Saturday, May 16, 2020

A Yankee in the Canadian Bush -- Wolverine

Me, age 8, with wolverine

Dad with wolverine that was mounted life-size in L&F office
Chapter 8 

The spring of 1961 changed us forever. So many incredible things happened to us at the camp as the ice was breaking up that none of us could ever go back to our former lives.
Bill arrived in the middle of the second day and apologized for locking all the cabins. The ice had gotten so bad, he just figured we weren’t coming until after breakup.
During the next couple of weeks, Bill and Dad prepared the wooden boats for launching and also, when the ice had melted sufficiently, took a boat down the shoreline about a mile to where Bill wanted to build his new cabin. The two men worked felling trees, clearing brush and placing wooden posts to be used as a foundation.
Meanwhile, Mom and I were thrilled by the ice-out process.
One day the ice just seemed to magically start coming onto land. Almost imperceptibly it moved up and over the rocks, shattering into icicles as it did so. The whole shoreline tinkled with the sound of a million icicles falling together. We would learn it was the wind farther out on the lake that was bringing the ice sheet to shore.
The first place to have “opened up” was just north of the camp where the narrows makes a sharp turn. The current as it goes around the bend prevents the ice from freezing deeply in the winter and in the spring makes a pool of open water that grows in size daily.
I wandered out onto a rocky point by the pool one day and was just standing there when I suddenly hit the deck. It was an instinctive response to something I had heard many times on the Pickerel River – a military jet screaming at hundreds of miles per hour just above the tree tops. The jets, coming from an air base not far from the Pickerel and practising low-level flying, would give little warning. There would just be a hint of a roar, followed by a whoosh, then ear-splitting thunder.
So, at the first bit of roar and whoosh, I fell to the rocks and covered my ears. The thunder never came. Instead, when I looked up, there floating in the water in front of me was a little brown duck with a  brilliant gold eye. Just then, another duck arrived. It came flying in so fast I thought it would go right over the pool but it abruptly tilted its wings backwards and to my astonishment made the loud roar and whooshing sound. It had just been air vibrating through the duck’s feathers! This duck was mostly white but had a blue-green head with a white spot. These ducks were Goldeneyes.
My eight-year-old Buckeye ears were fooled another time as well. I kept hearing a pack of dogs barking off in the distance. They sounded like hounds, I thought, and didn’t think much of it until it finally dawned on me that there weren’t houses with dogs here like in Ohio.
The dogs always sounded so far away. I looked down the shoreline in each direction. Nothing. Then I looked at the big hill across the narrows. No dogs there either but as I followed the hill to the top – and then above – I spotted them, in a V. Geese! They were flying thousands of feet off the ground, just specks against the blue sky. Although decades later geese would be common everywhere, in 1961 they were an oddity and I had never seen them before.
The lack of bird life all over North America was explained  the following year, 1962, by a biologist  named Rachel Carson. She wrote a book called Silent Spring about how pesticides were killing all of the birds, insects and even wild plants. It would be a decade before I heard of her work.
If the ice, ducks and geese weren’t interesting enough, one day I walked down to the point in front of Bill’s cabin, peered into the clear water and couldn’t believe my eyes. There were northern pike, by the thousands, swimming nose to tail, just a few feet off shore. Mostly they were single file but occasionally there were twos or threes. They were moving steadily to the north. Every hour another thousand would pass by the point. The spectacle lasted for days.
Of course, Mom and I quickly got our fishing rods and tried to get the pike to strike on spoons and spinners. None would.
We asked Bill for an explanation.
“They are all headed to Dean Creek to spawn. You can see them in there with their backs right out of the water. There are thousands and thousands of them.”
Dean Creek was about a mile away to the Northwest. The pike were apparently coming from Trout Bay, more than a mile away to the South. It was a fish mass migration. After a pause of about a week the whole spectacle happened in reverse but this time the fish were more spread out. They still would not bite.
Meanwhile we made another discovery -- there were nightcrawlers in the yard. We caught a bunch, put them in a can, and. Mom, who was an alpha angler if there ever was one, immediately rigged her fishing rod with a hook, sinker and bobber. No sooner would the red-and-white plastic bobber hit the water than it would be pulled under by a fish.
Her first many catches were whitefish, a species new to us. They were good to eat, said Bill, so we had a few suppers of them.
Then Mom got a lake trout which surprised Bill as he did not believe they could be taken on a worm.
“Now you have the best-eating fish in the lake,” he said. “Let me bake it and you will see for yourself.”
Bill baked it in the oven of his wood-burning cookstove. We marveled at its taste but privately Mom, Dad and I decided we really preferred northern pike, a fish that Bill absolutely abhorred.
“I call them hyenas,” he said. “If muskies are the wolves of the water, then I figure northerns are the hyenas. HaHaHa.”
Eventually the narrows was totally clear of ice and Dad and Bill took off in Bill’s 14-foot aluminum boat for the town of Red Lake, expecting to be gone all day. Instead they were back in just 30 minutes.
Incredibly, while dodging ice packs in Wolf Narrows they had struck and killed a wolverine.
Dad had thought they were extinct in Northern Ontario, and he wasn’t far wrong. This was the last one, at least for the next 30 years.
Bill, who had been trapping at Red Lake nearly his entire life, had never seen one before. Since wolverines were a protected species he wanted to just leave it right there in the lake for fear the authorities would believe he trapped it. Dad, however, thought it a shame to leave the animal to waste. It was a very large male wolverine and probably weighed 40 pounds.
He talked Bill into letting him take it to the Department of Lands and Forests. Maybe he could get a permit to have it made into a rug, he thought.
They came back to camp because the lake was still blocked with ice beyond Wolf Narrows. Bill calculated that with the strong south wind that was building, the lake would be clear the next day.
We took photos of the wolverine and put it on ice. Sure enough, the next day, the lake was open enough for Dad and Bill to boat to town and for Dad to take the wolverine into the Department of Lands and Forests office at Red Lake.
“Absolutely not!” long-time conservation officer Bert Colebourn told Dad when he asked if he could get a permit to send the animal to a taxidermist in Winnipeg.
“This wolverine isn’t going anywhere,” said the warden.
Instead the Red Lake District L&F had the creature made into a life-size mount which has been displayed in a glass case at the office ever since. That was a far better way of honoring the old wolverine, Dad agreed.

...to be continued

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