Laughing Birches

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“Wrong Turns Write Life”

My mother-in-law and father-in-law owned a family cabin in Restoule, Ontario. The last stretch of a daylong drive was to park and wait for someone from the family to pick us up by boat. The roads didn’t go deep enough into the woods and around the lake to reach the cabin.

The boat ride, full of people and luggage, was slow. When we rounded the peninsula and headed into the cove, bodies emerged from a cabin on the far point to offer the traditional dock greeting for every new arrival.

Welcome to Laughing Birches.

One year, I was so hot I couldn’t wait to swim. The 12-hour drive took 14 hours because of a traffic jam in Toronto. When the cabin neared, I handed my wife my wallet and walked right out of the boat, fully clothed, and into the water. It was a pretty good impersonation of Forest Gump leaving his shrimping boat when he spotted Captain Dan on the dock in the movie Forest Gump. My plunge, fully clothed, was good for a group laugh anyway.

The rustic cabin has a propane refrigerator and stove and, in recent years, high-speed Internet. But it wasn’t too long ago that you had to boat and drive to town to use a phone and go to the library to use the Internet. The electric power comes from a generator. However, there’s no running water. We had to bathe in the lake and relieve ourselves in the outhouse.

When our son was 13 years old, he brought his best friend to the cabin. With no time to settle in that night, Grandpa took the boys out fishing. It was his favorite pastime. It was only the second time for my son’s friend. On his last cast of the night, he reeled in the largest fish that anyone had ever caught in all the years of visitors that cabin has had. It was a muskie. Laid side-by-side, the fish was as long as the teenage boy. And his fish tale will be as long as a lifetime.

Under a canopy of stars in the midst of storytelling, we all settled into pure vacation mode. Cookie tins were unleashed. Board games could last until 3am. And laughter bounced off the birch tree forest and echoed across the lake. Even though it’s the middle of summer, it’s so far north you have to dress for anything. One year could be a heat wave that makes the un-air-conditioned cabin an unbearable sweathouse. Other times, we can’t take a bath in the lake because it’s so cold we have to fire up the wood-burning stove at night. Although this was a remote retreat, we ate like royalty every night around an oversized table. Each week was good for a couple of fish fries, barbeques, and even gourmet meals.

During the day, the generator was off, and with it, all technology.

So, everyone was left with simple pleasures. Canoes and kayaks were retrieved. Sunbathers and swimmers found the sun at the end of the dock, except when there were leeches or when the 3-foot snapping turtle lingered. When the water was calm, wading to the belly of the cove’s white sand beach was inviting. Grandma took the younger kids out berry picking or to catch spring peepers, and the dog followed. She taught everyone how to identify birds, ferns, bugs, and anything else a curious mind might want to know about nature all around. Every few days, there would be a mini trip for a guaranteed bear sighting—at the dump. Artists wet their brushes. Writers wrote. Readers read curled up in chairs or hammocks. Meditators sat quietly at the open end of the boathouse and lost themselves in the lapping water.

Lazy days of sleeping, sunbathing, reading, swimming, fishing, conversation, and such can sometimes turn to boredom. Boredom innovates new games to play. Some have since become traditional cabin entertainment, like the game Clay. A little footstool was in the middle of the floor between a teenager and me. It was covered in smooth leather. Next to me was a stack of little wrapped colored clay squares. I picked one up and tossed it, hoping it would land on the stool, but it slid across and off. The teenager took note, leaned over to retrieve my misfire, and sought to do what I failed to do, but the same thing happened. We both sat upright, knowing things were going to kick up a notch. I tossed him half the stack of clay and the game Clay was born. It became so competitive that it gained spectators and then more players, so year after year, we’d have a Clay tournament.

Every other day or so, an outing was planned. Days out could be to see the beekeeper, go to the beach, hike scenic cliffs, watch a potter at the wheel, or eat pizza and ice cream. Longer treks to North Bay were taken to see a movie, go shopping, and visit the Quintuplets Museum. Even longer treks took us to Sudbury to explore the old nickel mines and see the science center.

On one day out, our van wouldn’t start. We asked the barkeep where we ate lunch if we could use the phone. Instead, he decided he’d like a look-see. He came out to the gravel parking lot and checked under the hood of the van. He grabbed a rock, tossed it slowly up and down, and asked me to get inside the van and turn the key.

Crack!

He knocked that rock against something, and we never had a problem the rest of the trip.

Sometimes, unwanted surprises happened, too. Some people have had harrowing moose, bear, mosquito, and cougar stories to tell at that lake. These could be nerve-wracking situations, like the time we thought we might have to get our toddler son to a hospital because his mosquito bites so hideously erupted from his skin. He looked like the elephant man. Then there was the time my toddler daughter and I flipped in a canoe, and she took in some water, but I assured her it was okay while I desperately tried to upright and reenter the canoe with her in my arms. Another time, I had kayaked the day away alone, and on my way back, a storm kicked up the waves, leaving me praying to live another day as I crossed the lake. But at least there wasn’t lightning stabbing the sky like the time my brother-in-law and I navigated across the bay to get back to the cabin in an aluminum canoe.

Then there was the time we lost a motor up on a lake that connected to ours by a waterfall. We’d anchor and tie off our motorboat and hike up the side of the waterfall with small horse motors, oars, and other provisions for the day. At the top was a completely primitive lake, which was long and wiggly, thus named Crooked Lake. The family had an old boat stashed and locked to a tree in heavy brush. You had to be careful there were no bears when retrieving it. The little 3-horse motor broke through the rotted boat wood and into the water when we were about as far as you wanted to venture in an afternoon before turning back. We had no means of communication. So, we oared our way all afternoon and into the evening. When we walked down the waterfall to the larger boat and motor and made our way back, everyone was worried sick. They had just returned from a search and rescue effort with the other boat.

One summer, a foursome decided to tent camp overnight at Crooked Lake. It was all fun and games until night fell. My brother-in-law asked the others where that motor noise was coming from. The place was so primitive and removed that they couldn’t figure it out, except it was coming near and getting louder. Then, BAM, their camp was engulfed in a thick cloud of mosquitoes that never let up. They escaped to their tents along with enough bugs to keep them up all night. When they hiked down the next day, they looked like death warmed over.

“One day, we’ll laugh about this. Just not today!”

The cabin also had non-laughable moments, even secrets. Many years ago, I had the nasty habit of smoking. In the end, I had become a closet smoker. A week in the sticks was too much. I volunteered to take a run into town to get bait. This was my cover to grab a pack of Canadian smokes. As I stood at the counter, I stared down at a nasty picture of lung cancer spread across the front of the pack to encourage quitting. I grabbed a couple of cancer sticks from the pack and stashed them on my body to sneak away later.

When evening came, I drifted by canoe around the wooded corner and far down the shoreline, well out of sight. After I got my fix, I dampened the butts and stashed them in some rocks several feet above the water. The next day, my father-in-law was down by the dock, and he looked miffed. He had fished out a cigarette butt and stood there holding it for my brother-in-law to see. My brother-in-law was the only known smoker. He insisted it wasn’t his. I wasn’t brave enough to say it may be mine, so I just sat back while our father-in-law lectured about the environment or something.

Most of the cabin’s secrets are probably held by Ohio State natural resource students who used to come to the cabin as part of a course every fall. My wife’s aunt and uncle were professors. Far from a secret was the time a cougar circled some students hiking to the bog on the other side of the lake to do some natural resource studies. The guys put the girls in the middle of a circle fortified with backpacks on the outside as they waited for the attack. But the cougar fell silent long enough for them to retreat to the boats. Those and many other stories are often told into the early morning hours in between political debates that border on arguments.

The most comical debate I ever witnessed was when a bear was believed to have been behind the smaller guest cabin and outhouse. The group’s experts examined the scat/droppings and went to the library of nature books in the cabin to compare. They noted the number of blueberries in it as a confirming indicator that there must be a bear in camp!

My sister and new brother-in-law were guests at the cabin that year, but they left a few days before we did. I had my suspicions and called my brother-in-law’s bluff. He admitted he’d rather relieve himself in the tree line on the far side of the guest cabin than use the outhouse. I laughed like hell and told him that his excrement was examined and determined to be a bear’s. He laughed uncomfortably, then smiled and said, “Man, I ate way too many wild blueberries up there.”

It’s all part of the fun at Laughing Birches.

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide to Fun! 

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“Wrong Turns Write Life”

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