Win Szczedziwoj is a would-be escapee from society for a few days. Just him and his canoe. But his solitude comes to an abrupt end when his fishing line comes up with a boot - with a body still in it.
At first, I thought I'd snagged a log.
Oh, I had no problems with that. If I'm going to drop a fishing line into an isolated Ontario lake, I've got to expect to catch a few dead trees and maybe lose a few lures and say a few words that children shouldn't hear.
"Gol darn it all to heck," I said politely. Or words to that effect.
Isolated lake? We're talking Ontario granite-edge tree-lined body of water. The bottom is full of rocks and trees and bits and pieces of trees and bits and pieces of rocks. If I'm not using a surface lure for bass, odds are I'll catch a branch or a trunk down in the dark holes, assuming I miss the rocks, of course. It's a great country for rocks.
I had a small spinner on the other end of the line, with a lead weight to get it down quickly, hoping for perch even at mid-day. It was lunch time, there were fish down there, and it was time we got together.
"You," I said to the mysterious waters, "had better be a log. I want no rocks." Like I had a choice. I pulled.
But the line wasn't coming in to me. It disappeared into those dark waters and stubbornly stayed there.
Wedging the small fishing rod between my knees, I started paddling toward the point where my line disappeared into the water. There was a light breeze, and the canoe slid sideways and around, spinning on its axis.
The key in a situation like this is to keep the line tight enough to see where it goes, without drifting away from the snag point and having the line snap. Or letting the fishing rod leap out from between your knees and do a backflip into the water.
Ideally, it takes four hands: one to hold the fishing rod, one to reel in the line as you get closer, and two to paddle the canoe. You can paddle a canoe with one hand, but it isn't easy, especially when the wind wants to push the canoe one way, the paddling wants to turn the canoe another way, and the snag is in yet a third direction. It would be a good question on a physics exam, if you wanted to drive the class mad.
I didn't want to drive anybody mad. Not even me. I mentioned to the canoe (politely, of course) that it might be better to cooperate.
I was all alone on a truly isolated lake, drifting under a September afternoon sun, and losing a lure wasn't going to make much difference to an experience like that. I smiled. With me, it's hard to tell. Aisha (The Wife) says she watches for crinkles around the eyes. Otherwise, I look the same in all moods.
When there is only one person in the canoe, it's generally best to alternate paddling and reeling in the line. I did. The canoe drifted and rotated, and slowly got closer to the place where my snagged line entered another realm.
I didn't want to lose the spinner if I could help it. Not only was it one of my favorites, but I disliked leaving the glittery objects of civilization in this wild area, even on the bottom of the lake.
So I swirled water with my paddle and pulled on the line, and eventually got the canoe more or less over the snag. More or less is all you get in a canoe. A few quick jerks on the line didn't free it, so I reeled in as much line as I could, and reached down and grabbed the line.
Pulling the line tight, just below its breaking point, I waited. Either the line would start to come up, or it wouldn't. If nothing happened, I'd have to break the monofilament with a quick, definite pull.
The canoe spun slowly in the September afternoon breeze as I waited.
There are two particular joys in a canoe. One is the responsiveness of the vessel. A canoe never stops being a part of the wind and the water as much as a part of the human intent, through the extension of a paddle. Only when the human mind learns to understand the air and water movements will the paddle move the canoe in the right direction.
It's a wild religion, this canoeing, where you have to build winds and water into your desires.
Mind you, some people just paddle like crazy and get there anyway.
The other joy of a canoe lies in the places it can go. A snake is made long and thin, to go where other creatures cannot. A canoe is made to go where other boats don't go.
You may curse the weight as you lug it on your shoulders, but on your shoulders, it will snake its way through dense brush and up steep hillsides. And the moment you break through to the water, to the blue sun-lit shimmer of water, you have begun another portion of a ride you know you were meant to take.
Your canoe slides over shallow weeds and old logs, between the branches of a fallen spruce, and gently pushes through bulrushes to open water. It's like getting to heaven.
I'd portaged so far in, I figured I'd have to start back out just to reach the middle of nowhere. Only way to live.
I was pleased when the line began to come slowly up to me. It had been an outside chance, and it had worked out.
I knew how much deep-sunken wood seems reluctant to see daylight, so I watched the landscape as I put loops of fishing line in front of me, in the canoe.
Picture this: I was near one end of a small lake. Most of the shore was a line of trees and rocks, with willow bush and half-sunken logs at the water line, and pines behind. At the other end of the lake, a slant of pink granite made a small cliff, looking hot in the sunlight, like a stone-giant's toe cooling its bunion in a dark-rimmed footbath.
I could paddle around a lake like this in half an hour without hurrying much. Aside from a lily-pad-choked bay or two, I could also see the entire lake from the canoe. There were no signs of humanity at all.
It is said, somewhere, that there are some twenty million lakes in Canada. Most of them look very much like this one did. Take a picture of one, and you've got a picture of them all, with minor differences. This one was a tad darker than the average, with more dark pine on the edges and less exposed rock.
Twenty million lakes. The ones near Toronto or Ottawa are lined with cottages. As you go further north, the cottages get fewer.
Millions of lakes in the far north bear not the slightest trace of people.
But even within a short drive of the farms and factories of the heartland of Ontario, there are lakes too small to attract cottages and roads. I was on one of these.
I'd found it on the map, small and nameless, and not on any canoe route. I'd come to look at it, maybe take a couple of pictures, nothing more. It had taken me some rough portaging to get here, but I was enjoying the September solitude.
Above me, a couple of clouds drifted by, pondering whether or not to become thunderheads somewhere downwind. A trio of turkey vultures swung lazily above the rock cliff. The rest was a deep blue that might have gone on forever.
It wasn't silent. The late-season cicadas in the trees made sounds like tiny circular saws cutting off branches. Squirrels made chattering noises somewhere along shore. And there was a steady background eeeeee of thousands of crickets.
I spotted the white glitter of the spinner as it rose slowly to within a couple of feet of the surface. You can see about an arm's length into the water, when the light's on it.
I leaned forward a bit more, to try to grab the lure itself, then paused, peering into the water.
I could see a boot, rising towards the water surface. Then the lure, firmly snagged in a pair of jeans below the boot. A sock, folded towards the boot. A bit of white skin between the sock and the end of the pant leg. A dark mass disappearing into the dark water.
The mind refuses, at first, to accept something like this. It stops, entirely, at the "say, what?" stage, while it tries to process the data in a reasonable way.
Eventually, it decides, there is only one reasonable interpretation.
I knew I had a corpse on my line.
I found this particularly disturbing, once I had started breathing again and I was sure my heart was still keeping my own middle-aged body going. Because there weren't supposed to be any people on this lake. Alive or dead. That had been part of the point of the trip.
Away from people. Away from humanity and progress and economics and computer-controlled toaster ovens. Out to the small lakes, off the regular canoe routes, where a retired economics professor could find something closer to elemental nature. Away from people, especially.
But there was this body, dangling gently on the end of ten-pound- test monofilament line, connected to a five-foot fold-up fishing rod at one end and held by a treble hook to Win Szczedziwoj, would-be escapee from society for a few days.
Once the obligatory nausea had receded a bit, my first feeling was of anger and of inadequacy. I'd always felt a pang of annoyance when I tracked down another lake that I thought would be mine alone for a day, only to meet other people there.
But living people came and went. They went; I went. In a matter of minutes both parties could be on their way somewhere else. Living people didn't hang, mute and accusing, like the corpse of Jacob Marley, on the end of one's line, waiting for you to do something.
My brain, fully capable of explaining abstract economic theory to undergraduates, was having trouble deciding what to do with this thing.
I took a heavy breath, and looked around the lake again.
It had changed a bit in the warm September afternoon. The darkness of the shores seemed a bit more pronounced, and the shores seemed more clogged with old tree trunks than most lakes.
I decided I preferred lakes with more bare rock along the shore. More places where the sunlight could grow a few blueberries. More white birch in the forest mix, and a lot less of silent, dark pine.
I didn't know the name of this lake - the topographical map didn't always name lakes this small - but I didn't like it any more. It was full of corpses.
One corpse, maybe, but it filled the little lake and made it dark.
For a moment, I thought about cutting the line. I hated this dead thing that had come into my life and ruined my expedition to wilderness. I owed it nothing.
But that was obviously and totally out of the question. I had to report this to whomever one reported dead people to, and things would be a lot simpler if I could tell those people where the body was. Other than just somewhere at the bottom of this small, dark lake.
That left the problem of how to remain attached to this dead thing. The fishing line was close to its breaking point, so there was no hope of towing the body to shore with it. The strain would snap the line at once.
I leaned back, grabbing the yellow polypropylene rope coiled behind me. One end was attached to the end of the canoe; the problem was to get the other end around the leg.
It quickly became obvious, even to an economist, that I would have to grab the leg. For one thing, the line could snap at any moment, as the wind was picking up and the canoe beginning to rotate around the line. For another, there was just no reasonable way to get a line around the leg without hauling at least the foot out of the water.
Nor could I hope to use the rod to raise even the dead man's foot above water to attach the rope. Not with the thin fishing line I was using. I'd have to grab the leg with my hand, in spite of my reluctance to do so.
Easier said than done, in a canoe. Canoes range from fairly stable, in a canoeish fashion, to downright malevolent. This canoe was an ultralight model with a greater tendency to roll than I would have preferred. I'd had it built specially light, but hadn't known much about canoe shapes. So I'd casually asked for a "Peterborough" style. Peterborough was a nice place, once famous for canoes.