Spain Remembers

Spain Remembers

Sunday, December 16, 2007


A northern Ontario true story which goes a long way to explain why we love winter.

It all started innocently enough with a golden dawn that filled the tent with light. However, I could hear a rambunctious wind romping through the pines above dropping numerous needles and twigs on the nylon fly which was puffing in and out like a bellows. I huffled my body a few inches out of the sleeping bag to look through the tent’s back window. On the far side of the sand beach a few yards away, the silky water of the bay was barely wrinkled but on lifting my head, I could see beyond the sand spit to the open reaches of the lake. There, in contrast, the wind was bullying along a platoon of white caps in a frenzy of foam as if it wanted to empty the lake of water. I sighed. This could only mean our plan to find the Snail House would have to be put on hold, at least for today. We were wind bound.

But something closer at hand caught my eye. The guy ropes holding the fly were dotted with glossy black chunks like tar. I wondered if sap had dripped from the pine trees. I’d never heard of such a thing, but I knew the bush was full of surprises.

The day before had been a camper’s dream. After the float plane had dropped the three of us at this perfect site and we set had up our tents and stowed our gear, we fired up the stove and toasted ourselves with our first cup of tea. Then bathing suits, a swim in crystalline water and into the canoe to get dinner. In half an hour, my sister Barbara got three pickerel. While her husband Terry filleted the fish, Barb and I made a fire and set out a good northern meal– fried pickerel, coleslaw, perogies with Thunder Bay persian donuts for dessert. We finished the evening off with another swim and more tea, this time laced with rum. A golden eagle flew by. As the July sun slowly departed in an extravaganza of colour, behind us over the pines, a yellow moon sidled in.

Before us, in the moonlight, was a long reach of lake. We could see the lights of a small cabin far down the shore. On the other side of the sand spit was the channel between the island and the mainland. This channel was our route to the Beckwith place and the Snail House. We were looking forward to the morrow.

Wendell Beckwith, the famous American hermit, had lived for eleven years at Whitewater Lake about three miles from our camp site. In 1980, he’d been found dead on the beach in front of his most famous dwelling, the mysterious spiral shaped Snail House. Beckwith claimed the Snail House had a mystical influence on his research into the forces of gravity. We’d learned the buildings were still standing and open to the public. I was interested to see if any emanations remained.

But now, on this windy morning, I climbed out of the tent, into a maelstrom—a storm of mosquitoes. The black chunks on the guy ropes were not sap; they were clusters of mosquitoes as big as grapes. The outside of the tent had a black pelt created not be pine needles but by thousands of mosquitoes and, in a single second, so had I. I dived back in, found my mesh bug jacket, and jumped out to see my sister running for the beach.

Her tan-coloured canoe pants and shirt were alive with crawling black dots. The song of the wind in the pines, so soothing in the early morning, was also, I now realized, the feeding song of billions of mosquitoes. We three had spent our lives in the northern Ontario bush and we were used to bugs – even lots of bugs - but we had never experienced anything like this.

“We have to get out of here,” my sister cried..

But we could see that was impossible. The wind, coming over the trees behind us, was frothing up the lake and the water in the channel between the island and the mainland was roaring past like a deranged river.

The mosquitoes seemed sparser on the beach, so we decided to move the tents there. We raced around in a bug-induced frenzy, tossing out gear, yanking up stakes, running off with the tents, and running back for our stuff to shove inside.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said to my sister. “How am I going to do that?” We both glared at Terry who was stepping from behind a screen of bushes zipping up his fly. “There is one disadvantage to being female,” I said.

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “I had to fan the area with a piece of birch bark just to keep myself intact.”

We quickly dug out an old polyester shower curtain we used as a picnic blanket and I ran off into the woods. Never was anything done so quickly or so badly. My plan was to tie the curtain around my waist as a sort of skirt. This did not work. A thousand mosquitoes settled on my bare thighs. I flapped my hands but this only encouraged them. Meanwhile the wind blew the curtain under me…

Terry and Barb had set up our trusty alcohol stove on the very end of the sand spit. The sand was wet out there and soft but a bit of a breeze was reaching the tip of the spit keeping the bugs away. Two steps toward shore and the breeze was blocked by the tall pines. Another step and you hit the Great Wall of Mosquito. With our feet sinking into the mushy sand, we ate a gloomy breakfast standing up at the end of a sand spit twenty feet out in the lake.

At that moment, it began to rain. We dived for the tents and our rain gear but, when we came out, we learned the Whitewater Lake mosquitoes sneer at rain. Their numbers diminished not at all.

The night before, we’d set up a tarp under the pines in case of rain. The mosquitoes liked it under there. It was mosquito city. Walking under the tarp was like walking into a cloud of soot from a defective chimney. We realized it was better to take down the tarp, stow it away and go back to the end of the sand spit, stand there, sinking into the ground and wait for the rain to blow over. Which it did in a few minutes.

Every trip away the spit to the beach was fraught. We need matches? Barb made the dash, yelling,”Where the hell are they?” Tea bags? My fingers opening the buckles of the pack were being dive bombed. “I don’t see no tea bags.” Grammar disappears at a time like this. Terry ran by. “The water jug? Where’s the god damn water jug?” We had covered ourselves with bug spray, but the black clouds circling around our heads and the thousands of crawling specks covering our bodies were creating a severe psychological challenge.

“I think I have to go to the bathroom again,” I said. “Give me the bug spray. I may end up with some terrible rash, but I don’t care.”

In front of us, the small bay was fairly calm even though the lake beyond was jumping in foam. We decided to canoe along the bay to see if we could get around the far side of the island. It was a good decision. There were fewer mosquitoes out on the water so we loafed and caught a couple of pickerel. But we also realized that it was impossible to move from our sheltered bay. I was thinking we should get our books and spend the morning drifting and reading when it started to pour again. We headed back to the tents.

Barb made the lunch sandwiches in her tent. When the shower passed, we ate sinking in the sand spit and leaning as far out as possible to get the bit of breeze coming over the tall trees. From time to time the wind dropped, and then we were immediately invaded.

The channel seemed a little less rough in the afternoon, so we launched the canoe and began tacking up the current in a series of forward ferries, a white water maneuver. But after a mile, we knew we were exhausting our strength, and, eventually, we also realized we would never be able to navigate the heavy seas at the far end of the island. Meanwhile, a series of showers swept through, but, after each, the sun came out.

We sailed back to camp with the wind, retreating to our tents to smoke the bugs out with mosquito coil. Once my place was cleared, I slept and read the day away. I was hoping for a better tomorrow. I was also wondering if it was my turn to make supper and how I was going to do it. I made Kraft Dinner while Terry fried the pickerel. We took turns standing in the smoke from the fire. We ate in a tent. Four or five more showers swept through but the wind did not abate and by the next morning we realized we were trapped for another day.

Another decision – to attempt the rough paddle over to the cabin and see if the person there had a radio to send for the plane. We were greeted by a Native family who had been watching us struggle through the waves. They invited us inside. Their log cabin consisted of one large room, all very neat and clean with a set of bunks for the two teen- age boys and, behind a curtain, a bed for the parents, Bill and Jean. The walls held many drawings made by the boys. There were books around as well as cards and board games.

“Too rough to fish, too rough to canoe,” Bill said. “Nothing to do but wait it out.” The tea was brought out and set on the table by the window. “How about some cards” he said. “I know a dynamite game. It’s called Bad Ass Rummy.”

We played the game for most of the afternoon. It turned out Bill could radio to the airline to come and rescue us if we got sick of the weather. We said we’d stick it one more day because we wanted to go up and see the Snail House. “Same weather tomorrow,” said Bill, “but if the wind holds, it’ll be calm enough in your little bay for the plane to get you out.”

We stuck it out another day and then caved. That morning we paddled over and asked Bill to send the message. Later, we stood on the sand spit in the rain, waiting for the plane. We were a disheartened trio.

A couple of years later, I attended a birding festival in North Dakota and found myself telling the story to a mosquito expert. “Interesting experience,” he said. “Here is what happened to you. As you know, mosquitoes lay eggs in shallow water. In hot weather, such as you have in June and July, the water dries up. But the eggs do not die. They remain dormant in the earth until rain fills the puddles. Every time it rained, more puddles filled and more mosquitoes were released from the wet lands behind your camp site. The wind carried them straight toward you.” He smiled.

“I remember one study here in North Dakota,” he went on. “In a two foot study area we had 6 mosquitoes. After a rain, we had ten thousand.” He smiled again. “Big difference.” No kidding.

The Snail House is still out there. Other people have gone to visit it and told us what a wonderful canoe trip they had. But my desire to see it is buried on a long squashy sand spit at the end of an island in Whitewater Lake.

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