An Annual Tradition Thwarted

Sometime near the middle of the 20th century, my grandpa, Jim Winkels, along with a group of fellow General Mills pencil pushers, went on a fishing expedition to Rainy Lake in Ontario, Canada. It was an act that would have an outsized affect on the formative experiences of each successive generation of Winkels. That outing started an unbroken family tradition of fishing on Rainy Lake that now spans three generations and two centuries.

A yearly early autumn sojourn to a remote fishing camp - an hour boat ride to the nearest mainland - is an excellent way to reconnect with aspects of my life that inevitably lapse during the remaining frenzied weeks of the year. The moment the boat dips into the glassy water of Rainy Lake, I reconnect with younger versions of me, snapshots of myself taken once a year for over half of my life. While writing this I was able to find this photo, probably from my first time in Canada, dated July 2000.

We were all too busy fishing to learn how to take a good photo.

I have countless great memories and lessons taken from those summer weeks on High Rock Island. I learned to play cribbage. I learned to drink beer without getting caught (or so I thought). I learned how to be on the lake and catch fish.

The annual family trip, with all of the cousins, aunts, uncles and any other stragglers that got an invite, sadly dissolved after Jim passed away in 2013. But I will always carry appreciation and gratitude for my grandpa’s insistence on sharing it with the family. The tradition is far from lost. My dad never stopped going. And he didn’t let me stop going either.

Until this year.

You know it’s bad when the Canadians are getting mean. - source: BBC

Right now it is difficult for Americans to explore the world. For an administration that incessantly boasts of how much it has improved America’s standing both at home and abroad, international travel with an American passport is now impractical at best and impossible at worst. This BBC article, headlined above, indicates that even our notoriously nice northern neighbors have turned their backs to us:

People with American licence plates have reported being harassed and having their vehicles vandalised, even if they have every right to be on the Canadian side . . . The tensions are so high that British Columbia Premier John Horgan suggested that Canadians with out-of-province licence plates should take the bus or ride bikes instead.

Every August, my dad (Brad), my brother (Jack), and I visit Rainy Lake. Brad returns with his own cadre of friends every September. Up until about June, he was stubbornly insisting that the Canada trip was still on, regardless of what the damn mounties had to say about it. The world had other ideas; so 2020 is the first year since the 1970’s that my dad will not cross the border from International Falls, Minnesota into Fort Frances, Ontario.

Brad & Co. had to settle on Voyageur’s National Park for their fishing trip - what a travesty.

A small detail that has always perplexed me about the Canada trip is that most of us who take part in this yearly ritual are not avid fishermen. My fishing is typically limited to the seven days I spend on Rainy each year. My dad gets out more than Jack and I, but he is still no fanatic. Grandpa Jim couldn’t even swim for godsakes.

The truth is, the trip is only nominally about fishing. Yes, there’s no better thrill than hooking into a fat northern pike, but in reality, we are all just thankful that with our busy lives getting always busier, there’s still the certainty of that week in Canada to reconstitute ourselves and reconnect with family tradition. There’s magic in that northern wilderness that keeps us coming back - if only we could.

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