Baptiste Lamarche sat on an old dock on the edge of the small lake. It was late October 1927 and this was Baptiste’s birthday; he turned 90 today.
Baptiste still lived in the cabin he built so many years back, on the farm he owned in Grenville Township – nestled into the mountains with rocky hills to the north and gently sloping fields in the other three directions. There were trees all around Baptiste’s farm with a long laneway that led to the Brown-Bennett Road.
Where he sat was on a dock set to run out into that lake of about 20 acres. Not really a lake, it is a depression in the mountain rock which at some point long ago had been flooded by a beaver’s dam at a bend in the Calumet River. The lake is spring-fed and touched the river by a narrow shallow channel. The beavers have long since disappeared but they left their handiwork behind.
So Baptiste sat on a chair made by hand in the late autumn sunshine on the edge of what he had always called “the lake” and looked around. He did not see as clearly as he used to, but he knew all the details of all the fields and hills and the lake.
Even if he could not see it from where he sat, Baptiste Lamarche knew every twist and turn and ripple in the Calumet River; from his farm down to where that stream tumbles over the mountain’s edge in long cataracts before ending at the Ottawa River.
He and his wife of 69 years, Adeline, had lived on this farm almost their whole lives. They raised their three children in the cabin which Baptiste built, not far from the edge of the lake. A smile crossed his lips as he saw in this mind his children as youngsters running over the green space between the dock and their cabin .
Baptiste gazed over the meadows to the woods beyond, although what he saw, other eyes might not have seen. He lived alone now that Adeline was gone. She had left him two years past on a lovely spring day. Their old dog, Bijou, had followed her, and had gone away this spring. So now, Baptiste Lamarche was the last to sit by the lake.
Reality showed the old farm had seen no repair in a long time. What once were ploughed and planted fields were now growing weeds and brush, though all lay brown in the autumn sun. His cabin sagged a bit and the door needed a lift to close tight. But that was not what Baptiste saw as he sat there.
Truth was Baptiste Lamarche was seeing some things now which were not visible to other eyes. Since Adeline went away, he sometimes spoke as if to her and sometimes she answered.
Baptiste and Adeline had three children together. Their two girls moved away from the farm almost as soon as they had finished school. They both married and had children.
Chantal, their oldest, lived her life just outside Lachute. Her husband was a white-collar worker; he wore a suit and tie to an office and used to get itchy when he came to the farm. Both Chantal and George were gone now too and he rarely saw his two grandchildren. But they were adults now.
Henrietta, their second child, stayed around longer than Chantal. She also found a husband – a good man. Henrietta moved all the way to Rockport, Massachusetts with Howard St. George.
Baptiste and Adeline went to visit her twice and over the years Henrietta came north to the farm to visit her mother and father quite often. Baptiste had not seen her in a long time now, though letters arrived once and awhile.
Marcel was their third child. He looked like Baptiste; tall and big-boned, heavily muscled with black hair and dark blue eyes. Marcel had taken an interest in farming. After he finished school, Marcel stayed with Baptiste and Adeline. He had persuaded Baptiste to buy his first mowing machine, then a mill to sort seeds.
With Marcel’s help, Baptiste opened some new land and pushed the forests back a little more. Later, Marcel married Isabelle Plouffe and lived in a rented house not far down the road from Baptiste’s laneway. They had plans of building a new brick house on the farm one day.
Adeline and Baptiste used to sit and talk sometimes, about how Marcel was a natural farmer. He genuinely enjoyed the daily nonstop labour and the land and herds showed his enthusiasm; Marcel should be the one to inherit the farm. He and Isabelle made a fine couple and even though they had no children they ran a lively household.
Baptiste adjusted his seat in the chair and floated in times gone by.
He and Marcel had ideas of purchasing another farm and he even thought of some beef cows for a while. But then one white birch tree split at the wrong time and in the wrong place and before Baptiste even saw what happened, Marcel was gone.
It all took place so quickly; one moment he and Marcel were felling a birch in the winter time for next year’s firewood. Then on an axe stroke and in the wink of an eye, the tree split and kicked back and Marcel was dead.
Instead of a load of firewood, Baptiste Lamarche that day brought the sleigh to the cabin carrying the body of his son. Strangely, there had been not a mark on Marcel. The doctor who saw the body he said the tree hit so hard in the centre of the chest that Marcel’s heart stopped.
That, too, was long ago.
This day was one of those rare, warm late fall days, long after the leaves have fallen and turned brown. The low sun felt strong and no breeze moved the air or rippled the lake; the sky a light blue. The odd wasp buzzed around Baptiste as he sat and looked over the place he called home.
He was 90 now: an old man. He still had the strong frame and his arms were sinewy but the days of being able to run a farm were gone. When Adeline was here he had always seemed to know what to do, and how to get ready for winter.
This year was not the same. The only firewood left in his pile was that left over from last. He was almost out of flour and needed some more canned goods. He just had not bothered to ask young Jimmy Cowen to pick up supplies last time he came by. Joe Mallette had offered to do his wood earlier, but Baptiste had said to wait and see what the year would bring. It had brought him to here and today.
There were many good neighbours now near Baptiste Lamarche’s farm. Not like when he first built the cabin. The Cowen and Mallette families were close; James McCarty lived just to the west. Francois Laframboise had a fine farm to the north and of those, some stopped regularly to make sure Baptiste was alright. He was, and today he felt no need for company. He was content to sit here by the lake in the warm sun and look around.
If someone had asked Baptiste, and he answered honestly, he was not alone. As he sat there, Baptiste saw his days going backwards. There was not much to look forward to. He knew in his bones that this was probably the last of the warmth for this year; the season was changing. But he had a lot to look back on. His children were playing somewhere, and Adeline was doing her things around the cabin.
He had first come to this place when he just a boy, 1855 if he remembered correctly. Back then, there were no neighbours and no roads like today. When Baptiste Lamarche bought his farm, everything around was covered in trees, except for the lake. Beavers lived there then along the edges and Baptiste let them be. The lake was deep and with enough flow that they did not foul the water. And Adeline loved them from the first time they slapped a tail at her.
Baptiste’s eyes went to the browned-over fields. When he first came up the Calumet River in his canoe, he had pulled into the lake to catch some trout. That was a beautiful day also, but in the spring when the forests were green with the new leaves, and the air smelled like pine and cedar with the sun’s heat.
Baptiste got up and stretched out the kinks. He stood six-foot-two; he had been taller back then. His hair still held some blackness though it was thin and missing on the top.
He had returned, after finding the farm that day, with an axe and a shovel and a body brimming with enthusiasm and strength.
All that he could see around him started with a single axe swipe. But had he laboured. He girdled giant trees so they died standing then felled them one into the other; piled brush under and started a fire. Baptiste remembered the fires he made, and how he worked to clear what was left and wrestle the stumps from the ground.
Never had he questioned that he could or would clean the land. The ground was black and fertile and the mountains to the north gave shelter. He held boundless confidence then, for he had wanted to marry Adeline from the first time he saw her and he needed a place for them to live before he could ask for her hand.
For a moment, Baptiste’s muscles held that old strength as he walked off the dock towards the cabin. In his mind he was felling ancient cedar trees, squaring them, then hoisting one on top of the other to make the structure. The windows he had hauled all the way up from Calumet, as with the nails and hinges and stove.
As he walked along the path to his cabin, Baptiste was aware that probably tomorrow the frost would set in hard. Something had to change, for he was not at all prepared for winter in the mountains.
Baptiste knew winter. Before he owned the farm he had passed winter nights dug into a snowdrift like a partridge. Lain by a campfire at forty below where one side of his body steamed while the other froze solid. Those days were long gone, too.
What tomorrow and the hard frosts and snowdrifts would bring this winter, Baptiste could not predict. But it was today with the warm sun and the blue sky and the lake. ‘Let the troubles of the day be suffice’, he had been instructed and it was good advice. Now was not the time to change.
A bit of a dizzy spell came over him and he bent over to put his hands on his knees and catch his balance. He felt Adeline’s presence beside him helping him straighten up and patting his back.
“Thank you, Adeline, and isn’t it a lovely day.”
“Yes it is, Baptiste. One of the last, I think,” Adeline answered back. Baptiste agreed and she stayed by him until the spell had disappeared.
Baptiste took another look around his farm then back towards the lake and his dock. He had built a lean-to there a long time before he built the wooden ramp out into the lake. It was made so that a roof covered a space of about 14 feet wide by ten on the slope. It had worked well all these years, keeping the snow and rains off whatever he stored under. For almost all its years by the lake, the roof had sheltered Baptiste Lamarche’s birch bark canoe.
He had built that too, after spending a winter in a Seneca village. There he watched and worked with his friends while a canoe was made. The next winter he made this one and it was still here; under that roof.
He felt strong again and he thanked Adeline once more. He saw the three children chasing each other under the apple trees and all felt good.
Baptiste Lamarche walked over to the lean-to and looked at the canoe lying on a frame, bottom side up. He felt his 90 years as the wasps felt the late autumn sun. For moments they buzzed as if early June, only to sit lazily in a shadow a moment later.
Baptiste was in the sun now as he ran his hand over the smooth bark surface and remembered the tree from which he had stripped that bark. The canoe was not heavy, in relation to what Baptiste carried most of his life, so he used movements which seemed instinct and flipped the canoe onto the ground right side up.
Baptiste looked into the canoe as Adeline stood beside him. It was made with a frame of shaved and curved cedar ribbing held together with the tough sinew root threads of elm tree roots. Over that, the bark of one huge birch tree had been stretched, inside out, to cover from one end to the other. The edges were framed from cedar also, as were the seat frames which each had a seat knit with catgut.
Where the front ends of the bark came together were stout pieces of curved ironwood as a bow. The back was similar except that piece which covered the joint arched a bit lower than the front. All the points where the bark was stitched to the frame were patched over with pine pitch.
Over the years and all the rocks and portages the old canoe had crossed, damage had been done to the bark skin and these, too, were covered in pitch. It still looked the same as the last time it was stored away.
That was the fall after Marcel had died. Baptiste and Adeline had paddled the canoe across the lake and onto the Calumet River. They floated downstream that day, the canoe needing only a touch of a paddle here and there during that sad trip. To where the river widens out suddenly, then runs shallow, almost dead calm in a pool before dropping off, they had floated quietly; remembering Marcel and how he loved to stand right at the very edge of the waterfall and look out over the horizon to the south.
Even though the river drops more than 100 feet, there is little noise; the water touches rock only far below. A trail exists alongside the waterfall, leading up all that height, winding side to side from the level of the Ottawa River to the very top of the Calumet Mountain.
They took one of Marcel’s most precious items of life, a delicately-made doeskin bag amulet with a few omens in it, to the highest place and threw it over the waterfall so the pouch fell into the falling river to be lost in the mists below.
Baptiste was remembering these things, and again as if moved by nature, he slid the canoe out onto the dock and let it slip into the water. It floated light as a leaf and laid there with no tether.
“Want to come for a ride?” Baptiste asked Adeline.
“A paddle around the lake before the ice sets in, wife? What do you think?”
“Not right now, Baptiste.” Adeline replied.
“It is the perfect day to gather in the ginseng roots from over under the maples. Keep you strong, Baptiste.” Adeline smiled and thought for a moment.
“You go, Baptiste. I’ll walk over and gather the roots. By the time you have made a round, I should be done. When my work is finished, I can meet you on the other side, and you can give me a ride home. What do you think, Baptiste?”
The lake shimmered smooth as glass and probably tomorrow morning it would be iced over, and she agreed that it was a lovely afternoon for a ride.
“Ah, Adeline,” Baptiste said. “You always know how to make things work out, don’t you? I think I’ll take the old canoe for one last time, and see you on the other side.”
Baptiste stooped over and put one foot in the canoe and it stayed firm so he put the other in and bent to sit on the seat. He first sat the way he did when he was a young man, on the gut mesh with his feet pressed against the outer bottom ribs and his knees tight together.
The old joints did not like that position so he adjusted his legs straight out. That was good but today he felt the need of a back rest so he just slid till he rested on the bottom of the canoe, legs stretched out and his back against the seat.
Baptiste sat there for some moments then gathered up his maple-wood paddle. Adeline had carved this one for him as a Christmas gift and it was perfectly balanced. Its paddle end showed wear where it had bumped rocks and the shaft and grip were worn to fit his hand. It felt natural for Baptiste to dip it into the water and give a tug.
The old canoe sat light in the water but barely moved with Baptiste’s effort. So Baptiste dipped once more and pulled harder. The water just off the dock had grown some weed and that held the canoe, but on Baptiste’s third try, the canoe set to motion and glided slowly out into the lake.
Baptiste relaxed against the seat and felt the slow movement.
“You old canoe.” Baptiste spoke to the canoe for he had done that a lot over all the time he had sat in that seat.
“You are slow today, my friend. I remember when you used to move through though lily pads like a pike in the shallows.”
Baptiste gave another stroke of the paddle and the canoe moved a little quicker as it cleared free of the weeds.
“What’s with you, canoe?” Baptiste asked. “Why you not want to go quick today? My old friend.”
This day the canoe spoke back and it spoke in a voice that sort of reminded Baptiste of wind in the leaves of a poplar tree.
“Baptiste, my maker. You do not push like you once did. I remember how your arms could drive me up a rapids. There is no rush today, Baptiste. This is our last ride.”
Baptiste took another stroke and the canoe moved faster a bit, out into the blue flat water. He looked over his workmanship from so many years ago.
“You still float well, canoe, and you look as you always did,” Baptiste said and the canoe answered back in its whispering voice.
“You built me such, Baptiste, to last and to do that for which I was created. As our creator made you.”
Baptiste pondered this while he pulled lightly and the canoe moved on.
“Not quite our last ride, canoe. We still have to pick up Adeline on the other side.”
The canoe did not respond.
They floated out to the centre of the lake and the slight current naturally took the craft slowly from there towards the channel which leads to the Calumet River. It was about dinner-time but Baptiste was not hungry and had no thought of a clock.
He ran his weathered and work-hardened hand over the smooth outer side of the birch bark canoe and the canoe spoke to him.
“Do you remember the day you cut me, Baptiste? I was a tree and had watched the seasons go by and knew nothing else until you saw me and I saw you.” Baptiste did but he remained quiet.
“I died as a tree that day, Baptiste. But I was reborn. You took my skin and stretched it over ribs of cedar. You held all together with the root of the elm and gave me life with the blood of the pine. I died as a tree and was reborn as a canoe. I believe it is greater to be a canoe than a tree. I have seen both sides”
“I was born a man, canoe.” Baptiste replied, and canoe agreed but said nothing.
They floated together as they had over endless miles of water and Baptiste remembered once when they crossed Lake Superior and for two days he saw no land, nothing but water. As they moved through the channel and into the smooth flowing Calumet River, Baptiste asked the canoe a question.
“Do you remember the great lake, canoe? How there was nothing but you and I and the long rough rollers? I was afraid sometimes but you got me across.”
“It was your faith that got us across, Baptiste,” Canoe replied.
They drifted down the river.
Earlier in the year, the Calumet River would have been canopied with tree leaves and in mostly in shadow. It is a small river which flows strong in the spring and sometimes freezes almost solid in the winter. There are no rapids to speak of between Baptiste’s farm and the top of the Calumet Mountain.
Certainly nothing to concern Baptiste and the old canoe.
“We can’t go too far, canoe,” Baptiste said. “We have to pick up Adeline. She will be done her chores soon. Don’t want to keep her waiting, do we canoe?”
“I know where she waits, Baptiste. We still have a bit of time,” canoe spoke with its wind voice. They floated.
The river was dappled with the shadows of bare branches blocking the mid afternoon sun; the river held enough water to float the light craft and cover the rocks in the slight ripples of Calumet River.
“Do you remember how we brought Adeline up the river for the first time, canoe?” Baptiste asked.
“She was as fair as you were strong, Baptiste. I remember well. Just after the big float of canoes down through the Long Sault and she was so lovely. I remember that day well.” The canoe spoke and Baptiste just went with the memories.
“You had her in my bow seat, Baptiste, and I was proud to be a part of that joining of the canoes. There were many like me that day, and one great one, longer than four of I, with a great lady in the centre. But she paled compared to Adeline.”
“Yes, canoe. She was lovely that day with her curly hair the colour of a robin’s breast, and eyes that sparkled like sun on tiny waves. I was proud of you, Canoe. We sat together, you, me and Adeline at the bottom of this river below the falls and I asked her if she would marry me. It took more courage to speak those words than to paddle out onto that great lake, but when I did she said yes.”
Baptiste pondered for a few moments and continued. “You are right, canoe. There were many like you back then. I believe you are the last of your kind.”
Canoe agreed and they floated.
The birch bark canoe moved quicker for a bit. It slid down some slight rapids and slipped under the bridge at the Brown Bennett Road, then slowed as it went around a bend.
The wind whisper voice of the canoe spoke again.
“Remember how many times we went up and down this river, Baptiste, while Adeline made the home?”
“I do, canoe. I would leave you at the top of the falls and walk the trail down to Calumet to get what she needed to put it together. Then you would bring me back to her. How many times, canoe? How many times?
“Remember when Adeline made her brooms and spoons from ash wood. We took them, you and me, canoe, down this river. I would carry you and her brooms down the rocks beside the falls to the Ottawa.”
“Yes, Baptiste. Then I would carry you across the river and to the town where people waited for her brooms.” The voice fell silent and they floated.
The Calumet River flows only about twenty feet wide below the bridge at the Brown Bennett Road and without rapids, through forests and open fields. It takes twists and turns and flows straight for stretches. Over this water Baptiste floated, needing nothing more than to drag his paddle to stay within the banks.
While they floated on water, both canoe and man floated in consciousness; for one had been, and the other about to become. Baptiste’s mind moved over his years like his canoe moved on the river.
He saw Adeline as a young woman, flashing blue eyes and flaming red hair, stuffing moss between the timbers of their cabin and for a moment she was turning and smiling at him; hands dusty with oakum as she took his face and kissed him.
Then she was baking the first loaf of bread in the stove he had laboured so hard to get up that trail by the falls.
The canoe floated into an open space as Baptiste remembered when their first child Chantal had been born, with no help but from him. How he and canoe had hurried along this river the first time he had to leave Adeline and Chantal alone at the farm.
But Adeline was so strong. She hardly slowed down and that summer, the three laughed in the canoe on the lake on a lovely sunny day.
When Henrietta was born, Mrs. Mallette was there to help with delivery. Baptiste had passed nervous hours outside the cabin while she stayed inside with Adeline. He spent that time spreading some pine pitch on a repair to the canoe, making a mess with his efforts.
Canoe remembered that day well.
The sun was getting lower in the sky now, still not a breath of wind – but a chill when they passed through shadows, moving slowly but certainly forward.
Marcel had been born in the cabin also, though for his birth Baptiste was not nearly so nervous. By then the farm was cleared to about 50 acres and he had a horse and cows and chickens and pigs. Marcel grew strong quickly and pretty well as soon as he could walk, he was pestering the rooster or out in the calf pen.
Canoe did not get used much by that time. Chantal and Henrietta floated in it on the lake when the water was calm and warm. Marcel played with it on the lake and now and then on the Calumet River. But mostly, it sat by the dock or under the lean-to; until it was hauled down for that ride to take Marcel’s memories and toss them into the mists.
Canoe remembered that ride, too, as they went from sun to shadow. The wind spoke.
“Marcel was not sad that day. I cried with you and Adeline for your sorrows, Baptiste. Though you were so sad you heard me not.
“When you and Adeline pushed me back up this river that day, it was not the fall currents that made me heavy, it was our hearts.”
They both remembered an early autumn afternoon when the leaves were in colour, though the world was black and white.
If anybody would have been watching, this late October afternoon, they would have seen an old man slouched in an ancient birch bark canoe floating along the Calumet River on the quiet steady stream.
He and the canoe were about a mile from where the little river widens into a quiet pond before passing through a gap in the rock. There it tumbles almost vertical in one splendid waterfall all the way down to the level of the Ottawa River from the top of the mountain behind Calumet.
No one was there to see and they floated.
They passed beneath the shade of some pines and a chill brought Baptiste’s thoughts to the coming winter.
“Winter is almost here, canoe. Soon, you will go back to your shelter.” Baptiste pondered for a moment.
“I don’t know what I will do this winter, Canoe. My woodshed is almost empty and I’m nearly out of beans.”
Canoe remained silent while Baptiste considered.
“I am old, Canoe, and I think I cannot make another winter. What happens?”
Baptiste slouched lower in the craft as the weight of years came on him. He let the paddle slip out of his hands, although he was not aware of that.
They were passing through mixed sunlight and shadows, the sun losing its heat as it lowered in the sky; the water calm and steady. The wind voice of the canoe spoke again.
“My maker, I was a tree and for a time I believed I would always be a tree. Where I stood and watched the seasons pass was my world. I saw spring flowers bloom and winter snows fly, as have you.
“My seed spread, as has yours. I, too, was feeling the weakness of a body. My leaves were sparse, and small trees grew around.
“Then you appeared to me, my maker, and gave me new life and my worries turned to joy. It is greater to be a canoe than a tree. I could not have known such save for you.”
They were both silent and there was no sound except for birdsong in some pine trees as they turned the last bend where the river widens out and loses its current. The sun was low in the southwest sky making the open flat water reflect its rays.
For Baptiste, the wind was whispering through poplar leaves and the words were clear.
“When we were on that great water, Baptiste, faith took us to the other side though for a time we saw not either shore; if not for faith we would surely have been lost.
“You loved me as I loved you all these years, Baptiste. And you love Adeline as you do your children and the farm; and me. Love is what put strength in your body. Love is what made your children and me and all we have seen in our travels.
“Adeline’s love for you is boundless, Baptiste, and now it is time to find her. We will ride home together.”
Baptiste looked out over the pool as it reflected the setting sun’s colours and for a moment it blinded him.
“Where is she, canoe? I cannot see.”
“She waits for us, Baptiste, by the shore. She gets in now.” The canoe bumped against some stones at the edge of the pool as the slight current carried it.
Adeline stepped lightly into the front and sat facing Baptiste so she blocked the strong sun and Baptiste could see her clearly now, outlined by the glowing sky.
“Husband,” Adeline said.
“Right on time, and isn’t it a lovely day for a canoe ride. Our last for this season, maybe.”
Adeline smiled one of those lovely smiles which had inspired Baptiste since the first time he saw her so many seasons past.
She leaned forward and kissed him sweetly on the lips just as the canoe went over the edge to disappear in the mist below.