I live on the edge of solitude. I try to exist with only the few essentials needed from our civilization and to hold at bay the tempting glitter of the rest of what it offers. The list of essentials is short. It includes such items as coffee, tea, sugar and a canoe. Yes, a fiberglass canoe. No one lives on my remote Canadian lake without a means of transportation. Most of my neighbors choose outboards or locally made wooden canoes. I own a one man fiberglass canoe which weighs less than fifty pounds, an important number if you plan to do much portaging by yourself.
I teach school on Otter Island on Timago Lake. The Island is fifteen miles from the nearest road and a place where you quickly learn what are the necessities of your life. It is also a place where it is only a short step into true solitude.
There is also the irony of what I do. For part of my mission is to teach my native Canadian students how to go forth and hopefully prosper in the very civilization that I have tried to leave behind.
But remote as I am from the civilized world, it may still intrude as it did three summers ago when I met Doc Fredricks. It was not the invasion of anything physical. No bulldozers came to flatten the landscape for a mining operation.. The intrusion was more subtle, a simple dilemma that caught me tightly in its mesh.
I lived the first twenty-five years of my life within the walls of echoes of a thousand human voices. I now consider it a privilege to be alone. That is why at the end of every spring when my last class has drummed down the steps of the schoolhouse into the high bright sunshine and disappeared into the woods, I quickly finish my grades and reports. It is time for true solitude. With a sleeping bag, tent and food for a week I set out in my canoe to explore some new corner of my wilderness.
The Lake stretches its arms through the raw Canadian wilds, twenty miles from east to west, thirty miles north to south. At no place is it over a mile across and islands of every dimension break its expanse. Although the Lake does its best to swallow up the sounds of the men who are its temporary residents, on the Lake you never feel completely free from the far-off whine of an outboard. However, quick portages from the ends of its arms take you into strings of lakes untouched by any but the most transient and quiet of human travelers.
This was how I began the summer when I came to know Doc Fredricks and his dilemma. I went north and by the end of the first day had put two portages behind me. The lake on which I made camp was almost circular, rocky bottomed and clear. On my third cast under a promising ledge my rod bent heavy with a bass. I cooked the fish for my supper and then spent the hour until final darkness watching a loon plumb the waters and listening to it break the evening silence with the sharp shards of its cries. I spent the rest of the week in similar fashion. There was much time for fishing and for listening to the many voices of the loons. Then my summer commitments called me back.
I work summers as Head Counselor for the Pine Tree Camp for Boys which is located on an island far down the southern arm of the Lake. On the day the camp staff was due to arrive I took the steamer out to meet their train at the Timago railhead, a cluster of stores and sheds where the lake meets the railroad and highway. The arrival and departure of the camp staff are the only touches that I regularly maintain with the realities of the more civilized parts of the world.
I waited in the quiet of the station platform, the peculiar stillness that is heightened by one’s inadvertent listening for the first hint of the approaching train. The only sounds were a periodic car on the highway that slanted below and bursts of radio chatter from the open window of the station.
Then I caught the faint bleat of the diesel's horn, fading and echoing, then renewing. In a moment the engine came into view, at first a wavering headlight, then growing in size to come crashing down the rails to stop throbbing beside me in a petulant agony of brakes.
The platform came alive with people who swung stiffly down from the steep coach steps and stood blinking and exhaling the stuffiness of the train. Each of them stopped just a few steps beyond the train as the sharp clean air and the unfiltered sunshine caught hold of them. For some it was only a slight flicker of a smile before they began a hunt for their luggage. Some paused just long enough to discover their cell phones did not work. For others it was a long and silent moment with their eyes spanning the circle of the station, the straggling houses and stores and finally coming to rest on the glinting promise of the lake. One of these latter was a man who had not been there previous summers. He paused and gazed about him through his metal-rimmed glasses. His face seemed to show both the eager pleasure of a rebirth and yet a touch of sadness.
Then Harry Bruno, the Camp Director, erupted next to me. Harry is a solid chunk of a man, a rock on legs. His delight at being back for another summer burst out of him in sound and action. He pumped my hand and slapped me on the back and demanded to know how I was able to order such a perfect day for their arrival. Then he pulled me forward and started to introduce the new counselors. We came to the man I had been observing and Harry’s face lit up. "This is Doc, Doctor Fredricks," he said. "And this is Chuck, our Head Counselor. We actually keep him around to tell us where the good fishing is."
The doctor's eyes focused on me as if moving from some distant thought. "I’ll try to keep in his good graces," he said smiling. "I hear that fishing helps a man to think."
I thought of my week in the backcountry. “Definitely,” I said, “good fishing, good thinking.”
Oh the walk down to the dock Harry fell in beside me. "We were really lucky to get Fredricks," he said. "It's hard to find anyone, even a young intern, for the money we can pay. Then in he walks, surgeon on the staff of North Ohio General. It was too good to be true. I suspected some sort of trouble."
"Yes. I thought he might have been bumped for malpractice or something. Maybe had to lay low. So I checked. There was nothing. He's still on the staff; got a leave of absence for the summer."
"That was all?" I said.
"I didn't push it. I didn't want to queer the deal. He's too damn good a man to lose because word got back to him that I was suspicious."
We had reached the boat and Harry went off to supervise the loading of the baggage. For the moment that was all I learned about the doctor.
In two days the campers arrived and I fell into the routine of the camp. I had a chance to see Fredricks occasionally as we passed on island paths. Now and then he would take one of the camp boats out after dinner and not reappear until after dark. Once I happened to be passing the dock just after dusk when I heard the sound of his oars out of sight in the darkness. I turned on the dock light, and soon he came into the ring of its light rowing slowly and a little clumsily. I caught the prow of the boat and held it while he climbed out. Neither of us spoke while he put the oars up in the rack.
As we started up the path to the main lodge, I said "if you ever want an outboard, help yourself."
"Oh, thanks, I don't need to go that far." That was all.
Then I took a group of campers on an out trip and did not see Doc again for two weeks. When I did, it was under different circumstances. One of the boys cut his hand with a knife, a long nasty wound that needed stitches. Fortunately we were on our way back. I left the main group with the other counselor and pushed ahead with the injured boy and two of the older campers.
We arrived at camp sometime after midnight and went directly to the infirmary where Doc slept. As I opened the door to the screen porch, there was movement inside. Doc had been sitting in the dark on one of the porch chairs. He opened the door to the dispensary and turned on the lights. When he saw the boy's hand with its bloodstained bandage, a change came over him. No longer was he buried in thought. His hands moved quickly, tenderly. He talked quietly, reassuring the boy as he worked.
When he had finished, I sent the boy back to his cabin and paused a moment on the porch. "You like being a doctor," I said.
He smiled, a little sadly. "Oh yes," he said, "there's no doubt about that."
This statement made me pause. I suddenly decided I needed to know more about him. "Are you going on any out trips?" I asked.
"No. I should stay close by here."
"You should get out on a trip," I said. "You'll miss an important part of the summer."
"An important part of the summer?" He seemed almost angry as if the summer belonged to him, and I was suddenly taking part of it away from him.
“At midterm this place is deserted for four days. Why not come along when I go fishing?"
Doc hesitated. Then he said, almost to himself, "Why not? Who knows where the answer will come from.” He turned to me and smiled. "Yes, that is very good. You are the man who knows where to find the fish."
We went west down a chain of familiar lakes. The first night we finished supper and sat looking out across the water. We had not spoken much on the trip up but there had been no awkwardness in our silence. Now, as the last red smear of sunset dissolved into the gloom of the hills, he spoke. “The nights come earlier and earlier."
"Yes." We were silent for a moment.
Then he said, "I guess I don't want the summer to end.”
"I never do either. But it always does."
"But so quickly," he said. Then we were quiet until it was time to sleep. The next morning we fished, lazing along the shore in the canoe, casting in under the steep rocky banks. We caught two bass in the early morning, and then nothing. Neither of us cared. We were at peace there by the silent shore as we drifted, casting and feeling the steady, languid pull of the lake against our lines.
Doc heard the sound before I did. He suddenly speeded up his lazy reeling. I thought for an instant there was a fish on his line, but then he swung his bare lure out of the water, unfastened it, and placed it deliberately in the tackle box. Then he squinted across the lake towards the lower portage and waited, as if he had been expecting something to happen.
Now I also heard the sound, the faint droning of an airplane engine. I brought in my line and stowed my tackle. The sound grew stronger and suddenly the floatplane appeared low over the portage at the lower end of the lake. It skimmed the center of the lake, obviously following our expected route.
Both Doc and I tensed. The sight of a plane in the wilderness is usually a most positive moment. It means salvation for the lost or injured; for some in the back country it is the only solid touch with the rest of humanity. But this arrival meant something different. Halfway up the lake the pilot saw us and banked the plane sharply. He came over us at less than a hundred feet, his prop wash rippling the water. I recognized the plane as Mike Tarbush's and lifted my hand in greeting as he came over us. As he passed, I caught a glimpse of a woman's face pressed against the passenger's window.
Mike banked again just clear of the canoe and dropped the plane smoothly onto the lake. He swung around and taxied over to a sandy stretch of shore. Doc and I turned the canoe and moved towards the plane. Mike killed the engine then swung down from the cockpit and, jumping ashore, pulled the front of the plane's floats up on the sand. He climbed up on the opposite float and opened the cabin door. A figure in yellow came awkwardly into view, swung down on Mike's arm onto the float and, walking gingerly its length, stepped ashore.
"It's her," said Doc. He paused in his stroke and the canoe swung off course. He dug his paddle into the water and brought the bow of the canoe back into line. He said nothing more until we reached the shore. The woman who stood a few yards up the beach seemed totally out of place against the wind tumbled pines and the grey granite boulders behind her. She wore a bright yellow summer dress, every hair was in place, her makeup perfect. She stood slightly off balance with her high-heeled shoes digging into the sand.
Doc sat silent for a long moment, then stepped out of the canoe and walked up to her. He took each of her hands in his and kissed her lightly on the lips. It was as if he were touching something very precious and valuable.
I turned away and pulled the canoe up on the beach. I nodded to Mike, and we moved a hundred feet or so down the shore. We stood and looked out across the lake at the hills rising abruptly from the opposite shore. Mike lit his pipe and shook his head. "Those shoes. She'll punch my plane full of little round holes."
"I bet she smells better than your usual passengers," I said.
"What does she want?" he said. "Why is she out here in that get-up?"
I was silent. From down the beach came just the edges of their voices. "Understand...." I heard Doc say.
"Why?" Her voice. Then again, almost an echo. "Why?"
I asked Mike about his family and we stood there talking and smoking for perhaps twenty minutes until Doc's voice brought us around. They had come part way down the beach towards us. She was holding his arm as they walked.
"I want you to meet Susan, my wife," Doc said.
She smiled as she took my hand. "I didn't mean to interfere with your expedition," she said.
"You haven't interfered," I said. I hope I sounded convincing. I could see where tears had smeared her makeup.
We walked along the water's edge back to the plane. She clung to Doc a moment. Then he helped her back into the cabin of the plane. Mike swung up into his side of the cabin. We pushed the plane out from the beach so it turned to face the open lake. The engine caught and came alive. Mike taxied to the far end of the lake and turned. He gunned the engine, its obliterating roar echoing the pocket of the lake. The plane powered past us, spanked loose from the water, skimmed momentarily a few feet above the surface then canted up to disappear over the rim of the hills. Doc stood and listened to the receding hum, and watched the waves from the takeoff wash away the little holes her heels had made in the sand. “I think that was the dress she was wearing when I first met her,” he said.
He said nothing more about his visitor until dusk when we were having a final cup of coffee by the campfire. "I suppose you're wondering about this afternoon," he said suddenly.
"That doesn't happen on most canoe trips," I said.
"She means well," said Doc after a pause. "With all of the pressure she puts on me, I can't ever blame her. She's trying to save things in the only way she knows."
I did not say anything but tossed another branch on the fire. The embers sparkled and the flames flared up revealing Doc's face in deep concentration. "Did you ever reach the absolute point of your ambition?" he said.
"Sure. When I was twelve, I won the hundred-yard freestyle swimming medal at camp."
"And then what did you do?"
"As I remember, my ambition was then to win the medal two years in a row."
"How simple when you're young sweet pure uncomplicated ambition." He paused a moment, then said, "And what are your ambitions now?"
I thought about that for a moment, then said, "None. Except to go on living the way I am living now."
"How lucky," said Doc almost to himself. "I hope it never changes for you.”
"You see, I never once doubted what I wanted to become. I had a blind ambition which I never questioned. I would become a surgeon, a good surgeon with a staff appointment with a good hospital. That was my goal. It took me through college, the rough spots in medical school. That little picture at the back of my brain of the ideal life of the gifted surgeon let me find the right wife to fill out the picture. No, that's cruel. I’m deeply in love with Susan. I watch her with the children and know how lucky I am." He was quiet for a minute looking out at the silent lake and the just faint line of the hills against the star-pricked sky.
Then he turned towards me and went on with a new violence not heard in his voice before. "Now I have it, everything that my ambition ever held just out of my reach. And it isn't enough! It was fine for several years. I made my rounds, made friends, kept terribly busy. Then about a year ago the gnawing started. It was just a little voice within me. I tried ignoring it, but it grew louder and louder. You know what it kept saying?"
He went on before I could answer. "'You're not doing enough!' That's what it kept repeating. 'You're not doing enough!' Now by all reason that was wrong. I was ending pain; I was giving new hope; I was saving life. I was giving much and taking very little. But voices do not listen to reason.
"I started driving myself. I took on more work. I wanted to be so busy that I would forget the voice. That did not work, and I began to understand why. The voice was not telling me to work harder at my job. It was telling me that I was not doing the work I should be doing. It was saying that there were people elsewhere that needed me more than my present patients. And as I fought it, I knew I was driving myself into a breakdown.
"I couldn't talk to Susan about it. It would only have frightened her. Here we had everything for which we had worked together for years. We'd just bought a home. The children were starting school. She had made friends in the community."
Doc stopped a moment. I said nothing. To tell the truth, I was slightly embarrassed. I wanted him to stop pouring all his anguish out to me. I guess I did not want the responsibility of knowing.
But he went on. "1 finally went to a colleague, a surgeon ten years my senior at the hospital, a man I really respect. I told him everything. And he listened and then said that something like that happened to everyone and suggested if it didn't go away by itself, he could recommend a good psychiatrist."
"But it doesn't happen to everyone," I said, suddenly caught in the mesh of his dilemma. "Most people go through life ignoring any whispers of doubt they may have.”
"I know. But I couldn't brush it all off as some infantile phase of my development that a few exploratory sessions would straighten out. I had to do something more positive. So I went and talked to the mission people and found I could get a three-year appointment to a hospital in North Africa. That was what I needed. I had to go there and find out if that was where I was meant to be. I came home full of excitement and told Susan."
He paused. A little breeze had come up and we could hear the water lapping lightly against the shore.
I put another log on the fire. "Then?" I said.
"She won't go. And the terrible thing is that she is right, dead right. After the first night when I tried to persuade her with all sorts of terrible romantic arguments, when I was completely caught in the idea myself, and tried to carry her along with my sheer enthusiasm, I saw that she was right. She would have been miserable."
"Couldn't you have tried it out for a year or so?"
"I thought of that. But the chances are that if I go, I'll want to stay. That would be the end of our marriage."
"And that's what you're trying to decide?"
"Yes. I wouldn't wish having to make this decision on anyone."
"Neither would I," I said, suddenly thinking of my own decision some twenty years before.
"It's been terrible on Susan, my coming up here. That's why she came today. She knows she shouldn't pressure me. But she couldn’t help herself. I had wanted the whole summer, but after seeing her torn by my indecision, I told her I would know in two weeks."
And then we were both silent.
On backcountry trips I usually fall quickly to sleep, tired from the exertions of the day. Not this night. It was unusually warm and I lay on top of my bedroll listening to the faint night sounds of the woods and the water, punctuated occasionally by the sharp-edged cry of a loon. For what Doc had said had come a bit too close to home.
The memories from twenty years before came back to me in short and biting scenarios. The porch of the big old house in Shaker Heights and the girl trying not to cry as she tried to understand what I was saying. The words still clear in my head. “And just how long am I supposed to wait?” My father’s words, equally sharp in my mind, “You know, at some point you are going to have to stop trying to find yourself and settle down.” There were more words now blurred through the thankful filter of time. “Owe it to your mother.” “Think about that poor girl.” “It wasn’t easy for him but your brother….”
I had had an offer from the Mission for a one-year trial as schoolteacher on an island in the middle of a Canadian lake. So I had come, and one year had become two, and two years had become twenty. The draw of that other life had dropped quickly away. The letters back and forth had become now only messages of import, of marriages, illnesses, and deaths. I had returned, of course, but as the stranger at family weddings, and the required prodigal son at bedsides.
Had it been worth it? What had been my rewards beyond the silence of the woods? Well, there were the sixteen young men and women who would not have gone off to college and careers beyond, if I had not been there. Or was I flattering myself? Why did I always remember the exact number, fourteen, fifteen, now sixteen? What was I trying to prove to myself?
But of more immediate importance, did I have the right to try to help Doc in his decision? I did feel that as one who had been through a similar pain of decision, I should say something. What could I say that would not show some bias? The best I thought I could do would be to simply show him my life, and let him know that I had made a choice years ago a bit like the one that faced him now. Perhaps he would at least see what the concrete rewards might be for a life away from the conventions and conveniences of our society.
I heard Doc move on his bedroll beside me in the tent. “You awake?” I whispered.
“Yes.” It was obvious he was also weighing options.
“Best turn in,” I said. “We’ve got a couple of long portages tomorrow.”
We spoke no more on this subject during our trip. But Doc's problem had become mine. So one evening about a week later I went by the infirmary late in the evening. Doc was sitting on the screen porch in the dark. I sat down in a creaky rush chair beside him and for a moment we were silent listening to the raspy croak of a frog out somewhere in the darkness. "Any decision yet?" I said finally.
“You got a deadline?”
“Yes, she wanted an answer, yes or no. Two days from now.”
“Were you going to call her on the Camp radio?” I said.
“That’s pretty public, in the Camp office.”
"I have an idea. We could go up to Otter Island. One of my students has a radio ham rig. He could call down to Cleveland and you could talk to her."
Doc's chair squeaked suddenly as he moved. "Yes. Good. Very good."
So on that morning we went up the lake to Otter Island in one of the camp's outboards. We pulled in at the dock in the long shadow of the Hudson Bay warehouse. I killed the outboard and in the sudden silence we climbed out of the boat and started up the path to the center of the settlement.
I took him the long way, up by my school, empty and shuttered in the late morning sunshine. A pair of wasps worried the peak of the roof and the grass was bent long in the yard hiding the paths the children had worn in their spring excursions. The building looked gaunt and tired with the paint peeling in long strips on the clapboards. We paused a moment in the path and Doc gazed at the building. I wondered if his mind was forming an image of a stucco hospital building in some foreign compound.
We moved on up the path to my cabin. “Here are my digs,” I said. “Want to look inside?”
We climbed up the steps. I unlocked the door. The single room was full of a warm summer mustiness but I had left it in better shape than usual, the bunk neatly made, no dishes in the sink. I felt, as always, a peaceful moment of homecoming.
I don’t know exactly what Doc was thinking but he said, “So you must have had some decision-making to do before you moved up here?”
“Yes. Some decision-making.”
He looked around as if deciding whether he could have lived here alone for twenty years. Then he turned and I followed him out and locked the door behind me.
We went on up the path through the woods. "Larry Cheesaw is the boy with the ham rig," I said. “He's just finished his second year in Engineering at the University of Toronto. He's a sharp kid."
"What got him started in this radio business?" said Doc.
"He was always interested in technical stuff. I got him a couple of books on amateur radio and then there was no stopping him."
"You mean you bought him the books and half his equipment, and spent half your nights with him helping him to understand and carrying him over his mistakes.”
"Not for long. He soon left me way behind." We had come out into the clearing where Larry's family lives. There was their three-room home, a weatherworn shed behind and Larry's ham shack up on the hill beyond. Larry's father, a bent, bronzed man in red cotton shirt and overalls, was working on his traps. He raised his hand in greeting, and went on with his work.
We walked up to the ham shack. It was a tiny cube of a building with battens covering the cracks in the rough vertical siding. Larry came to the door when we knocked. His face broke into a big smile when he saw me. I introduced Doc and we went inside.
The shack was stacked to the ceiling with radio gear leaving barely room for the three of us to stand, bent by the lowness of the roof. "You think you could raise Cleveland and make a phone call?" I said.
"Cleveland, is that all?" said Larry. "Look what I picked up last week." He pointed at a card on the wall. “I talked to Point Barrow, Alaska. That's over twenty-five hundred miles. When I get the new transmitter finished though, that will be nothing. I'll be having regular talks with London."
"Okay, okay," I said. "But today we want to talk to Doc's wife in Cleveland."
"Sure. Let me try to raise one of my buddies in Cleveland who has a phone bug. Tap right into the line, call her up, talk person-to-person. Just give me her name and phone number." He jotted down the information that Doc gave him and turning to his equipment started twisting dials, flipping switches and speaking strange combinations of letters into his microphone. Doc was fascinated by the whole operation. I wondered just what he was thinking. But he only watched with a profound interest and his face revealed nothing.
Suddenly the speaker on the wall began to crackle back other combinations of letters. Larry handed Doc the microphone. "Just push this button when you want to talk, and release it when you want to listen."
Doc's wife's voice came over the loudspeaker, distorted and blurred in static, but her voice as I remembered it from two weeks before. "Hello, hello?"
Doc squeezed the switch on the microphone. "Hi, honey," he said.
"This is marvelous,” said the far-off voice. “I don't understand how it works.”
“Neither do I," said Doc. "But listen. I've decided."
There was a pause with just static on the speaker and for a moment I thought the connection had been broken. Then her voice came, very faintly. "Oh you have?"
"Yes. I'm not going. It's all off."
There was a little span of silence and then very distinctly a sob and finally, "Oh, I'm so glad.”
Doc said a few more words to his wife, plans for where and when she should meet his train, questions and answers about the children. Then he handed the microphone back to Larry.
We thanked Larry and went back down to the boat. Doc seemed to walk with a new freedom. I was silent at his side. I found myself saddened he had not seen enough of what I treasured to turn him towards what I saw might be his calling.
All of this took place three years ago. They came back this past summer, Doc, his wife, and their boy and girl. This time when Susan came off the steamer at Otter Island, she was wearing moccasins, dungarees and an old hunting jacket. All of the uncertainty had gone out of Doc. If the little voice was still there, he would ignore it now, I knew.
We went out in two canoes, Doc’s son and daughter with me in one and Doc and Susan in the other. As we travelled, the family called back and forth to each other across the water, their words echoing off the rocky ledges as we passed. By the campfires at night their laughter pushed back the quiet darkness. I delighted in their company; who does not enjoy being with a happy family.
One afternoon near the end of the trip when chance had left Susan and me alone, she spoke suddenly. "One of the reasons I wanted to come up here,” she said, "was to thank you."
"Yes, for persuading my husband not to go."
"Persuading?" I said.
She smiled. "You probably thought he hadn't seen through your subterfuge. He told me that when he started up the lake with you, he had made up his mind to go, to take up the mission work. But you opened his eyes."
"You made him see how important it was that Charlie had a father there to guide him."
"Yes. Doc couldn't stop talking about that boy, Larry, you had helped."
"Oh, Larry," I said, suddenly understanding.
We stood in silence looking out across the lake at the sharp green of the pines etched against the endless blue of the sky. Finally she said, "You know, you're very lucky living up here. Everything in your life must be very clear and simple."
"Yes," I said, "very clear and simple."
On consideration, the rules of my life are indeed clear and simple. Be content with yourself. Be comfortable with solitude and then, with that rock of a foundation in your heart, live your life with others. I could never be an island, sufficient unto itself. But I also knew my truest companion would always be the silence of solitude, occasionally flavored with the laughter of loons.