Pm Justin Trudeau
Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

Justin Trudeau tells us about that one time he scared a bear away with an axe

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This article was originally published in the Early Summer 2017 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on how the cottage shaped him, his family, and this nation.

Being outdoors has been a part of me always, whether it’s at a cottage or a lake, camping, out on wilderness rivers, whatever. Being outside and connected with nature, with a paddle in my hand and ideally a camp re in the evening, has been a defining part of my life.

My dad was the prime minister for the first 13 years of my life. Our family used to go up to Harrington Lake pretty much every weekend—but we also knew that going to Harrington was conditional on him keeping his job. Every now and again we’d do the two-hour drive to get up to the old camp that he had bought when he was a young man, probably 50 years ago now. And that was always our place. It had an old Pan-Abode that he had put together that featured a trap door, so we called it “the house with the hole in the door.” We’d all go up there, and there was no running water, so we’d have to bring buckets of water up from the lake, and for the first few years there was no electricity either. It was just a little log cabin on the edge of a wilderness lake that we absolutely loved. I still go up there. My brother Sacha spends more time there because it’s closer to Montreal than to Ottawa. But it’s still very much a part of my universe.

I always think of my little brother Michel when I’m on whitewater or backcountry skiing, because those were the things he loved. [Michel died in 1998, at age 23, in an avalanche while skiing in B.C.’s Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park.] Canoeing, camping, hiking in the woods—that’s very much my dad. That’s where he was most dad and least prime minister to us.

To this day, I still get letters from people who knew Michel from summer camp. Michel spent his summers at Camp Ahmek in Algonquin Park through all his teenage years and into his twenties. He made so many friends there, and I think the most lasting impact of camp was really through Mich connecting me to a lot of incredible people.

I once scared a bear away with an axe. It was in the summer of 1991. I was a counsellor at Ahmek. It was the last day of a six-day canoe trip. We were two cabins travelling together, and we were camped out on Joe Lake, when a bear came down out of the woods and approached one of the kids. We had a big bag of cheese for our dinner that night, which the bear probably wanted. I came out and moved between the bear and the kid and stood there with the axe in my hand, uncertain what I would do with it other than wave it around. A couple of the more courageous campers stood beside me, while all the other campers, and another counsellor—who was a fairly big and burly guy—were trampling over each other to get out to the canoes and paddle out to the middle of the lake. The kids and I stood our ground, and the bear backed off , although it still made off with the remains of our food pack. We got back the next day a little hungry, but everyone was safe.

Visits to cottages are where people create genuine bonds. Even as a teenager, when you form your friends through high school, it’s during those moments up at someone’s country place that you get the true measure of one another. We had the after-grad party for the graduating class up at the Pan-Abode for my year and Michie’s year. And when Michie had his after-party, they asked me and a couple of my friends to play bartender and hand out the beer. That was when I first met my wife, Sophie. I don’t remember meeting her at the party, but she was in that grade, and she remembers me being there. I found out all about it years later, when I met her again at age 31.

I get why global political leaders sometimes try to strike big agreements at cottages. International relations are fundamentally about relationships between the people who are actually given the responsibility to lead their countries. The closer you can get to who someone really is, the more you are likely to have a genuine conversation with them. It’s hard not to be real when you are sitting in a Muskoka chair, looking out over a lake or a river. It cuts away the trappings of the stone buildings and the aides and the assistants and the teams and everything around you. There is the possibility of a more genuine interaction when you are sitting by a campfire or walking in the woods and thinking about realer things than trade accords and lobby groups.

But I wouldn’t try it at Harrington Lake. For an important deal, I’d try to find a fresh place that didn’t have as much baggage for me, and where it would not be uneven footing. I think I’d want to share a different piece of our extraordinary wilderness. Go to a national park I’d never been to before. Find a cabin in the mountains somewhere that would be the right setting. If I were trying to negotiate a big deal, I’d want to be thinking more about the country than my personal history.

We are becoming one of the most urban countries in the world. More than 80 percent of us live in cities. Because of that, we need to stay connected to our wilderness. So the cabin, camp, or cottage itself doesn’t matter nearly as much as just getting out into the woods. And I really think it’s important for all Canadians to experience it. Get onto a lake. Rent a canoe for an afternoon on the Ottawa River. Drive to a campsite, and unload a big tent from the back of your car, and set up for a couple of days on a weekend.

I am neither a city person nor a wilderness person. I am a Canadian. That means there’s no contradiction between the two.