Minding Your Manners In Paradise


Peter and David Carpenter
Peter and David Carpenter
Photo by Marjory Carpenter

When I was a little boy, I had no trouble imagining Paradise in very specific terms. No angels and saints for me. My Paradise would look just like Johnson Lake, a small reservoir fifteen minutes drive from Banff, Alberta on the Lake Minnewanka Road. It was stocked with rainbow and brook trout that grew prodigiously fast on big nymphs, snails, and freshwater shrimp and spawned spring and fall in the feeder stream. I caught my first trout there and my brother hauled in a 6 pound rainbow at the age of six.
        When I was in my late teens, I used to fly fish there with my friend Peter Hyndman. We came to Banff to work in the summer partly because of the fly fishing. We were just out of high school and convinced that at the secret heart of the unfolding cosmos was nothing but fun. There were more parties here in one month than we had ever gone to in a year, more unattached girls than we had ever seen. And one or two nights a week, we would declare a health night and go casting on the banks of Johnson Lake. In my first summer in Banff I landed a four pound brook trout and Hyndman brought in a 5 1/2 pound rainbow. We were becoming legends in our own time, at least among the trout. The girls were another thing entirely.

Dave fishing

        Each summer we returned and took the well worn trail around Johnson Lake. Always there was wildlife. One night a very large black bear came down to the lake to drink, or perhaps to stare at the bizarre fly lines whipping through the late summer air. The bear came right up to me. I think I detected an air of disapproval. This was 1960 or '61, and bears were still so common and innocuous, we hadn't learned to fear them. The bear and I looked at each other from a distance of perhaps 20 feet. It saw that I wasn't going to feed it, and so it lumbered into the jackpine. Hyndman and Carpenter returned to their casting.
        A big rainbow was rising just beyond my fly, so I waded in and tried again. Night was falling and Hyndman had brought in his line.
        "One more cast," I tell him.
        This is the most commonly spoken promise by a fisherman, and the least likely to be honoured. I threw out a big bucktail right where the trout had been rolling in the sun-set. I let my line sink and began a slow retrieve. My bucktail became an escaping minnow. Jerk jerk jerk, and suddenly the tip of my rod plunged down. A tailwalking olympian had grabbed my fly. He leapt high out of the water, paused for a moment to defy gravity, and plunged back in. He took off for the middle of the lake and my reel whined high and frantic.
        "Should I get the net?" Hyndman yelled to me.
        "Yes," I must have said to Hyndman, "get the net."
        Hyndman got the net and waded over to me while the rainbow cavorted and leapt and took shorter and shorter runs.
        "Don't lose him."
        Any non-fisher might think that this advice was labouring the obvious. But an angler knows that this is a good luck spell one casts for another.
        The rainbow seemed to be tiring. It was pointed down and tailing feebly into the gravel. This passive stance allowed me to ease it closer and closer to the net. Hyndman stretched toward the fish. Dark blue on the back, silver on the sides with a long stripe of pink. It was more than two feet long. It was bigger than Hyndman's 5 1/2 pound rainbow. It was going to be gutted and filled with wild mushroom stuffing and baked for a gathering of at least a dozen friends. It was going to ingratiate me with a half dozen mountain beauties and be bragged about for years to--
        A side to side motion of its head, the rainbow's way of saying NO to the dreams of a young man intent on becoming a legend. Gone. The king of the rainbows tailed its way back into the deep water as uncatchable as the great white whale.

One of the differences between old anglers and young anglers is in what they tell their friends. We told our friends everything about Johnson Lake. We even took them there. We took our girlfriends there, bating their hooks with big juicy worms and nymphs. Our friends told their friends and their friends told their friends. By the mid-sixties, this lake, which I felt Hyndman and I had owned, became host to dozens of anglers a day and one or two wild parties each night in the campground. You could hear the voices of folksingers and the sound of guitars and bongos. Always those plaintive undergraduate voices puling about the misfortunes of picking cotton in the hot sun or mining for coal. I was one of those folksingers.
        I even remember once throwing a half finished bottle of wine into the lake. Someone had noticed the approach of an R.C.M.P. patrol car, and I was still under age. I threw the bottle into the lake in panic and stumbled off into the woods. The wine in question was pink, cheap, and bubbly. It was called Crackling Rosé. Does anyone else remember Crackling Rosé?
        The problem with Paradise is always the people who go there.
Johnson Lake declined rapidly as a fishing spot, and by the mid-70s, it was only good for a few trout of the pan-sized variety. By and by, the parks people stopped stocking it.
        By the 1980s I had given up on Johnson Lake. It was overfished, and the only catchable trout at this time seemed to be spawners. And then an incredible thing happened.
        I was driving by one evening for a nostalgic look at the lake of my youth. At most I'd hoped to get a glimpse of an osprey or a rising trout. I parked my car in a newly constructed parking lot with signs and fancy latrines and picnic benches. I took our old path to the rise overlooking the lake. I looked at the lake.
        More accurately, I looked for the lake. In the evening light, it appeared to be gone. Perhaps I blinked or shook my head. It was gone. The dam at the near end of the lake had burst, leaving behind an ugly grey scar. A prank, I was told later. I raced down to what had been the shore of the lake. I leapt into the muddy cavity. I walked all the way down to the middle of the lake to what would have been one of the deepest holes. All I could find was a trickle from the feeder stream.
        How many magnificent memories had that lake held? Standing in the muddy bottom, I had a last look and slowly trudged back. Perhaps a hundred feet from shore my foot dislodged something that made me look down. A wine bottle. It was unbroken and it had no label. But I could tell at a glance from the shape and colour that it had once been a bottle of Crackling Rosé. I suppose it could have been the bottle of some other folksinger, equally drunk and irresponsible, but I think it was mine. I took the bottle, communed with it for a while, and threw it into the garbage container next to my car. But the bottle wouldn't go away. It contained messages from those carefree years. 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 ...Michael row your boat ashore, Hallelujah...
        This story began with the discovery of my wine bottle. The lake of all memories seemed to disgorge a sad and bounteous flow of them. I had heard often enough that the mind is like a lake that harbours memories in the great Unconscious. But now it seemed to me that the lake was like a huge mind. The more I looked at its vast muddy grey container, the more it poured out the ghosts of its former life, and mine. I was saddened by the usual things. The loss of youth. The loss of that feeling that said the sky was the limit. The inevitable comparisons between the bounteous past and the fishless present. But I think what bothered me most of all was that I had betrayed my lake. I'd made it known to mobs of people unworthy of its great gifts. I'd conspired against my lake by leaving my trash behind and using it merely for my pleasure. I had not taken the time to become my lake's custodian.
        Stories like this are legion, and they almost always end in a sad nostalgic sigh. But this one doesn't. A few weeks ago I was in Banff on business. The town had transformed from a place where families came to stay and see the wonders of nature to a place where wealthy foreigners come to shop. Walking down Banff Avenue was an agony. I decided to get out of town and go for a drive. It was more habit than intention that took me out to Johnson Lake, and there I made another amazing discovery: it was once again brim full of water and trout! If there's a god that presides over this earthly Paradise, he works for the fisheries department and stocks fish for a living. He is the Johnny Appleseed of the freshwater kingdom. God bless him wherever he goes.
        If you should happen to come upon my new old lake, you'll have no problem recognizing me. I'm the bald guy in the belly boat who floats like a frog and hums old folk songs. I'll watch how you dispose of your garbage, if you stick to your limit, whether you bring a ghetto blaster to drown out the sounds of the wilderness, whether you tear up the trail with your ATV. If you fail any of my tests, I will be unforgiving. If you're foolish enough to throw a bottle into the lake, beware. You may not see me do anything, but if a huge bear should amble down to your campsite and send you up a tree, don't say I didn't warn you.

bear 1bear 2



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