Where I Wanted to Be

The call of the wild Quebec pike—also glacé, vers, and bière.

by Frederick Prince

THIS WAS WHY I ALMOST DIDN’T MAKE THE TRIP: A driver raced to pass as the lanes joined, leaving me only the options of smashing into a boulder-strewn gully or an aggressive act of self-preservation. I choose the latter, living up to the words on my New Hampshire license plate, Live Free or Die. When Revolutionary General John Stark, the Hero of Bennington, signed that phrase in a farewell letter to his comrades, he must have foreseen such times to come.

I moved to head him off and exercised the satisfying power of my middle finger. This manner of interaction between folks likely gave birth to phatic and linguistic communication. In other words, such gestures go back.

It worked. My canoe, with car and me beneath, was still rolling north, surrounded by Quebec drivers that make Middle Eastern suicide bombers seem timid.

Soon I was back to dreaming of pike, though my subconscious stayed on high alert for more death drones who knew not what they did. How could they and still do it?

Hubcaps lay scattered along the road’s shoulder like popcorn beneath a barstool, both of them evidence of the serious business going on overhead. If Jerry Jeff Walker had written “L.A. Freeway” while driving through Montreal, it would have sounded more like Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath.” On steroids.

By the time I made it through the Montreal freeway maze, on constant alert for signs of 15 Nord, I could finally concentrate on signs for those essentials of angling: Glacé, Vers, Bière.

Over the past half century of fishing in Quebec, I’ve developed a sign-reading knowledge of français. I can even piece together some articles written in French. This low-level skill derives from a paperback book I bought years ago about how to read French in the sciences. I read as much as I could handle in two or three nights, just before taking a foreign-language reading exam as part of the requirement for a graduate degree in Zoology. Everyone who knew me and my aptitude for foreign languages knew I had no chance of passing. I did, though—the luckiest day of intuitive guessing in my academic career. No doubt some folks lost money on that.

Fishing is an elemental part of my existence, and solitude is necessary to truly fish.

I can’t speak French, but I get by fine traveling in Quebec. When not in a vehicle, most folks are courteous and patient, though there’s a bit of an art to communication: Keep it simple. Say few words, and go slow. Sometimes I ask a question in English, the Quebecer answers in French, neither of us understands the other, but we smile and nod. Oddly, it seems we have communicated exactly what we needed to.

I sometimes try to use French words, like for ice, beer, or worms, but I’m usually challenged. I recall, years ago, dealing with an older woman, partly hidden behind my ice and beer and worms at the counter of the dépanneur. I gave it my best glacé and bière and vers. Her eyes widened, and I detected what looked like a sneer, although the French don’t sneer. I followed this display of linguistic ignorance with mersay. She shook her head. I knew I did it wrong.

This was a solo trip, and I had been looking forward to it. Part of the lure of Canada—for me, “Canada” means the lake country of the north—is solitude. The solitude of Wilderness.

I very much enjoy fishing and canoe-camping with friends who appreciate the whole experience and the history that develops over time. But, for one or two trips per year, I like to go solo. Fishing is an elemental part of my existence, and solitude is necessary to truly fish.

Oddly enough, if you’re comfortable being alone, some folks find that irritating. No doubt there are psychology types who can explain in tangential jargon why being secure triggers insecurity in some minds. This I don’t need to hear or know. Fishing and psychology are “as different as chalk and cheese,” as poet John Gower put it more than six centuries ago.

At the age of 63, I’m beginning to realize that these solo trips to far-off waters are becoming ever more finite. Gone are the years when it felt like it all would last forever, even if, intellectually, you knew otherwise. As a young man, you truly do feel immortal, and that’s how you live your life. But from a practical point of view, for a 63-year-old, portaging a 16-foot canoe is becoming a challenge.

Pike have filled my imagination since I was able to decrypt language from the gibberish coming from my parents’ mouths as I sat in my high chair at the dinner table. That was a big deal. I still remember it. Senseless noise became meaningful. Suddenly I knew what was going on. I knew what a Harry Truman was.

My grandfather was a pike fisherman of note who traveled to Quebec as often as possible from his dairy farm in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I’ve been told he’d spend a week fishing with his Indian friends, then bring them back to the farm for a week to show them what real work was, and then they’d head back to Quebec for more pike fishing.

As a toddler, I ate fresh pike and doré from the north. As I began hunting sunfish and perch, I heard of my grandfather’s big pike: 55 inches, 42 pounds. The image of that pike has stayed with me my entire life. After a long illness, Grandpa died when I was seven. With the exception of one walk in the woods when I was four, I never had the opportunity to learn from him.