If you follow TNQ's blog, you will have read about the idyllic day we spent celebrating Allan Casey's book Lakeland: Ballad of a Freshwater Country, Waterloo Region's 2012 One Book, One Community read. An account of Canada's largest inland lakes, Casey's book is part paean to his own childhood lakeside, to the delights of messing about in boats, and to the many people whose allegiance to particular lakes gives them a human as well as a natural history. But it's also a cautionary tale about the out-sized ecological burden we are now putting on our lakes.
TNQers began their "One Book, Two Lakes" day in June at Sunfish Lake—the beautiful (and healthy) kettle lake where the magzine's guardian angel, Edna Staebler, made her home. The health of that lake is partly owing to efforts she made in her lifetime to ban motorboats, regulate the setback for septic systems, and purchase a buffer zone of forest to protect the glacial moraine which purifies the water that feeds the lake.
It was a beautiful sunny day with an off-setting breeze, and as I sat on the dock with my feet in the water, I felt the calm that always comes over me when I am in lake country, for I am one of the lucky few to have a lake or two in my life. I've spent a part of pretty much all my summers at a family place in northern Wisconsin where the lakes are the legacy of the same glacial retreat that made Canada home to over 60% of the world's fresh water. I've visited places more beautiful, but none more loved than my family's summer place, long-familiarity (as Casey's book makes clear) one of the strongest ties we have to natural places. Most of my happiest memories of childhood are housed there. My sister (Anne Blatchford Albert) described those summer idylls this way:
The lake! As far as you can see there is quiet lake walled by deep green woods. If you can take the time for stillness then you can hear the very quiet lapping of the water close to the shore, where it is shallow. The dock is grey, and the water clear and yellowish close to the shore, but darker and green with floating yellow specks where it is deep. Your foot sends a little sand sliding down into the water, and maybe disturbs a water snake sunning himself on the logs.
Then you start back up the steps to the cabin and can hear greetings still going on. The place is crazy with love, and something inside you knows that there will always be this one raw knocking in your heart for the good smell of the woods, the way the path feels, and something to do with grandmothers.
But it was not always so! Our summer place has been in the family since 1922, the land owned communally by a larger group of 12 families, some now related through marriage. But before that it was part of the home range of the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa, and before that uninhabited and unowned. But it does have a connection to Canada, my current home, as much of the early white exploration and settlement, there as in Canada, was the work of French-Canadian voyageurs. In a 1972 book written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of my own family's occupancy of the land, my father, Nicholas Blatchford, looked into that early history and wrote of it as follows:
At first it was the Indians, moving in bands over northern Wisconsin, hunting, fishing, harvesting wild rice, living their own special lives... And then came the white man. First the explorers and the fur traders—Jean Nicolet, the first to reach Wisconsin, in 1634, followed by all the others...
It is well for the earliest Wipigakians, who regard themselves as pioneers, to be reminded that more than a hundred years before the American Revolution, northern Wisconsin "was crisscrossed with a myriad of portages worn smooth by the moccasins of Indians and traders going from waterway to waterway." The words are those of Ernest Swift, deputy director of the state conservation department in 1941, in his foreword to some extracts from the journal of Francois Victor Malhiot, a clerk for the Northwest Company who wintered in the Flambeau wilderness in 1804-1805 (Wisconsin Conservation Bulletin, Vol. VI, No. 7, available in the Wipigaki library).
Malhiot and his small fleet of men and canoes left old Fort Kamanaitiquoya in Thunder Bay on the northwest shore of Lake Superior on July 9, 1804, with an outfit which included "eleven assorted bales, twenty kegs of rum double strength, four kegs of powder, five bags of shot and bullets, half a bale of kettles, a case of guns. Twelve traps and four rolls of tobacco" (all of which was to be traded for furs), plus "as many French provisions as a proprietor might have wished for ... four hundred pounds of flour, two barrels and a half of pork, forty pounds of biscuit, a Keg of shrub (rum), a Keg of high-wines, two of sugar, four pounds of tea, a ham, bread, butter, etc., etc.
"He also had a raging toothache which runs like a thin thread of agony through his account of the 350-mile voyage. They were hindered by violent summer winds and heavy rains and frequently had to put into shore. The toothache kept getting worse. A week into the mission, Malhiot reported that "my toothache was so bad last night that, after trying every imaginable remedy and taking fifty drops of opium without any effect, I decided to take some rum. I swallowed at one gulp half a pint of the raw spirit, which took effect in a quarter of an hour and made me sleep until morning. My body feels broken, my jaw is tender, and I have a sensation of nausea, but my toothache has departed with the half pint of spirits."
"With the hangover gone, the winds and rough water continued to oppose them, but on July 22 they reached La Pointe at the southern end of the Apostle Islands, and three days later they beached their heavy canoes just east of the mouth of the Montreal River which today forms the extreme northwest boundary of Wisconsin and Michigan. There they would leave them and begin the great backbreaking, 45-mile portage of their supplies up the Montreal to "Portage Lake" (probably what is now Long Lake in the northeastern portion of Oneida County) from which, with light canoes cached there and new paddles they would make, they would travel for two long days by way of a chain of streams, lakes and short portages to the Manitowish River, thence down the Manitowish to the Flambeau River and a hard, 24-mile upstream struggle to Fort du Flambeau, probably about where the present [Chippewa] village stands.
On the eve of the great trek, Malhiot treated each of his men—seven were to make the initial trip with him—to a double handful of flour, a pound of pork and a drink of rum. The news from Lac du Flambeau was all bad: "the Savages have been on the warpath ... they are now hunting ... our people are thin and emaciated like real skeletons. They say they were more ill-treated than ever by Gauthier [the clerk Malhiot was sent to replace]; that half the time they had nothing to eat, while he never passed a single day without having a good meal ... that he is like a wild beast, and not a day passes without his swearing, storming and inveighing against those who wintered with him last year."
The portage facing Malhiot was reckoned at 120 pauses (pronounced "pozes"), a pause being the length of six and a half football fields over the roughest terrain, made worse by poison ivy. On the first day they made 40 pauses, but Malhiot's toothache had fired up again "as bad as ever" and the men were complaining of pains in their legs, so the next day they called it enough after 20. Everyone had a drink of shrub. Malhiot felt weak and couldn't eat.
The carry took three and a half days; the final leg by canoe took two. Malhiot then read to the trembling Gauthier a letter he had carried from the big boss, Mr. William McGillivray, chewing the rascal out, and Gauthier "admitted his errors" in a flood of tears.
If Wipigaki people can speak of the Flambeau country as "a paradise," even during those summers when the game is scarce and the fishng poor, how beautiful it must have been in its unspoiled condition when Malhiot arrived there 168 years ago.
Malhiot hated it. The Indians seem to have been either talking of going on the warpath a good deal of the time or they were drunk; they didn't have many furs to spare for bartering; game was almost nonexistent, the fishing was rotten, the country wretched, and he was nagged by feelings of loneliness.
On August 8th, four days after his arrival at Flambeau, Malhiot, a man who considered himself to be "rich in sentiment and honor," wrote in his journal:
"I will begin by saying that of all the spots and places I have seen in my thirteen years of travels, this is the most horrid and most sterile. The Portage road is truly that to heaven because it is narrow, full of overturned trees, obstacles, thorns, and muskegs. Men who go over it loaded and who are obliged to carry baggage over it, certainly deserve to be called "men." This vile Portage is inhabited solely by owls, because no other animal could find a living there, and the hoots of these solitary birds are enough to frighten an angel or intimidate a Caesar.
As to Lac du Flambeau it is worthier of the name of swamp than of lake and at this season it would be easier to catch bullfrogs in the nets than fish. Today I am sending Gauthier to cast his nets in another lake; perhaps we will get some craw-fish. With regard to the river I will never call it anything but a small stream, because in many places a mouse could cross it without wetting his belly ...
"The "savages" Malhiot met from other villages and trading posts were often starved and reduced to eating their dogs. His own provisions were running low.
We leave him the following May, heading for home, having made the awful portage through the bogs and "billions of flies," watched by spooky owls, and later walking the beach at La Pointe where he "found a white fish half eaten by the eagles and half rotten, but not sufficiently so to prevent my eating it after roasting it on a spit."
Such is Lakeland, Marlowe's version!
If you're in Waterloo Region, be sure to check out OBOC's Lakeland events with Alan Casey:
Wednesday, September 26
1:30pm to 2:45pm – Author Event hosted by the Region of Waterloo Library at Elmira District Secondary School. This event is open to the public. For more information, contact Katherine Seredynska at 519-575-4590 ext. 3228.
7:00pm to 9:00pm – Author Event hosted by Waterloo Public Library at First United Church, King and William Streets in Waterloo. For more information, contact Christine Brown at 519-886-1310 ext. 146.
Thursday, September 27
7:00pm to 9:00pm – Author Event hosted by the Cambridge Libraries at the School of Architecture, 7 Melville Street, Cambridge. For more information, contact Karen Murray-Hopf 519-621-0460 ext. 155.