Well I thought for sure I had written something about Crowduck here at some point. But I suppose I haven’t. So, BJ, here’s your answer. This runs pretty long, so make sure you don’t have any immediate plans.
Crowduck Lake is situated in Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba, just outside the Ontario border. Every year, most of our family packs up an enormous load of clothes and supplies and fishing stuff—the biggest portion of it is carried in Grandma and Grandpa’s huge van and pretty much fills it—and we drive up. Driving there is a big part of the experience. It’s a monumentally long trek to Canada. We start out going through Indiana. Right about when we’re going through Indianapolis and can’t stop because we’d end up in rush-hour traffic, someone has to pee. In fact, someone has to pee for a lot of the way. Last year it was usually me, because I drank a lot of root beer. But this year I have an advantage I didn’t have before: I’m driving, so if I have to pee, I can just pull over and not have to wait for Dad, because Dad always waits about two hours. “We’re almost to the motel,” he’ll say, even though the motel is in Wisconsin and we’re in Chicago.
But then we get to the motel. (This year I think it’s going to be at Great Uncle Chuck and Great Aunt Ellen’s house.) You have to stay for the night because only a seriously insane person would try to drive those twenty hours in one day. Usually at this point nobody’s staying in the same motel. After sleeping you get up at some improbably early hour–say, eight–and start driving again. The second day is when you really start getting somewhere. You emerge from Wisconsin into Minnesota and the landscape gets hearty and wholesome and deeply green. Then you angle past Lake Superior and up to Fort Frances, where the United States dumps into Canada.
Fort Frances is something else. First we drive down small local roads and usually stop at a “duty-free” shop for some reason and maybe buy some souvenirs or some beer. Then we push on, around unlikely corners, guided by the instinct of a driver who has done this a lot of times before. I think I’ll let Mom or Dad drive through Fort Frances. The road system is like hair collected from a bath drain, especially when you get up really close to the border. The road that takes you to Canada runs directly through the heart of, no fooling, a paper mill. You don’t actually drive inside any buildings, but almost. The smell of ground-up paper pulp hits you like a big disgusting fist about halfway through town and doesn’t leave. Everywhere huge pipes shoot up out of the ground to your sides. In some places, railroads intimately share the road with the cars, running practically right up the middle. A few hundred yards before the border, just after you’re done waiting for a little three-car train to cross the road in front of you, the road splits wildly and you have to make the decision whether to go right, left, middle, leftern-right, or Seulement Les Camions. The good thing is, you have plenty of time to make the decision because all the traffic is moving so slow. You wait in a glacial line for about half an hour and then finally get up to a glass booth. A friendly lady asks you a lot of really probing questions, like where are you going and why and are you bringing any weird stuff with you. Then you cross a broad, flat river on a bridge that’s half devoted to big pipes filled with stuff you can only imagine.
But finally you manage to get through. Then you pick up the stuff you ordered earlier at the duty-free shop (don’t ask me just how it works) and convert your money and drive off into Ontario. All at once everything’s different. The paper pulp smell dissipates and now there are big fields with farm equipment or something in them and the gas prices are in Canadian Dollars per Liter and you have to get used to using the Kilometers part of your speedometer. But it’s quiet from there on. We always go to a place called the Whispering Pines Motel in Kenora, but this year they seem to be closed or something, so we’re disappointedly staying at a Super 8. We all stay in the same motel this time. We have fun and drink some beer (the adults do, anyhow) and then go to sleep.
In the morning we all get up early and go shopping at the Safeway in Kenora. There’s a ridiculous amount of shopping we have to do, because it’s supplies for about 15 people for a week. Usually we get too much. Lots of potatoes. It takes probably two hours to get all the shopping done. The stuff gets packed in lots and lots of big coolers and we all move off with a lot of anticipation, because Crowduck is only a couple of hours away. Those last couple of hours feel really different. I don’t know how to describe it, but the landscape looks distinctly Canadian. It probably has to do with all the lakes. There sure are a lot of them. Then as you enter Whiteshell they give way to very quiet-seeming forests with almost no cars on the narrow roads there. In my memory it always seems to be overcast, but it’s probably because it’s still fairly early in the morning. After you drive for a while, all of a sudden there’s a right turn and you see the Big Whiteshell Lodge and the highway empties directly into the Big Whiteshell Lake. Usually the car I’m in is the second-to-last one there and Grandma and Grandpa have already started unloading the van. I help them. We unload all the groceries we’ve just bought and all our clothes and all our fishing stuff and beer onto a large boat stationed at a dock right next to the end of the highway. Everyone does their part to get all our stuff in the boat. Then all the people squeeze on too, and a guy from the Crowduck Lake Camp crew stands behind a tall windscreen and starts up the boat. It goes skipping gaily across the water. The reason we have to get onto this boat is that there are no roads to Crowduck from anywhere else in Canada and we have to cross the Big Whiteshell Lake to get there. Spray kicks up from underneath and gets everyone a little wet, but no one cares. The ride across Whiteshell takes about ten or fifteen minutes. We can see the point where we’re going to stop from a long way off. When we get close enough to it the boat slows down and we get out and start unloading all the stuff again, because we’re still not at Crowduck. This time we unload all the stuff onto big red pickup trucks marked “Limo” with wooden seats installed in the back. All the stuff goes right at our feet. Usually we ride two or three Limos. Once all the stuff is on, some crew members start up the Limos and we judder onto the most ridiculous truck path ever.
It’s two miles long and winds like a fallen strand of spaghetti. Trees poke their branches into the Limo and say hi. From time to time there’s a curve that just doesn’t look possible. But the crew has been doing this kind of thing awhile and they know how it works. About a half mile from the end we get the first view of the lake, with the sun shining across it. I always love that moment.
Finally we slowly bounce into Crowduck Lake Camp. This is going to be our home for the next week. There are eight brown cabins; our family usually takes up two or three. The cabins are small and have sand on the floor, but they feel positively roomy because they have high ceilings and huge door-windows that let the outside in. The lake is right there, just beyond a sandy road and a few trees. I can stand at a cabin and throw a rock in the lake. But usually I just walk down to it.
I’ll never get tired of that first look out across the whole lake. It’s huge. It’s flawlessly blue and you can see forever, all the way to the other side of the lake. The air blowing off it is clean. It holds a lot of mystery for someone standing on the docks, because there’s a lot you can’t see from there. Crowduck isn’t round. It’s more like a Rorschach inkblot. There’s a big island and bays and coves hiding a lot of the farther parts from view. The banks are coated with infinite deep-green trees. I really love the lake.
We all unload the Limos and put our stuff in the cabins and start making dinner. Fish can’t be taken in on the first day, so this is usually some kind of soup we froze ahead of time. After dinner on the first night people usually go to bed, because most of them have been driving a lot and are really fed up with staying awake.
The next morning people get up at all different times. I usually get up really late and have some breakfast Mom or Dad makes, which is probably eggs and bacon and maybe pancakes. Then, at pretty much random times throughout the day, people leave to go fishing. Because we’re on a fishing trip. This year I’m going to be the one driving the boat, which is a change from years past. I don’t even know just how to drive one yet. I’ll be taking my Great Uncle Joe out on the lake a lot, I hear. I hope we catch something. I don’t know a lot about fishing. I’ve always had people to drive the boat out to the lake with me and pilot it along good spots, but I don’t know what I’ll do on my own. Presumably someone will teach me before I take Uncle Joe off. Maybe we’ll catch a few fish. Maybe even some that aren’t walleye. It’s always exciting to catch one, but only briefly if it’s a walleye, because you can’t keep walleye on Crowduck. Pike and bass are what you’re looking for. No matter how boring it gets, though, it’s still fun. In fact, it’s the best thing in the world.
When we get back I usually find out that my Uncle Dan and Aunt Tracy have caught the most fish, and we can all eat dinner safely thanks to them. Then I fool around doing nothing in particular for a while and the dinner gets cooked. Dinner is of course excellent. My favorite is blackened Cajun fish. It’s very attention-getting. Spicy and fragile and loud. And after dinner everyone plays poker. Last year I went up a total of fifteen cents for the week. Sometimes we play poker to well after midnight–I think until three once–in a variety of different games and never knowing who’s going to come out ahead. Poker is one of the essential aspects of Crowduck. Even though it’s a fishing trip, poker is a huge part of it and pretty much mandatory if you know how to play. (If you don’t you’ll probably get taught.)
Sometimes at night we all try to see the Northern Lights. I haven’t seen one of those brilliant eruptions of color yet, but last year we went out to a small granite peninsula and watched the sky for a long time staring at a shimmering, shifting curtain of transparent silver that was pretty good even if it wasn’t the really big, bright kind. I lay down on my back and saw the first shooting star I’ve ever seen, and then saw three more. Crowduck is a place unlike any other.
The next morning we start it again. Each day there’s something new. Maybe I catch a lot of fish. Or maybe someone catches a really big one. My aunt Rachael caught a twelve-pound, thirty-six inch pike last year. It was the size of a large baby. She wore her arms out holding it. Maybe it’ll be special because I went to Ritchie Lake that day. Ritchie is Crowduck’s neighbor, .4 kilometers away. To get there you hoist your boat up onto a landing and walk over a portage of thick, rich, black mud and then unlock a canoe that’s there. It may be work, but Ritchie has the best pike fishing ever. Dan and Tracy regularly pull up more than twenty a day. The whole point is that Crowduck is great, and it never gets old. I’ll never get bored of the place. Every year I wish I could stay another week, or if at all possible the whole summer. Next year I want to work there. So this year I’m going to talk with Bill Kolansky, the proprietor, a friendly, wiry guy with black hair and a yellow floatplane, and see what that would be like and if I’m cut out for it. I sincerely hope I am and I can. Because that would be the perfect summer. Oh man, but would that ever be great.
I know every day is one day closer to leaving, but I don’t think about it. Thinking that way gets you depressed. Instead I live for the moment and fish and fish and enjoy it as much as anyone can enjoy anything. A week is a good chunk of time, and we all get an opportunity to let loose and play poker and (for the adults) have a lot of beer. That’s probably why it always kind of takes me by surprise when it’s time to leave. We always get up ridiculously early that morning, like at about four or five. It’s always still dark. We load up our clothes and fishing stuff and what’s left of the groceries (some of it we leave, and Bill keeps it) into the Limos and jounce off through the pre-dawn and wish we weren’t doing that right now. Then we unload the Limos and load the big boat and it whips us off across Whiteshell through seriously cold Canadian morning air. The cars are still there at the end of the highway when we get back to it and we do that one last unload-and-load and say goodbye. It’s really pretty heartbreaking. I hate that part where we drive off into the just-beginning day and I know I won’t be back for another year. I wish I were always at Crowduck.