A Camping Trip Goes Wrong

Lessons learned from life-and-death mistakes we make outdoors can last a lifetime. Or at least 40 years.

In the summer of 1964 my friend David Pringle and I celebrated his graduation from high school and my successful completion of freshman-year college with a fishing and camping adventure to Canada.

The outfitter's brochure that came in the mail promised to fly us in to five days of incredible "speckled" (brook) trout fishing in Ontario's bush for the equally unbelievable fee of just $45 each. We picked dates, sent a deposit, and, on the appointed day in July aimed Dave's '57 pink Bonneville convertible north from our southern Michigan homes to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Flint's WTAC-AM radio station beamed a 300-mile range signal that helped us create a sonic wake of rock music as Dave drove the car up I-75. Turning the radio low, we sailed through Canadian Customs.

Next, we took on Queen's Highway 17, a wilderness road newly blasted from Canadian Shield bedrock that curves north and west like a rubber pencil around Lake Superior. Late in the afternoon we rolled through Wawa and 18 miles inland came to Hawk Junction, our departure point.

We checked in with the outfitter and arranged to leave the following morning, a Monday, at 7 o'clock. In our excitement we had forgotten to pack a tent. No problem. A good night's sleep in the Pontiac (Dave took the front seat; I had the back) had us ready for the 24-mile flight to Dosier Lake and the real beginning of our adventure.

Too Late to Turn Back

Signing a disclaimer from holding the outfitter responsible for accidents was a clue we should have heeded. The second hint we might have minded was the appearance and behavior of our pilot.

"Duke" (no last name) drove a rusted station wagon with no license plates. He hung on the open door a moment before stepping out and offering a handshake. It was later, in the close cockpit of the Cessna 172, that I smelled alcohol on his breath.

Of course, once you are in the air, it's too late to turn back.

Duke had a weird eye that fluttered crazily at times like a motor-driven camera lens. And his fondness for strong drink was confirmed when he downed three cans of Black Horse ale — a Canadian brew with a malt-liquor kick — on the half-hour flight. I can see him now, throwing back his head, chug-a-lugging the entire can, sliding open the cockpit window, and with a "Bombs Away," firing the empty at some unseen target in the blue-and-green maze far below.

I kept my eyes glued on the altimeter and prayed this was not the day I would die.

We touched down without incident, although I walked on legs as firm as tapioca for hours afterward. Once the drone of the departing Cessna grew faint, things began to look up.

We found our cabin, deserted by some luckless prospector years before. The leaky aluminum boat was seaworthy, provided we bailed the water from it each morning. There was no outboard motor, but we were young and strong and didn't mind rowing.

During the five-day adventure we saw moose tracks, laughed back at loons, and caught more than 300 brook trout up to 12 inches each. We kept enough for our meals, releasing all the others. Apparently the lunkers had all been caught years before. "June 1947, Billings caught 6 ½ lb. brookie" someone had etched with a jackknife into a log of the cabin wall.

Hungrier Than Ever Before

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