The day I left Lake Superior it snowed out of a clear blue sky. Great clouds of steam rose off the lake. A falcon devoured a crow, scattering feathers. A fine russet fox trotted down the trail ahead of me. Ten feet from my cabin, a bear answered a burning question with a large pile of scat, sprinkled with mountain ash berries like a Christmas dessert. The snowshoe hares wore new dots of white on their foreheads. For the first time ever, I cried leaving a place, not people.
The park staff welcome 30,000 tourists a year, most of whom arrive with plenty of gear. That’s why I got nervous when Ranger Tim’s overloaded trailer was enough of an attraction to draw hoots and snapshots from the remaining staff. I’d spent two days helping to pack it, but I’m slow to diagnose eccentricity unless others point it out, and it was now too late to back out of this freak-show jalopy. Tim guided the photographers around the special features: the outboard engine roped and clamped to the side, the ten-speed tied to the back, the jonboat ingeniously nesting inside the 14-footer, the stove ingeniously nesting inside the jonboat…
Eventually we said fond goodbyes and I wedged myself into the passenger seat among boxes of CDs, pillows, laptops, snacks, and extra clothes, grateful it wasn’t snowing inside. We waved at the lake while Tim drove around the turning circle, revving for a climb up the gravel hill. There was Beth waving halfway up; we stopped to say goodbye. Bad idea. The wheels spun and spat gravel but could not persuade the trailer uphill without momentum. Sheepishly, we enlisted the little crowd to push.
I named the trailer Juanita, after the patient but unpredictable brown mule that walked the length of Peru with travel writer Dervla Murphy. Our Juanita had an alarming tendency to swing like a pendulum when a roadbump or a gust caught her: unchecked, the waves would oscillate larger and larger and threaten to flip the car into the ditch. The first time it happened, we wobbled first into the middle lane and then right over to the side. For lack of a better idea, I shut my eyes and pretended it wasn’t happening. The second time the tires screeched and I thought, quite seriously, that at least my last summer was a good one. Tim soon learned to control the wobbles by driving very slowly and not braking, but it was already four o’clock in the afternoon and he didn’t feel like wrangling Juanita on little sleep. We begged shelter for the night at Ranger Rick’s place in Sault Sainte Marie, just an hour and a half down the road. _Ocean’s Eleven_ and rye seemed the better part of valour.
This just in: Canada is very large and very empty. (Though not yet very cold, praise be.) We drove for twelve hours the next day and didn’t even touch either end of Ontario. To compare, it takes eight hours to drive the length of France. Tiny Ireland is three hours left to right and five top to bottom, and it might take half that if the country had a decent road. We drove through hundreds of miles of fall-bright hardwoods, punctuated by Tim Horton’s donut shops. We drove through small, resonant towns: Blind River, the “town in North Ontario” that Neil Young warbles about in “Helpless”. Deep River, the hometown of Naomi Watts’s character in _Mulholland Drive_ . Petawawa, the military base of the two Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan that day.
I refuelled on truck-stop _poutine_ (fries with cheese curds and gravy), a Québec special. 400 grams of fat can’t help tasting good. Poutine, it turns out, is very close to the Cheese Chip that Friar Tuck’s used to serve up in Limerick while we watched the Saturday night fights on the steps of the Redemptorist Fathers.
Juanita behaved, mostly. I learned to let go of the passenger door and enjoy the ride. After a while, we even got used to her shimmies.
“Hey, Juanita likes Texas boogie. She’s shaking her booty.”
It was late when we got to her last stop, Fitzroy Harbour on the Ottawa River. Tim has a cottage on an island in the river, and Juanita was to rest at the government dock overnight before being unloaded by canoe the next day. But he couldn’t get the towbar off the trailer hitch; the ball was too tight to lever off under the weight of the load. So he unclipped the trailer hitch altogether. Juanita was delighted with her new freedom and rolled steadily downhill towards the river. Tim scrambled, but she was far too heavy to haul to a stop, and seemingly determined to have a swim. Two feet from the bank, our pride was saved when a small upturned boat checked her ambition.