Our One-Cent Bill From The Great White North

Guess what?  American bureaucracies aren’t the only ones that are ridiculous.

IMG_3407Last October I went to Lake Temagami in northern Ontario, Canada for a wonderful few days of fishing.  To get there, I drove on the Express Toll Route.  Rather than simply paying the toll as you pass through, the ETR takes a picture of your car, figures out where you live, and then sends you a bill.

A few weeks after my trip ended, I received a bill.  We paid it in full.  Then, some time later, we got another bill — for four cents.  Why the four-cent differential?  I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the U.S. dollar-Canadian dollar exchange rate might be responsible.  In any case, we wrote a check for 4 cents and sent that off.  Obviously, the cost of postage and the cost of processing the check on both ends far outstripped the 4-cent payment.  But, so be it!  We are interested in maintaining friendly relations with our Neighbors to the North, and if I ever am invited back to Lake Temagami I don’t want to be hauled away as a scofflaw and tossed into debtors’ prison by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Then we received the bill above, demanding a balance due of . . . one cent.  One cent!  I’m blaming the exchange rate again, because the bottom of the bill says, under “amount paid,” “Canadian funds.”  Of course, there is no way I can write a check on my American bank for one cent, Canadian.  The letter specifically says that I can’t send cash.  And if you think I’m going to risk giving my credit card information, on-line, to bureaucrats who are trying to chase down people who have paid, in full, twice already, you’ve got another think coming.  So, my only choice is to write a check for 5 cents, American, and hope that it accounts for the exchange rate and is finally accepted as payment in full by the ETR collectors.

I’ve never really thought much about toll booths before, or fully appreciated the schmoes working inside.  Now, I do.  The next time I toss 75 cents into the collection bin, I’ll relish that I can simply drive on, free from care that I’ve just become mired forever in an endless sea of red tape.

The Sky Is Wide, And So Is The Water


I was looking through my photos of my Lake Temagami adventure today, thinking about how much I enjoy just being on the water — the sound of it, the smell of it, and the look of it.  A lake pushes the horizon back, making the sky seem wider and the whole world seem more expansive.  When this hardy soul left the dock in his little outboard craft on a cold afternoon, he seemed to be heading off into eternity.

View From An Outhouse

The place where we stayed on Lake Temagami had an outhouse.  That’s right — a real, old-fashioned, wooden framed outhouse that had everything you could want in an outhouse except a crescent moon carved in the door.

What does a city boy do when he goes to a place with an outhouse?  Well . . . try it, of course!  The temptation was irresistible.  If you’ve never used an outhouse, how can you pass up the chance to add it to your list of enriching life experiences?  It might not be on your bucket list, but it’s an obvious character builder.

I admit I approached the prospect with some trepidation.  My grandmother had scared UJ and me with tales of the outhouse at the family homestead when she was growing up, including one incident where she looked up while using the facilities, saw a huge, hissing black snake above the door frame, and bolted out of there before her business had been completed.  So, naturally, my first step was to check the surroundings for any signs of poisonous or carnivorous creatures.  The fact that it was about 20 degrees gave me some confidence in that regard.  The icy temperatures also meant I didn’t have to worry about swatting a swarm of flies while answering nature’s call.

Of course, the cold was a double-edged sword; it also made me reluctant to fully commit to the process.  I was afraid of losing some skin to a frozen plastic seat.  Fortunately, the throne was made of some spongy material that didn’t pose a risk of frozen cheeks.  So, with a deep breath, I forged ahead.  The frigid temperatures were a terrific incentive to stay focused on the task ahead and finish the job as quickly as possible and not linger, admiring the view, pretty as it was.

As I left, I felt both lighter and more seasoned.

Trying To Row In A Straight Line, And Learning A Lesson

One morning during our visit to Lake Temagami, the Elder Statesman and I went fishing in a rowboat.  The Elder Stateman rowed us out onto a bay in the lake and we drifted along, trying without success to get a nibble.

After a few hours, the sky grew cloudy, the wind had picked up, and we decided it was time to head back to the island.  I felt guilty sitting back while a senior citizen manned the oars, so I took over and began to row us back.  I’ve never really rowed before, except for trying a rowing machine or two in visits to workout facilities.  But, I’ve seen people rowing in perfect precision in sculling competitions, and the Elder Stateman had capably piloted us out into the bay.  How hard can it be?

The answer is:  a heck of a lot harder than I thought, and frustrating besides.  There’s lots of moving parts.  You’re trying to achieve uniform strokes, at uniform depth, hitting the water at about the same point and then pulling through.  And, you’re doing it all while you have your back to the target.  If you don’t know what you’re doing — and I obviously didn’t — it’s very easy to veer far off course.  And then you have to figure our which oar moves you back in the right direction.  Add in a little wind and chop on the water, and you’ve got a tough challenge for the novice know-it-all.  I soon realized that my confidence in my innate rowing ability was sorely misplaced.  I was not making much progress and instead was cutting long, looping S curves through the water rather than moving directly toward our destination.  It was frustrating and embarrassing.

After a while I got the hang of it — sort of — and made some progress in moving us across the bay, but as we neared the island I gladly yielded the oars to the Elder Statemen to steer us to the dock.

You’d think that a 55-year-old would have realized by now that it is foolish to have mindless confidence that he can do something he’s never done before.  Obviously, I’ve still got a lot of life lessons to learn.

Ducks On The Water

We didn’t see a lot of birds on our trip to Lake Temagami.  I’m assuming that most of them had already gone south for the winter . . . and if so, their timing was impeccable.

We did hear the cries of a few loons — a disconcerting sound if you’re not used to it — and early one morning I saw a flock of ducks land on the water near the island, do some quick diving for grub, and then get into formation and sail regally into the distance.

On Catching A Fish And Eating It

Until last weekend, in my 55 years on this planet, I had never eaten something that I caught or killed.  Last Friday, that all changed.

As I mentioned yesterday, thanks to the excellent guide work of Woody Becker, our little party found an area where the fish were biting.  I caught a plump small mouth bass that, according to my much more experienced companions, probably weighed between 3 and 4 pounds.  It fought like crazy as I reeled him in, bending my fishing rod almost to the breaking point, and after Woody netted it and we dropped it in the tub it continued to flop and thrash.  At the time, it was exciting.

When we later returned to our dock, and one of our party prepared to fillet the fish, I began to feel uneasy.  The fish stared at us, wide-eyed, and its gills continued to flutter.  My friend the Brown Bear loves to fish because he likes the challenge, but he’s a catch-and-release man.  Perhaps I should let the fish go?

The temptation to at least try eating something that I had caught and killed, however, overcame my reservations.  My friend expertly filleted the fish and tossed the remains into the harbor, where it would serve as sustenance for other aquatic parts of the food chain.  I felt guilty, but remembered that I had caught the bass only because it couldn’t resist gobbling up the live minnow that I was using as bait.  The fish clearly understood the circle of life and the notion of survival of the fittest — or so I rationalized.

We prepared the fish fillets in simple fashion, by dunking them in corn meal and then dropping them in a skillet where hot oil popped and snapped.  After a few minutes the fish fillets were ready, and they were astonishingly good — the flesh firm, light and mild, absolutely fresh, with no oily or fishy taste.  It was, quite simply, the best fish I’ve ever eaten.  I’d do it again.

Colors Of A Morning


As any patient reader of our blog knows, I like dawn photos — usually of the act of dawn itself.  The rising sun does not simply brighten the eastern horizon, however; the morning sunbeams also throw the surrounding countryside into sharp contrast and bring out every bit of color.  One of our Lake Temagami sunrises turned the spindly pines and dying grasses on our island into a beautiful study in different shades of green, rust, and orange.

On The Water With Woody

One morning on Lake Temagami, we hired a fishing guide to help us solve the fisherman’s eternal riddle:  where are the @$%&*# fish?  The guide’s name was Woody Becker.

Woody is an Algonquin who has lived in the Lake Temagami area for decades.  He’s hunted, fished, trapped, and camped in just about every nook and cranny of the lake, its islands, and the surrounding forested hills.  As you would expect with that kind of background, Woody is a practical, self-sufficient man.  When he came to pick us up in his small boat on a cold morning, he wore weather gear that looked as comfortable on him as an old shoe.  He also wore a snowmobile helmet, face shield down to ward off the chilly air, and was smoking a cigarette behind the plastic faceguard.  As he took us to where he thought the fish might be biting, he strung out a net across one of the connecting waterways.  He was just interested in seeing what he might catch in that spot at that time of year, he explained.

Woody knew his stuff.  He could pilot a boat like it was an extension of his body.  He instructed us on what method (jigging) and what bait (minnows) to use. And, he found the fish.  Drifting along a rocky outcropping in a desolate part of Cross Lake, we caught some huge small mouth bass.  Woody nimbly maneuvered the boat as we fought the fish, netted them, and then used some wire he had handy to repair our net when one of the thrashing fish ripped it to shreds.

Every fisherman know that, for every moment of catching, there are hours of drifting, and feeding out line, and unsnagging hooks that have caught on a watery obstruction.  During those quiet times, Woody liked to talk, and smoke, and laugh.  He talked about how he tried to take down at least once moose a year, for food.  He talked about how the price for pelts isn’t what it once was.  He talked about his ex-wife, and his sons. He talked about where he’s fished before and where he hoped to camp for a week or two this coming summer.

And he talked, often and forcefully, about the issues confronting the First Nation in Canada — the negotiations with the Ontario provincial and federal government on new treaties, the involvement of some new tribe that he thought was trying to bargain away the Algonquin’s rights, and his mistrust for the deals and arrangements that were being offered.  He knew every treaty involving the First Nation, by name and date and contents.  He made me realize that those little bits of history that we learned in school that seemed so dusty and abstract had an enormous and continuing impact on this interesting man and his friends and family.  Sitting on that boat with Woody, as he talked and bailed and lit another cigarette, gave me a different perspective on things.

I’m glad Woody helped us catch some fish, but mostly I’m just glad I met Woody Becker.

Dock Chair Of Solitude

If, like me, you are an early riser, you are used to moving around in the dim, dark, pre-dawn hours.  Those moments often offer the early bird a special solitude, and an unmatched opportunity for quiet, rewarding contemplation.

When you are in a remote place, like Lake Temagami, the sense of peaceful tranquility found in these early morning hours is multiplied tenfold.  A casually placed canvas chair on a dock becomes an irresistible perch where you can drink in the pure air, admire the crystalline sliver of the crescent moon far above, and watch the sky gradually turn from black, to charcoal, to deep blue.

I used that perch, and I thought no great thoughts on this quiet morning — but I did come away with a wonderful and satisfying sense of inner calm.

The Fun Of Float Planes

When we got to the dock on Lake Temagamito unload our gear, we got a treat:  a chance to see a bright yellow, single engine float plane rev up the engine to maximum velocity (and volume) and take off.  It’s the kind of sight a ground-bound flatlander who lives far away from the nearest large lake won’t soon forget.

It was very cool to see the plane sending up spray as it bounced across the surface of the lake, until the pontoons finally cleared the water and the plane then rose up and over the trees on the shoreline.  I found myself consciously pulling for the pilot to make it, even though the plane has probably done so countless times.  Go, baby, go!

I’m not sure I’d want to fly in a float plane as a matter of course — without some form of ear protection, at least — but it was sure was fun to watch it take off.


Absolute, And Satisfying, Silence

Of all of the pleasures I took away from my visit to Lake Temagami, none was more profound than enjoying moments of absolute quiet.

Lake Temagami is a remote location, ringed with trees that start at the water line and extend back to the horizon.  We were visiting long after tourist season had ended.  As a result, it was possible to stand on the shore of our island and hear . . . nothing.  Not a boat motor or a dog barking in the distance.  Not the background noise of traffic or the hum of electrical devices.  And, because it is well out of cell phone range and the place we were staying had no television, not a ringing telephone or the drone of the TV.  You could listen carefully — as carefully as your ears would allow — and detect only the complete absence of any noise.

It was like being present at the dawn of the world, with a silence vast and deep that touched the soul.  I enjoyed walking around our island, sitting on a rock or a fallen tree, and drinking in that awesome stillness. When you look at this picture taken on the island, try to imagine seeing that vista without so much as a breath or whisper of sound.

Sunset On Surprise Bay, Lake Temagami, Ontario, October 10

Thanks to a generous invitation from a friend, I’ve spent the last few days incommunicado at Lake Temagami in Ontario, Canada.  The lake is located a few hundred miles due north of Toronto.  It is a beautiful place, and I have very much appreciated the chance to make the acquaintance of this spectacular little corner of the world.

I’ll be posting some pictures and thoughts about my Lake Temagami adventure over the next few days.