by Tim Zwart & Dave Maciulis – Acton, ON & Dundas, ON
At one point or another, most of us have been collectors of something. Maybe it was dolls, baseball cards or coins when we were kids; watches, shoes or handbags when we grew up; or homemade crafts to frame or put on the fridge when we became parents. To those outside of our own unique little world, many of these things hold little to no measurable worth. You can’t buy a tank of gas with the locket your great-grandmother passed down to you, nor can you offer up your child’s first finger painting in lieu of a missed mortgage payment. These keepsakes have a sentimental appraisal that cannot be measured on a monetary scale, and the value that they add to our lives is far greater than the value that they could ever add to our bank accounts. And while these things may be precious to us in their own unique ways, they also share a common thread which binds them all together: the stories that make them special.
Storytelling is one of the oldest traditions of mankind, and also one of our most dated collectibles. To share and to retell a story is a universal practice around the globe, and this oral accounting of events is truly what makes us unique as a species. Whether they take the form of fable, myth, tall-tale or eyewitness reporting, stumbling across a great story can excite you in ways that few other things can. It’s something like discovering a fossil in your backyard or some ancient insect frozen in a block of amber, and sometimes all it takes is the right person to come along at the right time for the results to be magical.
You wouldn’t think it at first glance, but a tiny and remote resort called Athabasca Fishing Lodge in northwest Saskatchewan, may just be one of the greatest sources of untapped stories in the country. Originally purchased by husband and wife team Cliff and Stella Blackmur in 1974, Athabasca has been providing material for both stories and storytellers alike ever since. A visit to the grounds of their picturesque retreat is almost like traveling back in time to simpler days, when Canadians could hunt, fish, and just get by living off the land. The scenery and tranquility are worth the price of the trip alone, and approaching the resort from the air is nothing short of breathtaking.
Just picture yourself flying in on a small, intimate float plane, unexplored wilderness stretching out before you, as far as the eye can see. The Otherside River suddenly breaks the expanse of emptiness below, like a single brush stroke cast upon a previously blank canvas. Your descent into the rich Saskatchewan forest is an exercise in inner reflection, and before you know it, you have quietly nestled onto the surface of Lake Athabasca, as gently as a whisper over silk. Lining the tributaries of the river are fisherman and outdoor enthusiasts in a variety of boats and canoes, with local photographers gliding along in kayaks, patiently looking for that perfect shot. From the second you arrive, you are almost immediately overwhelmed by the sense of community and family at play in this place. Nearly everybody here knows each other, and many have been making the trek to these hallowed grounds for decades. Travelers come from all over the world, and each one has their own unique story to tell.
Take the Scherr family of Dubuque, Iowa, for example. Drawn in by the hills and rocky terrain surrounding Lake Athabasca, the family has made an annual pilgrimage to northern Alberta for one thing, and one thing only: to catch some of the largest fish anywhere in the country. For the past nineteen years, they have made these cabins their home, and in the process, have established a legacy that is now three generations strong and growing.Their story started with a simple but grandiose idea: to catch as many twenty-pound Northern Pike as was humanly possible. Bob Scherr, the family patriarch and grandfather, was the first to venture from his American home to the Great White North, and for the next two decades, the family trip has continued to expand. Next was Bob’s son, Mike, followed by his sons, Matt, Danny, and now Billy. Sitting down with any one of them is a treat, and the conversations that follow help to give a tiny inkling into just how special this place really is.
Though it’s true that fisherman are often credited with being some of the best storytellers around, the line between factual accounting and tall-tale is oftentimes hard to decipher. Many have been known to exaggerate, embellish or spin a good fishing yarn from time to time—the big one that got away comes to mind—but not the Scherr men. Northern Pikes are their favorite targets, and Mike can spend hours telling you about the countless number of them he and his sons have hooked that were in excess of forty inches; some even coming close to fifty inches in length! The men have used the same Athabasca fishing guide–a humble young fellow named Felix—for seventeen out of their nineteen expeditions, and his fabled fish-whispering skills never disappoint.
Theirs is just one of countless stories that line the shores and permeate the cabins at Athabasca Fishing Lodge. Virtually everyone that you come into contact with has something to say, and if you’re wise enough, you’ll take the time to listen. On any given night, you can gather at the lodge bar and swap tales or share opinions with a multitude of people, on a multitude of subjects. Fishing always comes up, of course, but you could just as easily find yourself in a discussion involving politics, patriotism, First Nation’s rights, travel or love.
And in a way, this type of setting is a perfect representation of Canada as a whole. We are people from all walks of life, every ethnicity, religion, gender and creed, all coming together in a beautiful land that inspires us and keeps us coming back for more; we are one large, extended family, helping each other, guiding each other, and bringing out the very best in each other; we are generation after generation of adventure seekers, outdoorsmen, nature lovers and backyard enthusiasts. But at our core, we are all either storytellers or story makers, and there is an unlimited amount of both just waiting to be collected and shared. All you have to do, is get out there and look.