Manitoba Memories

This is the first magazine article I ever sold. It appeared in Outdoor Canada in 1989, and I thought it might be fun to include it on this website–Gordon

For years now, I’ve been haunted by a memory. It’s late fall, well after dark in Manitoba, and Jamie Seymour and I are coming home from a long day’s hunting. We’re in Jamie’s open boat, droning down the Winnipeg River from Seven Sisters Falls. I’m lying in the bow, wrapped in the warmth of my old canvas hunting parka and a fragrant blanket of freshly cut cattails. A woolen cap is pulled snugly over my ears. The throb of the engine courses through me, it’s rhythm mixing with the resisting, pushing, slapping of the waves against the hull. The wind rushes past. I can hear it, but I’m huddled so deeply into the boat it can’t touch me. The moon is strong and the phosphorus wake of the outboard trails behind us into the darkness. The shoreline dances with shadows. I lie there, drowsy with contentment, the river going on forever, a future of sweet adventure spread out before me. It is 1970 and I’m 14 years old.

This memory came to me again the final morning of a three-day fly-in trip to Whiteye Lake in northern Manitoba. The memory was why I was there. It and others like it had been crowding in on me, reminding me of something I’d lost, of something that had nothing to do with an endless round of meetings, business flights and rush-hour traffic. I’d lost my simple boyhood love of wild places. And I’d flown up to Whiteye with my friend, Norm Butler, to try to find it again.

I grew up in small towns. In 1968 when I turned 13, we moved to Pinawa, a small community carved out of the Whiteshell provincial Park in Manitoba. When we arrived, the area was still pretty wild and it was not at all uncommon for golfers on the local course to interrupt their game while a black bear and her cubs played through. In the town itself, there wasn’t much to interest a teenage boy. There wasn’t a shopping center of decent size for hanging around—not even a 7-Eleven store. For my friends and me, it was either take advantage of the bush around us or die of boredom.

So we took advantage of the bush. And we did it in a big way. In the fall, we lived for hunting. We hunted in the morning before school. We hunted after school. We even wore our smelly old hunting clothes to class. It didn’t make us particularly popular with the girls, but it did give us a head start on getting into the bush. Of course, we hunted every Saturday as well. On Sundays we rested, but only because hunting was forbidden on Sunday. In the summer, we fished and boated. In the winter, we snowshoed and snowmobiled.

At 17, I moved to the city to attend university and, with the exception of a summer in the Yukon, I’ve been a city dweller ever since. I’ve thought a lot about getting back out into the wild, but I’ve never really pursued it. Something has always seemed to take precedence. But this fall, I decided I absolutely had to do it. And of course it was ridiculously easy. All Norm and I did was arrange for a plane and go.

So there I was on the cold final morning at Whiteye, fumbling with a tripod and camera before first light, hoping to capture on film the stillness of the northern sunrise. I worked with numb fingers, loading film, threading the camera body to the tripod mount, hunting through my camera bag for the cable release. Where was that bloody cable release? I found it finally, on a rock by the circle of stones we’d used as a fireplace. The night before I’d used the release to shoot campfire scenes while Norm and I traded stories.

I’d told him about hunting grouse with my father, and of how he’d taught me to stalk rabbits by walking around them in smaller and smaller circles. As long as you don’t walk directly at it, a rabbit thinks you haven’t seen it and stays put. We would often get within just a few feet, but never shot one. As a boy growing up in the Depression years, my father and his brother shot scores of rabbits and sold them to the local mink farmer for five cents each. Having hunted them out of necessity, my father had no interest at all in hunting rabbits for sport.

Norm talked of his own childhood. He told me about the trapline he’d run near his family’s farm and of how, on winter mornings, deer and foxes would come right up to the backdoor. We talked of goose hunting and fishing trips. I even told the story of using my first gun to shoot the Christmas lights off the front of my parents house.

Now I looked at the empty circle of stones and remembered its warmth. But there was no time for a fire if I was going to take sunrise pictures. I attached the cable release to the shutter and sat down on a large flat rock by the shore to wait until the light was strong enough to shoot. The morning mist was thickening between the islands. I listened to the silence. I’d forgotten how quiet mornings in the bush could be. I closed my eyes for a moment and just breathed.

Before long, the sky took on its first delicate blush of orange and I went to work, moving from vantage point to vantage point, shooting as I went. Twenty minutes later, it was all over. The orange had faded to blue. The mist had burned from the water. It was a beautiful clear day, but no longer a photographically remarkable one. I stuffed my gear back into the gadget bag, the cold working on me now that I was no longer completely absorbed in the world of shutter speeds and composition. I headed back to the fireplace, stopping on my way to grab a snarl of branches from a fallen pine. When I was a kid, it had been a point of honor to light a decent fire with only one match and no paper. In a country of abundant jackpine, it wasn’t much of a challenge. And now, as little practiced as I was, I still managed it easily. One match later, I had a respectable little blaze going, hot enough to boil water at least. Then I sat back, nestled contentedly into a sheltered spot between the rocks, and wrapped my cold, early-morning fingers around the warmth of my first cup of coffee of the day.

The sun rose a little higher. Out on the water, a loon called. Time passed. Sitting there, warm and without commitments, I realized I’d found exactly what I came back to the wild to find. I’d found that uncluttered self I’d known in a simpler time, a time when what I couldn’t actually reach out and touch didn’t exist, a time when I knew nothing of falling stock prices, rising interest rates, or expense reports.

The abstract craziness of my life seemed to fall away. There was only the morning sky, the warmth of the coffee I held, the call of the loons on the lake. Nothing else existed. I was 14 years old again, with the river going on forever and a future of sweet adventure spread out before me.

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