From The Stern
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Township of Muskoka Lanes, Ontario — It is that special time of day, in that special time of year, when the air is quiet, the water is cool, the lake is still and the conditions are perfect, in this perfect place, for reflection. That’s what lakes, and vacations, and canoes, are for.
Just a moment ago I was out on the lake, alone but for my paddle and my thoughts, looking at my reflection in the mirror that the water forms at this hour, in this season, on this lake in a tranquil corner of Canada. For this is perhaps the most Canadian place of all — Montreal bearing a whispery hint of Paris, Toronto carrying a sniff of London, Calgary a faint echo of Houston. But the whisky-smooth lakes of Ontario three hours north of Toronto are as purely distilled Canadian as maple syrup and Molson’s.
It is the setting — for on the rock of the Precambrian Shield, God built his Canada — that makes it so, but it is the canoe that seals the argument. The canoe — you might think of it, if you have an Old Testament turn of mind, as the slender pointer on the broad, ancient parchment of this land — is that most Canadian of conveyances: simple, elegant, efficient, modest, unobtrusive. If one of Canada’s national problems is that it doesn’t know what the question is, one of its glories is that it knows what the answer is. It is the canoe.
We’re here on holiday on a tiny teardrop called Thorne Lake that isn’t on your maps but that will be forever etched in our minds. Right here, beside the wooden deck, is the canoe. There’s one across the lake, too, and another at the cottage at the far end of the lake, and yet another over there, in the hidden cove where the lily pads are mounting a small march of aggression.
There is a canoe everywhere in Canada, if not in view, then in memory. Pick up an alternative newspaper in so-cosmopolitan Toronto and you’ll see, smack between the ad for a belly-dance studio and an explicit account of a columnist’s sexual adventure, this sentence, perhaps the only unself-conscious thought in the whole publication: “We’re haunted by echoes of voyageur paddlers and think back to the days when this river was a (highway) to the riches of the West.” The other day a man walked along Route 169 with a canoe over his head. No one paid him any mind.
“Like the railway, the mountains or Hudson Bay, they’re part of who we are, an immutable fact of Canadian life,” James Raffan writes in a luminous ode to the canoe, “Bank, Skin and Cedar.” “But if one were to pick up any canoe in any part of Canada, hold it up to the light, turn it lovingly over and admire its curves and imperfections, ask of its experiences on the waters nearby, stories would flow, stories that speak something of the essence of its paddlers and the place it calls home.”
That’s why it’s possible to find, on the Internet and around the campfire, loving recollections of the night someone spent on Rain Lake or Raccoon Lake and memories of the spray from Ragged Falls and phantom long-ago itches from the bugs on the portages on a trip from Canoe Lake to Burnt Island Lake and on to Otterside Lake and Big Trout Lake. These logs, whether on the fire or on the Web, are fuel for some northern Stephen Vincent Benet, in love with Canadian names, and taken together, they are the Facebook of the Canadian soul.
I’m proud to be an American, but I’m proud to be half Canadian, too, and in some ways, to adapt an old wise-guy phrase from the most intimate of human experiences, the Canadian side may well be my better half. That’s why, for years, I have envied one of my columnist brethren, Roy MacGregor of the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper, who actually gets paid for his thoughts, like this one this summer:
“If you head down the lake and through a small narrows — watch out for that new deadhead — you come to a smaller lake with not a single dwelling to be found. The surrounding leaves hint at what time of year it is, but say nothing of the year itself. It could be this century, could be last century — could, with an enormous amount of good fortune — be next century.”
And so, with the yearning to leave behind an imprint on the next generation and the next century that the middle-aged sometimes feel when they are at their most passionate, Mom and I brought our younger daughter here, to the lake, and watched, with a parent’s love, the way she gained confidence in the canoe and learned when to use a draw stroke and when to use a sweep.
It was good to come here, good for the air, good for the peameal bacon we cooked on the grill, good for the heart and spirit, good for the perspective. For at home we think of ourselves, with our love for the cool faraway hills and the frosty streams, as people grounded in the North Country, and here, in Canada, we’re plainly people from the country to the south.
A year or two ago or maybe it was three, for time for me is now a river and not a lake, I noticed that on our annual hikes in New Hampshire’s intoxicating White Mountains we no longer led the way up the rocky mountain pathways but watched our girls, once so small and tentative, now so big and confident, speed ahead on the trails, especially the steep parts. It was a moment mixing sadness and pride, a reminder that time ticks on, even when you are on vacation and not wearing a watch.
So forgive me if I repeat myself and, like this sentence, run on a bit — it won’t be the last time — but this summer I saw it again, this reminder of life’s unaltering and unfaltering rhythm. Because for the first time, on this holiday, on this watery artery of her quarter-Canadian soul, the teenager I still regard as our little girl took her rightful place in the stern of the canoe, where the navigation decisions are made. It turns out that the lessons of the lake were not only for her, but for me, too. From here on, until the end of the trip, the route and the way are mostly in her hands.