"A man has no way of
becoming a gentleman unless he understands Destiny." - Confucius
Key River, Ontario
too cold to sleep after the aborted coffee so I decide to drive to Manitoulin
Island. The idea of going to an island is comforting, away from the grid. Being
back on the road is soothing, my real home now. I pat Inge as I drive through
the LaCloche Mountains under a full moon, one of the oldest mountain ranges in
the world. I reach the famous wooden swing bridge and pass over the North Shore
waters into Little Current. As soon as I arrive I feel safe, as if I have
crossed a moat onto an island castle built on rock.
the main street beside the docks and then around the town and still a few hours
before last call, I hunt for a pub. Having honed my skills in finding the right
pub across the country I have developed a keen sense of where the social centre
of the town is so it doesn't take me long to find the old Anchor Inn, on the
corner since 1888.
are a few guys watching the hockey game. A short man walks out from behind the
corner of the bar.
can I get you?" says the bartender, a gruff voice. I scan the beer on tap.
pint of Alex," I say. My voice is shaky, still wound up from my encounter with
pint of Alexander Pale?" he confirms. I nod. "Yes!" he says and pulls the beer. A few large beer signs on an
exposed wall and a jukebox, rustic and laidback, I'm at home immediately.
want to shoot a game?" He introduces himself as Chas. His native friend is busy
eating his chicken wings. "It's the second intermission in the hockey game.
Lots of time for me to kick your ass."
we play pool a group of natives sit near the billiards table and order pitchers
through?" Chas is thin as a rake. Pants dusty, dirt on his tight, sun-tanned
for a place to live actually. Just arrived."
like a writer's cabin in the woods."
well there's a lot of ‘em around here. My brother just bought a place close
by." Chas sinks the eight ball and then moves around the table to put back the
cue and return to the hockey game. A serious-faced native looks at me curiously
so I go over to him and offer him a cigarette. He takes it and tells me his
name is Goat.
just arrived on the island today," I say. Goat nods and then leans back and
speaks with his women friends. Flushed and feeling I'm in a different world,
they look at me and then talk more.
you from?" asks one of the women, the big-cheeked longhaired matriarch of the
to say. I'm returning from overseas after a long time." They all keep looking
at me waiting for me to go on. "I'm Métis.
My home is Canada. I'm just not sure where to live. That's why I'm here." I
give them a tired smile and see acceptance.
want to come to a party?" asks Goat.
you drive?" I tell him I can so we all leave the Anchor Inn with Goat coming
with me in my truck. I drive behind the Indian woman who drives to the
Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve. Past the sign we drive for twenty minutes
into the darkness through the forest until we hit a row of houses where we
park. The home is surrounded by thick woods. As soon as I enter I see a girl
under the living room light with long dark hair. She smiles when I introduce
Val," she says. Her mouth is small but her eyes tell me she's happy.
mother does, but I live close by."
just arrived from the Yukon. Long road trip." I tell her a bit about my journey
as she stands beside me blinking, bashful. The others have no trouble carrying
on the party.
are you on Manitoulin?" Val's long hair like a horse's mane parted in the
center and combed smooth by a caring hand.
looking to buy some property to settle down and finish a book. My brother said
Manitoulin was a beautiful island so I thought I would check it out."
you from here?"
a Métis Indian, part Ojibway and looking for my ancestral homeland."
Ojibway too. Manitoulin is mainly Ojibway so it's the right place. Have you
found a home yet?"
I only arrived today."
must be one of very few strangers ever to come onto Manitoulin and end up in Wiki after only a few hours." She
laughs, eyes dance in the light. I think for a moment of Alexa on the west
coast poised to fly to Africa and all the frustrations I felt when I saw her,
but as soon as she appeared in my mind's eye she was gone. By the end of the
evening I'm wearing some new beads around my neck and unable to stop kissing
her. It is as if Val had been waiting for me for years.
leave Val the next morning and drive out of Wiki to the wide-open spaces of
Manitoulin Island that feels like a playground. I pass parks, beaches, lakes,
lighthouses, waterfalls, hiking trails, caves, harbours, homesteads, tepees,
trading posts, heritage museums, Indian reservations, snake fences, handicraft
shops and limestone churches. The old limestone church in Mindemoya looks like
it doubled as a fortress. From the lay of the land I'm optimistic that I can
find a sleepy old cabin in need of some tender-loving care. I pick up a
newspaper with the real estate listings and make a list of places that are
within my price range. I see one that looks like it's under priced from the
photo so I decide to check it out.
pass steep cliffs along the escarpment by the original Jesuit Mission founded
in 1648 along THE GREAT SPIRIT CIRCLE
TRAIL to the west of Lake Manitou. Red century farms mark the
farmland between the escarpment and the road until the village of Sandfield.
It's just past Manitou River and a fish hatchery when I see a sign that reads:
general store that looks like it's been there since the nineteenth century, and
mature cedar forests and cottages dot the road until I come to the turnoff.
Past an old school house, I see some white-tailed deer running from the road
when I spot the For Sale sign. The homestead is on the lip of a hill overseeing
about 20 acres of rolling fields. It's a white house with chipping paint and a
limestone chimney that's protected by a mix of cedar and maple trees, a classic
A-frame with gables and a few wooden sheds falling down. Once I'm out of my
camper Inge runs around the property with her tail wagging.
two-story house is almost entirely obscured by two massive oak trees that flank
the front and west side. Paint is chipping off the siding and the grass is
running wild around the front porch covered by a weathered veranda. Lazy porch
for reading under the protection of cedars and oak. I try the door but it's
locked. Limestone base of the structure. Very solid. Picnic table on the back
porch with a view of an open meadow with Lake Manitou through the trees. I know
that this place has all the things necessary to qualify as my homestead, as if
I had been here before in a dream.
drive to the general store in Sandfield where I want to call the listing broker
from a pay phone but I happen to see his name on a sign in the window. Walking
into the store I inquire about the house for sale. A tall man hobbles on a bad
knee behind the counter says that he's the listing broker. He extends his hand
Watson," he says.
I have a look at the property for sale down the road?"
see why not. It's closing time." We leave for the house in separate vehicles
and are soon walking through the front door.
open concept." I say.
used to be the bedroom but they put an extension on it about thirty years ago.
The bedrooms are behind that wall." I can see that this house is grossly under
priced because it doesn't show well without furniture or care. It's the lack of
walls inside the house makes it ideal for writing, lots of space and no
neighbours breathing down my neck. The general store a walk up the street.
had a septic tank installed in 1991," says Bill. "And it has a furnace,
although you could switch to a woodstove if you want." I check out the
bedrooms. There's an old bed frame and oak dresser. In the basement beside the
furnace Bill shines his flashlight in the corner.
that?" I ask.
cistern." Bill walks over to it. "With a water pump, you could get this working
again. The previous tenants opened up this wall but if you filled it in you
could have a working cistern. But there's now a drilled well."
Is it built on a water spring?"
these homes along this road are tapped into the spring water that feeds the
lake." Timeless water supply! My long lost worked-in skate?
ask Bill about the price.
been reduced. They are looking to get rid of the property soon."
it's being sold by the three kids after their mother passed away a year ago.
Since no one is living here they want to sell it before it costs them too much
more in property taxes."
she pass away in this house?" Bill laughs.
in the hospital."
then I would like to make an offer."
let's go back to my office." As we climb into our trucks, Inge comes back with
her white coat covered in blood.
like she found a poached deer," says Bill. "Hunting season just ended and
sometimes hunters throw a deer carcass in the field where no one can find it
except the wolves and the turkey vultures."
to be lots of deer here."
There are also lots of Sandhill cranes."
she now has the taste of deer blood," I say flatly. "C'est la vie."