blue heron stalks slowly along the shore. Small flocks of mergansers run over the water and winter birds, great tits, sedges, nuthatches, woodpeckers, are more conspicuous. Red squirrels are manic, climbing up white pines and buzzing down with cones squeezed like fat cigars in their mouths. But those summer zoomers, the hummingbirds, are long gone. They left shortly after Labor Day.
The confused autumn warblers have already passed through their migration. They appeared in and out of the trees on the island for a couple of days, and I searched for them with my binoculars but without much success. Flashes of yellow, flashes of black and white. Easier to see are the butterflies, fluttering for nearly a week, orange and black, and smaller than monarchs. I decide they must be painted ladies. I could be wrong.
The other sign of the change of season is the wind. It comes from the west and the north, sometimes from both at the same time. It pours down in buckets, creating a fierce crosscut in the lake; It is not the time to canoe and it is time for caution in any boat. It goes through all the cracks in my cabin and sometimes flies like a raven at night. Aware of summer tornadoes, I got up several times in the fall night and sat reading with a candle at the ready, waiting for a tree to fall and the power to fail. Looking at the black lake, seeing no lights, feeling lonely. In fact, being alone.
Oh, I know there are several permanent residents three miles to the north and at least one hiding around a corner half a mile to the east. But that’s half a mile by water and about five miles by road. If I had a way.
Instead, I have a trail. Because of the wind on the lake, I no longer head west toward the marina across two miles of open water. Instead, I cross the narrow back channel to the east. I pull my canoe into the bush and follow the trail that my daughters and I made in the forest. This brings me to a bypass road, which leads to the main cabin trail that goes up the east side of this chain of lakes. I don’t feel like traveling on the road when winter comes. Too many hills, too many corners. Too slippery.
And at the end of October the winter has shown that this year he plans to arrive early and stay late. The overnight temperature has been around freezing and the days are getting colder. By mid-October I could sit outside in the afternoon sun. Not how the month ended. There have been tentative snowfalls, generally light. So smooth that I’ve canoed to them, gliding along the now almost barren shore. The water is black, the sky is gray, the trees are dark green, and the snow is white. Words don’t paint a picture. This scene is also beautiful, raw, like a burial under a black umbrella. Necessary and correct and sad.
Now I’m canoeing along the shore and there’s no one to talk to. Neither peasants drinking coffee, nor workers fixing roofs or docks. Nobody fishes, there are no boats. I hug the shore, because even though the wind is still and the canoe is safe, I know the water is cold. I focus on what I’m doing and keep my considerable center of gravity low.
But, ah, the pleasure of the lonely canoe. A couple of neighbors who came over the weekend kindly invited me to dinner on Saturday night at their country house on the mainland. It is not the best night, the rain mixes with the snow and the wind picks up. They are surprised when I reach the seashore, pulling the canoe over a thin bed of snow, and are somewhat apprehensive at the thought of my return journey. Me too, but I don’t say anything and eat everything they offer: roast chicken, potatoes, green beans, salad, cheesecake, borrow some books, thank them, and come back in the evening. Paddling through a protected channel, aiming for the light in my boathouse. Knowing that I have nothing really to worry about. But the night is so dark and the water so black, lots of snow on the boat. I am looking forward to finishing the short trip, but at the same time I think that at 9pm on a Saturday night in late October, I am probably the only person traveling by canoe in all of the Kawartha Highlands. Maybe in all of Ontario. The pleasures of canoeing.
We are now in November and winter is almost here. For much of the fall there were people working, renovating, cutting down trees around the lake. I could hear the squeak of the circular saw and the reverberation of the hammers, but now it’s cold. Cold and gray, not pleasant weather. No canoeing for fun. The earth is empty.
The month has seven days to run when the reality of winter arrives. It is eight in the morning and the temperature is 4°F. Cold. The wind, which roared all night, has died down, the fog is thick, the water is still, black and oily. Viscous. I cross the ridge of the island to the back channel and the boathouse and stop. Glorious. The trees are covered in dew or frost and sparkle when the morning sun hits them. The ground is covered with snow. My eye catches the water in the canal protected by the boathouse; it is still and black but not oily. Frozen. From shore to shore.
How to take care of your canoe out of season
I go down to the boathouse where the boats are frozen in the water and the frozen knots in the mooring rings. I hit the ice with the end of a paddle and it bounces off. The ice is surprisingly thick. I carefully get into my old red canoe and shake it free of ice; so I push forward. The canoe slides over the ice and stays there. The ice is too thick to walk on and too thick to break easily. I grab an ax from the boathouse and carve a channel for myself, peeking out from the bow of the boat. Is not easy. Ah, the pleasures of canoeing.
I crouch with my ax in the bow of the red canoe just in the back channel. The ice is catching the sunlight, turning from slate gray to silver. Snow lies on the ground, the sky is blue, and the green pines and hemlock have silver tips that turn to gold.
Right now, he’s probably the only person in the Kawartha Highlands, perhaps in all of Ontario, making his way through the ice. Winter has come to cabin country and it is truly a beautiful day.
This essay was published as “Same Old Lake, A Fresh New Season” in the Winter 2020 issue of cabin life.