By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, August 21, 1937.
“This,” said Jimmie Frise, “is the worst year for fishing we’ve ever had.”
“Is it any wonder,” I demanded, “with fresh thousands taking up fishing every year and fresh miles of highway being built farther and farther into the wilds every season?”
“All our old haunts are ruined,” said Jim.
“Yet we,” I accused, “thought it was swell when they completed the cement highways to all our favorite spots.”
“Even Algonquin Park has a highway into it now,” sighed Jim.
“Canada’s richest asset,” I declared, “is the tourist traffic. It’s the strangest export business in the world. It brings in three hundred million dollars per annum net cash. And all it takes out is snapshots.”
“We’re selling our birthright,” pronounced Jim solemnly, “for a mess of pottage. When we have ripped our country wide open for the tourist trade, when we’ve criss-crossed it with highways and looted all our lakes and made hot dog groves of all our forests and nothing remains but an empty fraud, and all the annual three hundred millions have vanished, as millions do, into thin air, what will we have left?”
“We’ll have had a good time while it lasted,” I pointed out. “Three hundred million a year is mighty sweet money.”
“We’ll have rotting highways running through barren and useless waste,” said Jim. “Our tourist trade goes into a country unfit for anything but playing in. It has no soil for farming. It is no good for reforesting. When the fish are gone and the wild aspect vanished, the tourists will leave us holding the empty bag.”
“Why, Jim,” I laughed, “within ten years, the American tourists are going to be working their way into our Arctic. Already, hundreds of Americans are going every summer into the Albany watershed, running into Hudson Bay. Already, thousands of Americans are taking hunting trips into the Yukon and the northern Rockies. Our tourist trade is good for another hundred years, with that wild, unexplored Arctic up there.”
“And what about us poor guys,” demanded Jim, “that can’t afford to go two thousand miles north? Is fishing in Canada only to be for wealthy Americans?”
“Oh, they’ll stock up the local waters,” I assured him. “It’s all a question of demand. As soon as the fishing gets bad enough, there will be a violent uproar, and the government will go nutty planting fish. They’ll plant fish the way they have been building highways lately, or the way they do anything else to please the public. A government’s real job, after all, isn’t governing. It’s pleasing the public. They govern for a couple of years. Then they wake up with a violent start and realize that pleasing the public is the whole thing. That’s the way we’ll get fish down around these parts. The day is coming when it won’t be safe to go for a paddle on any water in the older part of the country. The fish will be a menace.”
“Tame fish,” sneered Jim. “Liver-fed fish.”
“You’ll be glad enough to hook them,” I assured him.
“I’ll be an old man,” said Jim. “Too feeble to go fishing.”
Reaction in Pioneering
“If we had any gumption,” I stated, “we’d not be sitting here letting the Americans have all the fun going up to the Albany and the Winisk. We’d be going ourselves. What’s the matter with us Canadians? Why do we insist on puddling around near home, when there is simply incredible wild fishing a day or two north? Are we getting soft? Where is the pioneer spirit that, only fifty years ago was part and parcel of every Canadian’s character?”
“I guess,” said Jim, “that there is a sort of reaction in this pioneer spirit business. Pioneering gets kind of exhausted after three or four generations. We belong to one of the two or three generations that are resting up after the ordeal. Then maybe our grandchildren will feel the pioneer spirit creeping back into them again.”
“By which time,” I pointed out, “the good fishing will be exhausted in the Arctic.”
Then our grandchildren,” said Jim, “will run across to fish in Siberia and northern Russia as carelessly as we go up to Lake Nipissing.”
“Ah, boy,” I sighed, “I wish I could go to a lake my Uncle Ed took me into when I was a kid. I was about sixteen, I guess. Talk about bass fishing.”
“Where was the lake?” asked Jim.
“It is the most lost lake,” I declared, “imaginable. In fact, we called it Lost Lake. It’s still there. It is miles from any human habitation. It is a twenty-mile walk over the wildest, rockiest country anywhere in Canada.”
“Twenty miles,” said Jim. “Whew! Your Uncle Ed must have been a tough guy.”
“Tough is right,” I agreed. “He was a pioneer. I can see him yet, with his great big packsack on his back, full of tent and grub and tackle, climbing over those wild rocks like a goat. I’ve never been so weary in all my life, yet I was a strong husky kid of sixteen.”
“What about the fishing?” asked Jim.
“Lost Lake,” I began happily, “is about half a mile wide and four miles long. It is a great bed of glacial gravel set down amidst the most God-forsaken rock in the world. It never was lumbered because there isn’t anything but scrub will grow on it. There isn’t half an acre of soil within 30 miles. Yet that long, narrow lake, full of bright gravel and boulders and reefs, is simply alive with bass up to six pounds.”
“Oh, oh,” said Jim.
“Jim,” I said,” my Uncle Ed was a fly fisherman. No bait, no worms, crawfish or frogs for him. Just common trout flies, on little four-ounce rods. He taught me to fly fish. We made a raft of cedar logs. We drifted about that heavenly lake for five days. Every cast, with those tiny little trout flies, a great whacking big bass, from four to six pounds. We put on two flies. We got two bass to a cast. We filed off the barbs of the fly hooks. We caught hundreds of bass and threw them all back except the ones we needed to eat. We never even brought any out.”
“Have you never gone back?” demanded Jim.
“I intended to go back the next year,” I said, “but I started to Varsity. Then I kept putting it off year by year, as I got into that silly age around 20, when you never seem to be able to keep your mind on anything really important. Then the war came. And then Uncle Ed got rheumatism.”
“Engraved on My Memory”
“Is it far away?” asked Jim.
“Far enough,” I said, “You go to Sudbury, and then in by train about 30 miles. You get off at a section man’s house and then walk in 20 miles. No road, no trail. Just across the wild barren rock, working by landmarks.”
“You’d have forgotten them,” thought Jim, “by now.”
“Never,” I cried, “to my dying day. It’s engraved on my memory like the path I took to school as a child. Every once in a while, over the long years, I have renewed my memory by going, in my imagination, over every foot of that trip. First you head for a distant sort of ridge or pinnacle of rocks, far in the distance. You can’t go wrong. Then, from this pinnacle, you can see, miles ahead, a series of great muskeg swamps with broken ridges of rock rising between them. You follow that series of ridges between the muskeg swamps as straight as Yonge St., and they bring you smack out on to Lost Lake.”
“Boy,” said Jim grimly. “Let’s go. Let’s go.”
“Jim?” I cried, “will you?”
“Let’s go,” repeated Jim with a sort of anguish.
“It’s a terrible walk,” I said, “twenty miles. With all our duffle. Tent and grub and tackle and pots and pans.”
“Man,” shouted Jim, “a lake like that, lost amidst all this exploitation and ruin of lakes. A lake like that, within an overnight journey in a sleeping car with hordes of people going hundreds of miles beyond to fish waters already overrun with other fishermen. How do you know it hasn’t been found out by now?”
“How would it be found out? I demanded. Nobody but Uncle Ed and two other men knew of it. And who would walk 20 miles nowadays in this age of satin-smooth highways and motor cars and outboard motors? This is a soft, padded age. The modern sportsman won’t go any place he can’t sit on a cushion all the way.”
“One good fill of fishing,” crooned Jim, “one regular orgy of fishing, and I’ll be content to hang up my rods and let my grandchildren go to the Arctic.”
“It’s a go,” I announced.
And we sat straight down and proceeded to examine the calendar and then drew up lists of duffle and supplies.
We decided to spend four days on the lake. One full day to walk in and one full day to walk out. We debated whether to take Jim’s little wedge tent or my big silk one, and we concluded that as we were no longer chickens, it might be as well to be comfortable.
“This business of going light,” said Jim, “is all very well in your twenties. But at our age, we’ve got to get our rest.”
So we wrote and rewrote our camping lists, which, as anybody knows, is the better part of camping. The tent and our two sleeping bags would go into a joint dunnage bag which we would carry between us. Each of us would have our packsacks, containing clothes, tackle, and all the things needful to a happy outing. Pots and pans we would distribute between us pro rata. The grub we would divide equally and stow in our packsacks.
And Saturday night, we left for Sudbury by sleeper, arriving early in the morning and continuing by day coach some miles out to the section men’s shack where the unmarked trail to Lost Lake began.
The section man’s shack, which had been young and red and fresh when I was sixteen was now no more than a worn old shed in which some railway ties were stored and even the rusty old tin cans in its neighborhood looked as if this had been no human habitation for many a long year. It was no longer even a section house, just a relic of a shanty, faded and old.
“Jim” I declared, as the train sped off leaving us alone with our duffle bags, “this is wonderful. I feared we might even find a village where this section house had stood. But look – it’s only a ruin. Lost Lake has stayed lost, for sure.
From a little rocky eminence handy, we could see the remote whitish rock ridges or pinnacles far to the northwest, just as I had described them.
“It’s a good ten miles to them, Jim,” I said. “By keeping to ridges and high ground, we never lose sight of them. We’ll take all morning, just to reach them.”
But it took more than the morning. I don’t know how far a lumberjack carries his packsack. Probably from the railway station to the boarding house, maybe. A distance of 75 yards in most lumberjack communities. Even the pioneers didn’t carry packsacks. They used oxen. Certainly, no pioneer ever carried a packsack ten miles. Or else why did it take a hundred years for the pioneers to work north a hundred miles?
As I said before it was a wild and rugged country, and a number of swamps had moved or side-slipped, during the past 30 years, for I found any number of swamps where there had been none the last time. A swamp is a thing you have to go around. And often you have to feel your way around it, making many false tries, this way and that.
At noon, the delectable white pinnacles were still white and remote. We halted for lunch and got out our sleeping bags to lie on for a little rest. We rested until four o’clock and then pushed on. By six p.m., the pinnacles were less distant and less white, but none the less too far away for a couple of pioneers without oxen to reach by dark. So finding a pleasant little swampy pond in the middle of a muskeg, we made camp and boiled muddy tea and went to bed on ill-made brush beds, and muttered each other awake all night. In the morning, we went through our packsacks and made a cache in a tree of all the articles, many of them costly if not valuable, to lighten our loads and to be picked up on the way out They are there forever, I fear.
Thus lightered, we struck camp and pushed on, over ridge and fully and around swamp and over ten thousand dead trees until at noon we reached the high ridge from which, stretching far to the west, we beheld, as I had foretold, the series of dark swamps between which wended bare bleak wastes of rock. But these wastes of rock were open and grim and barren and easy, and in slow stages between heavy rests, during which our eyeballs protruded and our kidneys ached and our legs grew numb and our arches fell and our toe-balls scalded, we went out across them, hog-backs of rock amidst endless wasteland swamp, straight as a ship sails towards Lost Lake.
“It’s a Mirage – a Delusion”
At five p.m. from the highest of these heaves of rock, we glimpsed a bit of blue.
“Water,” I cried, “It’s Lost Lake.”
And with a sort of spiritual, if not physical, second wind, we pushed on. Jim holding one end of the tent bag and I the other, and clanking with our pots and pans like Mrs. Finnigan’s Cows, and over seven last great hills of rock we came at last to the very last, and there at our feet, half a mile wide and four miles long, lay Lost Lake.
“What’s that?” gasped Jim, softly lowering his packsack from his long and limber back.
It was music.
We eased our weary baggage down and listened.
“It’s ‘Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em,'” I said, “This week’s number one the Hit Parade.”
“Look,” said Jim pointing.
In the gloaming, lights twinkled at almost regular intervals along the distant shores of Lost Lake.
“Cottages,” I said huskily. “It’s a mirage. It’s a delusion. We’re suffering from explorer’s exhaustion.”
Around the point we stood on, a canoe came, and from it the music we had heard rose with increasing volume.
It was a boy and a girl with a portable victrola between them in their cushioned ease. When they beheld us in the semi-dark, frozen beside our packsacks and dunnage bags, festooned with our pails and pans, they too froze, staring.
“Hello,” I called hollowly.
The boy paddled cautiously nearer.
“Is this Lost Lake?” I demanded hoarsely.
“No, sir,” said the boy. “This is Golden Sand Lake.”
“It used to be called Lost Lake,” the girl piped up, “before the highway came by. I’ve heard my dad speak of it by that name.”
“Highway?” croaked Jimmie.
“The highway,” said the boy, “just along the other side, see?”
Three cars, lights just turned on, sailed smoothly along the far side of the lake, headed inexorably northward, northward.
“Any bass in this lake?” I asked lightly.
“Not now,” said the girl, “but my daddy has one stuffed in our cottage, he got the first year we were in here before I was born, and it weighed six pounds.”
“Do you suppose,” I inquired, “we could get a lift across the lake to the highway side?”
“I’ll go and get our launch,” said the boy, immediately. “I’ll take you across and you can get a bus. There’s a bus every two hours. both ways.”
“That’s swell,” said Jim.
So we sat down on our duffle and waited for the launch, watching the car lights streaming past on the far side, and not speaking at all, but just thinking and thinking.
Editor’s Notes: The Winisk River and Albany River are in the Kenora area of Northern Ontario.
Varsity was the old name of the University of Toronto.
Railroad section men lived in section houses, and were responsible for the maintenance of a particular section of the railroad. These jobs were phased out over time.
I’m not sure who Mrs. Finnegan’s cows were.
“Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em” may be referring to the song “Love Me or Leave Me“.
The story was repeated on August 19, 1944 as “Found – Lost Lake”. The image at the bottom is from that reprint. It is also reprinted in The Best of Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise (1977).