In July of 2019, I was in a rut. I had just put myself into considerable debt by earning a master’s degree, and apparently for nothing. It had now been seven months since graduation, and — despite multiple job interviews and promises of employment — I had been unable to secure anything more than seasonal work. I was a failure.
I yearned for a chance to clear my head and decide how to proceed, and I was hoping that a return trip to Lake Kipawa in rural Quebec would be what I required.
I first visited Lake Kipawa in 2007. I had just graduated high school, and my best friend invited me to accompany him to a fishing camp called Camp 3 Saisons/3 Seasons’ Camp. This was the most remote location I had ever been to, and it felt like paradise. Thus, 12 years later, I was certain that my second stay at 3 Seasons’ Camp would grant me the insight I needed to move forward.
I piled into a rented van on the morning of July 26 with my friend Paul — the same one who had brought me to Lake Kipawa before — his mother Doris, and their Bernese mountain dog, Mack. We departed from a city just west of Cleveland, drove east for several hours until we crossed into Canada via Buffalo, and then began an infuriatingly slow crawl through Ontario. The whole province seemed to be one giant traffic jam, and Mack was drooling on me constantly.
These were hardly the right conditions for a New Age breakthrough.
It took us nearly 12 hours, but we eventually reached the town of North Bay. Here we stayed the night, before crossing the Ottawa River into Quebec the next morning. We stopped in a sleepy town called Témiscamingue to buy our fishing licenses, then drove for a few more minutes before turning off the paved road and onto a rough, dirt track.
We followed this hilly route to a large clearing, where we parked our van and unloaded our bags. After a short wait, Reggie — the owner of 3 Seasons’ Camp — came gliding in on one of his covered boats.
Reggie had dark hair and a goatee that were just starting to turn grey. He was old friends with Doris and Paul, and they immediately began catching up. Doris asked Reggie if he remembered me; and, when he looked confused, I explained that I had not been to 3 Seasons’ Camp in 12 years. Reggie then quipped, “When you used to be good-looking?” This friendly banter continued all week.
Unfortunately, the skies threatened rain, so we could not tell jokes all day. We hastily loaded all of our items onto Reggie’s boat and sped off towards camp.
We reached our cabin, “Chalet 4,” by 2 PM. It consisted of one large living space, three bedrooms, and a rudimentary bathroom. It also featured a screened-in porch, which was the perfect place to sit and read. That is how I spent my first afternoon in camp.
The next day would be the start of our fishing extravaganza, along with my quest for enlightenment.
Doris, Paul, and I got up around 7 AM on July 28. All patrons of 3 Seasons’ Camp get a small motorboat to use during their stay, and we drove ours to an isolated cove in Lake Kipawa to fish. Doris hooked a small fish that got away, and I landed a tiny bass that I let go. Then, we were interrupted by a crisis: we became hungry.
We raced back to camp and made ourselves lunch before anyone got hurt. We took the afternoon off to process our near calamity, and then ventured out again in the evening.
This time we headed for a spot called Smith Bay, where Doris and Paul had caught many fish before. The location was so good that we convinced two of our neighbors to follow us, because we were sure to need multiple boats to transport our spoils.
We caught nothing. As twilight engulfed us, we hauled anchor and made for camp.
Along the way, I noticed that Lake Kipawa did not seem as magical as before. I remembered a vast, untamed wilderness, but I encountered a lake with frequent boat traffic that was rimmed with cottages. In fact, I was perceiving this section of Lake Kipawa more realistically.
Lake Kipawa lies in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of Quebec, which has a long history of human occupation and use. The Algonquin people have inhabited this area for centuries: hunting, fishing, raising families, and keeping their traditions alive. They still dwell along the shores of Lake Kipawa, and they have never revoked their claims to their ancestral lands.
When Europeans arrived, they changed the landscape more dramatically. They added two dams to Lake Kipawa, flooded it, and exploited the lake and surrounding area for logging. As Christina Moreau wrote in her undergraduate thesis — one of the few ecological studies on the lake — this lumbering is, “believed to have caused severe environmental damage.”
While logging occurs on a much smaller scale around Lake Kipawa today, a more pressing threat is that of mining. There are several mining claims in the vicinity of the lake, including Quebec Precious Metals’ (QPM) proposed rare-earth mine.
QPM is seeking a third party to partner with them on an open-pit mine near the shores of Lake Kipawa; they are after “rare earth” elements like lanthanum, lutetium, scandium and yttrium. The demand for these metals is skyrocketing, since they are used in cell phones, laptops, batteries, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and more.
Many residents around Lake Kipawa are worried about the environmental impacts of QPM’s proposed mine, as reflected in comments made for the lake’s 2014 Concerted Management Plan.
Some of those comments reflected anxieties about the potential for radioactive waste. Christina Moreau — who is now the co-chair of the Kipawa Lake Preservation Society — echoed those concerns in an email when she said, “rare earth elements are often found associated with radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium.” She also noted that, “processing to be done on site requires large quantities of toxic substances such as sulphuric acid, lime, and sodium carbonate.”
Had I known about this proposed mine while on Lake Kipawa, it would have seriously hampered my existential quest.
Still, as we zoomed back to our cabin from Smith Bay, I was becoming annoyed with Doris’ happiness. She insisted on stopping multiple times to take pictures of the sky, but I wanted to focus on our main task of returning to camp.
That boat ride began to feel like the previous three years of my life. I had been completely focused on accomplishing my goals, but I had gotten nowhere. I had become so angry, so fixated on what I did not have, that I could no longer see the simple joys around me.
That started to change the next day.
We spent the afternoon of July 29 in camp, so I returned to my reading spot on the porch. As Doris and Paul napped, the tranquility of Lake Kipawa began to affect me. It was deafeningly quiet: the only sounds were those of the gentle wind and the waves lapping against the shore.
That evening, I was able to add thunder and torrential rain to the Lake Kipawa soundtrack. A thunderstorm rolled through, leaving us with a brilliant sunset. The clouds looked as though they were on fire, and I joined the rest of the camp on the dock by Reggie’s house to admire them.
That was the first time I had stopped to look at a sunset in three years.
Two days later we still did not have any fish, nor did I know what to do with my life. I stayed up until after 11 that night, and right before bed Doris came to get me. Reggie had turned off the lights in camp, and the stars were amazing. I raced outside — hardly bothered by the hundreds of mosquitos — and tried desperately to take a picture of the night sky. I had no idea what I was doing, so I turned off my camera.
That is when I began to appreciate what I was seeing.
Never before had I beheld such a spectacular night sky: the Milky Way streamed from horizon to horizon, a satellite floated from right to left, and a blue meteor flashed across the sky.
It was only when I stopped trying to “get” something, in this case a photograph, that I noticed how awesome that moment was.
The next morning, August 1, I awoke to the sounds of the resident loons going crazy. It had gotten cold overnight, and now the lake was cloaked in fog. The cries of the loons, the ethereal fog, the cool air — that morning was so perfect that Doris, Paul, and I did not go fishing. We never got to experience mornings like this back home, and all we wanted to do was enjoy it.
We resumed fishing that evening. Paul and I elected to fish from our dock, which Reggie had been recommending all week.
We took full advantage of the comforts of our new fishing spot. I reclined on a lawn chair that I had moved to the end of our dock, while Paul sat on a cushioned seat in our boat — each of us with a glass of good bourbon. Neither Paul nor I managed to land any fish, but I did not care. I was no longer concerned with catching any “keepers,” nor was I waiting for a bolt of clarity to strike me in the head. I was in an amazing location with friends, and that was enough.
Our final morning in 3 Seasons’ Camp dawned overcast and cool. Reggie loaded us, two sets of our neighbors, and our luggage onto one of his boats, and then ferried us to our vehicles. We embarked on the long drive home after exchanging pleasant goodbyes, but Canada had two parting gifts for us.
First, a black bear raced across the road in front of us, apparently in no mood to be hit by a car. Second, shortly after we had crossed into Ontario from Quebec, we noticed a large coyote on the side of the road. It grew bigger as we approached it, until I realized that this was no coyote — it was a wolf.
I had dreamed of seeing a wild wolf since I was a toddler, and now one was standing mere feet from us, watching us drive by. It was as if Mother Nature herself had sent an emissary to say, “Good riddance, assholes.” The honor of being personally cussed out by Mother Nature left me feeling awestruck for at least the next 45 minutes, until we once again encountered the traffic of Ontario.
It was as if Mother Nature herself had sent an emissary to say, “Good riddance, assholes.”
In the end, I never found the insight I was looking for: I was still a miserable waste-of-talent who was destined to go to jail for being unable to repay his student loans. I even failed to catch any decent fish!
However, I did not return empty-handed. This trip helped me realize that sometimes, simply enjoying the moment is more rewarding than any prize, for which I will always be grateful to Lake Kipawa.