A Paddle to Old Forest
On a Friday afternoon in May, four friends and I left Halifax with two canoes, food and camping supplies for a long-weekend escape from the city. Last minute delays meant it was past dark when we set up our tents beside some nameless logging road, by a quiet, boggy lake. We were not sure where we were, only that it wasn’t where we intended to be. In the morning I boiled water for coffee and studied our map, attempting to deduce our location among the myriad lines of logging roads, trails and watercourses. Maps are an approximation of reality.
By midmorning, after a few false turns, we found our destination and soon dipped our paddles into the sluggish waters of Sporting Lake Stream, grinning as our loaded canoes slipped along through the morning quiet. How quickly the city fades from the mind when breathing sun-warmed air off a slow-moving brook, with nothing to do but follow it towards its source. We lunched at the far end of one of several portages. I cut and gathered year-old shoots from wild raison shrubs with thoughts of weaving a basket. We took turns putting our water filters to work, and enjoyed stretching out on some flat rocks, feeling the sun’s warmth. The distance we wanted to travel wasn’t long, and we didn’t hurry.
We made camp on the bank of a small lake. Once the tents were up, I slipped my canoe back into the water and, in the soft light of the evening, paddled to where the lake narrowed near its out-flow stream. An expanse of shrubs bordered the lake – huckleberries, leatherleaf, sweet gale and other bog plants. The sweet gale’s nutmeg scent spiced the warm evening air and the hermit thrushes’ ethereal calls echoed one another from the surrounding forest. It was that utopian moment of spring – all too brief – after the last of the ice clears and before the torment of blackflies ensues. It was also the moment for mayflies, a marker of spring that torments no-one, as these flies do not feed on anything. They exist in their winged stage only long enough to mate and deposit eggs – they belong to a group of insects known as Ephemeoptera, meaning “winged ephemerals.” Incalculable numbers of the insects hovered around me in clouds, now rising a bit, now descending, over the bank-side shrubs and water. I wondered at their coordinated movement, their group dynamic synchronized to who-knew-what rhythm or purpose. It was a gush of spring-time insect abundance, and the winter-hungry trout feasted. The water’s surface was alive with ripples and splashes of darting fish eating their fill of mayflies.
I drifted my canoe alongside the shrubby margin for a bit, then stepped gingerly amidst the huckleberry, feeling for something solid on which to stand. I paused before casting my line, and let a heavy peacefulness settle over me. I realized with a twinge of guilt that it’d been far too long since I’d connected with wilderness, far too long away from streams and forest and the warm evening smell of woods and a lake. I remembered that kid and teenager in me that spent every possible afternoon and weekend canoeing, hunting, camping, fishing, hiking – whatever activity it was just so long as I was out there – and felt a passion rekindled. Most time in wilderness, of course, is far from sublime – mostly it is hot or cold or windy or wet or buggy. But that moment, on that warm spring evening on little lake in south-western Nova Scotia, was a perfect moment of melancholic joy that only time in wilderness can invoke, and only those who go can know.
I cast my line over the water – a few times and then snap! My rod bent sharply and I kept the tip high as I slowly brought the fish in, the rush just as powerful as when I was ten years old, but a thrill I had lately forgotten. The speckled trout was about a foot long, sleek and striking with iridescent colours. A few casts and I had another. I killed and cleaned them quickly, offering a silent apology as my knife entered. Two were enough, and in the twilight, on the edge of night, I paddled back to our tent-site. We cooked the fish over the fire and then passed them around, sharing the sweet, melt-in-your-mouth trout flesh.
Sometime later I read a poem by William Carlos Williams where he states that food, coming to us from the land and sea, is nothing “but the body of the Lord”, and I thought back to that moment of sharing those freshly caught trout, under massive pine trees on a dark May night in a small outpost of wilderness, and while I can’t describe myself as religious, his words rang true and I saw that we and the fish and the forest and the lake were tiny, real, active and interconnected parts of this mysterious, and yes, sacred expression of life.
[originally published in the Chronicle Herald, June 10, 2012]