When I was a kid, I was fortunate to go on four fishing trips to Canada, starting in the summer just before my ninth birthday. Other kids would come back from summer vacation and say they went to Disney World, Yellowstone, or Mount Rushmore. I’d feel a little jealous as often kids do – but then would realize I had been on a unique trip that was hard to match.
The idea for a fishing trip came from Dad. He decided to go elk hunting with a buddy one year to Canada. They drove as far north in Ontario as possible to Pickle Lake, and then flew another 75 miles north to one of the many unnamed and unpopulated lakes. I believe Dad closed his eyes and put his finger on the map to determine what lake they would go to and set up hunting camp.
Although small in population with 425 residents currently, Pickle Lake has an airport and flies supplies to northern First Nations (Native American) communities. Many call the community a gateway to Ontario’s “Last Frontier” since it is so far north of big cities like Thunder Bay (which is over 300 miles away). Planes are generally the twin engine pontoon variety, so you’re taking off and landing on water. A couple crashes and deaths (Mom – I hope you aren’t reading this) were recorded in the 1970’s-80’s, but we only really feared for our lives once…or twice. I’ll get to that in a little bit.
We often joked that there was only one way in and one way out of Pickle Lake – that being Highway 599 from the south. The town was settled in the late 1920’s when gold was discovered nearby. Copper was also mined later on, although most of that died down over time and the population decreased by a couple hundred people from the late 1970’s when we first visited to today. Over 2.5 million ounces of gold was produced in the area near the lake named for its pickle shape.
So back to Dad’s first trip. Hunting was an absolute bust, and he and his friend found themselves fishing more than anything else. They discovered a waterfall that had tons of walleye, muskie, and northern pike nearby. When the fish finally stopped biting they moved on and discovered other areas of the lake that also had lots of fish, like the back side of an island. Since they weren’t there to fish in the first place, they really didn’t have much fishing gear, nor were they prepared to use their boat for anything more than moving from one hunting spot to another. But they made the most of it and had a great time. Dad returned home and vowed to return the following summer just to fish such an amazing lake.
The next July I found myself in the back of a truck with a camper top. It was only a 17 hour drive to Pickle Lake and luckily I was actually allowed to sit up front from time to time. Just kidding! Actually the back of the truck held our gear and a place to lay down when drivers switched out and needed rest. We went with my oldest cousin and his brother-in-law, so we had two boats and motors to bring along. I had been up north in Wisconsin before, but nothing could prepare me for seeing so many trees, lakes, and different animals. I remember writing things I saw down in a little notebook, which I presume is lost to time. It was an incredible visual experience.
The drive was just half of what was so much fun with the trip. We helped load our gear onto the plane and while everyone was a little worried about flying in a small plane, everything turned out alright. Most of the pilots had been flying since they were practically in diapers. A couple years later we had a 19 year old fly us back who said he had been flying solo for a while. Best pilot ever too. Dad joked later about the guy being barely old enough to shave, but he probably could have flown blindfolded.
Oh, and catch fish? No tall tale fishing story here – we always did well. July is the peak warm temperature month that far north with a whopping 73 degree average. Unless it rained or was overcast, we generally found somewhere on the lake to catch one of the aforementioned fish. A few of the muskies and northerns were so big that I don’t know how I got them in the boat. The first year I was still using my little kid white pole (that pretty much everyone had when they first started fishing). I quickly graduated to a full size adult pole with stronger line. The more I fished the better I got, and it helped that days were long. Sometimes we could still see a streak of sun after 10:00 p.m. since we were so far north.
We caught a lot of what we ate. I think the first year we brought a lot of food just in case we didn’t catch anything. The nearest grocery store was 75 miles south in Pickle Lake and we didn’t want to starve. But once we were successful catching fish, we pretty much ate fish for every meal. Dad was our camp cook and made a mean egg/fish/bacon mixture that may sound nasty to you, but was one of my favorite fish-related meals. I was way too young to drink beer, so the adults took care of that for me. It was Pepsi for this guy! Mom also supplied us with gallon jugs of frozen Kool-Aid so we would have more than just beer, water, and soda to drink.
As this was technically an undiscovered lake even though it was on a map, there wasn’t a lodge. We brought a tent each year and camped out. It was a great experience and I’m not sure I’ve ever slept so well. Well, unless it rained. That pretty much “sucked the bag” as Dad liked to say. One year we fished in the rain, ate in the rain, cleaned a handful of fish in the rain, and climbed wet into the tent to sleep with rain coming down. Fortunately it only lasted a couple days and passed over. Rain that far north can be rather chilly, even in July. I have a few photos where I’m wearing a spring jacket and look a bit frozen.
Time flies when you’re catching fish, so every year a week just blew by and we found ourselves packing to return. Without any sort of phone or communication, we relied strictly on the good faith that someone would return with a place to get us on the appointed day. Dad always told Mom that he would call when we got back to Pickle Lake, and if she didn’t hear from him to call the airport and ask what was going on. One year she had to call because we didn’t come back right away. I think they wound up being two days late in getting us. Mom said they had the correct date written down but forgot to check it and send a plane. Seven days of fishing was about our limit. By the time we got to the ninth day we didn’t last too long on the lake. When the plane finally did arrive we yelled “Ze Plane!” like Tattoo in the opening of Fantasy Island.
As I said, occasionally we didn’t feel safe flying. One year the winds were gusting and we probably shouldn’t have flown at all, but the pilot was “reasonably confident” he could land on our precious lake. The real difficulty was that while the lake was long like Pickle Lake, it had a “narrows” as we called it where the banks were closer together than the rest of the lake. Also, we only had three people on our trip that time, which meant we only needed one boat. So one of the pontoons had a boat strapped to it and the other had no weight. The pilot needed to compensate for one side being heavier than the other. We learned to pack our gear evenly in the plane for that reason, but the planes would still shake in higher winds. In the end he set us down into choppy water and we were fine – or else I wouldn’t be typing this right now! I guess you could say that was my Disney summer thrill ride.
As you can tell, each year had its own set of hiccups that went alongside the success of catching tons of fish, and bringing home our limit. One year we went with Dad’s friend that went on the original hunting trip. We took his diesel station wagon and Dad accidentally filled it up with regular gas on the way up. That repair knocked off some time from our trip. Then the guy decided not to tell the Canadian border inspectors that he had a fifth of whiskey under the front seat, which they quickly discovered. I’m not sure why he left that bit of information out because that amount of alcohol was perfectly acceptable. I think he froze. The inspectors didn’t freeze – they set to ripping the car to shreds. They even turned my duffle bag inside out and I lost some perfectly good M&M’s in the melee! At least we didn’t get put in the border pokey.
Pinto hatchbacks were small little pop can vehicles, and probably not the sort of thing to drive 850 miles each way – especially stuffed with fishing and camping gear. Yet, that’s exactly what we did one year. Dad had a young guy working for his construction company that was a good family friend as well. He really wanted to go, so for some strange reason we took his very dinky Pinto. I’m thinking it was probably due to good gas mileage. It certainly wasn’t because of the leg room! Once the truck was crammed full the backseat was next, leaving a very tiny spot for yours truly. Mom said that I announced “I can and will fit in there!” She says that no matter how miserable the ride was going to be, I was determined to go.
The final year of our annual trip featured a very comfortable ride. Dad asked a brick mason friend and his son who was my age to go on the trip. They had a full camper truck with actual beds. The running joke was that we would be lucky to get 8 miles to the gallon in such a heavy crate. Glad I was too young to chip in for gas! The trip was routine until the very end when we had a memorable mishap. After we arrived home and unpacked our gear, Dad’s friend backed out the driveway and off the culvert. Dad used his cement construction Bobcat to lift the camper out of such a precarious position. He and Mom remarked many times after that it was really something to end a perfect trip that way.
That last trip was in the summer before my 12th birthday. Dad and his original hunting friend had split off and both were making separate trips to the lake with different people. They had a bit of a falling out. I think some of the disagreement stemmed from the friend leaving items at the lake year round such as boats. They also disagreed on which party would go up on a particular week. We got a laugh out of the bottled beer they left for a year that we discovered under some moss. I wondered what the clinking was beneath my feet! “Aw, that’s gotta be some skunky beer,” Dad laughed.
Dad returned years later to Canada on a fishing trip to a different lake with a new friend. I have never been back to Canada. These days when summer rolls around I think fondly back on such a special time in my childhood. I’m grateful for the memories and photos from these one of a kind trips, and of course miss Dad like crazy.
Happy Father’s Day to you Dad!