• Justin Key

The Return

The average adult human being will make around 35,000 decisions in a day. While I was stranded on a lake in Canada for a week the average was probably closer to 3,000, with half of them involving the use of the outhouse. That box deep in the Ontario wilderness was a delightful hybrid of septic tank and sauna. Every day brought a unique philosophical debate regarding the necessity of certain bodily functions, searching for creative and desperate alternatives to an unpleasant problem. If you’ve ever smelled an old whiskey or wine barrel the burn of the whiskey or the sweetness of the wine lingers in the wood. When that hut buried in the Ontario wilderness rightfully meets its maker, those planks that harbored those putrid fumes will forever, well, you get it. 


Everyday life is full of stress that builds up over time and weighs us down. It's like being stuck in a net filled with rocks trying to sink you deeper into the water. We have developed ways to cut the net-like yoga, or alcohol, which, in turn, release a couple rocks and lessen the strain. Over time, the net rejuvenates and rocks build up and pull us down again. Throughout that week-long fishing trip in Ontario, that net got shredded. A large number of rocks were left at the Canadian border where my cell phone plan rendered my phone useless. There were no more texts, or snaps, or likes coming through. The only people I could talk to were the seven other guys I was sharing a close-quarters cabin with. Without the urge to do something on that rectangular light box my life became simpler. 


We arrived at the outfitters at 3:30am after departing Green Bay at 11:00am the day before. Once the two trucks in our convoy were parked, they were quickly vacated. As we all stretched out the last 8 hours of confinement our heads were pulled towards the heavens by the sight of the stars. The endless universe laid out above reminded me of just how far away from our normal lives we were. As the mosquitoes chased my companions back into the trucks I held out, swatting at the occasional buzz in my ear, hypnotized by a sight I hadn’t seen in years, the Milky Way. 


My sights polarized when I heard the gravel cracking before me. I whipped on a flashlight to find two glowing eyes staring at me in the distance. A few rocks fell into my net, only to fall through when I realized the glowing orbs belonged to a red fox. As it attempted to figure me out I watched the skinny fur ball wander in and out of my light. The curious creature would creep within five feet of me then curl and dart back into the darkness before turning back for another inspection. There was no fear as we shared a mutual interest in each other under the stars. The sound had froze me, the eyes hypnotized me and the experience numbed me from the rest of the night until the mosquitoes broke the spell. The blood sucking pests began to penetrate my sweatshirt and jeans forcing me to retreat to the truck for the night.


Sleeping upright in a truck isn’t my forte so when it was time to rise and shine after three hours of exhausted stiffness I awoke feeling all the worst symptoms of being drunk and hungover. Waiting for our guides to check us in, I lumbered to the end of a dock and felt some more stress lift. There is a sensation that only comes with early morning fishing. When the sky is waking up, the water is settled into a crystal reflection of the horizon, the air is brisk but thick leaving the sensation of a cold sweat upon your skin. As the sun sets the sky ablaze smoke begins to rise off the lake and accumulate in the still morning air generating the aroma of dew. The sight makes me long for the grimy feeling of worm caked fingers, the sight of ripples as the lure hits the water, the line falling gently behind it like a long strand of hair floating in the breeze, and the feel of that first strike when the aggression that lurks below shatters the aura of stillness above.


While the driving is done, our journey is far from complete as all eight of us cram into a small float plane. All the supplies we need for a week on the lake are piled in with us making for a packed plane that's supposed to get airborne. We get the northwoods, puddle jumper safety talk where in the event of a crash landing you are to bend over and kiss your ass goodbye. Our pilot then flicks his cigarette and begins pumping a lever in the cockpit like he’s arming a supersoaker. The excitement of being so close to a week of incredible fishing and the careless demeanor of our pilot ease any anxiety I have about the aircraft. I am left with a confidence that should this plane careen into the pines, a fiery death in God's country would be a sweet one.

The ride is smooth and cheerful with anticipation. As we descend, the plane glides over the lake, flirting with the surface before the floats finally disturb the glass like water. Through my window is a world I had dreamed about for months leading up to the trip. A clear blue sky led into the eagle nested pines that sit on glacier carved stone before dipping into the fish rich waters of Lake Abamasagi. I feel like Dr. Alan Grant laying eyes on Isla Nublar.


The plane turns and our cabin comes into view and a few more strings are cut from my net. The red shack had been my home once before and the nostalgia is flooding in. The cabin is basic, three bunk rooms, a kitchen/dining area, and a half bath. The cabin sleeps 12 but the dining table only seats 8. The amenities are kept to a minimum, a refrigerator freezer combo, stovetop oven, sink, and wood-burning heater all of which operate just enough to be considered functional. It is not made to feel like home, the cabin is only there as a safe haven from the mosquitoes at night. Although the cabin has been upgraded from my last visit, it now has a running shower.


The running shower was a recent addition along with new wood paneling and a solar panel hanging in a tree to help cut back usage of the generator. The old shower came with a black plastic jug that you would fill with water and let sit in the sun all day to heat up. Then at night, hang in the shower and attempt to lather up before the bag ran dry. The other option was to jump in the lake where the leeches were just as common as the mosquitoes only a lot bigger. Beyond the cabin is the fillet house, ice shack and guest house that sleeps an additional four or whoever needs quarantining due to gas or snoring.

Unpacking went fast, the reason we came was to fish and the boats were waiting. Once the fridge was stocked and the bunks claimed we began loading the boats. Pacing up and down the dock with loads of gear built an adrenaline rush. The distinct echo of a boot clopping on the planks has become synonymous with fishing for me and as the checklist of items dwindles I begin to shake with excitement.


My journey started in Denver with a 16-hour drive home to Green Bay. From Green Bay another 12 hours on the road into Ontario where the half-hour flight finally brought us to the lake. Waiting for my boat partner, my dad, to make his final trip down the dock with our worm box, I am yearning to make my first cast. The motor is idling and the put, put, put, is like the intro to my favorite song. My toes are tapping and I'm bouncing in my seat ready to let that motor sing. When we pushed off from the dock I turn the motor hard and crank the throttle. The boat turns sharp and quick as my excitement sends the boat through a half doughnut into open water. I haven't captained a boat since my last father-son Canada trip nearly three years ago. The 16-foot aluminum craft isn't making much of a wake with the engine wide open but the hum of the motor and the lap of the water against the sides is a beautiful melody. My dad asks where I want to start and my nostalgia is my compass. 

This was my third time on Lake Abamasagi, second with my dad and second at this specific cabin isolated on the northeast end of the lake. The most recent trip prior to my third outing was not a father-son excursion. It was spent with three buddies, Jake, who planned the current trip, Joey, who had been too young to drink in the States but old enough in Canada at the time, and his brother Nate, who was responsible for the first trip and been my boat partner and captain for that week. The four of us were set free for those seven days and seven nights, responsible for nothing but staying alive. My memory takes my dad and me to a bay where a beaver dam sits on the shore. This was a hotbed from our previous trip where the resident beaver would swim around slapping his tail on the water, emitting gunshot like echoes across the lake as we reeled in fish after fish in his front yard. It was where we landed on day one of that trip and where Jake and I filled our stringer with walleye in an hour. It was where the four of us would park in the afternoons and drown some worms without any determination to catch a fish. Where I reeled in the biggest catch of the week hooking into a soggy log from the bottom and somehow getting it up to the boat without snapping my line. It was the perfect place to enjoy the sun beating on our backs and the silence of the wilderness until the grumpy beaver reminded us we were intruding on his territory. That memory was all that remained of that bay as my dad and I began contemplating our next spot to fish. A half-hour had passed and not a bite had come which was slow for Abamasagi. The beaver had apparently moved out with the fish and we were ready to as well. We set our sights for a sheer rock face on the adjacent shore and puttered over. The world felt grey as my attempt to relive that moment turned up empty. This would be my first attempt to return to those days of old and there was a long way to go.

It didn't take long for the fishing to pick up. With four boats on the water all day we were able to cover ground quickly and start locating fish. Nights were spent mapping out everyone's day with details on locations, depths, lure colors and shapes, and what luck had been found because of it. Mornings would open with shared war plans before shoving off for the morning bite. Walleye were at the top of everyone's list but when the black and gold sight got tired the northern were hungry and fun to fight. Day after day of casting and reeling tore apart my compiled stress without my knowing. I had taken up meditation earlier that year but had struggled to clear my mind. The pretzel legged sits exposed my tight hips and attempting to hold proper posture made my back sore. It also didn't help my daydreaming mind used quiet time to run wild like elementary school kids hearing the last bell before summer vacation. Trying to focus on my breath was the mental exercise equivalent of bench pressing 500 pounds. With that reel in my hands my mind was clear. My vision, softly focused on the water while my mind focused on the line. Concentrating on the speed of my retrieval, I honed in on the resistance in the line. Any disturbance in the smooth wind could either be the strike of a fish or an impact with something in the water and I had to distinguish the difference in an instant. The slow pull of a weed, the snag of a log, or the pop of a rock were slightly different than a fish hitting the bait. Walleye would grab and hold, gently pulling the line back against the reel while northern would snatch the bait and run bending the rod instantly with the setting of the hook. With a clear mind I could diagnose every collision instantly and react accordingly. Through fishing, I had mastered meditation. Mother nature tried to build my stress levels back up throughout the trip. A malfunctioning motor turned a race across the lake with the dwindling light of the evening into a lost cause. I spent two days soaked to the bones because of high winds throwing waves into the boat. Storms cornered my dad and I one evening, forcing us to sit through the driving wind and rain in open water. But the late-night boat ride was under a starlit sky, the waves never rolled the boat and the storm concluded with a double rainbow. There was always a bright side while the brightest side remained the fact that I wasn't at work. My greatest test was cooperating with my boat partner. My dad and I had fished together before in similar scenarios but his experience with fishing ran dry shortly after that. That inexperience would run my patience thin over the course of the week. That and our net. The net we brought was made of a satanic mesh that caught the hooks of our lures and tied them up in a rat's nest. The quick solution was to cut the threads which left hole after hole. As we tried to preserve the integrity of our net, my stress net was rebuilt.

These father-son fishing trips were important to my dad and I. We had butted heads throughout my know-it-all teenage years but I had grown to appreciate all he had sacrificed for me. Both of us had looked forward to the trip as there weren't a lot of activities we shared together anymore since I'd moved to Denver. However, that stress was building in both of us due to my building impatience and a collective stubbornness and it came to a point that we finally had to mix things up. One evening I partnered up with Jake. We had been boat partners throughout my second trip to the lake but hadn't been fishing together in years. Our return to Lake Abamasagi was intended to pay homage to those days long gone. Two years prior to the trip, Nate had passed away. The three of us had been the fishing version of the three musketeers. Fishing had became a year-round addiction, Jake and Nate both had boats and once the lakes froze over we broke out the buckets and augers for ice fishing. With Nate gone the fishing trips went too. Jake had moved to Tennessee while I was already in Colorado and those careless days on the water were a happy memory that now only brought tears. In an effort to return to those glory days together we booked the same cabin we shared on that shared trip with Nate.  As the sun set on another day, the memory trading began. We took turns telling stories about Nate, remembering our time together on Abamasagi and beyond. We talked about the final days and the shock that changed our lives forever. Cast after cast the walk down memory lane numbed our desire to catch fish. Our focus was on the past and both of us determined to return to it. An hour passed without a fish but we had no grasp on time. The two of us were focused on our third amigo fishing in heaven. There were tears, but mostly laughs and occasionally a song sung for our fallen friend. 

The water was glass as the tall pines lining the channel held back the wind. The banks were steep rock faces that had been carved deep by the water. There were no eagles flying overhead, no loons swimming in the water, the channel appeared to be frozen in time. Silence and mystery hung beyond the hum of our caravan. There was a childlike curiosity for this new terrain wondering how many humans had been here before us.


The fishing proved the area had rarely seen visitors. Not only were the bites consistent but the fish were bigger than anything we had caught all week. It was our final day of fishing and our limits needed to be filled and a final meal caught. My dad and I fished harder and more determined than we had all week. Our stringer filled up quickly as both of us brought up fish after fish setting personal records for the week. Any conflicts we had had were easily ignored due to this good fortune as we enjoyed our best day of fishing ever. On first day ever on Lake Abamasagi, Nate and I were the first on the water. Without any clue as to where to begin fishing we picked the first spot that looked good and started slinging lines. Within minutes I landed a beefy northern pike and we caught the fever. The rest of the week, we were the first ones out and the last ones back in, returning to the cabin while the sun was shining just to eat lunch. We spent every moment we could basking in the best fishing either of us had ever experienced. On that boat the two of us learned a lot of lessons, we discovered what was truly important and by the end of the trip had developed a brotherhood. The fever we caught that week would spawn the second trip where we expanded the brotherhood and racked up priceless memories soaked in that simplistic setting. This third trip had been about returning to our happiest days with Nate. I thought I would find a piece of him on that water. After six days Abamasagi had helped chip away the stress I had accumulated but the experience was unfulfilling. The boats were slower, the mosquitoes thicker, the fish smaller, the cabin hotter, the days shorter. I didn't think this lake would ever live up to my expectations again. On that final day exploring new water there were no more expectations. My memories did not exist there. I felt all of my stress melt away watching northern shoot out at my topwater lure while my dad wrestled with Goliath walleyes. That metaphorical net released and I tumbled into the water. Weightless and free the world beyond the shore vanished. I was no longer searching for Nate and the memories of old. This water had not been ours and the reason I had been unfulfilled became clear. Guilt was holding me back.  I hated the thought of returning to Abamasagi without Nate. That part of the world was forbidden after he passed, it was sacred land. Those feelings transitioned into a desire to find him again and Abamasagi was the best bet to do so. Only in returning to the world that embodied Nate did I realize there would never be another day spent with him. His memory was all that was left and those memories should be my guiding light. Rather than fighting with the reality that life would move on without him, I should be living life as if he had never left. Saturday morning was grey and dreary. The clouds hung low over the lake and a cool breeze stirred the waters of Lake Abamasagi. The dock was loaded with our gear as we awaited our transport back to the trucks. While the majority of our group waited in the cabin, Jake stood at the end of the dock while I bobbed around in my captain's chair staring into the distance. Our plane was late but Jake and I were both content, praying it never came. It was a chilly morning and the two of us were reveling in our goosebumps before we had to return to the blistering summers down south. I was doing my best to preserve the sight, taking one last look at my favorite place on Earth. It had taken us six years to return to Abamasagi but I knew we would be back soon.

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© Justin Key Photography