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Have you ever had a chance to listen to the loons? Maybe you’ve heard one mournful melody rising above the pine trees as a lone loon makes its way across a placid lake. Or a reverberating chorus of several, inspired by some unknown catalyst to join together perhaps just for the sheer joy of hearing their own song echo off the rocky cliffs. Since I first heard the call of the loon, a little bit of my soul has always remained floating on a clear freshwater lake waiting for the loons to return and start telling their stories again.
In August, as the northern summer draws to a close – touches of color appearing like rust stains on the green forest, cool mornings demanding you pull the blanket higher – the loons begin to gather. Normally solitary feeders casually swimming about, diving for fish in their own territorial waters, the loons take on a new social pattern in preparation for the migration south. Throughout the summer they may join with three or four of their kind from time to time, but as autumn approaches, they collect in groups of ten, twenty or more, forsaking their independent spirits for the benefits of group travel. There is safety in numbers and efficiency in more eyes looking for food while en route over unfamiliar waters between their northern and southern homes.
It was during this gathering time that I went to N’dakimenan, the land of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai – the deepwater people. The water that is at the center of this Ojibway First Nation is Lake Temagami, the deepwater lake. It is one of my spiritual centers on this planet and the loons are my fellow summer sojourners, all of us drawn northward by instinct and necessity before returning to the south.
My history on Lake Temagami isn’t as ancient as the loons, but it is as natural. It began in the 1980s when I was living further north in Charlton, Ontario and we would head south for canoe trips over Temagami’s extensive series of waterways and portages. It includes the summer of 1984 I spent educating the lake community about the reality of the acidic rain blowing our way from the Ohio valley and the steel mills in the south, threatening the health of the northeastern lakes. It includes years working with the Temagami Wilderness Society to protect the ancient pines and more years spent supporting the Anishnabai’s struggle to regain their inherent rights to N’dakimenan, their land. Chief Gary Potts was the young leader of the community who took them to the Supreme Court seeking a settlement on their land claim and through his intelligent eyes and careful words I absorbed lessons about patience and justice that have helped me in my own struggles. As he said, you can’t cry over each broken twig or you won’t have the strength needed for the struggle that will save the tree that alone the forest. It was helpful counsel back in 1990 as I entered into the long battle with Hodgkin’s Disease. Gary is as much a part of the Temagami landscape as the rock and pines.
My friend Peter McMillen has an island of rock and pine that has been in his family for generations. It is up the north arm of this deceptively huge lake, several watery spokes radiating out of a central hub. The further you move from the hub, the less civilization you encounter. Peter’s island sits between the two canoe-tripping camps I worked at in the 1990s, Keewaydin and Wanapitei. These camps, and the many others like them, are little settlements of history and tradition. Although the wooden buildings and crib docks are inevitably restored and eventually replaced, it is impossible to completely eliminate the spirit of the past. Returning to the lake after four years felt like traveling back in time a half a century.
Peter and Cocky and I had almost two weeks to listen to the loons, swim laps around the island, watch the occasional boat passing by, catch up with friends and gather news from life in the lake community. For the first few days my friend Jeff was with us, a newbie on the lake. I think he would agree that its serenity envelopes you as quickly as you move away from the public landing and head out of the hub.
Jeff left and Laurie – she of ECO Camp – arrived for her own reunion with the lake, as grateful as I for the holistic therapy it provides. The days were gorgeous, blue skies with enough fluffy clouds to add a little filter to the hot sun. It wasn’t until the day before we left that the weather started turning with warnings of a possible tornado that never appeared, but strong enough winds that we kept the boats tied at the dock and ourselves hunkered down in the cabin reading and napping. It was good that the storm didn’t come, as Peter, Cocky and I couldn’t agree among us where to seek shelter from it. I think we all would have run in separate directions and whoever survived the most intact would be rescuing the others with a big “I told you so” attached.
Besides the requisite R & R, socializing is a big part of being on the lake. Ears perk up when a boat motor breaks the silence. Up the north arm there is very little activity, so it is always a possibility that the sound of a boat means visitors, hopefully desirable ones. Some days we’d all pile into Peter’s boat and head off to see the neighbours such as our friends Bruce and Carol Hodgins at Wanapitei. Sixty years ago, Bruce’s parents took an old fishing camp and later made it into a children’s canoe camp complete with the almost century old stately log chateau that now serves as a rustic bed and breakfast. I worked there for six summers and the place is full of nostalgia for me as it is for the thousands of campers who, over the years, have learned how to paddle canoes through choppy waters, raise a secure tarp in the wind, and cook gourmet meals on a campfire.
Although staff at these camps change regularly, at Wanapitei it is Heffy who is the constant. He came to camp as a teenager in the late 1980s and basically grew up there, amassing the skills to construct cabins out of reused materials and keep old boats and tired machines somehow miraculously running until the camp finally replaces them. He has been the year round caretaker for many years now, enduring the two months of summer craziness when camp is in session for the ten months of peace and solitude, the sweet part of the over-wintering job when he makes drums and watches the snow fly.
And you never know what you will see on Lake Temagami. It is remote, but there has always been an active community on the lake – whether it was centuries of the Ojibway community spreading out to fish and hunt, or the heyday of tourism in the first half of the 20th century when celebrities like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford would tour the lake on the steam ship, or the last hundred years of hectic summer canoe camps, the decades of mineral and lumber exploitation and jobs, or the years of political struggles when environmentalists and natives blockaded ill-conceived industrial plans for the land and worked for social justice. It may be northern bush but it is vibrant and always interesting.
One of the rules that Cocky and I always adhered to in our many years of living in the bush and on the lake was that just because you are a forest dweller it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dress for a party. Imagine running into celebrities like Bobby McFerrin or Grey Owl, both among the many Temagami part-timers, in your dungarees? No self-respecting bush babe would let that happen! I once facilitated a magical weekend that brought dignitaries from all over the world to camp on the rocks. In the morning we watched as the wife of a Philippine government official emerged from her tent (first time ever camping) dressed and adorned in gold jewellry like breakfast was being served in the palace! She outshone everyone with her grace and provided us with a little morning star-gazing. Another way to look at it is there is so much green leaf, brown soil and grey rock around, one should always do their part to add a little color and bling to the mix.
As it would turn out, Cocky, who can dress up a brown paper bag and make it look runway-ready, was even in sync with one of the Bear Island dogs, with their matching pink animal prints. That’s what I’m talking about – dress for all occasions!
That occasion was a wonderful barbecue on the shores of Bear island with our old friend John
O and his partner Katy. There is nothing as sweet as cool drinks, cool friends and all the trimmings (like schmores) under the pines as the sun sparkles
across the lake and the loons start their evening song.
In my last blog post I wrote about overcoming despair and living with hope. Spending time in Temagami’s natural splendor is a definite tonic for surviving this troubled world. Cocky and Laurie, both therapists, started tending the germ of an idea they had to create a retreat for activists on Peter’s island (I believe I’d be the cook!). They know that many of the people who are working full time to overcome the environmental and justice challenges of our planet never actually get out in her wild places and definitely need time to replenish their energies, so they brainstormed on the idea of a Temagami retreat for renewal. I bet the fireside discussions would be hot! I’ll keep you posted on their plans.
Temagami has always provided that for me. It is where I spent much of my time while in treatments for cancer in the early 1990s and it is where I retreated to on September 12th 2001, out of range of the horrible images that were spreading over our psyches from New York City. This week is the tenth
anniversary of that unbelievable morning. New York and perhaps the rest of the civilized world changed that day, but the lake, the forest, the rocks and the
loon’s song have remained pretty much the same. The smell of the pines –
whether emitting from the majestic standing groves or wafting as campfire smoke when the trees have died – is my incense. Temagami has been a blessing in my life and fortunately I just drank from her waters and
renewed my spirit once again. Thanks Peter and Cocky. These are precious days.