Long read: the pleasure of canoeing in the off-season

Cottage Life Photo Contest Entry by Brian Prentice

It is late September and the day is achingly beautiful. The sun is rising, the mist lifting. The wind is down and in my canoe I slide north along the shore. I have no destination except eternity. 

At this hour and this time I am the only boat on the lake, but not the only life. A kingfisher rattles out of the back channel behind the island on which I live. I know the young loon is out there fishing and, through the mist, I can hear the flocks of geese heading south: some to migration, others to termination in the marshes where the hunters wait. Like me, the hunters are up early.

The geese are not the only high flyers. Already jet trails are drawn in the sky and by the end of today they, or others more recent, will still be hanging, ragged but motionless. 

I glide across the mouth of a small bay and head east down a long finger of the lake. There are cottages along the north shore and though most are shut, smoke rises slowly from one chimney. I feather my paddle and go softly. My real hope is to sneak up on a deer at the water’s edge, but I am always happy to slip by some cottagers’ dock and startle them with a “good morning” in this seemingly empty scene. I have no luck today, but once in Haliburton I floated silently up to an early morning fisherman with his back turned and nearly good-morninged him right out of his boat. The joys of canoeing.

Is the canoe the ultimate, ahem, pleasure craft?

There is no fisherperson in this bay—it is far too shallow. The canoe glides over rocks and logs and beer cans and old tires and Styrofoam cups. I know people, concerned and committed, who would fetch up the smaller pieces of garbage and pack them out. For a moment I feel badly that I am not one. 

I paddle almost to the end of the bay in six inches of water and then turn around. The only animals I see are a red squirrel swimming across the bay and mink flowing over a rocky shoreline. As I head out of the bay I take off my gloves. They were necessary an hour ago; the temperature was 40°F . Now the mist is burned off and the sun has real warmth. On the way back I talk to a cottager on the south shore who has watched me approach. Ordinary, meaningless conversation but it fills me with importance, for he is standing on the deck of his cottage drinking coffee and I am kneeling in a cedar-canvas canoe, leaning forward on my paddle across the middle thwart. The joys of canoeing.

This cottager is only up for a long weekend or perhaps, although I don’t ask, for a bit of hunting. He is younger than the cottagers I might see midweek, for most of them are retired—snowbirds who spend six months at the cottage and six months in Florida. As September folds into October I will see fewer and fewer lights along the shore. Indeed, there aren’t many after Thanksgiving.

When I was young, Labour Day marked the end of the cottage year, but Thanksgiving is now the time for pulling out water lines and having that last big cottage meal. Thanksgiving is such a popular time in the Kennisis lakes that in the early 90s, before Hydro beefed up its service, you could count on the power to fail on the weekend when every cottagers put the turkey in the oven at about the same time. 

Not that the weather changes much with the arrival of Thanksgiving. Yes, it gets slightly cooler and there is a risk of frost, but the oaks and maples are still glorious and the sky only a slightly harder blue—precursor of the ice blue of winter. The loon still fishes and the great blue heron stalks slowly along the shore. Small flocks of mergansers run over the water and the birds of winter—chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, woodpeckers—are more noticeable. Red squirrels are manic, darting up the white pines and zooming down with cones clamped like fat cigars in their mouths. But those zoomers of summer, the hummingbirds, have long gone. They left shortly after Labour Day.

The confusing fall warblers have already been through on their migration. They popped in and out of the trees on the island for a couple of days, and I sought them with my binoculars but without much success. Flashes of yellow, flashes of black and white. Easier to see are the butterflies, fluttering through for almost a week, orange and black, and smaller than monarchs. I decide they must be painted ladies. I could be wrong. 

The other sign of the changing season is the wind. It comes from the west and the north, sometimes from both at the same time. It pours down, creating a vicious cross-chop on the lake; not weather for canoeing and a time for caution in any boat. It drives through every crack in my cottage and sometimes ravens through the night. Mindful of the tornadoes of summer, I have arisen several times in the autumn night and sat reading with a candle at the ready, waiting for a tree to fall and the power to fail. Looking out on the black lake, seeing no lights, feeling alone. Indeed, being alone. 

Oh, I know there are several permanent residents three miles to the north and at least one tucked around a corner about half a mile to the east. But that’s half a mile by water and about five miles by road. If I had a road. 

Instead, I have a trail. Because of the wind on the lake, I am no longer heading west to the marina across two miles of open water. Instead, I cross the narrow back channel to the east. I pull my canoe into the bush and follow the trail my daughters and I carved in the forest. This takes me to a spur road, which leads to the main cottage road that runs up the eastern side of this chain of lakes. I don’t look forward to road travel when winter comes. Too many hills, too many corners. Too slippery. 

And by the end of October winter has shown that this year it plans to come early and stay late. The overnight temperature has been around freezing and the days are cooling off. In mid-October I could sit outside in the early afternoon sun. Not so as the month ended. There have been tentative snowfalls, usually gentle. So gentle that I have canoed into them, sliding along the now mostly barren shore. The water is black, the sky is grey, the trees are dark green, and the snow white. Words do not paint a picture. This scene too is beautiful, stark, like a burial under black umbrellas. Necessary and right and sad. 

Now I canoe along the shore and there is no-one to talk to. No cottagers having coffee, no workers fixing decks or docks. No-one fishing, no boats. I hug the shore, for even though the wind is still and the canoe secure, I know the water is cold. I concentrate on what I am doing and I keep my considerable centre of gravity low.

But, ah, the pleasure of the solitary canoe. A couple of neighbours who came up on the weekend kindly invite me to Saturday night dinner at their cottage on a mainland point. Not the best night, rain mixed with snow and the wind rising. They are surprised when I grate onto their waterfront, hauling the canoe onto a thin cushion of snow, and they are somewhat apprehensive at the thought of my return journey. So am I, but I say nothing and eat everything they offer—roast chicken, potatoes, green beans, salad, cheesecake—borrow a few books, thank them, and return into the night. Paddling through a protected channel, aiming for the light in my boathouse. Knowing I have nothing really to worry about. But the night is so dark and the water so black, a drift of snow in the boat. I am anxious to finish the short journey, but at the same time I am thinking that at nine o’clock on a Saturday night in late October, I am likely the only person travelling by canoe in all the Kawartha Highlands. Maybe in all Ontario. The joys of canoeing.

Now we are into November and winter is all but here. For much of the autumn there had been people working, renovating, clearing trees around the lake. I could hear the screech of the circular saw and the reverberation of hammers, but now it is cold. Cold and grey, not pleasant weather. No canoeing for fun. The land is empty.

The month has seven days to run when the reality of winter hits. It is eight in the morning and the temperature is 4°F. Cold. The wind, which roared all night, is down, the mist thick, the water still and black and oily. Viscous. I cross over the spine of the island towards the back channel and the boathouse and stop. Glorious. The trees are covered in spray or frost and shining as the morning sun hits them. The ground is dusted with snow. My eye catches the water in the protected channel by the boathouse; it is still and black but not oily. Frozen. From shore to shore.

How to care for your canoe in the off-season

I go down to the boathouse where the boats are frozen in the water and the knots frozen in the mooring rings. I poke at the ice with the end of a paddle—it bounces off. The ice is surprisingly thick. I step carefully into my old red canoe and rock it free of ice; then I push forward. The canoe slides up onto the ice and sits there. The ice is far too thick to walk on and far too thick to break easily. I take an axe from the boathouse and cut myself a channel, leaning out from the bow of the boat. Not easy. Ah, the joys of canoeing. 

I crouch with my axe in the bow of the red canoe alone in the back channel. The ice is picking up the sunlight, turning from slate grey to silver. Snow lies on the ground, the sky is blue, and the green pines and hemlock are tipped with silver turning to gold. 

At this time I am likely the only person in the Kawartha Highlands, perhaps in all of Ontario, cutting his way through the ice. Winter has come to cottage country and it is most truly a beautiful day.

This essay was published as “Same old lake, fresh new season” in theWinter 2020 issue of Cottage Life.

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