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Life on the Invisible Line
By John Bouchard
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2013 John Bouchard
All rights reserved.
The Early Years
Double Jeopardy on the Trapline
In 1963 and 1964 Eve and I lived our winters at an abandoned railroad hamlet called Petry; trapline 139.
It all started with a visit days before. Borsky the road master spoke to Eve. "Missus, yous tells you husband he's be KILL-ETT! Stay off railroad track!"
The day before I had managed to jump the track into a ravine. My skidoo made it through the rock cut in time. I looked up as a freight train whizzed by with a rail crew shaking their fists at me. I had already decided this was a dangerous convenience that I'd have to give up. Borsky had turned up the heat by telling on me to Eve. As a result of this, Borsky bore a resemblance to Boris Karloff, an actor who starred in Frankenstein movies. He had dark circles under his eyes, perhaps because of the black soot from a long career of railroading. He held the title of Road Master along this stretch of track, and if he resembled a raccoon it made no difference, he was the boss! Whatever I thought, from now on I would travel the Petry River. Back in '64, I had no idea that one day I would teach snowmobile and ATV safety courses.
After my 22 caliber accident years before, I never thought I was invincible. I revelled in my independence, a sense of freedom I'd never understood before. With no regrets I exchanged a sign design job for a life on the trap line. The toughest part is the first winter in any trapping area, building pole bridges across rivers where currents flow. The sheer adventure of seeing lakes never before seen brought me never ending enthusiasm. In the spring I obtained better maps, a decision that ultimately rang the doorbell of opportunity for work and a career with Lands and Forests. From tower man, I became a park ranger, deputy warden, and ended up as a conservation officer. Because of experiences learned in my past regarding matters of safety, I was hard on people when conducting hunter safety tests, especially when it came to properly handling firearms. I felt eminently qualified having experienced what a gun could do when in the hands of drunken or careless people. It no longer mattered to me that I'd had an accident; what mattered most was that I had survived. I wanted others to have a safe outcome when handling weapons.
Nine years after my accident, I was on the Petry River trapping and learning my trails. I relished my life in nature. Borsky was right. I soon established new trails along the bogs that followed the edge of the river. One day I stopped my skidoo to study the slip, hop, and slide of an otter's tracks that lead across the river. At first his home appeared to be a hole in the river bank, a great place to set a 330 Conibear humane trap I thought. I caught a glimpse of the otter in the shadows.
Anxious to know, I took the plunge. It was a hole in the river with thin ice and a fair current flowing on a river bend. Sand gathered so it wasn't deeper than my upper chest. My hands coiled out without my will and gripped the brush hard. To my surprise, a large piece of ice pancaked and ran off with the flow. For a brief moment I observed about six inches of air formed under the ice. The ice itself was nothing more than a suspended bridge, with little or no support above flowing water. This ice could collapse at any given moment. The river level had already dropped by the end of February. Wet as I was, I knew I could make it home, if my 9 HP skidoo started. The sun was high and the March wind was warm and early. I was glad that this day wasn't like January, when the section crew had told me that the temperature had dipped to fifty degrees below zero.
I was glad to hear my single cylinder putting and bogey wheels turning. I wouldn't have to strip off my clothes and build a fire in the naked blue elements. I didn't have to haywire a broken rubber track to get home. I knew that in thirty-five minutes I'd be sitting by a wood stove with coffee and wearing dry clothes. Eve would be showing me linoleum block prints, colorful designs on paper that she had created and now hung on a clothesline drying.
I would have liked to have thanked Professor Otter but I never saw him again. I learned to never follow an otter to the edge of a river. It could be hazardous to your health, especially in the winter, because an otter can put you on thin ice.
Beef on a Mitt
John Hook taught me that a tire tube harness on snowshoes was safer if you ever broke through the ice, a single tension knot pulled, allowed for quick release. "Swimming with snowshoes is not good," he said.
I learned that with a single rubber knot, tension would hold snowshoes on for walking, and that a tug on either of the two tethers caused a quick release.
As his student I had a great teacher; his specialty was under ice trapping. In order to learn I offered to be his apprentice. We had adjoining traplines. His line was eleven miles northwest at Quern, and mine was east at Petry, Ontario. Since he was about to retire, I was his gopher. He enjoyed my role and our relationship. His health declined as his age inclined. As the months passed things had become routine. In the morning we'd trap and have lunch in the open air cafe surrounded by deep snow. During an open fire lunch break John's words startled me. "You be eat for fat. I be eat for lean." He handed me my beef on a mitt and explained he had an ulcer problem. I stared at two chunks of beef. There was no need to explain. Instead he stated, " Fat be good for you to fight cold."
Inwardly I was amused. By spring I recognized a great trapper, teacher, and master. He was very fussy, even about the shape of nature's poplar branches, and how they'd fit exactly around under ice trap sets. If they were not precise, he would send me back to cut and gather more.
It's strange how by chance so many of us meet. Hook had a nice cabin, including fantastic walleye fishing on a point on Selwyn Lake which he wanted to sell. One spring he sold to my mom and stepdad. Well into their 50s, they sold what they had and arrived by rail on a flatcar loaded with tools. Their temporary new home was Hook's cabin situated on a beautiful point of land.
Meanwhile that spring, Eveline and I returned to my job as a tower man. We later learned that having sold their farm, my parents now had to start from scratch. At nearby Quorn they purchased abandoned railroad buildings, dismantled them and even saved the shingles, and carried beams and all materials around a rapids. Then from the materials they built a raft. All things floated to Hook's point at Selwyn Lake. From those early efforts, a viable business developed called Selwyn Lake Camps. From start to finish, I know that by the light of coal oil lamps, cribbage was played for more than twenty-four winters before they retired; a proud accomplishment.
Theirs was a Herculean feat at any age. Her husband always said that she could make something from nothing, and they did. Timing is everything. In the 60s, it was still possible for others to have similar opportunities. At Wawang Lake, a young ranger quit his job and made himself a resort. As of 2008 starting "from scratch" no longer applies. Lake land is rare; remoteness is even more precious.
Mom's lessons about survival started at an early age, going back to the 1940s. Single moms never had it easy. Back then life could be nearly impossible. The war, tokens, food rationing ... added to every dilemma. Mom had to have tenacious will, humour, and grit. My brother Syd was seven and I was eight. One day our mom said, "We're going on a hike". We climbed high up Grouse Mountain at Vancouver BC. Nearing dark she hushed any notion of home or bed. Reading our bewildered looks she said, "We're camping out." Soon she fashioned a dome out of entwined willows. "Now give me your raincoats." She created a bed from those, we ate some munchies and slept all night.
Later, when Christmas came, my mom could not afford a tree. Instead she decorated a chair with presents underneath. It turned out to be one of the best Christmases ever! She could build, cook, can, and sew. She even built a hay wagon! She'd say, "This is the way you do it Stupe!" She was invariably right. She showed how to chink a log cabin to keep the cold out. I guess some of it rubbed off ...
In my formative years my resume might have read: I know how to separate milk, observe antelope when riding to school on horseback, felt the sting of towering dust storms in the prairies, delivered papers for the Sun in British Columbia, stooked wheat, checked traps in muskrat houses in the sloughs and fields of Manitoba, picked tobacco at Tillsonburg, Ontario, rollerskated in Toronto ... Looking back life had incredible variety. Early life for the three of us was both urban and rural. The lakes and forests came much later. My mother, brother and I were nomadic until our teens. From Toronto to Vancouver and in between, we had traversed east to west many times. My brother Syd became a Peace Keeper in the Canadian Army. I chose forestry and became a wildlife officer. Thanks Mom!
Secrets of the Trapline
Anyone can beat the winter blahs. Survival is key to all that we do in life. With more than 40 years trapline experience secrets must be revealed to benefit mankind. Warning: Do not try these techniques at home or in the city.
Eve and I were married August 18, 1961. As we moved from being renters to owners, our first property was our trap shack. 1968 offered opportunity. We purchased a lake lot at Northern Light Lake. A triad shaped A-frame would take time to build. We spent our first winter in the 12' by 12' insulated portion of the A-frame. We joked that if we could survive the winter, we could survive anything. Our TV consisted of a slanted window, where we could see stars between frosted shapes.
Every day Eve would walk half a mile to a nearby resort to visit Ida Richardson. The winter population at Northern Light Lake was roughly six.
The main portion of our A-frame was unheated and unfinished; none the less I would accomplish what work I could. I worked on the loft which was 12 feet high. Our dream home had to be completed. One frosty morning, climbing the ladder to the top, the ladder slipped. My leg was trapped in the top rung. The ladder and I hit the floor with a loud thump! My weight had bent the aluminum around my felt covered boot. I rejoiced that my ankle was not broken. I remember cursing every loving nail I had pounded in the house, as I lay moaning on the floor.
I heard the crunch of Eve's footsteps. She had returned! I moaned even louder hoping to feel some healing sympathy. Moments later, wide eyes looked down on me. In her Dutch-Indonesian accent she asked, "Yohnie, what happened?" I pointed up gasping, "I fell from the top". I waited for more sympathy as I extracted my ankle. The borrowed ladder from Customs looked like a silver pretzel. I thought, "Poor Eve, she is suffering over my pain". Her chin was trembling.
Words soon came, "Yohnie, Yohnie, do you think we will have to pay Customs for the ladder?"
It was not unusual for the neighbors at Northern Light Lake to meet on the road for Sunday walks. Eveline was popular and today she was unusually excited and animated because a lynx was in our yard. "It's near the shed and is after the moose head that Yonny put on the roof!" she exclaimed, wide eyed and out of breath. The three men bust out in a big guffaw. They liked Eveline with her Dutch Indonesian accent, but they still teased her unmercifully.
"Come on Eve," one said. "Tell us the truth. You saw a giant rabbit."
"Come see!" Eve said frantically.
"No Eve we believe you," Ed said. He winked at this friends. "Aye?"
"Sure," the others said jokingly. "We believe you. You saw a giant rabbit with big whiskers!"
"We're going for coffee," Ed said. "Come on Eve, we'll buy."
"No!" Eve said. "I'm worried about the dog, but if you see Yonny tell him to come home."
Eve went home to find Gypsy running circles around the shed barking wildly. As the lynx jumped down it quickly fell into a hostile position. The lynx wanted the moose head and it instantly became a standoff. Eve, fearing for the dog, ran into the house and grabbed a 16-gauge shotgun. She fired one well placed shot and the lynx crumpled. She scooped up the lynx and headed back toward the road and the resort. Her timing could not have been more perfect! Coming over a sand hill, Ed and the boys were returning from coffee. "See!" Eve proudly proclaimed. "I did see a lynx."
The men stared, mouths agape as though they saw a mirage.
"Can we touch it Eve?" Ed asked. They reached out their hands. "We've never seen a lynx this close before!"
They were dumbstruck at the unique tufted pencil-like extensions on the lynx's ears.
"You shot it in the yard Eve?" asked Ed.
"Yes over by the shed," Eve said. "I was afraid that it might get the dog. I have to give it to Frank and Helen because it is their trap line. So if you happen to see Frank please tell him for me."
"I've never heard of anyone shooting a lynx before. It's hard to believe. It is rare to even see one." Bob told Ed.
"Yeah, it's hard to believe that Eve did it!" Ed said.
"I told you but you laughed at me," Eve said with a big grin.
"Oh Eve, people only tease people they like," Ed said. "Of course we believed you!"
A reporter from Thunder Bay contacted Eve to verify the story. Soon hundreds believed Eve as the article appeared in the paper a few days later.
When I returned from patrol I was astounded. She had shot a lynx! She even missed all the stacked windows needed to complete our A-frame home that we were in the process of building on Northern Light Lake.
Eve and I agreed that in life it's sweet to overcome any prejudice or adversity whether in fun or in seriousness. The greatest triumph is not that you convince others, but find belief in yourself.
Saganaga Lake Impresses
Saganaga Lake has beauty and historical significance. The explorer La Vérendrye mapped and passed this way. It is of little known historical significance that for generations families have lived in the area. Lives passed, ongoing and relatively unknown, continued in the very shadows of the City of Thunder Bay. The Powells understood a jewel of nature when they found it, as did the Richardsons, Madsens, Bensons and Ambrose, including other names that followed. If anyone asked, "Who are the modern voyageurs?" my answer would be, "The Americans". My impression was that the Americans have a keener appreciation of what we fail to see, or take for granted. Saganaga even came to the attention of world famous photographer Yous f Karsh, who came to take Jock's picture for the New Yorker Magazine. As recently as 2007, former officers, Customs and Wildlife, reflect that their Saganaga experience was the best they remember.
How Was the Border Line Decided?
Old stories coincide with memories along the invisible line between Minnesota and Ontario. Once you track the line, all the boundary markers zig zag; one island in, another out. Curious twists seem to be drawn by a contortionist.
It's not hard to envision. Old tales at Saganaga Lake claim that officials and surveyors of old roamed the lake. Both sides imbibed in bourbon and scotch and played poker for positions as to how the international boundary would be established between Canada and the United States. Following the sovereign line of each land of domain seems to give merit to the story.
"Yes," one might have said. "I think yes."
The spectre of mischief and men by an oil lamp with pencils and maps could well have been played late into the night, while beavers gnawed bark and went about their business building dams and claiming their turf without any respect to what men's plans decided. Beavers don't give a hoot. (Owls do!)
Why the boundary was so devised raises more questions than answers; however, it is always intriguing to follow the boundary line by boat. The line can be straight on course and then veer off at a great angle, grabbing a small island leaving another, and suddenly veer inexplicably out to the greater water like a roller coaster on its side. Should you look back, your vision connects that the line could have easier been drawn straight. Someone had aces in his hand, or made a good bluff when the pot was small. When they finally slept and woke in the morning, heads aching, they couldn't change a thing. They had no eraser. Is it anyone's guess?
I came to believe the story because it makes sense at times when the weaves and staggering of the invisible boundary line cause me to wonder: How did it get so crooked? It's a curious matter for inhabitants on both sides of the border. They are affected by different laws and rules on each side of Lake Saganaga.
The lake draws many people. Fire is the fear which both sides face in common. When fires happen, and they happen far too often through carelessness, its uniqueness is lost. The life of the red pine is devastated and with it so too are the lives of people long settled who are burned out and forced to live elsewhere. There's more to fire than hectares, timber and lost economies. Natural fires are being far too often assisted by carelessness. The imbalance is very evident along the border country. Those who argue that fires are good for renewal might as well believe that bombs are also good for renewal. After all, after bombs, tornadoes, earthquakes—all devastation (except for Chernobyl), we often see renewal.
So help me, I can't accept that disaster is good for trees, animals or people. Could it be that I lack sophistication? I believe that the old ways of regular boat patrols carrying fire pumps was the best means for quick response and fire suppression.
Excerpted from Life on the Invisible Line by John Bouchard. Copyright © 2013 John Bouchard. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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