For almost three decades I have traveled from my home in Lea County for 2,000 miles north each year to what Canadians call the Great North of their country.
I have made this trip in the spring and summer to northern Saskatchewan with family and friends to fish the fertile lakes and rivers of a truly unique place on planet earth that has lured me like a flashy Canadian bait with treble hooks.
However, analyzing my trip after this year’s mid-May journey with two Lea County friends–David Finger and Dustin Kaufman–who had not been to Jan Lake before, I have surmised the attraction to the lake has been more than just the trout, northern pike, and walleye I have caught, or the bears, grebes, bald eagles, and beavers I have seen.
I have been lured each year by the travel, by the fish, by family, by friends, and finally by the far northland.
For regular readers of The Last Frontier column, it will probably be of no surprise that I have been addicted to travel and the open road since I was a young child and my Texas parents hauled our family in a four-door Plymouth to such exotic places as Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands in glamorous New Mexico and to Pikes Peak and The Garden of Gods in high Colorado.
In fact, I agree with Robert Lewis Stevenson, who wrote a few influential books I read as a child, and who said, “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
I also like what Aldous Huxley wrote: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about
other countries.” And here is how another British writer, G.K. Chesterton, responds to the notion of “foreign” countries:
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
And finally from another Englishman, here is the good Dr. Samuel Johnson on the subject of travel and nations:
“All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.”
Floating west across the Atlantic, here are the words of one American who became a British citizen and wrote about his travels. T.S. Eliot: “The journey not the arrival matters.”
And finally on the subject of travel, here are the words of a French writer who enjoyed traveling to Britain, Canada’s mother country. Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
The first time I fished Jan Lake’s cold waters in 1991, my son Hawk was in the boat with me and my Canadian amigo Glen Sorestad. That year twice we fished on days when it snowed. Then for days the wind blew, the temperature just a little above freezing. Hawk has never wanted to go back, but his life did get very busy from that time when he was 14 years old.
Quite a few others have made the trip north with me or joined me at Jan Lake, including my wife Mary, and approximately two dozen others have ridden up with me or joined me at Jan Lake. Raton’s Terry Bumpass and I traveled 16 or 17 years to Jan.
So what is it in the land so far away that makes it so alluring? Is it, for instance, the simple act of fishing?
For centuries writers have said there is something magical in putting bait on a line, attaching the line to a pole, and dangling the pole over a stream, river, pond, lake, or ocean until a fish is prompted to have the lunch moving in front of its mouth.
The most famous of those writers was another British outdoorsman named Izaak Walton who was born in 1593 and died in 1683, and in between those dates wrote a book called “The Compleat Angler.” (Yes, that is the correct spelling.) Well, Izaak wrote a lot of other books that made him a famous literary figure a few years after William Shakespeare, who died in 1616 when Izaak was 23 years old.
Walton wrote a lot about fishing, but one of his most famous sentences reads. “Angling may be said to be so like the mathematics that It can never be fully learned.”
“Angling” was a popular word in the 17th century, and it means to fish, or to “drop a line” or to “dangle a line” or to “cast.”
Just a couple of points to remember about Canadian fishing. First, most of the fishermen I have observed at Jan Lake have not been mathematical in their fishing habits. That is, they are not methodical in either locating or catching fish.
Second, in all the years I have been going to the Great North to fish, I have heard perhaps just one time a fisherman there use the word “angle” to mean fish.
Most of the words I have heard have been of the four-letter kind when the fishing is good but the catching is not. That is, when there seems to be no walleye ready to be brought to the shore for lunch. Walleye are some of the best tasting fresh-water fish in the world, and when only bottom feeders and snot rockets are biting, Canadian fishermen tend to get aggravated and express their aggravation by filling the air with profanities.
By the way, “snot rocket” is derogatory term for a northern pike, a primitive looking cylindrical fish that moves through the water with rocket speed, and a fish that cannot stand any fish, no matter how big, to go swimming too closely.
In the cold waters of northern Canada, a fresh caught northern pike can also be a tasty fish, but it is a much more bony creature, and when it is cooked whole and served on a platter its looks don’t necessarily make for delightful dining.
In addition to that, when a fisherman grabs a northern to pull it into the boat, his hand is covered by enough pike slime that the amount would lubricate for some time an oil and gas drilling bit making hole 10,000 feet down.
There was one Canadian who many at Jan’s Three Lakes Camp thought was about half-wolf who would not eat anything but northerns. When he would fillet his “jack,” as he called them, he would tell all in the fish plant with him that he “loved the smell of pike slime in the morning.”
Perhaps the most famous American author to write about visiting Canada is Henry David Thoreau. His “An Excursion to Canada” was first published in 1853, and in it he describes traveling to several of Canada’s eastern cities, such as Montreal.
In Montreal Thoreau goes first to the Catholic Church of Notre Dame, and he writes that the Canadians he found there impressive in the quiet religious atmosphere they had created where “serious and profitable thought” might be had.
The church was like a cave “which you can enter any day, is worth a thousand of our churches which are open only on Sundays—hardly long enough for an airing—and then filled with a bustling congregation.”
Thoreau goes on, “I think that I might go to church myself sometimes, some Monday, if I lived in a city where there was such a one to go to. In Concord, to be sure, we do not need such. Our forests are such a church, far grander and more sacred.”
Thus, being a good traveler, Thoreau brought back to America some Canadian religious ideas he could value. Overall, that is what the country of Canada has been to me, a repository of good people and good ideas.
I think my new fishing friends David and Dustin feel that way too.
To conclude this edition of the Last Frontier, I need to mention that fishing Jan Lake is like being on North America’s most isolated frontier. All the fine things writers have said about fishing can be experienced by Lea County folks who don’t mind driving the 2000 miles up to it. The only planes landing there land on the water, and I have only seen three or four planes in all the years I have been visiting this fish heaven.
To end this column on a higher note, I will quote Tony Blake: “Some go to church and think about fishing, others go fishing and think about God.”
And of course, I need to quote Norman Maclean, the author of a great novel which had a fine motion picture made from it, “A River Runs Through It.”
Maclean says, “To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”
Canada is no “foreign” country to me, and being in Canada so much I have come to understand that the Canadians have much to offer Americans.
NOTE: A special thanks to owners and hosts Ryan Cherny and Jasmine Hughes of Three Lakes Camp, one of Canada’s premier resorts and a beautiful settings located deep in Saskatchewan’s northern forests.