We love the rich history of the Perrault Falls area, and have some great memoirs and history available to read in each of our cabins. We are always welcoming of others to share their stories with us to keep this history alive. Here is one account shared by Kent:
"Ancient History of Tall Pines Camp From the Wooldrige Family"
In follow up to the re-circulating of some of Dad’s reminiscences of Canada, Rob asked (actually commanded!) that I write a few of my own remembrances about our trips. Unfortunately, since my first trip (age 6) was nearly 64 years ago, many of my recollections are getting a little hazy. However, one general reflection overrides all of the others and I want to preface the recording of these memories by saying that Robert and I were truly blessed in so many ways and our Canadian experiences were just a few of the innumerable wonderful experiences and privileges of growing up with such special parents. To the extent that there is a Wooldridge tradition to be passed on, the cumulative experiences of Mom, Dad, Robert and me in the Canadian Lake Country represent a huge part of its collective fabric.
Once kindergarten was a thing of the past and I was pretty well grown up, Dad must have decided that we were ready to experience Canada. In June of 1956, we made our first family trip. Looking back, this seems like a pretty big challenge. Driving more than 1000 miles with 6 and 9 year old obnoxious boys who bickered and fought constantly, would be a pretty big adventure in its own right, but to think that you could actually get those two young boys to passively spend a week fishing was quite a leap of faith.
The trip itself was a bit of an adventure in it’s own right. There are a lot of miles between Springfield and the Ontario wilderness and in 1956 there was no such thing as an Interstate highway. The routine was pretty much the same for most of our trips. After loading the car the day before, we would leave in the morning, usually stopping for breakfast before leaving Springfield. After the first trip, Aunt Martha’s Pancake House became the traditional first stop.
There were a couple of potential routes, but even though US 65 heading due north looks like the shortest, we usually started up Highway 13 through Osceola where we would visit the Osceola Cheese factory. Unlike the successor business today, this factory (now replaced by the road to the boat ramp on the north side of Truman Lake) became the preferred first stop. Mr. Scott, who owned the factory was a friendly and interesting guy and was a rock collector, which turned into a particular source of attraction for me. Dad had a particular love for cheese and after adding to the supplies, we continued north.
Dad was a creature of habit and the routes and stopping points were usually consistent. I believe that on the first trip we may have stopped in Storm Lake, Iowa, but on later trips Spencer, IA, became the place for the first night’s stay. Motels were more modest in those days, but as time went by, having a place with a swimming pool to help the boys wind down became a priority.
We usually maintained the same route and the standard second night stop was International Falls, MN, across the Rainy River from the Canadian border. Here we always stayed at the same hotel and generally ate at “The Spot” restaurant for dinner after buying some of the provisions we needed at the camp.
The next morning, we would always get up early and cross the bridge and go through Customs to enter Canada in the small city of Fort Francis. There we would usually stop at the Safeway grocery and stock up on perishable foods and some of the special Canadian items that Mom and Dad enjoyed but couldn’t get in the US. I’m sure there were others, but some of their favorites were Malkins or Safeway brand tins of wonderful Canadian jam. We loved all the flavors – strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry were favorites. Dad particularly loved gooseberry, but it was too tart for most of us. They also loved a product called Camp’s Coffee. You can still find it on the Internet. It was an English concentrated liquid coffee with chicory, which made it even more bitter. They would heat water, then pour a little into the water. Later, they developed an affection for English Peek Freans cookies, canned Habitant Pea Soup (it was a Dad thing and disgusting if you don’t like split pea soup) and Red River Cereal (similar to oatmeal, but including barley, flax and other grains).
As much as Dad loved the grocery stop, his real highlights were the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) and the Brewer’s Retail. Alcohol is tightly controlled in most of the Canadian Provinces (not so much in Newfoundland!) and you could only buy it at these establishments at painfully high prices. Dad absolutely loved Canadian Whiskey and swore you could not buy decent alternatives in the US. However, his real thrill was Canadian Ale from Brewer’s Retail. He had to load up enough to last him for the time we would be at the lodge, because there was none locally available near our camp. Once we had finished these two vital stops, we were on our way. Once the visit was over, we made a stop at “The Totem Pole” a touristy trading post where Mom always found some things of personal interest and gifts for those back in Missouri. Then we were off on the last long gravelly leg.
The distance to the camp was only about 180 miles, but the roads were two-lane and the last 60+ mile stretch from Vermillion Bay to Perrault Falls was gravel for our first couple of trips. Vermillion Bay was the last significant vestige of civilization, so we made the obligatory stop to meet the Mr. and Mrs. Schussler, Mom and Dad’s long-time friends and the owners of Century Lodge Camp on Eagle Lake. The tip of Eagle was at Vermillion Bay and this was the Schussler’s Headquarters and point where the long boat trips begin for Dad’s adult trips with his cronies.
The Canadian Lake Country is beautiful to drive through and, along the Red Lake Road, there was a continuous string of beautiful lakes. Although you saw the very first of the natural lakes in Northern Iowa and the “Lake Country” had begun in earnest in Minnesota, once you entered Canada, the road pretty much skirted lakes for the entire route. However, where there was many cabins and evidence of humanity around the lakes in the US and farther south in Canada, after leaving Vermillion Bay in those early days, the road wound between pristine lakes on both sides of the road with ever fewer indications of a human population of recreational presence on the lakes.
As I recall, Dad had heard of Ballard’s Tall Pine Camp from a dentist friend who lived down the street from Grandma and Grandad Cowan in Aurora. However, over the years, we received a lot of recommendations for places to go in Canada and, as far as I can recall, all of the others were pretty much duds. People may have liked what they found compared to their fishing experiences in Missouri, but what we found and experienced near the tiny village of Perrault Falls, Ontario was something special.
When I say “village,” this may have been somewhat of an exaggeration. While there were at least three and maybe four lodges on our lake, the only significant commercial activity was a tiny combination post office and store run by Terry Lister’s later described “Little Man.” If they did not have what you needed, your options were an hour and a half drive back to Vermillion Bay to the South or a similar drive to the town of Red Lake to the north. Under the best of circumstances, these contained limited resources. I believe that Red Lake had, both, a grocery store and a small bakery, but these were pretty much our accessible limits of civilization.
The camp initially consisted of about four cabins, a lodge, a maintenance building and an ice-house where they kept winter lake ice packed in sawdust, which lasted throughout the summer. By the time we returned two years later, down a path past the icehouse, about four more additional cabins had been built.
The cabins were rustic, but nice enough. They were made of pine logs with the bark stripped off and varnished. Each had a front porch and the fronts were built a few feet above the ground on posts because the land angled up from the lake and the back end of the cabins were nearly on the ground. There was a path in front of the row of cabins with pine trees on the other side between the cabins and the lake, which was probably around 50-60 feet away.
Facilities were limited, so we used mosquito infested out-houses behind the cabins and, adjoining the icehouse, was a community shower. You had to take your turn, which we did in the evenings once or twice a week (at least when our parents could get us to do so).
I don’t know if all of the cabins were identical, but the ones we stayed in during our trips consisted of a screened porch, then a door into the cabin entering a communal area with a table in the center. This served as the kitchen, living room, and dining room. I would guess that it was about 20’ by around 12’. Behind this were two draped doorways into two small bedrooms, perhaps 10’x10’.
Dad has written about the wonderful wildlife at the camp. Robert and I loved playing with the ever- hungry squirrels featuring the parental couple, Franky and Johnny as well as the also tame groundhogs mothered by long-lived Josephine. However, he failed to mention that this was where we first encountered flying squirrels. This was on a later trip, but these are interesting animals and these particular ones were nocturnal with spooky large reflective eyes. It became a highlight to go out and look for them at night with a flashlight. Periodically, the bears would get into garbage cans at night and make quite a racket, but the biggest excitement was when a group of skunks (Canadian skunks are big, like medium-sized dogs) got in a squirting contest under the bedrooms of the Lister’s cabin. This was not a happy event for the Listers.
In the early days there was no television, but sometimes in the evening we would go down to the lodge for a slide show put on by the Ballards. I don’t recall if they served food at the lodge, but if they did, I don’t think we ever ate there. Mom cooked our meals in the cabin.
Renee Ballard, the husband co-owner, could (out of necessity) build or fix about anything. The original Mrs. Ballard (I seem to recall as Alice) took care of cleaning the cabins and washing and changing linens in advance of new arrivals. She passed away after our first or second trip, and Mr. Ballard remarried.
Looking out from the lodge was a small open area with the lake directly in front. This was the meeting point of the paths which went in front of the cabins, then split with one path going straight down to the dock and one going to the ice house where there was also a room for fish cleaning and ice-filled lockers for those who desired to keep fish. Another path went back toward the maintenance building and parking lot up the hill. Another went past one more cabin and toward the shower and the newer cabins.
As you left the lodge and went down the incline toward the lake, you reached the dock where the boats were tied. The dock was later extended and must have been around 80’ long. There were usually two or three boats tied to each side. Next to the dock was a wooden platform which extended into the water where other boats were hauled up and stored.
Originally, the boats provided were wooden V-bottoms. They were rugged and heavy. They were about 16’ long and were later replaced by aluminum boats in the 1960’s. There was a front seat in the bow facing the stern. In between, there were two bench seats and a bench seat in the rear in front of the motor. Dad brought his 15 hp Johnson outboard, and I remember watching him bring it down the hill for the first time from the car. It was tricky to bring something heavy down the fairly steep incline leading down to the dock. He hung it on the transom of our designated boat and we were nearly ready to go.
Initially, I can’t remember if we had any seat cushions at all, but sitting on a hard, flat, board seat for the entire day got pretty old, even for small-bodied youngsters. Later, one of the enhancements was the bringing of folding padded metal swivel seats with backs which attached to the boat’s bench seats. Being able to turn from side to side and lean against a padded back rest made a huge difference.
Taking Rob and I to Canada must have been a big dream of Dad’s. He would have only been thirty-nine years old for this first trip, and Mom would have been thirty-five. Dad loved the Canadian lake country so much, and Mom was a real trouper. What most people observed in her as “sweetest person they had ever met” belied a deep inner toughness. Mom was definitely a worrier, but she was a tough and decisive when the situation required it and particularly in the face of adversity or when it came to protecting her little flock.
Mom appeared to much in the outside world as the classic subservient housewife and dutiful mother. Certainly, as a Home Economics major in college, she regarded this as an important role. However, there was a much deeper side to Mom that I did not fully appreciate until later in life. She was willing to take a back seat to Dad’s high visibility and lofty social position, but she was extremely self-assured about her role as the strong woman behind a successful man. Despite her outward loving kindness and generosity, she took great pride as a co-equal in their lives together and even told me so. I cannot ever recall an instance in which Mom or Dad ever took more than a very tiny departure from the joint path they planned together for their life and for the upbringing of Robert and me.
I throw in this little insight because, while Dad could be headstrong, he was seldom domineering when it came to Mom. They were true partners. Rob and I were not always party to the discussions, but decisions about things like upbringing and vacations were shared between Mom and Dad. Rob and I embraced Dad’s love of Canada and would have loved nothing more than going every summer, preferably for longer at a time. However, Dad was adamant that the trips to Canada were not Mom’s first choice and that we should only go in alternating years, providing Mom with a more desirable vacation alternative in between.
In reflecting back, I believe we went to Wabaskang in 1956, 1957, 1959, 1961, 1963 and in 1965 when we made our last family trip to Ballard’s. Some years later on a fly-in trip out of Knobby’s at Ear Falls, which was not far from Perrault Falls, Rob and I persuaded Dad to take a quick run back to Tall Pines Camp. The Ballard’s were long gone but the camp, while somewhat updated and expanded with a parking lot for RV’s, was much the same. Looking out over that first bay brought back wonderful memories. I feel like Dad had been reluctant to go and, in looking back, he was unusually quiet during and after the little visit. I believe that it was hard for him to witness the rapid passage of time and to reflect back on so many special memories while seeing a place that we all knew was now only a shadow of all we had so fondly experienced many years before.
While fishing trips to Canada may not have always been Mom’s preference, she never allowed Rob and me to glean any perceived reservation on her part. She was a pretty fair fisher-person and loved to catch fish, but it was not her passion. She would stick it out for a few hours, but Mom was a great reader and when she became bored she often shifted some of her focus to her ever-present paperback she carried in the boat.
Particularly when Rob and I were young, these trips were a lot of work for Mom and Dad. With two rambunctious boys, it’s not like they had a lot of “private” time for just the two of them. Dad’s fishing was limited because of running the boat and there were endless chores from maintaining the boat, filling the gas cans and fueling the motor to building camp fires and cleaning fish for shore lunches. There was no dining out, so there was a lot of planning and preparation for three meals a day with nearly everything needing to be planned for and brought with us to camp. Most days began and ended with long runs of 30-45 minutes to what was hoped to be better fishing in more distant parts of the lake. As Rob and I grew older, more and more of the chores were taken over by us and I would like to think that this made Mom and Dad’s time a little more pleasant.
Even though we were young at the time of our first Canadian trip, Rob and I had done a bit of stream and river fishing and Dad gave each of us a small tackle fiberglass tackle box with our names painted on the lids. He had given each of us a fiberglass fishing rod, and a Zebco spin/cast fishing reel. Before leaving for Canada, Dad has made us practice casting in the back yard with a hookless casting weight in the hope that this might minimize our hanging up our lures on the myriad of weeds, trees and branches.
Wabaskang was a beautiful lake. As you looked out from the dock, there was a large bay, nearly a mile across with some small islands in the middle and at the far end. If you looked out toward the bay, to the right it was lined with weed beds (reeds) which pretty much followed the perimeter of the bay. Down in the far-right corner of the bay about a third of a mile, the weed bed extended a good distance from the shore, where a small stream entered the lake. If you followed the shore to the left of the dock for about ¾ of a mile, you would come to the significant and beautiful waterfall outlet of Perrault Lake, the next higher lake in the chain several upstream lakes which we drove past as we headed north toward Perrault Falls. Between the dock and the falls, there was at least one other camp and possibly a second.
As I recall, our first experience with fishing in Canada was along the far granite bank in the first bay opposite the camp. This was a good place to start. Against a granite wall, there are no weeds and few overhanging bushes and trees, so we could get used to casting without as much chance of getting hung up. I don’t know how long it took, but I doubt it was more than an hour before we became seasoned Canadian fishermen, having caught at least a fish or two.
I’m sure that the first Canadian fish we caught were Northern Pike. These were wonderfully fearless game fish, which will attack nearly anything, pretty much any time. With their huge long mouths filled with rows of sharp needly teeth, “Northerns” would often follow your lure to the boat and would, sometimes, jump out of the water to try to attack your lure. I’ve done a lot of fishing in a lot of places, but to this day, I love fishing for Northern Pike the most. Even a small Northern puts up a fierce fight and larger ones make for a real tussle. They are solitary fearless stalkers and they play to win! It is not uncommon to see a small Northern, very little larger than your lure, follow it up to the boat and sometimes manage to get hooked. This was evidenced by the famous picture of a disgusted-looking stubble faced Dad on Stone Dam lake with a large Hedden Lucky 13 and a tiny hooked Northern dangling from the rear hook. They do not give up easily and they never learn. You can catch them today and catch them again tomorrow. We witnessed this many times when there were distinctive fish markings or evidence of a prior hook removal.
A a couple of interesting tidbits about Northerns. It appears that, at least under certain circumstances, they may range significantly. Dad told us about one of the men in his group hooking a significant Northern on Eagle Lake and having it break the line and losing the lure. Later that day, another member of their party in another boat, two or three miles away, caught a sizable Northern. When they were discussing over dinner, they realized that the lure which had been in the mouth of the fish caught in the afternoon, was the one which had been lost in the morning. The same fish had ranged a long way in a short period of time.
On a much later trip to Kezek Lake, Rob and Dad and I went to the outlook of “Spook Lake,” where Dad described going with Uncle Roy. We tied the boat to the bank and walked along the granite bank, casting and catching Northern on almost every cast. All of a sudden, I had something very different on my line. It felt very strange, pulling in different directions and putting up quite a fight. When I finally got it to shore, I realized that I had two three-pound Northerns hooked on the two hooks of my Hedden Tad-Polly. When I tell you that these fish are fearless fighters, I say it with the greatest respect!
Compared to the largest fish we had ever caught in the Ozarks, perhaps a one-pound bass, catching a long narrow three pound Northern was quite a thrill. I never caught anything over eight or nine pounds in Wabaskang, but what the lake lacked in quality (large), it more than made up for in quantity. It was a rare day when you could not catch a goodly number of fish.
The other primary fish were Walleyes, which was short for Walleyed Pike (oddly, not a member of the pike family). Walleyes are wonderful to eat, but are smaller than Northerns and don’t put up nearly as much of a fight. They tend to stay together in schools in deep narrow pockets and you can catch a lot if you hit them right.
Kids become bored fairly easily, so Dad always tried to make sure we caught fish. We would stop at the falls or the first narrows and warm up with catching a few walleyes, but as I mentioned in an earlier note, Mom once caught fourteen walleyes in fourteen casts with a lure called a Pico Perch in that narrows. However, that was an exception, because Dad felt that catching Walleyes was not really sporting and, normally, we only fished for them when we wanted fish for eating a shore lunch or for dinner.
Dad loved to fish and was a superb fisherman. However, his primary job on these early trips was to run the boat, so he had limited time to fish. Regardless, he knew the “tricks of the trade” and held his own by trolling a lure or making a timely cast in the right place.
Dad was a purist and as second-generation apprentices, we Wooldridges represented the minority as far as how we fished. Most people were there just to catch fish, quantity overriding most other considerations. Therefore, they sought the places where Walleyes would congregate and were their quarry. They would fish with live bait, normally minnows or leeches or sometimes Walleye eyes and they would sit for hours “drowning minnows” as Dad liked to say, trying to catch their daily limit. Since each cabin had a locker in the fish cleaning room next to the icehouse, it was painful to open them an see hundreds of small walleye and Northerns, which had been kept, just because they could. Our locker was always empty.
Dad, on the other hand, never really wanted to fish with live bait. He felt all the skill of fishing was in the technique and except on rare occasions, we used artificial lures and spinner baits and casted for our quarry. We released everything we caught, except what we needed for a particular meal.
Dad’s brother, Don Wooldridge was a famous wildlife photographer for the Missouri Conservation Department. I have no idea if this influenced Dad’s thinking, but I believe he was always a strong environmentalist. Dad had watched the decline in the fishing in Eagle Lake since his first trip in 1950 and was an outspoken critic of the allowed fishing practices. He felt strongly that because of the very short growing season, the fishing resources were extremely fragile. Northern could grow up to 30+ pounds, but a 10 pound northern was a big fish by the time we started going to Canada, and the reason was that a 10 pound northern that far north was more than 20 years old. Dad wrote a series of letters to the Ontario Department of Tourism and to their Department of Natural Resources tell them of his experiences and warning them that they should limit fishing to catch and release plus what could be eaten during the trip. He warned that allowing people to continue to take back large numbers of fish was “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” Like most governments, everyone took a short-term view and didn’t want to run the risk of discouraging tourism. The result quickly became evident. If a lake became accessible by road, the fish would soon be largely gone.
The natural beauty of the lake country is staggering and so peaceful. Granite rocks and bluffs, pine trees, a few birch, and weed beds along the shores. Ducks and geese with their babies were everywhere. Gulls abounded and waited for a chance to make off with a fish carcass or leftover luncheon tidbit. Eagles were common and beaver, deer, moose, and bears were seen frequently. Rob and I grew to appreciate this paradise in much the same light as Dad.
At the far end of the camp’s bay there was a block of granite, which had broken off from a granite bluff but remained standing about 12 inches away. I suppose it was something like 5 feet square and extending about a dozen feet above the waterline. On the top was a small scraggly pine tree and a couple of little bushes and some sprigs of grass. Dad declared this to be Moses’ Island! My nickname and for all of our trips to Wabaskang, I admired my little personal kingdom as we passed. More often than not, Dad would proclaim –"Boys, there’s Moses’ Island!”
Actually, I believe I was playing catch-up ball, because in the second bay past the first narrows, Dad had earlier bequeathed a real island (actually, a rock with some bushes and grass, perhaps a dozen feet in diameter), to be “Chief’s Island,” in honor of Robert’s nickname. Unlike “Moses’ Island, since one could have actually landed on Chief’s Island, I was probably a bit jealous.
Little kids can be pretty weird, and I was no exception. We all have our idiosyncrasies, and one of mine as a boy was a love for hats. From my Chinese beanie to my Davey Crockett Coon Skin to my Roy Rogers cowboy hat, I loved them all. One of my favorites, which became a standard for two or three of our earliest trips to Canada, was a shapeless tall black felt hat which Mom and Dad called a “Skragg” hat. This name came from a hat worn by one of the backwoods relatives Daisy Mae, the voluptuous girl friend of Li’l Abner in Al Capps long running comic strip. I loved that hat and wore it everywhere.
Nevertheless, one day we were fishing in the first narrows and had gotten out of the boat and were fishing from large the rocks along bank. All of a sudden, a gust of wind blew and took my prized Skragg hat, depositing it several feet away in in the lake. Without even a thought, I plunged into the water and swam for the hat while Mom screamed in alarm. Fortunately, I got to it before it went far and returned to the shore without further incident with my trophy hat already back on my head.
Despite this event, getting in the water was not a normal part of our plans. During our early trips, Rob and I wore kapok (no closed-cell foam in those days) life jackets when we were in transit or during rowdy weather. We had been warned that the lake water was very cold, so it was many years later before we tried our hands and feet at swimming.
The general rule of thumb is that fishing is best were the people are the least, so normally, we left the first bay and began fishing at the first narrows leading into the second bay before heading to more distant parts of the lake. Later, we learned a secret. Almost everyone else did the same thing, so the first bay was largely ignored, and we found that the fishing in the first bay was actually excellent and became the primary focus of our evening fishing! But there was another surprise.
Besides Northern and Walleye, the other indigenous fish one very rarely caught was a lake perch. These little beauties were never as large as a pound and usually much smaller. The only time we ever caught them in quantity was during one of our forays to Keynote lake, a sometime diversionary destination. However, we knew that small mouth bass were gradually working their way north and were in some of the lakes higher on the chain. We were surprised when Dad or Robert caught the first smallmouth bass in the first bay. Over the years, we saw small mouth become much more common in the first bay, until by the time of our last trip, one would catch nearly as many smallmouth as other fish, but pretty much confined to that bay.
Prior to our first outing, “Rule #1” had been drilled into us. Never leave the dock without your rain suit! Fortunately, Sears-Roebuck, the source for anything and everything, provided all of us with grey vinyl tent-like rain suits, which we kept in a small vinyl pouch. When the order was given (soon, we learned to anticipate the order) we would slip the dress-like hooded garment with elastic gathers around sleeves and face over our clothes. This early lesson was never forgotten, and rain suits became a preoccupation in subsequent trip planning. A good rain suit is worth its weight in gold in the rapidly changing Canadian weather patterns. It would prove to be a rare day when rain suits were not donned at least once and, sometimes they became the primary attire for long stretches or even complete days.
Another of Dad’s rules was that you should layer your clothing. The weather in early June was often volatile and could change several times during the day. It could go from being cold in the mornings with spitting snow (it could seem freezing at you powered across the lake in the cold rain) then change to bright hot sun later in the day. Short sleeve shirts covering long sleeve shirts covered by sweatshirts covered by jackets covered by a raincoat were the norm and, over the course of most days, these clothes would come off and go back on with regularity.
Dad was a student of most things he found interesting, and he had learned a lot about the Canadian Lake Country during his many trips. He asked lots of questions of locals and particularly his Indian guides on Eagle Lake. There were old standard sayings like “when the wind’s from the west, the fish bite best!” Or, “when the wind’s from the east, the fish bite least!” Or, “Never, never fish when the north wind blows, it will freeze your fingers and frost your toes.” The corollary was something about when the wind was from the south, it would blow your lure into the fishes’ mouth.
Dad could discern certain things from cloud patterns and could often tell when rain was coming. However, one of his favorite “Fred Indian” expressions was when he would declare that a rainstorm was just a “clearing up shower!” Rob and I learned to live in terror at such proclamations, because, whether accurate or not, it seemed to us that a “clearing up shower” was a prelude to a deluge. When Dad would announce this, we would look at each other and prepare to batten down the hatches.
In the early days, fishing was extremely good on Wabaskang, at least by any standard Robert and I could yet imagine. We loved it. The routine was that we had breakfast, loaded the boat, and headed out to fish. At noon, we would pull up on a flat rack outcropping (preferably on an island) and have lunch. Usually, we had sandwiches or cheese and crackers and cookies, but every two or three days, we got a treat and had fresh walleye. It was filleted and usually fried, but in later years it was sometimes fixed in foil as described in Dad’s notes. Going through the routine of fixing a fire and waiting for it to burn down gave Rob and me a chance to explore. Usually there was little other than nature’s bounty to see, but sometimes we would find an old trapper’s cabin or some other sign of former human presence.
Sometimes we would try to fish from the shore, and occasionally we would actually catch fish. More often than not, we would get hung up and would have to put the fishing rod down to wait until after lunch to take the boat out and retrieve the lure.
However, in the earlier years, the most consistent occupation of our lunch time exploring was to take out our aggressions on the hated leeches we would see swimming along in the shallow water. Perhaps it is just part of being a boy, but there was something decidedly adversarial about these evil little blood-sucking creatures. They would range in size from a couple of inches up to nearly six inches and, while normally nearly black, were sometimes lighter brown.
Robert and my hatred for leeches knew few boundaries, and we delighted in finding new ways to torture and terminate their miserable lives! We had determined that the worst fate in the world was to be born a leech and we were out to save them from this curse! Even when we were in the boat, if we saw a leech swimming by, we would go to great lengths to try to get our fishing rods underneath it and it would bend around the rod so we could bring it into the boat, where we could hasten its demise. After all, the only good leech was a dead leech, and many a leech found its way into our campfires or onto the hot rocks. I’m sure the Canadian wilderness is a much safer place today, because of our concerted efforts at leech control.
We would fish, regardless of the weather. Rain or shine, wind and waves were part of the game. If things were too rough, we would stay in the camp and read or play dirty deuce until things improved, but we were pretty durable. If you could get out at all, you could get behind a point of land or an island and avoid much of the wind. We loved to fish, and that was why we were there.
When we returned at the end of the day, Rob and I would often explore the woods around the camp or fish from the dock while Mom and Dad relaxed with a cocktail and prepared dinner. It’s a little hard to believe that fishing off of the end of the dock could be as good as it sometimes was. Normally, catching a few small northern was not a problem, but once I caught one of the largest Walleye we ever caught in Canada right off the end of the dock.
After dinner, Dad would usually take Robert and I out fishing. Mom had plenty to do, and I’m sure she was worn out after a day in the boat and fixing dinner. More often than not, she wouldn’t join us in the evening. That was not only some of the best guy times, but some of the best fishing.
Sometimes one of the other three of us would bow out, too. However, almost every night at least two, three, or four of us would go out for an evening of fishing after dinner. To me, evening fishing was the best. Usually around 5:30 the wind begins to die down, and by the time we would go out it was often dead calm. It was so quiet and beautiful as the sun began to set and the ducks, geese, and loons all made the most of the daylight to feed and teach their hatchlings the lessons they would need to survive. It was so lovely and so peaceful. For lovers of the outdoors, this was close to paradise.
When it was calm, this was the time for top water fishing, and this was my favorite. Casting a top water lure up close to the rocks or reeds and working the lure where you can watch it on the surface was fun, but when a Northern exploded out of the water and attacked your lure, the battle was on and you had gotten to see it coming. When the fish missed or didn’t get fully hooked, you would just let the lure lay quietly, then tweek it a few times and often those crazy Northern would attack the lure a second or even a third time.
That far north, it stays light until after 10:00, so it was not unusual that we would fish until at least 9:00 or later. Normally, when there was an evening calm and the wind died, and you would hear the loons calling. It was a wonderful time. It was so peaceful to move slowly as Dad quietly paddled the boat and shared his endless stories as well as insights about his many Canadian adventures.
Besides the hated leeches, Canada presented four other nemesis – Mosquitos, black flies, horse flies, deer flies, and No Seeums. These flying marauders were relentless. Thankfully, mosquitos are frail and are poor flyers. Even the slightest breeze would discourage them, so distance from shore was a pretty good defense. However, when it was calm and you went to the bank, they made up for lost time. Quantities varied with time of year and locale, but I have been attacked by clouds of mosquitos in the woods on calm days and, particularly in the early evening. All of the insect repellent in the world would not seem to discourage these types of assaults.
When it was calm, distance from the shore meant little, and mosquitos would venture a significant distance. This was the time for gloves and, in later years, mosquito nets over your face and neck.
Even though the cabins had screened porches creating a double barrier, it was impossible to keep mosquitoes out of the cabin. It was common to be on the verge of falling asleep when you would hear a buzzing in your ear as you were attacked in a defenseless state, resulting in pulling the covers over your head and trying to wait out the attack.
In later years, we would have cans of insecticide which we would use to fog the cabin at night to try to ward off the attackers. For the most part, this worked pretty well. I, on the other hand, loved to spray mosquitos with insect repellent. While Rob pointed out that this wouldn’t kill them, I delighted in thinking it would make them hate themselves.
By the end of these trips, we were usually well sun-burned and mosquito-bitten. We were, of course, told not to scratch the mosquito bites, but I believe it is a right of youthful passage to be covered with scabs from over-scratched bites.
Dad, on the other hand, tried a slightly different approach. Since we were in a fairly remote area, he always brought a fairly extensive medical kit with him. This came in handy more than once, not only for us, but for others in the camp. I don’t know how extensive the contents were, but he claimed that, in the event of an emergency, he could perform an appendectomy. More than once, Dad removed fishhooks from hands and extremities of fellow campers and removed the Heddon Toni that Robert had impaled into my head, through one of my favorite LL Bean Pork-Pie hats!
Regardless, one night during one of the later trips when Robert and I returned from our own evening’s fishing, Dad was sitting in his underwear at the kitchen table in the middle of the front room with his leg crossed and a hypodermic syringe in his hand. I wondered what he was doing, and realized he was injecting his many mosquito bites with cortisone. I guess he didn’t want to be guilty of the scratching he had warned us not to do.
While in the boat, mosquitoes were usually only a problem when you were close to the shore or when it was extremely calm. This meant that they were more of an issue in the quiet evenings. Otherwise, the greater concerns were the better flying and more feared beasts - deer flies and, worst of all, black flies and horse flies. Deer flies were common but were mostly just a nuisance. They would bite, but it was not a big deal. It didn’t feel good and the bite would itch, but they were easily shooed away. However, the horse flies and black flies showed virtually no fear. Their bites would draw blood, and the wounds would form significant welts which continued to itch like bad mosquito bites and would last for days. The bigger problems were that black flies and horse flies just laughed hysterically in the face of insect repellent. It was almost as if they liked the stuff and we speculated that it might actually be an attractant!
No Seeums were an Indian term for tiny biting black gnats, which you could barely see and which attacked in swarms. Insect repellent discouraged them, but a mosquito net did little since they could go right through them. No Seeums were hard enough to see, so by the time you got into them, the damage was usually done before you could take action.
Rob and I became particularly well acquainted with mosquitos when we would go exploring in the woods. One would only have to go a few feet into the brush before he would be encircled by a cloud of mosquitos. You would hear a constant buzzing during the entire time you were there. Whether we were exploring the woods adjacent to the camp, or an island where we were having lunch, or trying to find a little lake Robert had seen from a flight we had made to Horseshoe lake, the one constant was the mosquitos and this was everywhere we have fished in Canada, all the way to the Arctic!
Very rarely, Dad would decide that we could do a little fishing with minnows. He would buy some minnows from Mr. Ballard and put them in a minnow bucket and we would “drown” some, fishing for Walleye. This was pretty easy pickens, and he must have done it at times when the fishing was mediocre and figured we were board. However, minnows were fairly expensive. One day, Robert and I saw someone casting a minnow net off the dock and catching their own. This looked like great fun and a much better deal than buying minnows, so when the people were leaving the camp, we negotiated to buy their net. It was relatively easy to catch minnows, so our buying days were over and the minnow net became a standard part of our Wabaskang gear. When we cleaned out Mom and Dad’s house, I found the net at the back of the top shelf in the garage. It brought back fond memories.
One year, when we were fishing in the first narrows for Walleye, we kept seeing a significant number of fish swimming in the three or four feet of water. We couldn’t determine what they were as the darted in and out of view and we could not get them to bite anything. After seeing them several times, I, finally, brought the minnow net and casted it from the bank and let it settle to the bottom. When the fish appeared again, I quickly pulled up the net and after two or three futile tries, I caught what Dad identified as a cold water sucker. I continued and managed to catch a couple more. Dad didn’t realize there were suckers in Canada, and he was ecstatic.
Suckers are bottom feeding fish which come up into the shallows to spawn in the spring. They don’t have real teeth and normally won’t bite lures or bait, so you seldom catch them. While their flesh is crisscrossed with tiny bones, they are very good to eat if you know how to prepare them. We took them back to camp and Dad performed his magic. He filleted them and scored the meat down to the skin with crisscrosses and Mom deep fried them. The hot oil entered the cuts where he scored the flesh and this cooked up the small bones. They were delicious, and eating suckers became a delicacy I was able to enjoy in later days in the Ozarks. In fact, every spring, Nixa, Missouri, just south of Springfield, has “Sucker Day.” Thousands of people come and enjoy dinners of fried sucker which the fisherman of Nixa have harvested from the local streams during spawning season.
Eons ago, salmon became land-locked by seismic events and were unable to return to the ocean. Over time, they evolved into full-time freshwater lake trout and look very much like salmon and grow to substantial size. Dad had never caught a lake trout and always wanted to catch one. There were probably a few in the deeper parts of Wabaskang, but no one ever caught them and while they come up into the shallow water after the ice leaves the lakes, they soon return to the deeper cold water. We had heard that a couple of lakes farther down the chain were deep enough that lake trout were more common and might be caught with deep fishing. However, Mr. Ballard told us it was possible to fly into a small deep lake called Horseshoe, where you could catch lake trout in the summer.
On our next trip to Canada, Dad arranged for us to make what became Robert and my first airplane ride on a small float plane trip to Horseshoe Lake. We landed on the lake and made our way to a boat which was placed there for the fisherman. Shortly, thereafter, Dad caught a small northern, but we caught no lake trout, and as far as I can remember, we caught nothing else, either. It was an expensive disappointment, and it would be many more years before we caught our first lake trout much farther to the north.
Mom did not join us on the trip to Horseshoe, but this was an exception, rather than the rule. I’m sure she used the opportunity to run to Red Lake and take a little break from the action and restock our groceries. However, as I’ve said, Mom would spend long days in the boat and always caught her fair share of fish. Sometimes, this was easier said than done, because even if one is enjoying the best fishing in the world, there are long stretches of inactivity and periods when the fish just don’t bite. As Dad used to say when we would become discouraged, “Just keep your bait in the water.” Sooner or later, it would always turn around.
As I’ve said, Mom was a trouper. While I’m sure that Canadian fishing was less of a thrill for her than for two young boys, she hung in there, and like Robert and I, she was rewarded with her own namesake island.
Sitting for long periods in the boat can be tiring and boring, but regardless of the level of fishing activity, Mother Nature will eventually call. For the three males, this was not a big deal. We would proceed to unzip our pants, stand up near the side of the boat and let her rip. However, for Mom, this was not as convenient. We would have to find a good place where we could land the boat and where it was safe to get out and Mom would find some nice shrubbery to address her needs.
However, one time we were at the far end of the lake in the middle of a large bay, and Dad was not of a mind to head to shore. After Mom announced her need to make a pit stop, Dad proceeded to a small rock, perhaps eight feet in diameter, with nothing but a few sprigs of grass on top of it. He told her to get out, and Mom’s mortified wide eyes did not reflect his sense of humor. When it became clear that Dad was not taking her elsewhere, she reluctantly got out and we returned to fishing until she called for us. From that day forward, every time we traversed that big bay, Dad would point out – boys, there’s “Pee Pee rock!” I’m not sure Mom ever fully appreciated the humor.
If Dad was a rascal at heart (and he was), he was not the only one. As previously mentioned, one of the great highlights of Dad’s Canadian trips was his love for Canadian ale. He had a whole series of rituals, often starting with “first fish,” which gave him an excuse to have an ale. Many a time, he would note that he felt “a bit parched,” which was the less than subtle request for the one of us sitting in the third seat to turn around and open and hand him an ale out of the cooler. He would tilt his head back and take that first swig and shake his head with that wonderful little smile on his face, conveying with complete clarity that this was the life. Savor them he did, and in later years when Robert and I were old enough to join him, we increased both the allocation and the justifications for having another.
When I was about thirteen or so, I decided that it might be fun to alter Dad’s ale drinking experience. When I was in the designated seat and Dad asked for a beer, I opened it very carefully, moving the opener around the cap without bending the top of the cap. I then slipped the cap in my pocket. After returning that night, I washed out one of the empty bottles and hid it, along with the cap. The next day, I filled the bottle with water and a combination of every ill- favored thing I could think of and secure – vinegar, Tabasco Sauce, lemon, salt, etc. I put the cap back on the bottle and borrowed a hose clamp from Mr. Ballard, which I tightened around the cap, squeezing the little crimps tight on the bottle.
The next morning, I loaded the cooler and noted the location of bottle with the “modified” contents. It was a warm day and I waited until, at the peak temperature of the afternoon, Dad announced he needed an Ale. I had let Robert in on my little plan, and I nudged him in front of me to let him know that it was the appropriate time. We managed to withhold our snickers until Dad tilted his head back and took the normally satisfying first swig. Instead of the satisfied smile, he displayed a look of squint-eyed horror as he looked down at the bottle, trying to imagine what could have gone wrong. The snicker suppression quickly turned into bellowed laughter, and Dad quickly realized he had been had!
As it turned out, the first trip to Wabaskang was one of only two that we made by ourselves. Beginning with the second trip, our adopted Uncle Roy and Aunt Addie Lee Lister, together with their son Terry, joined us, and we caravanned together to Ballard’s. Dad and Roy were the best of friends and had fished together many times in Canada and in the lakes and streams of the Ozarks. Roy was a born naturalist and provided wonderful insights.
Rob and I had grown up with Terry, who was one year younger than Robert. As far as I can remember, the Listers joined us for all of the remaining Wabaskang trips except one. Terry usually brought along a friend and, together we looked for opportunities for mischief.
There was another family with the last name Eilers, who showed up during our first or second trips. I believe they were from Illinois and they had two daughters. The oldest one named Mary Jo may have been a couple of years older than me and the other, perhaps a year younger. I don’t know if it became coordinated or not, but we came at the same times for several of our trips and this gave our parents a welcome reprieve as we became friends and spent time together playing cards and board games. Sometimes we would all make excursions together and meet up for lunch, etc.
It was maybe the third, but probably the fourth trip we made to Wabaskang, that Dad felt that Rob and I had enough experience that he let us run a boat by ourselves. We would take turns running it and, overall, fared very well. By this time, we could take our own fish off the lures and we knew the best places to fish and the best ways to find fish. Unless Mom took a rare day off, we would split up during the day, staying in the same general proximity, with an agreed time and meeting place for lunch. During this break, we would compare our morning experiences and plan the approach for the afternoon.
Rob and I were always reasonably good swimmers for our ages, but I doubt that the realities of being in the middle of a big lake in high winds and large waves fully dawned on us. Maybe we were reasonably careful or maybe we were just lucky. However, I am relatively certain that we were naive, and in all of our Canadian trips, the perceived invulnerability of young males had never been tested.
Dad relayed in his recollections how Rob and I had to return from Wine Lake under the power of the 3 hp Johnson outboard. This was quite a ride, but if he knew, he failed to tell the story of how we managed to be without the outboard which had brought us to Wine in the first place.
This was our last or next to last trip, and by this time, we were seasoned veterans and ran our own boat and held our own in terms of fishing but led the pack in terms of exploring. We had made the lengthy portage trip to Wine and set a time and place for lunch, and Rob and I were racing around trying to find a good place to fish. In what appeared to be the middle of the lake, all of a sudden (I can’t recall which of us was running the boat), we heard a loud crash and the outboard jumped out of the water. After bouncing back down, I believe it continued to run, but made a less than healthy sound. After looking at each other, the motor was tilted up and we discovered that the propeller was missing one of its blades. We had run right over a hidden rock below the surface and sheared a prop.
On this particular trip, there were four boats: Rob and me, Mom and Dad, Uncle Roy and Aunt Addie Lee, and Terry Lister and one of his friends. At this point we knew that once we didn’t return, the others would start looking for us. We were confident we would be found, but for the short-term, we were at a bit of a loss as to what to do. We had an anchor, so we put it out and waited, hoping that we would be found. After a while, we realized that about 100 yards from us was an island. We determined that if we could swim to the island and hike to the opposite side, we could see the point where we were scheduled to meet for lunch. We assumed they would be looking for us and if we waved shirts, the group might see us and come to the rescue.
While this sounded like a reasonable plan, we were not quite sure how to best go about this little swim. To cross an island we would need our clothes to protect us from the vegetation (not to mention the mosquitos) and we would need our shoes to walk across the island. So like the stupid kids that we were, we got into the water and started swimming. Even for decent swimmers, long-sleeve shirts and denim jeans are not a good plan, but to try to do this wearing tennis shoes in cold water did not prove to be a great idea.
About the time we got into the water, we were surprised to see a two boats come around the end of the island. They were not one of ours, and they were just fishing their way around the island. The first boat contained an Indian guide with two men fishing. As if two boys swimming across a lake from and empty boat was the most normal thing in the world, they proceeded toward us, but continued to ignore us. However, as they came closer, we were hopeful that they might give us a ride to the lunch spot or at least to the island. Nevertheless, wanting to be polite, we continued to swim toward as they came closer.
By this time, it was becoming fairly obvious to me that the prospects of us making it to the island were dimming quickly as we struggled to swim in the cold water in our clothes and shoes. Nevertheless, we persisted until we got within about 30 feet of the boat. The Indian had been watching us, but the fishermen had just taken an occasional glance in our direction and had continued fishing. Just as we felt sure that they would ask if we needed help, the guide pronounced, “Umm, fishing no good here, let’s go!” He immediately fired up the boat and left us behind with the second boat following them.
Salvation having ignored us and realizing that attaining the island shore was borderline impossible, Rob and I looked at each other and decided to return to the boat. It was a tough swim and getting into the boat in heavy wet clothes was not easy, but we finally made it and there we sat.
By now, we were well past the scheduled meeting time and within a half hour or so, we heard a motor and saw one of our group coming our way. They tied on a rope and towed us to a belated lunch. Our day was over and Dad’s trusty little trolling motor was placed on our boat. We began the long trip back and slowly worked our way through Wine, up the river, over the portage and through the length of Wabaskang to our camp. Around 6:00, we were passed by the other three boats as we entered the last bay. Another well-remembered story and a valuable experience were part of our many Canadian memories.
Over the years, we explored virtually every corner of Wabaskang. We made several trips up a winding weedy stream to the smaller Keynote Lake and made many of the long portage trips that Dad described to Wine Lake. It was all wonderful. As Rob and I grew up, we became increasingly independent of Mom and Dad and did more and more on our own. We were growing up in other aspects of our lives and later trips were shared with thoughts of girls back home and different experiences soon to come. I believe that our last trip was the summer before Rob left for college. Youth was on the wane, and adulthood was beckoning.
I’m not sure that any of our trips were as short as a week, but I think most were ten days or maybe even two weeks. I guess it is a sign of a good trip when one is so sad to leave. I don’t think there was ever a time when we didn’t hate to say goodbye to Wabaskang. Normally, we would leave Perrault Falls and head south as far as Sauk Center, MN. This was the home of Nobel Laureate author Sinclair Lewis and the basis for his book, “Mainstreet.” Dad pointed out that this was close to the southernmost place you would begin to see birch trees. You would see similar looking poplars farther south, but the white bark of poplars has a greenish cast (so color blind Robert and I were told,) whereas birches were pure white and got larger. As we moved farther south, the terrain gradually changed and the forested beauty of the northland was left behind. These were special times and these are but a few of the special memories.
Dad dearly loved Canada, and Mom was one of the most caring and loving people in the world. She would have done anything for Dad or for Robert or me. Together they partnered in raising us, and a huge part of our life experiences were these remarkable trips to Canada. A couple of times, Uncle Roy and Dad were already fishing at Eagle and Mom and Aunt Addie Lee made the long trips alone, bringing us to Wabaskang where Dad and Uncle Roy would join us. In looking back, there was a lot of sacrifice to make it possible for Rob and me to enjoy such wonderful experiences which helped mold us into whatever we ultimately became.
Most of us look back and regret the little things we should or might have said or done, and I am more than guilty of many such omissions. However, not long before we lost Dad, I took the opportunity to tell my parents just how much Robert and I appreciated all they had done for us, and that we really understood how very wonderful our upbringing had been. I pointed out that we looked at other families and realized that our lives were different and very special. There was no place like home. Among other examples, I told them that as we grew into our college years and became increasingly independent, most of our friends looked at holidays like Spring Break as opportunities for party time traveling with their friends. I reminded Mom and Dad that neither Robert nor I ever even ask for such privileges. All we wanted to do was to return to the loving home which meant so much to us, and to have the privilege of spending time with parents who we loved and who had nurtured us so much in so many different ways. Few people have the privilege to ever experience such a wonderful gift.