My dad called that fall and said, “If I were to go to a fly-in fishing lodge up in northernmost Canada, would you consider going with me?”
I replied, “In a heartbeat!”
At 82, he knew it might be a once-in-a-lifetime, and I was so grateful for the opportunity. Like listening to a teen practicing music, he was saying, “I love you,” the way a dad does, and I hoped I could scream it back to him.
At 79, he had lost his youngest (my little brother) and the following year, his wife (my mom) and one year after that – to the day – his own mother passed away at the age of 100. My grieving dad and I would probably do well with some time under the northern blue sky, while the worries of the world vanished in a small boat’s wake.
“You’re the only person I know who actually likes fishing,” he said. “Most people only like catching.” Haha! We both related to boats full of kids waiting for us to do the work. For him, I had been one of those impatient kids.
Every year of my childhood, my family took a two-week fishing vacation (Six of us and a dog in a camper that comfortably slept four Munchkins). Whether in the boat or on land I always loved to have my line in the water.
My dream of a northern lodge trip with Dad was probably birthed by my younger brother Mike. Once, he had shared with me his written goals, which included taking Dad on Dad’s wanted fly-in fishing trip. I was always trying to horn my way in on that idea, haha, and I didn’t realize Mike had never mentioned it to my father. Mike’s passing was a surprise to us all, but then his missed dream of the trip was a surprise to my dad. I think this Canada fishing trip might be deeper than the lakes on which we rested.
Adventure of Getting to “North”
I flew from North Carolina four hours and two time-zones to Denver, where my dad lived. The following day, we flew (through directionally incorrect Seattle) 7 hours to Saskatoon, SK, Canada. There, we rented a little Suburu SUV, (“Four-wheel-drive is necessary,” we had been told.) and after a night in a hotel drove straight north 3.5 hours (half-way to the North Pole, I am sure) to a very random boat dock with a plane attached. Cell signals long gone, GPS had been replaced by hand-written notes of a phone conversation between my dad and the destination nine months prior.
As I drove, the rain poured and mud thickened. I worried I could not stop – or mud would prevent our re-start. Barely seeing any cars during those hours, I knew if we did get stuck, we would be there a long time, missing our floatplane’s departure. At times a truck would come in the opposing lane and send shivers down my spine at its closeness. Once, a tanker which was literally in a sideways slide, forced me to move over – trying to control my own slide. My pounding heart caused my Fitbit to congratulate me on a good workout! Dad was calm. He always was.
Like many good journeys: the worse the drive, the more worthy the destination.
Nature lined both sides of the mud road. The further north we went, the more lakes, the less houses. Less people.
Finally, we arrived. We assumed we were at the right dock with a white floatplane and awaited the pilot who would take us to the much-anticipated destination: Lawrence Bay Lodge. When we exited the car in the mud-filled parking area, the elements hit. A cool mist engulfed my breathing, but my mouth was not properly filtering out gnats… or were they mosquitos? I went into the floatplane’s “business office,” a dilapidated trailer- similar to the one of my childhood – but with duct tape holding its indoor stairs in place and buckets catching the incoming rain. This was the first bathroom we had seen since Saskatoon. As I ventured in, I realized that this bachelors’ (plural) pad had not heard of Clorox. I wondered if this would be the condition of our week: bachelors, duct tape, mosquitos, and lack of Clorox. I tried to toughen up. UGH.
The pilot arrived at the dock; my heart was having second thoughts. As the storm picked up, the pilot wondered if it was safe to fly. (Note: if a floatplane pilot is wondering if it is safe to fly, it is NOT.) I was fine with taking the small rowboat with the Mercury attached, but the pilot told us that it would be an hour-long very wet, very bumpy [and mosquito-y] ride. We waited in cars to see what weather would do. I missed my weather app – and my house.
The storm lifted slightly and they rushed us along with other arrivals into the floatplane trying to get up and back down before the wind picked up again. This was my fourth takeoff and landing in 48 hours, and by far the roughest. However, we stayed low under the clouds – and in our short, fifteen minute flight saw miles and miles of lake beneath us. Weather has never stopped me from looking forward to fishing.
The plane landed more smoothly than its flight, and the Lawrence Bay Lodge welcomed us with its gorgeous, enormous log-cabin lodge with a lake view. One of the smaller cabins to its right became ours for the week. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw running water… and smelled Clorox. 🙂
Fishing Like No Other
The weather was cold for June, but not for Canada. Before leaving North Carolina, I had checked my weather app for LaRonge, SK (as far north as the app recognized civilization) which predicted several days of unseasonable 40’s (F) and intermittent rain, followed by sun reaching into the upper 70’s by the end of the week. I debated on packing a poncho versus raincoat and ended up bringing both – in their tiny little packages, a size to which they would never return. This extra raingear was a blessing of the week, as my father had only packed using the 9-month-old hand-written paper weather forecast from the phone conversation which said, “Usually 70’s by June in Canada.” (We laughed at the error, because we decided my mom would have brought seven coats and fourteen sweatshirts in case anyone else in the camp needed one. Haha!). Dad and I bought matching sweatshirts at the Lodge, a perfect layer under the raincoats. (Dad actually melted one of the raincoats standing too close to our cabin heater after fishing one evening! It was cold!)
But we hadn’t come for a fashion show, nor for the good weather. We had come to fish. In particular, my dad had always wanted to catch one of those monster forty-inch northern pikes. The following morning at 6:30, our daily wake-up-call took root: a knock at the door presented us with coffee and hot chocolate, already poured into individual cups, delivered by one of the lodge owners. After a hot breakfast in the dining room, we met our personal captain in a little rowboat with a Mercury at the dock by 8:00. A pure Cree Indian, Vince followed the path of both his father and grandfather as a fishing guide. The recent loss of that grandfather patriarch often brought his name to conversation during our long days on the water. We asked Vince how he could possibly tell the difference between the thousands of islands he navigated, and he said, “It’s in my blood,” with a wry smile, of course. He knew the type and size of fish by the way it hit the line – long before we saw it. He liked to play a game that he would tell me what time it was – when he didn’t have any timekeeping device in his presence. He was always within 15 minutes of my dad’s watch. Every day was a different location, and every day was a LOT of fish. My father regretted that we didn’t keep a count!
“Fish on!” I excitedly said within minutes of dropping our rattle traps into the water behind the trolling boat that first morning. Lake trout were incredible fighters compared to the Carolina bass to which I was accustomed. At around 11:30am, Vince said, “Let’s keep the next one for lunch.” We did.
Pulling up to a dock-less island, Vince found a somewhat flat spot and began to build a fire where one had never been. “I’ll give you a dollar for every bone you find,” he said with a smile while he filleted the fish, using the oar as his cutting board. (No Clorox needed. No dollars either.) He opened an old coffee can, revealing a bag of flour, a small vial of oil, a can of beans and some chopped potatoes. He then set a pan on top of the fire, put in some oil, added the potatoes and floured fish and put the can of beans in the coals alongside to warm. Within minutes, we had a perfect lakeside picnic. Vince often filled his drinking cup with water from the lake, but brought us bottled, knowing our stomachs weren’t as prepared for lakewater as his.
The afternoon was much the same… fish on! When we arrived back at the dock, Dad and I were ready for a nap before dinner and early bed! The next day, we moved from trout to pike. Vince cut the bait and told Dad the best place and hook action to use. When the first forty-inch-er took Dad’s line, he leaned back so far to set the hook, I thought we would lose him in the water! Dad reeled with might and the fish made its way to the boat to pose for its obligatory picture. If my dad had a bucket list, the forty-inch pike was on it. He had caught three by week’s end.
Nature and Stories
Like a good guide, Vince told entertaining stories. He talked about his grandfather and told tales of each of the islands (whose identity was a blur to us). (I have often wondered if fishing guides and taxi-drivers just make up stories on a daily basis and watch their audience’s reaction as they spin their yarn.) Once we found a plaque on an island, giving it a name. I wondered out loud how someone could claim one of these islands as their own to name. It certainly felt like “no man’s land” to me. Regardless, at the end of our trip, I sent a plaque to Vince, so he could place it on an island of choice, “naming it” after his grandfather.
Along with our fishing and shore lunches, we encountered nature’s animals. We promptly renamed seagulls as “freeloaders.” Each day, when we would pull up to a random island for fire-building and lunch-cooking, there would be no gull in sight. But by the time Vince’s knife had finished its first swath, there would be twenty-five seagulls ready to freeload on scraps that he discarded into the water.
One day at lunch, we picked a sandy area with fewer trees and brush to dig. Vince exclaimed something, and we came looking to see a fresh bear print right where we were gathering wood! (I wondered what my Fitbit thought about this workout.) At that point, I would have preferred a different location altogether, but Vince – in pure Indian style – assured us that the bear was gone, “probably a kilometer away.” When we were departing our lunch site, he pointed up to the side of the hill above where we were, and there was the bear, still ascending.
My favorite animal encounter was probably when an eagle (of which we saw many!), practically crossed over the front of our boat in pure flight. Vince caught my attention, giving me just enough time to snap a picture. Isaiah 40:31 came to mind. “Yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.”
There were other nature differences between northern Canada and where I live. For example, the sun never sets! Well it set, but it did so after I was in bed and starting to gild the sky by 3:30am, complete with the escort of birdsong. (Birds must need less sleep in Canada!)
3:59am sun rising
Similar to the event during our harrowing drive, at several points during our week, I noticed my Fitbit congratulating me on a workout! Ha! Workout? I had sat in a boat with a fishing rod in hand! Maybe it was picking up that my heart rate would accelerate at the fun of catching the fish?! After all, the data shows it to be active only during the hours of our boating! I don’t think my heart chose favorites – whether the fish was on my line or his. We both enjoyed it either way. I suppose my heart rate graph was just a visible proof of the gift of fun I was having. I hoped my dad’s graph would look the same.
My dad and I spent many silent hours together. No internet, no phones, some books. In the comfort of a good relationship, we often just sat in silence. I enjoyed watching his joy of fishing. Each evening we had a magnificent dinner at the lodge (This was no bachelor pad!) and heard the fish tales of the day from others in the camp. We then retired to a game of Scrabble before an early bed. Every day. For seven days– before our long trip back home. It was amazing.
I know many daughters would prefer a fancy place, something to dress up for, people to meet, award-winning meals and jewelry. But I got such joy out of the simplicity of life and the love language of most kids from their dads: T.I.M.E. The lull of the engine motor. The look of the wake vanishing into the glistening water. The peace of silence… with Dad.
Dad and I weren’t betting people, but we did have fun wagering a dollar:
- For the first fish: me
- For the last fish: Dad
- For the biggest fish: Dad
- For the smallest fish: me
- For the greatest variety: Dad (trout, walleye, pike and a white fish, which put scales all over the boat!)
- Dad won a dollar.
Scenery, wildlife, sport and restoration for our souls: it was truly a wonderful vacation I will never forget. If my brothers, kids or husband ever ask if I want to go back, my response would be the same, “In a heartbeat!” I think when I do, I will bring along a plaque to put on an island somewhere to name it in memory of Dad.
Other Letters in Memory of Dad: