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Reciprocity in the Wilderness

Lark Ritchie

Porcupine, Ontario

Each of us has within ourselves the ability to create memories and experiences for someone else, and, through that, add to our own life experiences. The wilderness can be an important element in a reciprocal relationship.

It is 6:26 a.m. on June 10, 1997. I have just said good-bye to a friend, Dave, who has just begun an eighteen-hour drive back to West Virginia with his wife and daughter. Yesterday, Dave had the best fishing trip of his life. I had nothing to do with it.

His story illustrates why I guide, and why I consider even a one-day wilderness trip a most valuable human experience.

Dave has Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a debilitating and terminal condition. He likes hunting and fishing. He should have died several years ago. Last year his brother brought him up to our area for what was to be his 'final' trip.

Since 1990, I have waved good-bye to Dave as he began that long trip back home, expecting that mutual wave to be the last of our lives. With uncanny turns of events, Dave continues to somehow show up back in Northern Ontario to participate (at whatever level possible) in our activities.

This year, I had very little time to spend with him, and as history records it, I have had very little 'one on one' time with him over the years he has visited. Each year, we promise ourselves we will get in a day's fishing. It never happens.

A hunting guide must focus on the demands of the hunt. This involves managing time, people and equipment, and creating experiences for one's clients. Dave was once a client, has experienced the role of guide, and understands my commitment. So he puts up with me, and I, him.

During his recent visits, Dave has always taken the short end of the stick when it comes to me sharing time with him. And each time, I feel the remorse of knowing I have not given Dave the personal attention he deserves.

To be fair, part of that is his responsibility. He picks the busiest time of the season to be here. He is an adult, and if our personal visits were a priority, he would come when we could have time for ourselves. He chooses not to.

I understand why he makes that choice. It is not because he does not value our personal time. It is because we each have limited time in our lives, and we realize there is something more important. The camaraderie of the hunt.

Although he no longer participates as a hunter, Dave chooses to be here to soak up the action and the stories of the hunters each evening. He also shares his personal experiences, stories and lies. For hunters and fishermen, this sharing is the 'added value' of the wilderness experience. Dave also lives to fish. I have never been able to be with him on that 'special trip' we always talk about. But this year, Dave's Canadian fishing dream became a reality.

Walleye on!

Yesterday, Ken, the owner of the place we use as our base, offered to take Dave fishing for walleye. Ken has a business to run, and all the demands and responsibilities of running a tavern, restaurant, snack store, and minnow business. These things never go away and they face Ken every day, especially when our group arrives at his place.

But once in a while, we make choices to walk away from those demands. Ken did that. Ken is not a guide, but yesterday, Ken, by accident or by design, entered into the world I inhabit as a guide.

They left at two o'clock in the afternoon, and returned at eleven that evening. I was returning with one of the hunters, and my lights caught Dave tidying up his gear.

Just out of my truck, I caught Dave at the boat trailer. "How was your day?" I asked. "Best fishing day of my life!" was the response. "Lark, we caught so many fish! A lot of small ones, some real nice ones, but almost every time I put my line in, I had a fish. We brought back a dozen. Ken's going to cook them up right now."

Dave told me some of the details. I nodded and asked for more, and Dave elaborated. He did, indeed, have the fishing trip he had always envisioned. I was happy for that, and a little envious that I was not the one to give him that. Ken had.

Inside, both Dave and Ken filled the rest of us in on the day's excitement. Where they went, what they saw, and how they made the decision to arrive at that special hole where both Ken and Dave became bonded fishing buddies.

This morning Dave left.

I spent a few minutes with Ken before heading back to my trailer to record this. During those minutes, Ken was a different man. Much different than the Ken I usually know. He told me of the day from his perspective; of Dave's face, his excitement, and his catches. In watching and listening to Ken, I saw that he had also gained something special from yesterday. Besides creating that special day for Dave, Ken had created experiences and memories for himself. And he was happy for that. In a way I had not seen in him before. He was truly proud of his and Dave's venture.

He had shared with Dave those solitary moments, those quiet times, and those conversations that only happen when two people are out on a remote Ontario lake, empty of people, save themselves. They were now intertwined, the lake, boat, fish, air and sun--and Ken and Dave.

Dave will not forget yesterday, and neither will Ken.

Each took something away from that lake besides the walleye. They took away an experience and a set of memories that are theirs forever. Dave, of his dream day fishing; and Ken, the satisfaction of creating an experience for another. Sadly, I was not part of it. But I could listen to the stories, and through that, share their moments, and add my own images.

Ken provided Dave something I could not. Beyond that, Ken entered my world for a short time. And, through that entry, came to see why I guide. Each of us can do these things. They are not difficult. They might take us away from our day to day responsibilities, but the value our actions provide lasts a lifetime.

The stories get polished, the fish might get bigger, but the real heart of the matter is that two people gave each other something. It was a reciprocal event. Dave received his fishing day; Ken, the experience of providing memories that will last a lifetime.

Each of us has some special ability, or some special knowledge. Using those elements, we can give and take something special from the wilderness beyond the game or fish. We give and take away friendship, excitement and a sense of peace. We gather in and absorb the wilderness. It also absorbs us into itself forever. On that lake, and on that yesterday, Dave and Ken will go on fishing, to the end of time.

By the way, Dave was beat that night. He went to bed, and Ken cleaned the walleye. They never did sit down to that fish fry. But that can happen next time…

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