By Robert W. Butche
In the summer of 2001, I traveled to Keith
Bemis' fishing retreat in the beautiful far northern lakes region south of
The trip was as much about renewal of
relationships as it was about fishing the beautiful Crow Wing Lakes. Long days
and cool nights provided ample opportunity for Keith and myself to revisit what
had been in our lives as well as to contemplate what might yet be.
Aging changes more than our bodies, for it
tempers and softens chapter of our lives long forgotten. But so does it yield
up questions about what might have been had we only we made different choices.
So this story is about the trip home from Camp Bemis -- and how I found myself
unknowingly seeking to find the past and to rekindle relationships long
If I managed to find yesterday, which I believe
I did, its reality was far from what I had hoped.
Originally published August,
In some ways, I suppose, I'll never grow
up -- for it seems even at age 65, I must turn every opportunity into an
adventure. Hence I threw out my plans to return to Columbus from Camp Bemis by
way of Chicago and a short visit to the sprawling McCormick estate in central
Indiana. The McCormick's, Bill and Sheri, had gone to San Francisco, so we'll
celebrate our 65th birthdays later. But, If not Indiana, where would I go?
After a week in the north woods, I felt I
needed more adventure. And so I decided, for more times than I can count at
this age, to take the road less traveled. Adventure always finds me. It always
has, but this adventure had twists and turns beyond anything I could
I considered going home by way of Fargo, North
Dakota, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana -- on a route that Bill McCormick and I had
enjoyed when returning from our Boyd Bode odyssey for the OSU Archives in
August of 1998. So did I consider going on to Cheyenne and Denver to visit my
friends the Shaffer's, or to cross Lake Michigan by ferry. But none of these
caught my adventuresome fancy, so I decided to return to Columbus via the Trans
Canada Highway. And what a joyous adventure it became.
Just the 175 mile trip from Camp Bemis to the
Canadian border, by way of Bemidji and the vast Koochiching forest was
exhilarating. Not another car on the dead-straight road from Bemidji to
International Falls -- although there were several porcupines leisurely
crossing the roadway in forested areas. But this trip was not to be about
roads, but pathways in life.
The first big surprise came at International
Falls where US 71 abruptly ends in the Boise Cascade plant's parking lot. Boise
Cascade occupies two vast multi acre buildings -- one on the American side and
another on the Canadian side of a little river. Boise Cascade's bridge connects
the two plants and carries power, steam and utilities lines between the plants.
It also provides one lane for cars in both directions. Boise Cascade charges $6
for crossing their bridge into Canada. What a deal.
Just outside of border town Fort Francis,
Ontario, begins a gorgeous causeway across Rainy Lake -- one of two very large
lakes astride Minnesota's US and Canadian border. Not far beyond Fort Francis,
near Seine River Village, I noticed some of the cattle in a large grazing area
had Antlers. I did a double take. As I slowed, I saw that there was an Elk just
ahead on the right -- grazing quietly along the roadway.
Although there were frequent warnings about Elk
and Deer along the Trans Canada Highway, these were the first, and last, I saw
as I sped eastward. But within a hundred kilometers, just outside Atikokan, I
came across a rather startled Moose standing in the roadway. As I pulled to a
stop, he meandered off the pavement and munched nonchalantly as I pulled
By late afternoon I was in Thunder Bay,
Ontario, on my way eastward to Nipigon, which, at 49 degrees North latitude, is
where the northern and southern legs of the Trans Canada Highway join to
traverse the highlands that guard the north shore of Lake Superior. It was on
this leg that I first saw evidence of the approaching winter, for the Aspen
were already turning yellow and brown in the bright afternoon sun. This segment
of the trip is one of wonderment and exhilaration -- but it is a thousand miles
from nowhere as well.
Night and I arrived together at the small
village of Schreiber, Ontario. I spent the night in a $15 room at a trucker's
motel and slept soundly even as an endless parade of trucks pulled into the
refueling pumps just outside my room. The Motel was also the local Kentucky
Fried Chicken stand and Pizza Hut all rolled into one -- something I saw
nowhere else along my route. A cold Molson's beer revived my electrolytes and a
delicious pizza ended my day long fast. In the coolness of evening I drifted
off, not to be heard from again until the first rays of morning sun pierced the
darkness of the dingy room. By then, there was a heavy dew on my car. Before
leaving, I fueled up with gasoline and coffee for the mountainous trip
The size of Lake Superior makes it more of an
ocean than a lake -- and unlike its glaciated southern shoreline, the north
shore consists of igneous bedrock that rises majestically from the depths of
the lake until it matures into mighty rolling hills taller than big city office
buildings. What one experiences along this magnificent stretch of roadway is a
succession of small mountains that rise a thousand feet or so above water level
-- then, at a crest often chiseled from bedrock, the roadway daringly dives
back to lake level. Even from the highest of these hills, Lake Superior seems
an enormous and formidable body of water.
After passing through the towns of Pic Mobert
South and White River, the Trans Canada Highway turns southeastward toward Wawa
-- where it begins its dive south to Sault Sainte Marie. It was traffic time
when I passed the Soo -- where the Trans Canada turns eastward toward Sudbury.
It was on this leg that I sensed a need to revisit earlier experiences.
Maturity means having wisdom, memories and, for me, at least, a yearning to
revisit life's truly great chapters.
While spending a comfortable evening on the
patio at Camp Bemis, Keith and I frequently spoke about our many years of
fishing on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron -- and how much we enjoyed Colin
Montgomery, a rare and wonderful Canuck fond of keeping a burned out Players
cigarette hanging from his lips while speaking a deeply anglicized Ontario
accent barely comprehendible to landlubber Yanks from far away A-Hiya. Colin
had been both resort manager and our personal fishing guide for those many
visits to Manitoulin that Keith and I had so enjoyed over a quarter of a
So it's no surprise that midway between Sault
Sainte Marie and Sudbury, I decided to exit the Trans Canada Highway, to
discover the land route to Manitoulin Island, and to see what had happened to a
long remembered establishment called Dawson's Resort and its legendary people.
I yearned to once again hear Colin's throaty brogue, to taste once more of Mrs.
Dawson's Cherry Pie, to lie and laugh about the fish we caught, the camaraderie
of drinking beer with real men and cheating at poker whenever possible. But
memory betrays us. For what I didn't know was that the end of this journey
would bring pain, delight, renewal and introspection about the events and the
people of my own life.
After an overnight stay at a Super 8 motel in
Sudbury, morning again came to the eastern sky. Soon I set about finding my way
to Manitoulin's fabled Lake Kagawong and reliving dreams of warm days, cold
nights, good friends and Colin's endless stories of fish and the frailties of
the human experience.
It took well over an hour before I arrived at
the rustic rotating bridge that separates the long and twisty causeway that
connects the outside world to Manitoulin Island and the village of Little
Current. Every hour, on the hour, every day of the year, the swinging bridge at
Little Current is repositioned to allow passage of watercraft and sailing
vessels to and from Manitoulin's north channel. I found myself second car in
line waiting for the rotating bridge to reopen to roadway traffic. It was, in
many ways, one of the longest fifteen minutes in my life. When the bridge was
once again open to road traffic, I crossed into Little Current where I stopped
at the Manitoulin Information Centre. Three I inquired about Dawson Resort --
was it still open? The young woman behind the counter opened a gigantic book,
moistening her index finger from time to time as she eagerly thumbed through
the pages. After a while she looked up from the book. "Yes," she said with a
friendly smile, "Dawson's is still open for business. Shall I ring them
It took less than an hour to find my way along
roads no longer familiar, toward a place indelibly etched into the receding
reaches of my memory. When I passed the tiny village of Spring Bay on Ontario
road 542, I turned north on Perivale Road toward Lake Kagawong. Much had
changed on Manitoulin since my last visit in the 1970's -- for roads that were
rough and dusty in my memories were now relatively smooth and paved. At the end
of the Perivale road I turned right. The way was becoming familiar as I raced
along lake Kagawong's southern shoreline.
At the last bend, exactly where it had always
been, I found yesterday. It was wonderful. Nothing had changed. Time had stood
still for over a quarter of a century. I was home again, if only for a fleeting
The Bear's Den
Mrs. Dawson was shocked when I suddenly
appeared on her front porch. Neither her smiling face nor my name was forgotten
for we instantly called one another by name. She knew I was the man who had
always come to the island by plane -- and for the most part did so in the last
two weeks of August, or early September. I was exactly on schedule, she noted,
for It was August 23rd. I reminded her that I was also the man who most fancied
her tart Cherry pie -- with its richly larded crust and sweet filling. She
remembered that as well, and smiled broadly as we shared moments from another
lifetime. Many years had passed since we had last spoken, but memory easily
yields up the good times so our conversation was sparkled with smiles and
shared through warm eyes.
Time moves on. The passing years are fleeting
for mortals, whether they relive the past or forget it. But time does not
forgive. The bell cannot be un-rung, or unlived moments made real. Myrtle
Dawson had bad news -- news I dreaded hearing. Colin Montgomery, the man
fishermen and hunters at Dawson's Resort had come to know so well in my youth,
had died in 1982. Mrs. Dawson related his passing calmly, her own sorrow at his
passing slowly creeping across her face. Colin had passed away, she told me,
after a series of heart attacks. Myrtle Dawson, and her husband Jack, had
visited Colin and his wife at the hospital several times after the first
attack, but shortly after returning home from the hospital one afternoon, he
suffered another. Then it was over. Although Colin had only moments before been
telling one of his stories, no doubt laughing out loud at the punch line, time
had run out. The Anglicized brogue, ruddy face and dangling Players were gone
Since then, Myrtle Dawson and her husband have
been running their rustic fishing camp without the man of many stories and
ruddy wizened face. She knew Dawson's resort wouldn't be the same after Colin's
passing -- but we said nothing of it. Besides, the people visiting her
Manitoulin hide-away today didn't know Colin, had never heard his raspy voice,
tried to decipher his speech, or endured one too many of his bawdy stories.
Today's visitors to camp are poorer for having missed that era, but each of us
must make our own memories.
Dawson's may not have changed physically, but
it will never be the same. Maybe the road is paved, and Mrs. Dawson a few years
older, but little else had changed at the rustic camp just round the bend at
the end of the road. Except for the passing of Colin -- who had become a friend
to Keith and me, and so many others all those years gone before. Alas the
cottages at Dawson's are now housekeeping units. There are no more fisherman's
lunches to take onto a foggy lake at the edge of dawn. No more heavy dinners
cooked on a wood stove. No more cherry pie, either.
My visit with Myrtle Dawson wasn't that long --
especially for someone who had been absent for over twenty five summers. When
she asked where I had gone -- why I hadn't returned -- I mumbled something
about being busy, going to California -- all the easy excuses -- but she needed
no explanation. She had already moved on, and so must I.
As I prepared to leave, Myrtle gave me a copy
of Dawson's 2001 resort brochure -- and enthusiastically pointed out where she
had handwritten her new email address. I understood. Email is for people who
get busy, move away and return too late for the party. It was all too soon time
for me to leave again. I shot video of camp so Keith and I might relive good
days and revisit old friends.
I returned to Dawson's Kagawong Resort -- to
search for yesterday, but it was not there. Kansas is in our hearts and minds
and far away from Oz. As we age we become rich in memories, for our lives are
filled with moments and people who matter -- and we are all the richer for
having known and shared life's joys and sorrows with them as well.
Later that afternoon, I arrived at South
Baymouth on the southeastern shore of Manitoulin -- perhaps 25 miles away from
Dawson's. There I would board the 5:50 Ferry to Tobermory. When at last the
Ferry returned, and all the waiting cars and passengers had been boarded, the
Chi-Cheemaun slowly pulled away from my youth. Our route would be southeast
across Lake Huron -- for a two hour trip back to the 21st century. Even with
perhaps 170 cars, trucks, vans, trailers and motor homes on the vehicle decks,
the 3 to 4 foot waves in the Georgian Bay channel caused the Chi-Cheemaun to
heave through the waters. I observed our crossing on my GPS and regaled fellow
passengers about our 18 mile per hour speed and position as we made our way
toward the Bruce Peninsula.
The Tobermory ferry traverses an imaginary line
that separates the main body of Lake Huron from beautiful Georgian Bay. Along
the way the ferry passes Fitzwilliam Island on the left and the elegant white
lighthouse on the northern tip of Cove Island on the right. It was dusk when we
landed at Tobermory. Firmly back in the 21st century, I sped along Ontario
route 6 toward Toronto where I would spend the night.
The next morning, upon finding the day foggy
and overcast, it was clear that my plans to videograph Niagara Falls was out of
the question for perhaps two days. It was time to go home. The visit to
Dawson's, and the camaraderie and fishing at Camp Bemis were both meaningful
events. For the first time in two weeks I thought of home, of people I missed,
and why I had had moved back to Columbus from the west. Columbus is home -- and
it's where my roots reach deep into the Ohio Earth as well.
This trip changed me in many ways. I loved
fishing with Keith -- and spending our days and nights in long and splendid
conversations about days that were -- and days that are yet to be. We spoke of
women and philosophy -- and how little we really understood either. We also
spoke of adventure, commitment, honor and missed opportunity -- for Keith and I
had taken dramatically different routes in life. And yet here we were, still
fishing together over 50 years after we first met at University School. Old
friends are valuable, for they are at once kindred spirits and mile markers of
our passage as well. Keith and I share many mile markers -- as do so many of my
former classmates and playmates of yesteryear.
But this journey turned adventure also reminded
me how much I love Canada -- and how much I enjoy Canadians, for their colorful
language, their friendly ways, and their tolerance for their arrogant and
oftimes hurried visitors from the south. Over the years, I have crossed all of
Canada by VIA rail along the trail linking Paris-like Montreal and Londonesque
Vancouver. So have I traversed the Trans Canada highway to visit my holdings in
Calgary. But I enjoyed this Canadian odyssey most of all -- for it was very
much a voyage of discovery and renewal in the soft twilight of life.