Back When Life Was Simple
When you are a little boy and your parents tell you that the family is going on a fishing trip to Canada it’s only natural that you are going to get excited. That was me in the summer of 1953 when I was almost five years old. I grew up in a family of hunters and fishermen so it was only natural that I was going to follow in the footsteps of my father, mother, and brother.
A lot of preparation had to go into the plans for the trip to Canada. We all had to be sure our fishing poles and gear were worthy of the trip. We wanted to make sure that everything worked properly before we left the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. My father wanted to be sure that the outboard motor that we would use on a rented boat would not be causing us any problems. The car was packed the night before we would leave because we were leaving very early in the morning, around 3 a.m.
We couldn’t sleep much the night before anyway because we were all excited about the long journey ahead of us. It would be a time-consuming trip because remember this was before the Interstate highway system was built. As we headed north on route 209 we followed the Delaware River for many miles and entered New York state at Port Jervis. Our first stop on the trip would be for breakfast in Hancock, New York. The breakfast really hit the spot and we continued on our journey.
As we passed through the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York state when the sun was coming up, we admired the rolling hillsides. On so many of those hillsides, we saw dairy cattle on the family farms that were so common in the area at that time. I thought of how the farmers would be getting up early to milk the cows. Even as a young boy I knew farming life was tough, but that farmers love what they do for a living.
As the day passed on we traveled through Utica, Fort Drum, Watertown, and finally arrived in Ogdensburg, New York in the afternoon. We crossed the St. Lawrence River and in Prescott, Ontario we spent the night. It was so nice getting a good night’s sleep after such a long day traveling.
The next day we were up early but not nearly as early as the night before. We continued our trip north through Ottawa and continued about 100 miles north of that city. On the trip north, we took a bridge over the Gatineau River. What a sight to behold for such a small child. As far as the eye could see up and down the river you could see nothing but logs. The lumber industry used the Gatineau River to ship logs to the sawmill far downstream. At certain places on the river, log jams would occur. It was very dangerous work undoing the log jams and many men lost their lives through the years. Using the river to transport the logs started in the middle 1800s and continued to about 1990. The practice was discontinued because of environmental and safety concerns.
Early in the afternoon, we arrived at Lac Ste. Marie which is the last town before we would reach our final destination. In the combination general store and post office there, we got our supply of food and my parents bought their fishing licenses. After traveling all morning it was nice to look around in the store and look out over the large lake behind it.
Soon we were on our way, traveling the last twelve miles on rough dirt road. It was at times very narrow and if a logging truck was coming from the other direction it could be a tight squeeze trying to get by each other. However, in the afternoon, we finally arrived at Earl and Jill Newton’s place on Whitefish Lake. At that time, it was kind of roughing it, as we would say now. No electricity, no running water, a hand pump was used to get water. No indoor plumbing, that meant the old-fashioned outhouse. The thought that entered my mind was, I’m not going out there in the middle of the night.
Earl Newton was quite a man. He walked with crutches but got around amazingly well. I think my father and Earl got along so well because they were both handicapped. My father had polio when he was only nineteen years old and had to walk with a cane, special shoes, and a leg brace on one leg. I remember Earl playing the fiddle and smoking a pipe. Those two things just stuck in my mind about him. You could just tell from listening to him that living on the lake was the life that he wanted to live.
Earl also had boats to rent. He built the boats himself. A couple of times we went into his shop when he was working on his rowboats. Remember there was no electricity at Earl’s so the boats were made with all hand tools. That was another similarity about Earl and my father. My father was a silversmith, famous for his jewelry making in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. He also made his jewelry entirely by hand. The only power machine he had was a machine to polish the pieces. I think if Earl had power tools when it was time to build a boat, it would have still have been done the old-fashioned way.
Jill Newton was such a nice French Canadian woman that was so pleasant to talk to. I remember one time she was going strawberry picking and she asked if I would like to go along. We went to a field that had many strawberries and picked quite a few. The pleasure of picking strawberries was second to spending time with Jill. She had many stories to tell of living on the lake and how the summers were so nice but how the winters were so long and often hard to bear. They often couldn’t get out in the winter because of the snow depths and very cold weather. Jill told me how all winter long she looked forward to springtime on the lake.
The main reason, I always thought, that going to Canada was for the fishing and I’m sure that it meant a lot in the decision to go there. However, as the years have passed by, I now realize that it was a lot more than that. It was a place to relax and admire the beauty of the lake and the scenery around the area. With no TV, the evenings were spent sitting on the porch just chatting away about the past day. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life in America, it’s good to just get away from it all and admire peacefulness, the calm, and beauty of a place like Whitefish Lake.
I remember sitting on the porch at dusk and watching as the lake usually became calm. It was at that time that you noticed the driftwood floating out on the lake. It was amazing how in the daytime the driftwood would hug the shore as the waves kept them there. It was in the evening when the lake took on a smooth glassy surface that the driftwood would be moving about. It was at that time of the night that you would often hear the sound of the loons. They are frightening to hear the first time and cause you alarm. Loons are amazing birds that can dive to depths of 180 feet chasing after fish. I was only closing in on five but I remember the look and the sounds of such a peaceful place. You would see no lights from a town or city, only a beautiful star-filled sky. No car horns honking or no sound of machinery, just total silence except for the sound of the occasional loon or the sound of a bullfrog. Night time did bring the gnats out in full force though and insect repellent was a necessity. The gnats were so small but they could really cause you to go ouch! The Indians called the gnats, “No see ums” because they were so tiny.
We caught northern pike during our trips and also some bass. The fun was getting out in the boat, and casting along the shore or just sitting in one spot waiting for the bobber to go down. At almost five years old I enjoyed catching the sunfish and remembered how the pole could bend so much from such a small fish. Many of the fish we caught were eaten the first week of our trip. The second week of fishing would be for fish that we would take back to Pennsylvania. We had a couple of large coolers that would be packed with ice and the fish to take back home. We got the ice from Earl’s ice house. I remember it as being kind of neat wondering how the ice could be kept solid in the summer months. The ice house had a large bin filled with sawdust that covered the blocks of ice. We would get the ice from there and wash the sawdust from the blocks of ice with water from the lake. An ice pick was used to chip the ice into small pieces. In the coolers were laid a row of fish covered with ice then another layer of fish and so on until the coolers were full.
It was sad leaving Earl and Jill’s place on the lake when the vacation was over, however, we knew it was time to head back home to the Pocono Mountains. I made other trips to Earl and Jill’s. The last trip there for me was in 1964, two years before I graduated from high school. I have heard that Earl died quite a few years ago and Jill moved away from the lake. I have tried to track her down numerous times, especially since the Internet came into being. However, because of the way records are kept in Canada trying to locate someone is not easy. If Jill is still alive she would be very elderly now. I often wonder if she would remember the time she took me strawberry picking. Of the several times, I made the trip to the Newton’s that day she took me with her was one of my fondest memories.
A couple of other memories that stick in my mind on later trips were one of a drive we took further north to Maniwaki and Mont-Laurier. I bought a bottle opener in Maniwaki with a leather handle and it has the words Maniwaki, Canada, and a maple leaf design. I have that bottle opener in a shadow box in my living room. Bought around 55 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Another time my father and I went to spend a day at Lake O’Hara. Miles up the shoreline of Whitefish Lake was what looked like a narrow stream going back into the forest. Quite a distance back into that forest was another large lake. That lake was Lake O’Hara. We spent the day fishing there and didn’t catch anything. That has been the only time I have ever seen a moose in the wild. It was a sight to behold.
I know that it has changed much around Whitefish Lake after all of these years. A large ski resort was built on the road back to the Newton’s. I’m sure that the peacefulness that I remember of that place has been replaced with what many call progress. I know that there are those places in Quebec that still offer the peace and quiet that nature lovers yearn for. They are just much farther north now than the old Newton place. Thank you, Earl and Jill, for the memories.
Copyright Larry W. Fish 2017