Ratty was Right Department

I am thinking (having received a strong hint) that my blog should have a title, and I have duly fomented a tentative one although perhaps too prosaic, as follows:

Along the Fourth Coast:  Jottings and Blatherings from Canada's Deep South

It's probably not the most inspiring thing you ever saw, but hoping it is unpretentious enough to serve as the title for this column, that I don't pretend to be anything but musings from someone with, you know, a somewhat haphazardly functional brain and intermittently, dimly positive spirit. I find myself now to have become, among other eclectic things at the age of 67, a writer, student of history and a lover of the Fresh Coast of Canada, particularly my little bit of it here on the (Lower) Great Lakes, but also other places -- mostly, as you will see, water-connected. All I can say about what you will find here is that I will try to lie no more than any other storyteller!

Ratty was Right  Department, August 17, 2017*


If you are wondering why I seem to blog a lot about boats, don't fret, I have many, many more ways to bore you coming up. I have simply loved boats and boating since I was very young, and they have loomed large throughout my life. My grandfather, who founded a company called Ontario Glove in Kitchener/Waterloo, Ontario, homesteaded about a thousand feet of gorgeous sand beach waterfront just west of Algonquin Park in the Dirty Thirties – Crown land which had to be “improved” to hold title. When I came along, my father still time-shared the original 20 by 20 foot plank cottage at Sand Lake with his sisters and brother, now with annexes for a kitchen and bedroom. So deep in the northern forest was the place that the horse-drawn wagon that brought in planks and other essential building supplies could not be turned around, but had to be taken apart and reassembled in the clearing to be able to return from whence it came.  Dad did not install electricity or running water until about 1995, when my Mother was becoming disabled from Parkinson’s Disease.  There is still an outhouse, and we kids hauled drinking water in steel buckets from a good spring a hundred yards down the beach. Black bears wandered freely up and down that sand at night (and sometimes during the daytime). It is a place of which I literally have no bad memories, and a place I always visited, at least in my mind, to cheer me up when things got tough, as they do for almost everyone at one time or another.
            It was there that I met my first boat, which my Dad and his brother Ken had constructed – a narrow, beautiful, varnished oak lapstrake rowboat about 17 feet long, which must have weighed at least a ton! They had carved oars for it out of spruce, or maybe hemlock – works of art they would be, compared to the crude oars you can buy for rowing today at the hardware store. There were four, for the two rowing benches, and each must have been nine or ten feet long, with carefully carved, curved blades meticulously tipped with brass, and leathers tacked around the shafts to protect them from bronze oarlocks.  Teenagers when they built it, Ken and Robert hand-bent the planking using a steam box they built themselves and secured the planks with bronze boat nails.
            Sand Lake itself is an idyllic place, a few miles from the southwestern boundary of Algonquin Park, about two miles across, 250 feet deep and cold below the thermocline, with that tea-coloured, tannin-barked water of all northern lakes. But what grandfather had discovered, no doubt from a trapper, or hunter who brought him moose hides or deerskins for the specialty gloves, was that around most of the periphery of the lake, invisible in various sorts of shrubbery and bush, were the most extraordinary, pristine sand beaches -- ours unexceptionally extending at least 50 yards out into the lake to waist depth before dropping off into the abyss.  It was truly an amazing place to spend weeks on end during the summer, which we did. Dad was a Pathologist, the Department Head at Queen’s University, so had good vacations, albeit bringing papers to grade or write for most of them.
            Kerosene lamps lit the evenings, including clever, elegant Aladdin® lamps, which used a fragile sort of treated string mantle and a circular wick to create a lovely, glowing warm light. We always loved to see a newly-installed mantle lit for the first time – its gossamer, blue coating burning off as it heated. Fussy things they were, requiring constant attention to make sure the wick was burning absolutely evenly all round, or the mantle would scorch up with soot. With meticulous care, one could then restore them sometimes, turning the flame right down and then back up, infinitely slowly, gradually burning off the carbon from the bottom up. Often, though, the charred mantles were done like dinner.
Behold the Aladdin®, clothed
Ta-daaa! Behold the Aladdin®, gloriously nude

        


We played and played and played in that big boat, sometimes one kid per oar, sometimes two. We could row for hundreds of yards up and down along the beach, without ever being in danger either of tipping it over, or falling out and drowning.  Even four-year-olds find it tough to drown in plain sight in only a foot of water.
            Years later, my Dad would get me up at dawn to go deep trolling for Lake Trout. He would row steadily along on the dark, calm water, the paired oar eddies swirling off into the distance. I would be in charge of the fishing rod – silver spoon flashing invisibly, way down at the end of 300 feet of heavy, stiff, steel line, the better to sink it down  into the inky blackness at 75 feet, where the fish were in summer. I once put on a friend's scuba tank and pulled myself down a water intake hose on another, similar, northern lake. At about six feet down, the bath-like upper layer ended and the cold lower layer of the lake began. At about ten feet down, the light vanished. It was like sticking my head in a coalsack. My breathing became quite rapid. Not my cup of tea, haha.
The Williams® Wabler® has its own simple beauty.

We took no cameras out there, but I remember his hands on the oars; fatherly, somehow wise, competent and caring all at once. The morning mists meant we would push off and row away from the dew-damp beach into gray, still, clammy nothingness. Frequently we saw families of Loons – I have never read that they are communal birds, but it was not uncommon, then, to see a dozen at a time with their little ones, fishing along the edge of the drop-off. Watching an Osprey splashdown in the middle of the still lake and haul away a fish was always spellbinding, but never a surprise.

            The boat, sadly, rotted away many years ago – an age ago -- and I think there are no vestiges of it left, not even those great oars, but I still can see those dark-grained oak planks in my mind’s eye, nailheads and screws covered with twenty years or more of peeling varnish, and I can well imagine the two brothers grinning at each other as they assembled something beautiful from scattered bits and pieces of unrelated objects, fashioned into an almost-alive creation, that now seems like a faithful big brown dog, one that herded us, protected us, was the font of wonderful pirate play and sand-ball depth-charge wars.  In my case, at least, it was the inspiration for a lifetime of fooling around in boats. More on that later.

* of course a reference to The Wind in the Willows"There is nothing — absolute nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

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