Little cabin in the wood
Little man by the window stood
Saw a rabbit hopping by
Knocking at the door
“Help me, help me, help me,” he said
“Or the hunter will shoot me dead”
Little rabbit, come inside
Safely to abide
Not to be cliché about it, but if the proverbial journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, mine—a journey of six thousand paces to a little cabin in the woods—began at the end of a snowy road where there was supposed to be a trailhead. Oh, did I mention that it was the middle of the night after a snowy day in moose season?
My father was an engineer who worked at a steel mill. So was Bill, a man who worked for my dad and who happened to own a house that my mother admired—one that we ultimately came to own. Whether it was time to sell, one engineer helping another, or a smart career move, my family, with a grand announcement that somehow evaded me, moved into Bill’s house at the end of my freshman year in high school. Not having been apprised of the terms of sale, I could only surmise that one part of the consideration between Bill—a statuesque, athletic outdoorsman—and my father—a former rugby captain who had once broken his jaw in a scrum—had to involve Bill’s agreement to take me—the third scrawniest (prepubescent) boy in school—on one of his many hunting trips. Terms and conditions aside, Bill said he was happy to do it. I was happy too. Bill was a pilot, a bushman, a builder of hunting cabins, a hunter. He drove a Jeep. If Farley Mowat heard the owl call his name, I heard Bill call mine.
The Garden River is a river that snakes through a large swath of the lesser-known parts of the District of Algoma, beginning its meandering journey at Garden Lake, before sauntering through pre-Cambrian shield, forests of jack pines, switchback turns and ox-bow lakes before emptying into the St. Mary’s River and ultimately into Lake Huron. Presently, if one were to search for information about the Garden River using a search engine one might be lucky to find one or two descriptive sentences. Back in 1979, when we didn’t have the internet to guide us, we had nothing but Bill’s memory, the lamps on Bill’s Jeep, and his flashlights.
Much of the initial stages of the journey are forgotten now. I know we left after (Bill’s) work on a Friday and headed north on the Trans-Canada Highway before turning east an hour north of Sault Ste. Marie onto a familiar road leading to a popular ski hill. Familiarity ended when Bill’s Jeep continued east beyond the ski slopes. We moved onto successively smaller roads until finally we arrived at a dead end.
“This doesn’t look right to me,” Bill said, mentioning that there ought to be a trailhead. He jumped out of the Jeep with a flashlight. A knot formed in the pit of my stomach. While Bill had said that we needed to find a trailhead, that was only part of the trek. The trail would lead us to a river crossing beyond which we were to pick up the trail again and count six thousand paces before looking for a side trail to take us to his cabin. The second knot formed in my stomach as my mind erased any hope of my expectations—a hunting lodge with a curved driveway and a porter in lumberjack flannel to help with the bags.
There was no trailhead. Rather, I should say that if there was a trailhead, we couldn’t find it. I grabbed the metallic tube that my parents called a ‘torch’ to join Bill in the search. I flicked it on only to realize that, compared to Bill’s floodlight, my flashlight had the candlepower of, well, a candle. I was to be of no help.
After some time, Bill returned to me and my torch to say, excitedly, that he thought he had found the path. The trees surrounding the clearing at the end of the road had bowed over, from either wind or cold, or both, a phenomenon that was new to me. We had to crawl beneath the bent trees, pushing our packs ahead of us. In Bill’s case, he also had to contend with the two gun cases. After a lengthy crawl, we found the riverbank. While the Garden River can be a bit meandering when it widens further downstream, I can attest to the fact that it has its angrier moments closer to its source, where the river narrows. A large tree had been felled to mark the river crossing. The moon illuminated the ‘path’ across—a snow-covered balance beam of forty or fifty feet slowly rising from one bank to the other. The third knot formed with the news that I would have to cross the river alone and the realization that a fall into the swift-moving Garden River would lead to seriously tragic consequences.
Bill went first, which is my way of saying that Bill didn’t even stop to consider the challenges or the consequences of the crossing. He, with floodlight in one hand, rifle cases in the other, and a pack on his back, stepped onto the log and crossed it. He simply just went and did it—as if he were doing nothing more than crossing a kitchen to put a piece of bread in a toaster. He turned at the other side to see me, with my candle, frozen in fear.
“Come on!” he encouraged. “If I can do it, you can too!”His confidence pulled me trance-like onto the log, my cheap department store boot grips crunching in the snow. I stared at Bill’s illuminated flashlight bulb, pulling me like a beacon across the frozen waters of the river. It was as if I was focusing on Jesus in the boat on the stormy waters of the Sea of Galilee (except it was Bill who could walk on water, not me). On arriving safely, which was no surprise to one of us, there was no time for fawning supplication or ceremony. This would not be the time for affixing the ‘river crossing’ badge to the mythic sash draped over my shoulder, as I wanted to do in my mind.
“Six thousand paces,” Bill said, and we were off, trailblazing between rows of towering jack pines. I thought at the time: How does he know the pace count? Do I count too? Do I count six thousand? I walked behind his silhouette, counting aloud, as we trudged along behind the beam of his flashlight. When Bill got to six thousand paces, he stopped. Now, the acidosis in my stomach tied the fourth knot as Bill sought out the side trail in the fresh, fallen snow. Oh, me of little faith. It was but seconds before Bill found it and minutes before we were in the safety of the (rustic) cabin.
Once inside, Bill lit a kerosene lantern and instructed me (how) to load logs into the cast-iron fireplace that was connected to a large concrete unit—a “heat exchanger,” Bill called it. I wasn’t aware of how quickly (or not) the cabin heated up: I could have slept standing up in that little cabin in the woods.
Not to be cliché about it, but the morning brought about a new day. We spent that day, and the next, looking for any semblance of animal tracks, getting cold, and retreating to the cabin. I was, quite frankly, scared shitless by the whole experience, except when I was in the hunting cabin. The cement heat exchanger would, with hands placed palms down upon it, fill you with a warmth you couldn’t find anywhere else. The tea tasted better. The food tasted better. The card games were more fun. The jokes were funnier. Bill listened. I talked.
Looking back, I don’t remember much of what Bill and I talked about. He wasn’t creepy; he wasn’t preachy; he wasn’t coachy. He just went about his business, encouraging me with his conduct to do the same. Because of Bill, I can say I fired a gun, crossed a river in the middle of nowhere in the darkest of night, walked six thousand paces into a black forest, and I bet I could have driven that Jeep out if I had to. I learned you don’t have to like things in isolation to see the value of their additive effect.
Bill’s not with us anymore. I wish I could say I was a better person because of Bill and his little cabin in the woods. But, like that stone fireplace, I’m still warming up. I’d say one day I’ll get the badge, but that would be cliché.
 Moose hunting season is late November/early December.
Andy is a Welsh-born Canadian, raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. He is an intellectual property litigation lawyer practising in Toronto, and escaping to Gravenhurst as much as he can. He fills his spare time with the pursuit of his love of short story writing, particularly those that are prompt-based and contest-driven.