A long time ago, in a lake far away

I was 12 years old in 1955 when my oldest brother, Robin, went away to university. As siblings in a close-knit family, we had shared many delightful (and less-than) hours around the dinner table. But the six-year difference in our ages meant we weren’t bosom pals.

In May of 1961—the year stubby beer bottles came to Canada—Robin was just finishing med school at Queen’s University. Out of the blue, he made a remarkable proposal: how about a canoe trip in Algonquin Park? Just the two of us. Well, why not? I would soon be returning to my summer job at a Muskoka resort; he would be going back for a second year as a park warden in Algonquin.

We planned. We over-planned. We under-planned. In mid-June, we actually went for it. Who cares what colour the canoe was, what day we embarked, how we got there, or what the weather was like? If you insist on knowing, I’m willing to invent any details you require.

My first piece of advice for a three-day canoe trip in unfamiliar territory is to take a map.

The second piece is do not take 24 bottles of beer in a cardboard carton. When you are hopelessly lost and forced to make a two-mile portage at the end of a long day, you will resent the hell out of those glassy anchors and their soggy cardboard container.

The portage led us nowhere, so we hunkered down for the night in a mosquito-infested bog. In the rain. Hating life, the universe and each other.

Next morning, the frustration of six years of intense study burst from my brother. He wept and cursed the heavens more vehemently than King Lear. I struggled to build a fire capable of frying four eggs and six slices of bacon.

Two miles of return portage (with four fewer beers to transport, thank goodness) brought us to a large, open waterway whose name we later learned was Canoe Lake. We paddled joyfully and rhythmically until, without warning, a cairn appeared on a hilltop to our right.

We stopped. We climbed. We paid silent tribute to one of Canada’s most memorable artists, Tom Thomson, who had drowned in that lake under mysterious circumstances 44 years earlier.

The rest of the trip was sunshine and golden, sharing a tiny island with a three-year-old black bear who was no more afraid of us than we were of him.

For me, that canoe trip 58 years ago was a quintessential Canadian experience. Along with an extended Yukon-Alaska journey many years later, it was also one of the high points of life with my brother.

I had planned to recount it after Robin’s funeral last week, but there wasn’t time.

Keep your paddle straight, bro.

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