It’s the Victoria Day long weekend in Canada. For most people, that means the start of summer: barbecue season, cottage parties and beer (it’s not called “May Two-Four” for nothing…). But for me, this weekend is always a time of remembrance.
The May long weekend was the time of our annual fishing trip to Dalhousie Lake. A cabin in the woods with no television or telephone, no running water except a single tap from the lake, and a woodpile out back for crackling warmth. An escape from wives and mothers; from shaving and showers. A place where the worries of the real world were always so far away.
I never cared about fishing that much. I went because my father enjoyed it. It was a chance to spend time with him away from the demands of his job, the conflicts of home and the busy lives we all led in the world outside.
My dad and his best friend Bruce had been going up there for over a decade, with a mixed group of guys including my grandfather. Bruce’s son Paul joined the crew when he turned 8, and when I reached that age I was able to go too. Some years my cousin Barry came along, and sometimes his brother Brian. But over the years Dad and Bruce, Paul and me formed the core of the group, along with Dick Montroy and eventually his sons.
I sat in the bow on those cold May nights, with a worn red lifejacket (faded to pink) stuffed behind my back, and I listened to tiny freshwater waves splash against the side of the boat. Loons cried in the distance, their voices echoing across the empty lake, and bats swooped and wheeled over dark waters.
I always chose the front of the boat because I could disappear up there. The others didn’t talk over me, and I could stare at the water and dream of the shoreline that slipped past in the dark: the forests, the hills, and what it might be like to pick my way through them.
My thoughts floated over the humming background of the trolling motor, until I was pulled back to the present by the scrape of a flint and the low murmur of my father lighting his pipe—prelude to another tall tale.
There were cottages around one end of the lake, and in summer it was a busy place of waterskiing and laughing children. But I’d always thought it was completely deserted. Dalhousie had an abandoned feeling. Like it existed at the forest fringes of civilization. I only ever saw it like that, just after the ice had gone, when the cottages were boarded up and the summer people were still a month away. It was a lonely place at night. And a magical place on those sunny spring days of my childhood, when I had its bays and forests to myself.
Time slowed down during the weeks leading up to our trip. We wrote lists of supplies, changed the lines on the fishing poles, and maybe picked up a couple new lures. I knew the final countdown had begun when my father wrote a note to the school informing them of my week long absence.
Our Dalhousie days were filled with trout streams, and the evenings with trolling. And every night echoed with tales of fishing trips past. Paul and I grew up with stories about how our fathers drove up there on treacherous dirt tracks long before paved roads connected the lake to civilization. Those stories became our personal mythology, and the characters in them—most of whom we’d never met—took on the larger than life personas of Greek heroes.
My father was our Poseidon, who summoned trout from Paul’s Creek with a wave of his mighty graphite wand. Bruce was our Jason; he piloted our brave boat of Argonauts in search of the Golden Stringer. And there were other characters who came before us: Blinky, who fished indoors in a bucket; Basil, who fell asleep on a stump after one too many bottles of ambrosia; and who could forget the year Daffy Killorne hit his head? During the last few years, Paul and I even added a few tales of our own.
I learned so many things up there. How to put a worm on a hook, and how to take a fish off. How to work a stream, and to keep my mouth shut and quietly cut my line when I cast into a tree. I learned that puffing a cigar keeps mosquitos away. And I learned what happens when I try to drink an entire bottle of wine by myself. There were no judgements at Dalhousie Lake Finishing School, only lessons. Most of all, I learned about friendship.
The fishing trip became an integral part of our lives. Like breathing, we took it for granted. We knew that no matter where our lives took us, we would always return each May 24th to that little cabin in the woods, where the mornings smelled of woodsmoke, perk coffee and bacon sizzling on the stove, and the evenings were filled with laughter and stories.
No man-made event or natural disaster ever got in the way. When my teachers protested my being taken out of class, my dad called the school and let ‘em know who was in charge. If a wedding was held that weekend, we didn’t show up. And it was the same for funerals. Even jury duty yielded to the demands of our trip. And you know what? The world didn’t fall apart because we went away. Our jobs and schools and families were still there one week later. But each year we created new memories and new stories.
And then one summer Bruce died of a massive heart attack. That same year our rented cabin became unavailable. And for the first time in 14 years, I passed the Victoria Day weekend in civilization.
We talked about reviving the trip, but it just wasn’t the same without Bruce. And it wouldn’t have been right. I was 23 by then. And I learned that things end. Even those things you could never imagine your life without.
Don’t ever take those moments for granted. You don’t know how long you’ll have them.
My dad’s gone now too, but like Bruce, he’s passed into legend. As I look through the albums of fishing trips past, I see Paul and myself grow up in those pages, and I think about our fathers and the other members of the crew. I miss them, and I’m so sorry they’re gone. But I like to believe they’re still out there somewhere, sitting on the grass in the Great Hall of Fishermen—a small, peaceful corner of Elysium—dropping a line with the Naiades.