I guided an old man once. We parked at the side of the road and headed into the forest on a narrow, rocky path. “Take my arm,” said the man after a few steps. Then, “Are we there yet?” It was a nothing trail, really: a half-hour ramble to a sweet little lake full of eager brook trout. But the old man was not strong, and as the rest of his party scrambled ahead, intent on the angling, we quickly found ourselves alone. His pace slowed to a shuffle and his thin legs began to tremble. When he could go no farther, I sat him on the mossy ground with his back against the trunk of a gnarled pine. “I don’t want to die,” he said.
In the end I carried him out. “I wouldn’t do that again for a million dollars,” he vowed. Later I astounded him by producing a fine Cuban cigar, and after that, for the rest of the week, he wouldn’t let anyone else guide him. It had to be me, and I didn’t mind at all.
This happened years ago at Kenauk, a spectacular 26,300-hectare tract of woodland north of Montebello, Que., about halfway between Ottawa and Montreal. Originally bequeathed by the King of France to François de Laval, Bishop of New France, in 1674, it has remained virtually unchanged ever since. Today it’s one of the largest privately owned pieces of land in North America, a pristine wilderness teeming with moose and deer, eagles and osprey. The property contains more than 70 lakes, many stocked with rainbow and brook trout, and there are 13 luxury cabins. Attracting outdoorspeople from throughout the world, it has operated as a fish and game preserve since the 1970s, and been managed by Fairmont Hotels on behalf of its owners, the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, for the past seven years. Since the late 1990s I’ve spent parts of each summer guiding those same outdoorspeople, doing my best to put them on trout or pike or bass.
Working as a fly-fishing guide is mostly fun, but can become serious in a hurry. One day I was asked to guide the Japanese ambassador, a refined gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair, a love of American folk music and an elegant casting stroke honed on the famous chalk streams of England. He was, however, entirely unused to casting from a moving rowboat. A wobble, a splash, and when I turned to see what was the matter, he was no longer there. Jumping up and peering first over one side, then the other, I spied him finally five feet down and sinking. I used an oar to dredge him back to the surface, hooked his arms over the gunnel, and paddled like mad for the shore.
Other times it’s the fish that need rescuing. Fishing on Sugarbush Lake one August afternoon, we landed a massive, once-in-a-lifetime rainbow trout with football-shaped flanks. Following the requisite photos, I released the trophy back to the water, only to watch in horror as it turned belly up and vanished beneath the waves. “Hang on,” I told my client, “I’m going after it,” and I began to undress. Across the lake, guide John Huff watched it all through binoculars. “Avert your eyes, gentlemen,” he advised his clients. “I’m not sure what’s going on over there, but it doesn’t look good.”
Now, as I contemplate the grim news that Kenauk has been put up for sale, asking price a cool $81 million, these and other memories come flooding back: the ancient, mossbacked snapping turtle that lives under the dock at Otter Lake; the moose that crashed out of the forest and cantered alongside my car as I drove between cabins late one night; the Minnesota preacher who had six big pike in a row snap his line on Whitefish Lake and never cursed his luck.
What will become of Kenauk after it’s sold? It’s possible it will remain intact, maybe even continue to operate as a fish and game preserve. Or it could be chopped up and hived off, piecemeal, to cottagers or developers, a sad end to its nearly 350-year run as one of the most remarkable pieces of land on the continent. I hope that doesn’t happen, but I’ve begun the grieving process already. Just in case.
Conservationist Aldo Leopold once said that to be ecologically aware is to see the wounds. Yes, and sometimes it is to make them.