Kenauk 2012

The best place on earth
(worth noting that this is a somewhat ‘manipulated’ image … but you will get the feeling for the place)

Anyone familiar with my jottings will be only too well aware, and possibly somewhat bored with mentions of our annual September visits to a remarkable place called Kenauk. For the rest of my readers, here’s the chance to get up to speed.

I was fifty during our first year living in Canada and wanted to celebrate it by fly-fishing for some Canadian trout. A good idea, but where to go? After searching about we discovered that handily half way between Montreal and Ottawa is a big lake with cabins and fishing – Kenauk on Lac Papineau. What we had failed to take on board was that this little bit of wilderness is part of the Fairmont Hotels group … That is to say, it is owned by the people who,own places like The Savoy in London. Roosevelt and Churchill fished at Kenauk. Classy place, rather expensive but what the heck – you’re only fifty once. The trouble is that this place is really a bit out of our normal league – but it is worth every cent. Why? Read on

We have been visiting Kenauk for fifteen years now. We always stay in Chalet Hidden which is at the foot of a small waterfall on a “hidden” lake off the main big lake and approached through a narrow channel. The cabin is comfortable but its location is stunning. Forest, bears, birds, beavers and more beavers. We get a motorboat and several canoes with the rental and … and there is nowhere else like it on earth. Even after retirement (next year) We will continue to find the money to keep coming here somehow just because it is so unique. This is the Canada that people cross the world to see and very much a part of the reason why we have no intention of returning to live in England, fine place that it is in its own way. This area of Quebec is full of lakes with cottages and in almost every case they are hugger-mugger with the neighbours but at Kenauk you don’t know there are neighbours. We don’t simply get a couple of hundred feet of shoreline, we get a huge bay all to ourselves along with its beavers and birds and wolves and bears and Ospreys and other wildlife.

Did I mention the morning mists and the stars? Undoubtedly I shall.

So. Year fifteen at Kenauk. 2012.

Sunday 9 September

Cloudy with some sunshine and about 17degC – yesterday was very wet and stormy. Dry, moderate wind.

Arrived as usual mid afternoon and motored up the lake to Hidden Chalet with 24 bottles of beer, 10 of wine, one each of gin, Glenmorangie and Canadian “Black Whiskey”. Settled in.

Dusk canoe tour around the Hidden Lake found four (yes four) Beavers … The fourth being one that came round the point on which the cabin sits while we were enjoying the first pre-prandial drinks by the warming fire pit. There are several obviously active beaver lodges within a short distance and notably more water lilies etc than last year.

Ratatouille and sausage pasta dinner with a bottle of VQA Pelee Island Cabernet Franc wine. Canadian wine by a Canadian lake in a Canadian forest. Life is good, you know. To quote George Borrow (1851):

“There’s night and day, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?”

Eleven pm … a small white-footed mouse ran around the living room, retreating into the heating furnace before trying again to see if we had gone to bed. What was he after?

The day’s birds included Great Blue Heron, Northern Flickers, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadees, Canada Geese, Blue-winged Teal, Wood Duck, Ring-billed Gull.

The local wildlife came out to greet us, this guy was wandering the BBQ and relatives were later found on the trails – probably Halysidota tesselaris, the Pale or Banded Tussock Moth caterpillar


The first of many eager evening beavers

Monday 10 September

The books of my youth used to write about being “up betimes” and so I was up betimes. Some days there is a thick mist on the lake but this morning I had to make do with warm morning light instead. Plenty of opportunities for playing with HDR techniques of photography … but no computer to process the files and no electricity to keep it up to the job were one to have been handy. This is hard and so to tea, toast and thoughts of the sort of breakfast that involves bacon, eggs, fried bread and coffee.

Behind the chalet is a small stream falling down a series of low falls and into the lake. It is always worth taking a walk alongside this as by the time September comes around the forest floor here is replete with many, many species of fungi and littered with fallen and rotting trees that house even more. Lots of scope for the traveling photographer to get down on his knees to catch that optimum close-up of fungal fruiting bodies … and then to be quite unable, after the twentieth species, to rise to his feet again. Such are the trials of the botanist’s recording assistant.

At this point the day turns out to be cool and fresh but with a decidedly chill northerly wind creating a lot of ripple on the lake. When the sun appears it is warm.

As a consequence of the lack of electric power to recharge the iPad batteries, for the first time in many months the e-reader has had to be put aside (half way through a very tense who-dunnit, too) and a printed book was reluctantly purchased. Just not as pleasant or as convenient I find these days but nevertheless, an excellent book indeed that I heartily recommend – The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton 2012. I had feared it might be heavy going but it’s a fascinating read about old tracks and “the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move”.

Lunch led to the party being persuaded that a visit to Lac de la Montagne was in order. This is an interesting backwoods lake that is stocked with trout for the fishing but which we have twice discover has a population of fresh-water jellyfish. Truly, there is a species of such and it’s not at all common. You have to be there the week that the medusa stage appears and it doesn’t do that every year – other stages lurk on the bottom and hide from fish. The medusae are about the size of a dollar coin and translucent white.

More excitingly, however, was the incident that occurred as we were getting into the rowing boat. The intention being to row to the other end of the lake to check on the mossy picnic table, a very photographic remnant of the past which s gradually disappearing not the land. J gets in boat, R swings camera bag across to her and … knocks the tripod into the water wherein it rapidly sinks. This is the new, carbon fibre, $650 tripod, not any old bit of aluminium piping but it sank just as fast as if it were. Bummer. Manfully, if a lady can do things manfully, J leaps out of the boat and offers to strip off and go in after it. Fortunately, however, closer inspection revealed that the tripod was not too deep and R, being a gentleman and somewhat embarrassed, was able to stretch in and just take hold of it. The day was saved … and at the other end of the lake, The mossy table was waiting.

Just before seven pm one of the beavers came for his nightly swim in front of the dock and was captured albeit at a distance, on video. Five and a half minutes of swimming beaver will soon go viral on YouTube to the delight of the world – a least it isn’t cute kittens.

A disassembled chicken, barbecued to perfection (one is surprisingly good at this) with jacket potatoes and green beans with a roasted tomato and garlic sauce supported by a 2006 Rioja rounded off the evening.

Birds of the day were few (possibly because of the intense focus being paid to low-growing plants – that’s, we were not looking as hard as usual), but included the ubiquitous Blue Jay and Chickadees, a vocal Common Raven, Veery, a Belted Kingfisher and a splendid Northern Parula. Around six, tying up the boat at the dock, two beautiful male Wood Duck flew down the channel not fifty feet away, the low evening sun lit up their colours beautifully.

The view into Lac Hidden from the chalet dock

At top end of one of the backwoods fishing lakes (Lac de la montagne) is this wonderfully decaying picnic table. We row up there every visit to see how it is developing.

Tuesday 11 September

As the early morning mist lifted from the lake we we’re intrigued to see columns of will-of-the-whisp mist remnants rising from the water surface and swirling away. Very still water with just a light breeze and a blue sky with plenty of heat in the sun. An ideal September day, in fact.

Our flotilla of kayaks was launched and dispersed around the bays and crannies of the lakeshore checking out the things that took the attention of their respective crews. It’s an awful cliché, but Ratty had it about right:

“There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats”.

At the far end of the bay is a series of channels between small islands of just a few muddy square feet in area. In previous years we have been able to explore these more or less at will, but this summer a new beaver lodge has been built and the residents have re-engineered the channels such that one small islet that holds a splendid collection of Sarracenia (ie: pitcher plants) is no longer closely approachable, though the plants are still there.

After luncheon and another chapter of “The Old Ways” the botanical surveyors set off into the forest again to digitally capture some further interesting specimens. These included two shades of pink Milkweed and a black or dark brown relative of Indian Pipes. Accurate ID will be done back at base. Stumping Long on the rear, laden with unwieldy collecting equipment, the photographer muttered darkly about the original Victorian botanists having bearers to hump the equipment and then realised that this party actually had a bearer and he was it … at least, he surmised, he wasn’t the tea-wallah.

There were ’odes’ a plenty along the stream and in the forest clearings. Back at base camp, a small ode with a scarlet abdomen decided that the sunny pages of my book were just the place to rest awhile and seemed to be quite unconcerned by having his tail lifted an inch in the air, just sitting there and letting me do it.

Tea and fruit cake.

A pre-drinks and dinner outing in the canoe for a change (at some point I shall have to talk about kayaks and canoes, but not now) led to drinks and then another close encounter with the beaver kind. One of them did his evening territorial patrol within a couple of feet of the dock and has been immortalized on video. Soon to be released for public viewing.

Canoes and kayaks – what the heck, let’s talk about them. Canoes are what I called Canadian Canoes when I loved in England and are propelled by a single bladed paddle while kayaks are kayaks and use a double bladed paddle. There is no doubt that the kayak is the most efficient vessel and skims along merrily with very little effort and we certainly spend more time in ours than in our canoe. On the other hand, canoes are traditional and simply seem “righter” on Canadian waters. Kayaks suffer from being harder to get into without tipping while canoes need a lot more skill to steer and certainly use more muscle power to propel along. Horses for courses – kayaks for the day’s serious expeditions and canoes for supper time trips to visit the beavers.

The days birds included: Common Loon, Blue Jay, black-capped Chickadee, Pileated Woodpecker, Black and White Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Red-shouldered Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Common Raven, Wood Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Flicker.

The waterfall behind the chalet empties into the main lake

Exploring energetically

Wednesday 12 September

Today a chap is 64, with less than a year to go until retirement. How did that happen? It’s not that we don’t enjoy our profession and are particularly desperate to escape, and we certainly enjoy having a regular and healthy pay cheque but we are indubitably looking forward to being able to wear check shirts seven days a week instead of just at weekends. But enough of that …

Yet another gorgeously sunny and not too warm, not too cool day with a light southerly breeze. Things started by feeding small bread balls to the school of bluegills and junior bass that live under the dock. Why have I wasted all these years fishing with complicated dry flies and nymphs when all they want is a soggy ball of bread dough? Very gratifying effect.

Traditional annual fry-up breakfast with ’the works’ … once a year is undoubtedly once too often from a health point of view, but who cares.

Then a Loon came looking for fish. Few birds are better than Loons … or Great Northern Divers as they are known in the Old World. Curious that the first civilised people to come to North America were keen to bring the old names with them resulting, to give one example, in a rusty-breasted Thrush being called an American Robin, a bird that it resembles not at all while Great Northern Diver transformed into Loon. Not at all a dignified name for such a dignified bird. How Skuas came to be Jaegers I have no idea, but as none of them live around here it is a puzzle for another day.

After that, an expedition is called for. One that goes beyond Lac Hidden and into the larger world of Lac Papineau … destination Ile-des-Pins, a fine and not overgrown island just made for a picnic luncheon and some birding some twenty minutes gentle motor-boating away. The island has a raised centre covered in pine trees that always hold a good collection of small birds when we visit while the waters around are favourite feeding grounds for Loons.

Quite a wind developed along the length of the lake and although very warm there were choppy waves which, of course, had several times to be crossed at right angles making a splendid roll part f the fun of the journey.

On Ile-des-Pins we were welcomed with open arms by a Red Squirrel who had clearly met visitors before and knew that they come, like Romans, bearing gifts. Somewhat disappointed, he got the hint that we had none for him and settled down to a meal of brightened berries from some bushes growing there. Two green frogs joined the party and seemed reluctant to hop away, even when prodded. Several Turkey Vultures wheeling overhead, numerous Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Red-tailed Hawk calling, three Loons off-shore and the Osprey nest nearby had obviously been used again for the umpteenth year running.

Decided, over our picnic luncheon, that next year being ones 65th needs marking with a special something and I am thinking of a Ratty and Moley themed picnic with all the complex and varied comestibles that Ratty provides in Wind in the Willows.

On the return journey we circumnavigated Ile-des-Indiens and stopped off for a paddle at “Chums’ Rock Beach” before it was home for tea and cake followed by some dawdling, some reading, half an hour gently kayaking and then huge steaks followed by superior Premier Moisson strawberry cheesecake and the waving of the traditional sparklers … before bed. My goodness, Premier Moisson are a very superior company indeed. Very superior. If your city doesn’t have a branch of this excellent boulangerie/patisserie then all I can say is – move to Montreal.

The day’s birds included several Loons, Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees aplenty, Yellow-rumped Warblers, multiple Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawk, Common Raven, Wood Duck, Blue-winged Teal, a couple of Belted Kingfishers and possibly a Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Osprey’s nest – this nest has produced young every year since 1998 that we know of

Red squirrel playing coy – he had previously checked our bags for crumbs but later settled for wild fruits from the bushes nearby

Thursday 13 September

Bummer, after having the ladies wait on me hand and foot yesterday today is pay-back time and I am on washing up duty. What the heck, yesterday was a stellar day and all birthdays should be that good. Perfection.

Today is the last full day of Kenauk, year fifteen and we were up past-betimes and only then because of the angry squirrel alarm outside the window. A glorious morning with a clear blue sky and a hot sun induced a universal opinion that kayaking took precedence vet breakfast … and a good thing too as we sat in our kayaks drifting in the middle of the inner bay watching a Northern Harrier cruising over the marshes that surround it for one and a half circuits looking for food. Quite splendid.

Herons, Kingfisher and assorted ducks. Investigated a channel into the marsh and put up a flight of Wood Duck (they are very easily spooked) when a female erupted from the forest to my left and flew low over the bow of the kayak so I could feel the wind from its wings as she headed after the rest in a classic “wait for me, guys” moment.

After a fried all-in breakfast another kayaking session was called for in the vain expectation of burning off some of the grease – the turned exciting when a large power boat full of fishermen swept across the bow at high speed … but all was well, turning into the line of high waves that the pirates cheerfully left me, it was soon evident that these kayaks are well made and stable and rode the storm with barely a wobble.

We visited Lac Jackson for an hour or two. This is one of the extra stocked fishing lakes back in the hills but a particularly attractive and peaceful one. A couple of years ago we were greeted, on arrival, by a pair of American Otters standing on their hind legs and swearing at us and we have seen Pike/Muskies in the water, a combination that explains the not very good fishing! Sheep’s Laurel was added to the digital plant collection for Quebec – previously collected in Newfoundland. Returning for luncheon, paused to look around at a classic beaver pond and enjoyed a fat GBHeron, a Swamp Sparrow and an indignant Belted Kingfisher. Along the road (if road is the right word for a dirt track just wide enough for a car) a female white-tailed deer was browsing the bushes by the roadside and seemed quite uninterested by us until we crept closer when she ducked under cover of the trees but remained close by so she cold return once we had passed. Venison on legs.

An afternoon with good books in the lakeshore sun. A third and final paddle around to see what is happening as the day ends, the setting sun lighting the trees across the lake from the chalet a golden colour that was hard to capture on the camera and finally stiff drinks and a salmon dinner helped down by a bottle of Henry of Pelham Reisling from the Niagara region.

All’s well with the world. Sad to depart – as ever. A very special place. At seven in the evening, we were entranced again by the evening beaver patrol. It would be nice to think they were saying farewell but it was probably good riddance. I think beavers like to have a quiet life … as do we all.

Today’s birds were: Northern Harrier, Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck, Blue Teal, Belted Kingfisher, Black-capped Chickadee, Blue Jay, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Swamp Sparrow, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pied-billed Grebe, Common Loon.

Lac Jackson – prime Moose territory and also where we have enjoyed being screamed at by a family of American otters worried we were after their fish

Classical beaver pond

The evening rise

Friday 14 September.

Up, pack and away … But not without a final canoe around the hidden lake.

À la prochaine.

Evening sun engoldens the trees