March 24, 1917
Last night, Shannon was waiting for me with his horses. I was the only passenger to get off the train.
I thought I’d be alone but Shannon was there to pick me up. “Tom, you made it, you son of a gun!”
I smiled. I was tired. “Yeah, Shan, I made it.”
“I got your letter, but I didn’t have a chance to write back.” Shannon left out the key nugget that it was Annie who wrote the letters, not him. Annie’s the one to write the letters. Annie’s the one who keeps the entire operation together. Shannon’s best at minding the horses, and making trips to the station in the hope that guests might arrive. But I wasn’t a guest, I was more like family, even though I paid my fair share. I felt I was coming home.
Shannon was still using the sled. Once my bags were loaded up, the horses started, with the cold, they needed no snap of the reins. They knew the business of retrieving guests from the station and they wanted to get back to the stable with no delay. Unlike the city, the night was silent. The only things interrupting the silence were the sleigh bells, the snorting of the horses, and Shannon saying, “Gid up, girls,” and, “Easy, girls.” Columns of mist unfurled upward from their nostrils but disappeared before there was a chance to obscure a star in the night sky. Until late spring, the sleigh is the only way to go. It’ll be another month before the road to the lodge will be navigable by wagon. By starlight, the snow looks deep and the Farmer’s Almanac says the spring will be long and cold.
The road runs on top of the old spur line, torn up years ago. Ahead, I could see shadow of its path in the snow, illuminated by the stars shining brightly in the clear sky overhead. Despite it being spring (according to the Almanac), the chill of the air still said it was winter. The only warmth now was our breath, Shannon’s suffused by a strong whiff of whisky. I could tell in his eyes he was excited to have me back, though he’d never admit as much. “One more man in the household to bring it back into proper balance!” I’m not sure what he meant by that.
Our final destination: Mowat Lodge loomed in the distance ahead. A light shining through a frosted windowpane was evidence that a human dwelling was nigh. It conveyed a feeling of being at the end of a fortune lost and the beginning of a new fortune found. Further north on the shore, stand sawmill foundations and a scatter of abandoned and half-lived-in tarpaper shacks. Mowat Village, if you could still call it that, was named after the Premier of Ontario, Oliver Mowat, in the hopes of gaining some stature. That failed. Mowat Village did have a short burst of growth; it grew quickly and at its apex, about 500 souls lived here. Mowat Lodge was full of mill workers, there was a hospital on the hill, and several barns back from the shore where the land was flat, had more soil, and could support a crop of hay.
But fortune was brief for Mowat Lodge. By 1900, the Gilmour Lumber company was insolvent. The company failed in its scheme to ship out logs by the Trent River system. The logs had to be raised over the watershed, and by the time they got to market two years later, even the best of them were rotten. Then the Booth Railway line came through and gave the village a second chance. Canoe Lake station was built, a spur line brought down to the mill, but despite this, the whole venture floundered and the receivers were brought in to wind things up.
Since Mark Robinson first directed me to Mowat Lodge in 1912, I had become a regular guest each year and they treated me like family. The jingling of the harness bells on the horses began to lull me into a trance but the lurching stop of the sled in front of the lodge brought me back into the crisp evening air of Canoe Lake, spiced with the cheap tobacco odour from Shannon’s pipe. I stepped off, pulled my gear off the back of the sled and set it on the first step verandah stairway, underneath the MOWAT LODGE sign I made back in 1914. Since I wasn’t a regular guest, Shannon didn’t dismount to help me. I didn’t mind because he had to get the horses back into the barn and settled for the night. I appreciated that he waited for me at the station; on my own I would have had to pick my way along the trail through the deep snow.