The canoe lid off right under the wheels of a great big lorry.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, June 22, 1946.

“Let’s see,” reflected Jimmie Frise, “there’s the canoe…”

“And my mattress,” I reminded.

“And the boy’s bicycle,” listed Jim. “And what else?”

“Just a few cartons,” I submitted, “that will easily go in the back seat and the luggage, compartment.”

“It seems to me,” said Jim, “we used to take more junk than that on our first trip to the cottage.”

“We did,” I agreed. “But over the years, we’ve taken so much junk up to the cottage, there isn’t much more room left. Besides, we don’t have to transport as much supplies as we used to. Civilization is thrusting its ugly nose farther and farther into the summer resort country, so that now we’ve got good stores within a couple of miles of us.”

“It’s getting too tame,” declared Jim. “What is a summer cottage for? It is to escape from civilization. It is to get away into the unspoiled wilderness. And then comes civilization sneaking up on us…”

“Don’t forget, mister,” I protested, “how we welcomed the good roads when they came. Don’t forget, we bought the first outboard engines on our lake.”

“I suppose,” sighed Jim.

“First.” I explained, “we go and seek out a wilderness spot for our summer cottage. Next, we start agitating for the electric power to be brought out to us, so we can have an electric refrigerator.”

“The first instinct in a man, the minute he gets a little money,” reasoned Jim, “is to escape from civilization. So he sets up a wildness cabin. The next instinct is to convert the cabin into as civilized an establishment as can be managed. I wouldn’t be surprised if men unconsciously set up a cabin in the wilds for no other reason than to experience the thrill of conquering the wilds and turning the wilderness cabin into a city bungalow as fast as possible.”

“Ah, the insatiable pride of man!” I bemoaned.

“At first,” ventured Jim, “I don’t believe I wanted comforts and conveniences at the cottage. If I recollect, I gloried in its primitive qualities. I used to boast how hard it was to get in to it. We used to have to travel all day, in the Muskoka train. Then we had to sleep overnight in a little country hotel, and catch the boat early the next morning.”

“And you had to take supplies,” I pointed out, “to last most of the time you were planning to stay.”

“It was an adventure,” declared Jim, “a journey and a voyage. To get into our cabin in the wilds was something to plan for and dream about for 10 months of the year. Then the cabin: it was primitive, we used candles and later oil lamps. The wilderness came right down to our back door, full of mystery, menace, silence. Today, back of the cottage that is built on the site of that cabin, a great highway runs. And all day and all night, it roars with the traffic of the summer resort business.”

“Of course,” I pointed out, “there are young fellows now, like us when we were starting out, who are experiencing the same thing away back on the outer fringe of the wilderness. The summer resort area grows just the same way as a city grows.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” remarked Jim. “In a city,” I explained, “when the young people grow up, they move out to the fringes of the city, to the new residential suburbs. They leave the old, shabby district they were born and brought up in. Then they, too, grow old, their families grow up, the new residential district has become old and shabby. And the young folk move on out to the new fringes.”

“It’s the same with summer resorts,” admitted Jim.

Comfort and Security

“Some young people, of the tamer sort,” I elucidated, “the kind who go for dancing and juke-boxes and sailing dinghies, remain in the old summer resorts of their fathers. But the more strenuous, imaginative and vigorous young people – like us when we were young, eh? – hanker to escape from all that sissy stuff. And they push on to the fringes, to the ever-vanishing edge of civilization. All over Canada, young people are hacking cabins out of the real wilds, the way we did when we were young.”

“I suppose,” ruminated Jimmie, “what we think of as our summer homes are really only suburban homes after all.”

“It can’t be helped, Jim,” I reminded. “Civilization is like that. What is civilization but comfort? The desire for comfort is what rules us all. Comfort and security. When we are young, we have a natural desire to escape from the comfort and security of civilization, so we build a cabin in the wilds. But shortly after we have done so, we decide that mosquitoes are a pest, so we install screens. Next, we find it a little troublesome to row down to the steamer dock for the mail, so we buy an outboard engine. The end is, we join committees of other cottagers in the district and start an agitation for the electric power lines to be extended out our way. And we have electric refrigerators, and a motor highway passing right back of the cabin. We wanted comfort. We got civilization. In our old age, the thing we ran away from has got us back in its embrace.”

“Hmmmm,” reflected Jim.

“There is something in us all,” I submitted “that yearns for the primitive and the untamed. In the healthiest of us, it expresses itself in this ceaseless pushing back of the frontiers, the building of summer cabins on a still farther lake. In the less vigorous of us, it expresses itself in this polite formality, of ‘going away for the summer’. And even the pudgy old ladies of the best families have to go where there is some pretence of wilderness. At least some pines. Yet the end is always the same. Comfort and security destroy the thing we love and yearn for.”

“Are you opposed to comfort and security?” inquired Jim darkly.

“No. But what is going to happen.” I demanded “when civilization is complete? When the last wild place has hot dog stands and juke boxes in it? When there isn’t any place left on earth where you can’t go by motor or by comfortable cabin plane? What’s going to happen to that deep instinct in us all to escape from civilization?”

“We should worry,” smiled Jim. “It will be a long time before that happens: by which time maybe human nature will have changed, and we won’t yearn for the wild and untamed.”

“Look, Jim,” I said sharply. “At this very minute parties of American tourists are fishing and camping all over the Arctic edge of Canada. They’ve flown in. In big private planes.”

“Well, there’s the Matto Grosso1,” dodged Jim, “the impenetrable wilderness of Brazil -“

“Full of tourists,” I assured him.

“Well, there’s Baffin Land2,” evaded Jim.

“Aircraft, yachts, all over the place,” I assured him. “Jim, we are in the midst of one of the greatest revolutions in history and we don’t realize it. People are going all over the world, into the most impenetrable regions – for fun!”

“More power to them,” said Jin, airily.

Everyone Seeking Escape

“Look!” I insisted. “A Chicago broker flies up to Ellesmere Island in the Arctic for 10 days camping and fishing for Arctic char. He does it in less time and with less discomfort than his grandfather, also a Chicago broker, travelled by train and boat to Muskoka.”

“More than that,” corrected Jim. “He flies to the Arctic in less time than it takes you and me to motor to the top end of Algonquin Park.”

“All right!” I cried. “Don’t you realize what this is going to do to humanity in the next few years? There isn’t going to be any escape left. There isn’t going to be any place left to escape TO!”

“I’m getting tired,” Jim said icily, “of this ESCAPE business! Escape literature. Escape movies. It’s time the whole world stood still and faced the facts of this world, instead of scattering in all directions madly to escape – like ants when you lift a rotten log and let the day light in.”

“But if you have no escape…” I began.

“Except for a few carefully censored newsreels,” declared Jim, “all the movies are escape movies. Except for a few brief commentators, the whole of radio is escape radio – comedy, drama. Except for the newspapers, cautiously measuring out the amount of grim fact the public can take without gagging – the whole of the printed word, pouring like hail upon the earth, is escape literature. Unreal, romantic, visionary, out of this world.”

“The idealistic…” I tried to butt in.

“The whole world,” cried Jimmie, “rushing into movies, crouching in front of radios, buried in books and magazines, trying to escape the terrible facts of this world, by every hook and crook that can be devised.”

“But surely,” I protested, “after a long and horrifying war, we are entitled to a little escape…”

“Not,” declared Jim, “while the greater part of the world is facing utterly inescapable tragedy. We here in North America escaped the war in a sense that Britain, Europe and Asia didn’t. We still want to escape! What’s the matter with us?”

“It’s human,” I stated, “to want to escape.”

“It’s human,” cut in Jimmie, “to want to be comfortable, to be secure: so that’s civilization. It’s human to want to escape. And what’s that?”

“Civilization too.” I admitted heavily.

“Britain, Germany, Russia and Italy didn’t escape the war,” pursued Jim, “and now they can’t escape the consequences of the war – famine and political ruin. And while they’re busy with that we are busy still escaping.”

“Wouldn’t the people of Europe escape if they could?” I demanded.

“Er…” said Jim:

“Would they face the terrible facts,” I gripped, “if they didn’t have to?”

“I guess the ruin that fell on Europe,” reasoned Jimmie, “was the result of everybody so busy escaping from reality that they let a gang of lugs, in all countries, muddle them into a terrible war. What’s going to happen to us, then, do you suppose, escaping we’re doing as the result, of all the now?”

“Nothing HAS to happen,” I pleaded.

“Something always happens,” asserted Jim, “to escapists. We want comfort. We want security. We want to escape.”

“Escape what?” I demanded, suddenly irritated.

“Escape our responsibility,” shot Jim, “for our share of the cost of OUR comfort and OUR security.”

“We went to war…” I cried hotly.

“War never in history did anything,” said Jimmie, “but destroy the security of one people and temporarily bolster up the comfort of another.”

“Temporarily?” I scoffed. “We British have been pretty comfortable for a good many centuries!

“But uneasy,” smiled Jimmie, “at last!”

“We’re not uneasy!” I snorted.

“No?” inquired Jim softly.

But No Canoe

“The canoe,” I reverted suddenly, picking up Jim’s list. “The canoe, my mattress. the boy’s bike…”

“What do you want with that mattress?” asked Jim.

“My old mattress,” I explained, “has been up at the cottage for 20 years. Mice have nested in it. It is full of lumps.”

“Comfort, comfort,” sighed Jim. “Always thinking of your comfort. That old mattress was good enough for you in the old days. when wilderness surrounded the cottage…”

“The new one will make a nice soft pad for the canoe, on top of your car,” I pointed out very willy.

“Oh, yeah,” agreed Jim promptly. “Okay. We’ll load the car tonight over at your place, and be ready to leave at 9 in the morning, eh?”

Loading the car was easy for old hands like Jim and me. We have loaded summer baggage on cars now for so many years we know all the tricks. We have learned the best way to secure the canoe on top. For years, we used haphazard knots. But then, about 1930, I read an article about how cowboys lash the packs on pack horses. Diamond hitches, double diamond hitches, the miner’s hitch, the lone packer or Basco hitch. These hitches made a science of fastening luggage on a car and there isn’t a Boy Scout in the country who can tie a double diamond the way Jim and I can.

My nice fat mattress was just like a bucking broncho. And the canoe on top was like a kayak or saddle bag of ungainly proportions. But we cinched it up snug, completed the double diamond and Jim slowly drove away with the load, all ready for the morning.

The family went on in my open touring job. Jim tooted shortly after 9, and we loaded the few cartons of odds and ends for the cottage. Nowadays, we don’t even take a lunch. There are any number of lunch place, all the way up the highway.

We drove across the city to hit Yonge St., and at one of those main intersections they had one of these new traffic policemen on duty whose job is to hustle traffic up. He carries a whistle, and waves his arms at you to come on, come on! Make it snappy!

I do not blame Jimmie for what happened. I will even pay my half of a new canoe. I can sew the mattress up myself.

As we neared the intersection, the policeman was blowing his whistle and waving us on imperiously. As if we were a couple of old fogeys. Jim stepped on the gas; at which minute, the lights changed.

Well; whom do you obey? A young policeman with a whistle? Or the red light? To us old-timers, trained for years on those red lights, there can be no question as to which we will obey.

Jim tramped on the brakes, despite the whistles and gesticulations. The sudden jolt jerked our diamond hitch, beautiful as it was, into mere empty space. The canoe slid off, right under the wheels of a great big trailer lorry, whose screeching brakes we heard all in the same instant in which we heard a splintering and crushing sound, as of giant egg shells.

The mattress, of course, did its best. I know it tried to defend the canoe against the monstrous truck. It got full of splinters.

There was quite a traffic tie-up for a while, but we got all the pieces swept off the street, and this time, we tied the mattress on with what is called a bucking hitch – used by cowboys and Boy Scouts for tying things on bucking horses.

And we got to the cottage all right.

But no canoe.

Editor’s Notes:

  1. Mato Grosso is a state in Brazil which means “Thick Bush”. ↩︎
  2. Baffin Land was the former name for Baffin Island. ↩︎