by Skid Crease
My father was, and still is, my hero. A prisoner-of-war survivor from Stalag Luft III of “The Great Escape” fame, he raised me with stories of ingenuity, humanity, and perseverance. Some of our favourite times together were on our fishing, camping and canoeing trips, when stories around the campfire took on mythical proportions.
Some of the best lessons I ever learned in life came from those stories, and often those lessons were encapsulated in wise one-liners. Here is my favourite life lesson, and the basis of my environmental literacy.
It was the late 1950’s, and we had spent a week out camping and fishing on Rice Lake. He was a wise teacher, framing every lesson in a story credited to some other person. When he showed me how to tie on a hook, or find bait under a log, or look for the ledges and overhangs and riffles and reed edges where fish might be waiting, or to eat what you caught, it was always something passed on from someone else.
It was an Anishnaabe guide from Temagami, or a trapper from Golden, or a canoe maker from Peterborough who had taught him. He was just passing on their wisdom. He was wise enough to know that it is very difficult sometimes for a son to listen to his father’s advice, but if it came from someone else’s wise father, well, that was acceptable. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “When I was a kid, I couldn’t believe how dumb my dad was; by the time I’d turned twenty, I couldn’t believe how much the old man had learned in ten years.”
On this particular trip, I learned to fillet a fish, cook a full meal over a campfire and make certain that fire was dead out before leaving. I learned how to select and prepare a safe and appropriate tent site, scavenge for firewood far away from the campsite, search for wisps of birchbark that had blown off the trees, chop and split wood safely, and light a fire in the pouring rain. I learned to find the North Star off the cup of the Big Dipper, read the wind and the clouds and the skin of our canoe in the morning for weather wisdom. All of this was taught to me through stories allegedly from someone who had taught my dad. He was simply passing it along.
He never took credit for any of these wisdoms. His motto was: “First, comes the Great Spirit that Loves Life; my fellow creatures come second; I am third.”
But the greatest lesson of all came when we prepared to head home. My dad walked me around the campsite, even back to the farthest areas from where we had collected firewood. Every trace of our time there was removed.
Even the campfire rocks were moved back and the ashes washed into the duff. The only thing left behind was a small pile of kindling and birch bark protected under a piece of tree bark, “For the next campers, if they know where to look,” he told me. Then he stood with his arm around my shoulders, looked out over the lake and said, “Son, always leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.”
The wisdom of our elders.
In memory of Harry S. Crease, father and friend