My daughters will grow up on a river. They will come to know its smells and sounds and its seasons. The riverfront picnics and outdoor concerts and fireworks on the 4th of July and the Christmas tree lighting. They will fish and swim in its waters, and they will ride kayaks down to Bannerman’s Island. They will know the cold shock of river water on their toes when summer gives way to shorter days and the cool night air fills with the smell of burning firewood. They will see the way the village organizes its life around the river, and is defined by it.
We live in Cold Spring, a historic town in the Hudson River Valley, about an hour north of New York City. I hope my daughters will never know the Hudson River their grandfather found when he emigrated from Ireland: a river that needed to be saved. A river that smelled of death. What few fish could be found in its waters could not be eaten. Nobody dared swim in it. Once thriving communities were wilting all around it, no longer sustained by the sustenance a healthy river provides. I’ve heard stories about the early signs of the poison, the anemic, discolored Stripers pulled from the river, the years when they didn’t come at all. I’ve also heard stories about the mass slaughter of wildlife inflicted by dam-building and by the cooling process at a nearby power plant that sucked in millions of gallons of river water for use as a coolant. I hope my daughters will never know that river.
When my old friend Joseph Boyden told me about Moose River in Northern Ontario, he described it as a magical place. He showed me pictures of the rugged shore line and riverside cliffs and moose and pike and pickerel and sturgeon as big as canoes. He told me about his friend and mentor William Tozer, legendary bush pilot, hunter and fisherman. Yes, this was the place Boyden wrote about in his award-winning novels, Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and The Orenda and yes, Will Tozer had inspired one of the central characters. He invited me to visit—a difficult thing to refuse.
My first trip to Will Tozer’s camp put me on three different airplanes and a three-hour train ride deep into the arctic watershed. A forty-eight hour journey in all. The last stretch of the trip to the remote wilderness camp can only be made by bush plane or train, and I took the train. Tozer and Boyden met me at the tracks, Mile 131, at dusk. The wet cold pricked my senses and cut right through my inadequate gear, but I didn’t mind. On the two-mile trek into the camp, slogging through black, boot-sucking mud, Joseph Boyden told me that the Moose River and its tributaries were threatened and needed to be saved. He told me about DeBeers and the dam projects, the damage planned and the damage already done. Will Tozer’s camp is a long way from the Hudson River Valley in New York, where I live, but I instantly saw the parallels. I saw why this river needed a keeper, someone to save it. We fished but caught very little. “Fish aren’t biting,” Will told us. “Don’t know why.” We didn’t talk much of it, didn’t try to explain it.
On my second trip to Will Tozer’s camp, I woke up the second morning to the sound of rifle fire and shouts of “Caribou, caribou!” I went outside to see what the commotion was about, and heard Will yelling, “It’s a deer!” Other visitors to the camp did not believe it, and they assumed Will was pulling one his trademark pranks. The significance of it was lost on me. My county in New York is so overpopulated with deer that they’re perennially lengthening the hunting season and relaxing the restrictions on techniques. Our backyard is crawling with deer, nine of them, so tame that they feed on our rose bushes by day and chew down the holly in our front yard at night. I couldn’t understand how anyone could be surprised by a deer sighting in a wilderness as remote as Moose River.
Will Tozer named the deer “Lost” and explained to me that no deer had ever been seen this far north. At least not in the past fifty or sixty years. An expert marksman, he had spotted the deer, taken quick aim, and shot it from clear across the river. At first, the kill confused me. We were here to hunt moose, and it seemed odd to shoot an animal so exotic to the environment. But I soon learned that Will’s Native status gives him rights to hunt and fish this territory at will, and when he sees an animal that can be eaten, skinned for fur, or otherwise used, he does not hesitate. This kill was a fawn, a little older than a yearling judging by the size.
The deer’s heart was extracted and immediately cooked up for dinner, but Will Tozer wouldn’t touch it. The presence of this animal clearly spooked him, struck him as a bad omen of some sort. So we hung the carcass to bleed it out. Two days later, Lost came back with us on the train to Moosonee, where she became the town’s star attraction. One by one, Will Tozer’s family, friends and neighbors made the trip to his front porch to see Lost for themselves. A consensus quickly formed that nobody had seen a deer in these parts for at least four decades, probably five. Will could remember his father or grandfather talking about a deer in the 1960s, and one man remembered hearing about one over in Moose River Crossing. But nobody else could even claim to have heard a rumor. Deer just didn’t travel this far north.
This was big news, an event, the significance of which will not be known for some time. Why was this deer found here, swimming across the Abitibi River in front of Will Tozer’s camp? Was she just… lost? Or was it a sign of things to come?