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My family bought the cottage and cabin in 1967, paying the grand sum of $3,500 for both properties. There was no electricity or plumbing: We literally had to “fetch a pail of water” from the lake for drinking and dishes, purifying it with a few drops of iodine.
We would park at the old log cabin, part of a logging camp constructed many decades earlier to harvest timber left by a forest fire. Scattered throughout the forest, you could still see the decaying, charred stumps of massive trees that once dominated the area.
From the cabin we would walk along a meandering stream, where vibrantly coloured damsel and dragonflies flitted among arrowheads and cattails, darting in and out of beams of light penetrating the forest canopy. After about a quarter mile we’d come to the cottage, situated at the end of a spring-fed lake populated with natural lake trout. I recall one summer in the early 1970s when men from the Department of Lands and Forests visited to tell us they had trapped a 25-pound laker while doing a study with nets.
The cottage next to ours was decrepit and abandoned, the one next to it was rarely used, and the third abode at the far end of the lake was within a bay and out of sight.
It was paradise for my parents and the five kids they claimed as theirs, a wondrous natural haven surrounded by thousands upon thousands of acres of Crown land that we largely had to ourselves.
Just after the aforementioned stream exited this Elysian lake, it cascaded down a small falls where a deep pool formed beside the path. It was here that in the spring large numbers of suckers would congregate, halted temporarily in their ancient instinctive migration to the lake above.
Every spring, local people would also park at our cabin and, carrying spears reminiscent of Poseidon’s trident along with an assortment of buckets, descend upon the pool to harvest this annual source of protein for pickling.
It was obviously a highly social event, and from the cottage we would hear occasional sounds of jubilant shouting in the distinctive Ottawa Valley lilt, combined with much splashing and festivity.
The fishers preferred to keep to themselves, and perhaps it was this aloofness despite being on our property that caused me as a boy of about 10 to comment to my father that they were trespassing and imposing upon our privacy – why didn’t we prevent it?
My father explained in the manner he used when broaching a serious subject that, while technically we may have that right, the folks visiting our land had been doing so for generations. Long before our cottage had been segregated as private property, they had come, and in his opinion it was their right and not a privilege to engage in the harvest, which for many was a much-anticipated source of food. He admonished me to always show them respect, and said I should in fact welcome them.
My mother interjected that in her farming community, back in New Brunswick, it had been common knowledge that a treaty signed in the 1700s allowed Micmac people to enter private property to harvest any ash and birch trees they wanted for construction of their baskets, canoes, snowshoes and such. In the 1940s a judge ignored this treaty, “moved the goalposts” and claimed it was illegal, she said. Everyone knew this was unjust, for the knowledge of the right had been passed down generationally, not only through the Micmac but also by the original settlers. The judgment was universally ignored, and the Micmac continued their cultural practice.
The sucker run was a similar circumstance, my mother said, and she expected us kids to embrace this value.
I came to look forward to the locals’ sucker harvest as a foreshadower of spring, and we never had any issues with their efforts. I eventually came to know a few of them as friends, and folks of more sterling character one could not find.
As most things do, the place changed as the years passed. The lake trout, after residing there for millennia after the glaciers retreated, were fished out and the lake subsequently stocked with hatchery-reared hybrid splake. Highly sought after by an ever-increasing multitude of fishers, the splake changed the lake from a seldom-visited refuge to a common destination throughout all seasons, eroding the solitude we had cherished so.
The cottage next door was rehabilitated and occupied by folks who, to put it politely, had values that were the antithesis of John Muir’s ideals. The annual ritual of the sucker run became less and less frequented, until finally no one came.
We eventually sold the cottage and cabin, our parents having passed away and we kids moving to homes out of viable geographic range. Sentiment finally succumbed to economics and changed circumstances.
But not a spring goes by that at a certain time, just after the ice has retreated to the middle of the lakes and finally disappeared, and trilliums and trout lily speckle the forest floor, I don’t fondly recall that other harbinger of spring and wonder: Are the suckers running?
Rob Walker lives in Apsley, Ont.
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