I’m quite sure there is an unwritten law that states: when spending any amount of time in Canada you must, at some point, stay – if even for just one night – in a log cabin by a lake, preferably with a log burning stove and a plentiful supply of wood. This is how I find myself staying at Ten-ee-ah Lodge, just off Highway 97 in Cariboo, British Columbia.
Ten-ee-ah Lodge – the name is Shuswap for ‘big animal’, or moose – was built in 1942 as a hunting camp. It fulfilled this role admirably. Until 1968, it was used primarily by hunters who wanted a guaranteed moose kill – something that the owners, Buster and Milly Hamilton, were in an almost unique position to provide. Sold in 1968, its role remained the same, although fishing had by then been added to the hunting lodge’s repertoire. It moved into Swiss ownership in 1978, where it remains.
It has evolved over the years to meet the changing demands of an ever-more discerning market; it is now possible to paddle and fish the lake, take horse rides along the many trails that dot the landscape, or even take a sightseeing plane ride, taking off from and landing on the lake itself.
My log cabin is approximately five metres by seven and open plan; a bed, a small sofa, a chair and a kitchenette plus a separate shower room. It’s beautifully built, and obsessively chinked; the old-timers wouldn’t recognise craftsmanship like this but then they were more concerned with not dying of hyperthermia than they were with piquing the curiosity of aging writers with a yearning to build their own cabin one day.
But, while the interior is really rather pleasant, the whole point of cabin life is to live outdoors, and the wooden veranda boasts twochairs, a small table and a mountain of wood, which I shall do my best to reduce to ash over the course of my time here. (Originally booked in for one night, I extended it to three within the first hour of arriving; if you take nothing else from this review, remember that – we journos do not spend our own money frivolously…)
So, I sit on my deck and read for a while. There are mosquitos, and lots of ‘em. My DEET does little other than to season this pale Englishman’s flesh to the mosquito’s taste. Like most things in Canada, they’re tougher than they look and by God, they love the taste of a chemically enhanced Brit.
I can’t pretend the damned things aren’t a nuisance but to moan, or even worse, to complain, is pointless. Wilderness living is about living with nature, not fighting it. So I let them take their fill. I have plenty of blood, after all.
The cawing of rooks and the gentle clatter of canoes shifting on their moorings lulls me into a light doze. The wind shuffles lightly through the pine trees, bringing the unmistakable aroma over to my deck, where it settles and cocoons me with its fresh, bright scent. I wake, suddenly aware that the air is silent. Not even a bee buzzes; the only noise is the tinnitus that has been a constant companion, a reminder of too many years spent shooting shotguns with no ear protection. The midday sun forces everything to hide from its stultifying heat. I am alone, but not lonely and I do the only thing possible and fall asleep again.
I wake after an hour, tongue thick and eyes sticky. I wash my face, brush my teeth and make myself a pot of strong coffee. It’s too early for beer and besides, every Canadian room has the necessary equipment to make proper coffee; it’s only we Europeans that resent the expense and force guests to drink the instant stuff.
But I’m no purist; while I generally take my coffee black, I have become curiously addicted to the sachets of coffee whitener that proliferates in these parts. God knows what they put in it but I gorge myself whenever I can and go cold turkey at home, generally managing to kick the habit just before I travel to the Americas again.
There’s just time before dinner to take a canoe out on to the lake. (I spurn the rowing boats: I want to see where I’m going, not where I’ve been. There’s a life lesson there for us all, I think.)
The water is shallow and clear, dotted here and there with waterlilies that squeak their way against the bottom of the boat. There are motorboats here too, but the whine of their engines is anathema to me in these parts; I want to hear the water gliding past me, and smell the clear Canadian air – and both are impossible with a high-revving two-stroke sitting at my ear. Besides, engines break and run out of fuel, so I prefer human power whenever possible, assuming that dog power – the finest of them all – isn’t available.
So, I paddle, one side and then the other. Each change drips deliciously cold water on my bare legs. The mosquitos don’t like it out here; pickings are poor, and there’s a stiff breeze blowing. As the breeze strengthens, I find that I can paddle to the port side alone; once again working with nature, not against. Of course, if I were travelling far then I might not be so sanguine, but I’m not travelling far, so I allow the breeze to nudge me towards the pontoon, where I dock with little effort and even less skill. A half-hitch at either end secures the canoe and looks workmanlike; I wonder whether the next user will appreciate my effort. I doubt it. No-one knows how to tie a knot any more, but there is pleasure to be had in accomplishing even the smallest tasks to the best of my ability and thus content, I walk along the sun-bleached boards to my cabin to dress for dinner.
It’s a truism that the simpler the menu the better the food, and this menu couldn’t be simpler: salad to start, followed by salmon and rice, with carrot cake for dessert.
We eat outside, sitting on a wooden deck overlooking the lake. The wi-fi is turned off for dinner, freeing me of the nagging need to be productive. Instead I watch house martins swooping and gorging themselves on mosquitos while Canada geese honk affably from the reed beds on the southern shore.
Nor am I expected to talk to the other guests; too many hotels, especially the boutique ones, seat you at a communal table in the misguided belief that shared conversation enriches the experience. It doesn’t; while the world is full of interesting people – and no country in my experience has a greater concentration of them than Canada – the risk is being seated opposite or, heaven forbid, beside someone dull. Of course, they run the same risk – and no-one is duller than me when faced with someone I don’t want to converse with.
The salad is good, but not exceptional – bar the inclusion of what appears to be pickled celery. Still, the tastes were clean and simple, which is about as much as you can expect from raw vegetables, isn’t it?
The salmon, on the other hand, is exceptional. Firm, and almost brown in colour rather than the flamingo pink we’re more used to seeing, the flesh has a resilience so pronounced as to be almost a resistance. Not tough, but the firmness that comes from a fish that has spent its life swimming long and hard, searching out its food rather than flicking its tail languidly while it waits for the next dose of scientifically calibrated food. This was a fish that lived its life, rather than suffering one infested with sea lice; if it wasn’t wild, then it’s the best case I’ve ever eaten for factory farming.
Served with small chunks of carrot that actually taste of something, and perfectly cooked wild rice that boasts a creamy mouth feel I’ve rarely experienced, it’s cloaked in the most wonderful saffron Hollandaise sauce I’ve ever eaten. Even better, the staff come around and offer seconds.
Pudding is carrot cake served with ice-cream, and if the ice crystals within the latter were a result of insufficient beating, there’s no faulting the taste. Buttery and rich, it offset a sponge just the right side of firm; flecked with carrot, it’s dark and rich and utterly delicious.
Coffee is espresso-strong, but served in decent-sized cups. I drink mine slowly, reluctant to leave the one place where the mosquitos seem not to linger. There is a stillness to the evening that speaks of something deeper than mere silence. The wilderness has a knack of suiting itself to one’s mood – or perhaps one’s mood adapts to the wilderness.
Either way, I light a fire outside and sit and meditate and breathe in the smoke. Of course, most cities now have banned the practice of open fires, driven by a misplaced belief that clean air is more important than the right to chop and stack and burn trees. This is why I shall never live in a city again; nothing makes me feel better than sitting beside a real fire with a good book and a glass of something equally smoky.
I set off early for the mountains; we’re at 3,000 feet already but I crave more altitude. Besides, at my age I can’t expect to eat pancakes, maple syrup and crispy bacon for breakfast and expect to retain anything like a svelte figure. (And my figure is already anything but svelte after a month over here.)
So, a brisk 10-mile fartlek, running the levels and downhill stretches, and walking the uphill ones. The first half is, of course, more uphill than down but that gives me the chance to limber up and admire the scenery. My bear bell jingles annoyingly but the irritation it provokes in me is nothing to compared to the irritation a full-blown bear attack would engender. Mind you, I can think of worse ways to go than dying here, on the side of a Canadian mountain, mauled by an apex predator. Sure as hell beats dying day-by-day in an old folks’ home, rocking my life away and wondering what the hell went wrong.
My stoic attitude to bear attacks is tested. The heat is intense – the area sees a nigh-on 80ºC temperature swing throughout the year, and the mercury is nudging 30ºC already – and the only noise is the blood pounding through my head. It sounds uncannily like a bear thumping up behind me. I keep stopping to check, but in the end resign myself to my fate – and the noise stops.
I kick and stumble my way along the dusty track, occasionally passing the odd puddle with muddy edges that bear trace of passing deer, fox and, yes, bear. The forestry edges have been cut back, presumably as a rudimentary fire break. Felled trees lie in untidy stacks but, aesthetics aside, a dead tree is capable of supporting and sustaining more life than a live one, so I’m pleased to see them there, even if the resin within means they hang around for longer than an English oak or similar hard wood might.
That’s no criticism; the British countryside is too damned civilised, in fauna and flora, and we seem obsessed with keeping it neat. I’m not talking about litter, of course, but the compulsion we have to keep the countryside manicured. Of course, our fetish for keeping too many sheep in it doesn’t help, and I can’t help but think the benefits of reintroducing a few apex predators, and the trophic cascade they would trigger, wouldn’t be a bad thing. But, shifting baseline syndrome sees us intent in re-establishing (at best) the Victorian gentlemen’s idea of what the countryside should look like, with tame pheasants, periodically burnt grouse moors, and hedges that are ruthlessly – and inefficiently – flailed every year.
This little lot distracts me sufficiently to ensure that I walk right over the top and start off down the other side. I check myself, admire the view for a while, and then set off back downhill.
Mostly running, it takes me a while to get in my stride – the first half-an-hour is always grim – but I achieve something close to decent form and I’m back in my cabin after two-and-a-half-hours, 90 minutes faster than I was told it would take. (Not that I’m competitive, or anything…)
Entering the driveway, I smell the horses before I can see them; earthy, gamey, and redolent of hard work, the scent of a horse is one of life’s great smells. I’d smelled pine while out too, plus juniper and fox shit and stagnant water. And my own sweat. No bear though.
The horses are not the usual riding stable nags; they’re fine looking animals, sleek and shiny and lithe. I’d go for a ride but I have no jodhpurs with me and, as I learned in north Wales, my unfettered testicles soon settle into a frequency that is exactly 180-degrees out of phase with that of a trotting horse. The result is predictably, and crushingly, painful and while they may be more decorative than useful these days, I continue to preserve them as best I can, just in case.
I’m greeted at my cabin by three goats, all running loose. One was munching happily on the lawn, while the other two were butting heads, skipping around, and generally having a fine old time. Anyone who keeps goats, and lets them run free, is slightly dotty in my book and halfway towards becoming moderately feral themselves.
Which is exactly as life should be lived.
The smallest cabin, in which I stayed, costs Can$190/£100 for single occupancy, or Can$304/£160 for two sharing in the low season, which runs from the 16th of September 16th through to the 9th of July. Dinner and breakfast is included, as is free use of the kayaks and canoes. This is astonishingly good value.
PO Box 157
Lac La Hache,
Tel: +1 250 434 9745
Carlton Boyce @motoringjourno