True North by Jamie Kirkpatrick


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This time next week, I’ll be in Canada. I know it’s only a bridge away (at least from Buffalo where I cross the border), but believe me, it’s a world apart. When friends ask, “Where in Canada?” I respond, “Go to Toronto, turn left and drive due north for four hours.” That’s about as precise as I can get.

My destination is a place called Long House, but you won’t find it on any map. It’s an old family camp located deep in the woods on a blue body of water the locals (paltry few in number) know as Dotty Lake. Literally at the end of the road (which by the time I get there is two tracks in the grass), there is the main lodge—Long House—where we (more on “we” later) gather to consume highly caloric meals prepared by the camp cook or to sit in front the fireplace on cool evenings, reading, playing cards, or just talking late into the night. We are silently watched by generations of winter hunters grinning out of faded black and white photographs, as well as bythe glass eyes of their creepy taxidermy trophies. Next to the main lodge, there is a second,smaller log cabin that houses a sagging ping-pong table, site of ferociously competitive matches with victories and defeats that grow more memorable with each passing year. When it’s finally time for bed, we each adjourn to one of the eight small, sparsely furnished cabins strung out along the lake front. There is a common bath house, and that’s it. “Rustic” is one way to describe Long House; so, too, is “unchanged,” that is, if you don’t count the electricity that was added only a few years ago.

There isn’t much to do at Long House. No nearby tennis courts or golf courses; the fishing in the lake isn’t great; cell phones don’t work up there. There is, however, an old pontoon barge tied up at the dock: on gentle evenings we fire up the finicky outboard and cruise around the lake (three miles long, a mile wide) at cocktail time, telling the same stories year after year after year.

There are several canoes and a couple of sun fish for sailing; swimming per se might best described as “refreshing.” But the birch trees along the shore rattle in the afternoon breeze, a pair of loons call to each other out in the lake at dusk, and the stars at night are bright as diamonds. If we’re really lucky, we can watch the pulsating lights of the aurora borealis dance across the northern sky.

It’s an odd band of brothers and, more recently, a few stalwart sisters who venture into the wild for a week at Long House every summer. Everyone except me is from Buffalo. (I was granted honorary membership into that august fraternity a long time ago when Peter, my prep school roommate and the leader of our little group, vouched for me.) Steve is our perennially luckless fisherman with a legendary tackle box; Mark, our indefatigable triathlete, arrives in camp with enough gear strapped to his car to stock a sporting goods store. Pim and Joey provide just enough distaff commentary to keep the male conversations reasonably honest, while Carleton skippers the barge overdressed in his habitual blue button-down shirt and khakis. Then there is “Second Peter,” an enthusiastic biker/paddler who will be bringing his new spouse to camp for the first time this year, brave on both ends. (My wife made the trek for a couple of years, but much to my regret and the other boys’ as well, she will be toasted this year in absentia due to duties at work.)

There was a time when I lashed my beautiful cedar and canvas canoe to the top of my car, stowed the dog and my duffle bag in the back, and made the fifteen hour trek up to Long House, singing “O Canada!” as I crossed the Peace Bridge. Now I fly to Buffalo and drive a few hours north with Pete. It’s the stuff of an old friendship, one that goes back more than fifty years to a time when we were boys and the world was our oyster. We’re no longer boys and there were never any oysters in Dotty Lake, but the quirky world up there is still ours and I cherish it.

Jamie Kirkpatrick

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

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