Thanksgiving with the Last Guide
The following story appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on October 10, 2004 — Thanksgiving Sunday that year.
Frank Kuiack is still guiding in Algonquin Park. He is eighty-three. His wife, Marie, passed away the year after this story was published.
It snowed on the final day of trout season this year. Frank Kuiack was on Ragged Lake at the time, at a far bay on the northern shore, where the lake trout fishing had been good for weeks.
He was with Maurice Charbonneau, a client from Pembroke he had been guiding for 29 years. He kept people like Charbonneau for the last day of the season, not because it was some almighty privilege, the way some customers now considered it; but because anyone he had been fishing with for that long probably knew how to be quiet; knew how to fish; wasn't going to waste time; and all of those qualities were much desired on the last day.
It didn't surprise him, when the snow came. The early-afternoon clouds had threatened it. A dark, patchy sky. A high wind. When it came, they headed to shore to wait it out.
He had been right to fish this far bay, he thought on his way to a nearby island. It had been a lot of paddling, and he had passed other favourite fishing spots along the way. But they had caught and released 17 trout so far.
When the boat was ashore, he took the two fish they had kept and followed Charbonneau up a hill. On top was a camp grill, and after dropping his pack he gathered pinecones, and birch bark, and in a few minutes had a fire going. He took the trout and put them on a rock. Then he pulled a fillet knife from his pack, a wooden cutting board, a heavy frying pan, a plastic jar of olive oil, a baggie of seasoned flour, and set out the items around the trout.
As he worked the snow fell around him; thick, wet flakes that fell through the spruce boughs and went splat on the ground. It was audible. Only in early fall did you hear snow like that.
He remembered his brother's wedding, on Oct. 2, 1954, when a freak snowstorm took down all the hydro lines, and closed the rail line, so they had to walk around Galeiry Lake to reach the church — the entire wedding party walking through the autumn woods, in 10 centimetres of snow, swatting away snowflakes.
It was a funny thing, when seasons collide. Change runs into itself. Everything jangled together, moving too quickly, running up on each other. Things like that, disorder, chaos, they never last and he was not worried about this storm. It would pass.
*. *. *. *
On Thanksgiving weekend, 2000, a story about Frank Kuiack, the last full-time fishing guide still working in Algonquin Provincial Park, appeared in the Citizen's Weekly magazine. The following autumn, Penguin Books Canada published an expanded version of the story, called The Last Guide.
That's a strange thing to happen to a man, having a book published about your life, in your 64th year no less, especially when pretty much all you had done until then was fish, hunt, raise a family, pay your bills, and live without any attention four kilometres from the eastern gate of Algonquin Park.
But it happened. No way Frank Kuiack — or me, who wrote the book after meeting Frank while working on another story — could have seen it coming. It changed many things, for both of us.
The book ended with Frank — who started guiding fishermen in Algonquin Park when he was eight — completing his final overnight guiding trip in Algonquin Park. He was retiring, and at the same time bringing home his ailing wife, Marie, from a nursing home in Notre Dame du Nord, in northern Quebec.
This is what has happened since.
*. *. *. *
After lunch the storm eased, and they went back to fishing Sawmill Bay. The bay was still in the shadow of a large, low- hanging cloud, but the sky was breaking up around them and the storm would end soon.
Charbonneau put his line in the water first, letting the Williams Warbler trail out from the boat, counting the feet of line until he was down 30 feet, then locking the reel in place. Frank put his line in next, holding the rod under his foot as he kept paddling.
They made four passes across the bay, and in that time caught six more trout. By mid-afternoon it was warm again, and Frank had taken off his coat for the trip home.
As the canoe travelled down the lake, he kept glancing at the shoreline. The leaves had turned late this year, but they were spectacular today. The maples seemed to have turned in unison, a burning, crimson red, the trees running like a fire line through the hills.
When they reached the end of the lake, Frank shouldered the canoe and hiked quickly over the portage. At the other end he hid the canoe under some spruce boughs and loaded the fishing equipment into the boat they had left tethered to a tree earlier that morning. He started the motor and set off down Smoke Lake.
When they reached the dock, they unloaded the boat and within five minutes had it back on the trailer behind Frank's Dodge Dakota pickup. They drove to Whitney, where Frank filleted the trout in his kitchen, wrapped the fish in newspaper, and gave it to Charbonneau for the return drive to Pembroke.
"A good last day, Frank," he said, as he stood by his car.
"Good as they come," agreed Frank.
"Hard to believe another season is over."
Frank nodded his head but said nothing. When Charbonneau left he went into the house to get a flannel shirt and a chain-saw. He had work to do before the end of the day.
*. *. *. *
The first, out-of-the-blue phone call Frank Kuiack received after The Last Guide was published came from Whitney Elementary School, asking if he could come and read to a class of students. Perhaps sign a few books while he was there.
He wasn't sure what to make of the call, whether they were serious, but he went on the appointed day and as you enter the school now, there is a photo of Frank signing a book in a classroom with walls covered in crayon drawings of a man fishing in a boat.
He was asked to go to bookstores next. In Bancroft. Pembroke. Barry's Bay. Each time a photographer from the local paper would show up, and each photo of Frank would look pretty much the same; an uncertain smile, a bowed head, a pressed shirt buttoned to the Adam's apple.
After the school and bookstores came the phone calls from old clients, and old drinking buddies, people he hadn't seen in years, 18 years now since he had his last drink. Some of the callers reminded him of those years, and said they were surprised to learn he was still alive.
Then came the calls he never would have expected, from people in Toronto and New York who had read about him on the Internet, the last guide of Algonquin Park, and would he be able to help them? Those calls came from National Geographic, Outside Magazine, the Discovery Channel, and the Ontario government.
And so, Frank started bringing photographers and television crews into the interior of Algonquin Park. Want to film baby loons? Frank can get them sitting on his hands. Bull moose? He can call them right to the spot you have your camera focused.
Veteran wildlife photographers, travelling from the United States and booking a week's accommodation in Algonquin Park, would sit in Frank's house after their first day, stunned that all their work was done. They would tip him $1,000 U.S. Say they had never seen anything like it.
Another call came from Arowhon Pines Resort, the premier lodge in Algonquin Park, owner Eugene Kates asking Frank if he could take a couple of his guests fishing. Then Kates phoned back to ask if Frank could take down a couple of trees. And there's a sagging dock as well.
Today, Frank is at Arowhon virtually every day doing something, always welcomed by Kates and his wife Helen, the only person still allowed to have the occasional cigarette in the elegant dining room.
"I consider Frank one of the last true woodsmen of Algonquin," says Kates, who will turn 90 this month. "He does more in one day than some work crews I've hired have done in a week."
And somewhere among all those phone calls — Frank can't remember the exact month, but it likely would have been late winter the first year after The Last Guide was published — he received his first letter from someone he had never met.
*. *. *. *. *
He misses Marie. Although he tries to see her as often as he can in the nursing home in Cornwall where she went after a heart attack, it is still not enough. He knows now he will never get used to coming home to an empty house.
He places another piece of maple in the wood splitter, presses the button that pushes the wood into a large metal wedge, then tosses the split wood into the bed of his truck. Charbonneau left an hour ago, and he is hoping to deliver two cords of wood before darkness falls.
The doctors in Cornwall tell him Marie has had perhaps nine minor stokes since her heart attack just before Christmas last year. They have no idea what is keeping her alive. She can no longer talk. Has no bladder control. Is oblivious most days to anyone in her room, including her daughter, Adele, who lives nearby and is the reason the family picked a nursing home in Cornwall.
Frank wishes he could have taken care of her until the end, but after the heart attack her family doctor in Pembroke refused to even consider it.
"You can't do it, Frank," he told him. "There are some things you just can't do. It's not a matter of will."
Frank, who believes everything is a matter of will, could not accept it. He fought with the doctor. Fought with his children (Frank and Marie raised 13 children). In the end, it was Marie who finally told him she should go. He couldn't do it by himself.
He drove his wife to Cornwall shortly after Christmas, the day clear and unseasonably warm. He wheeled her into her room, arranged her clothes and belongings, stayed until the sun was gone and left when she fell asleep.
On the way out, he found a nurse and gave her three packets of wrapped newspapers, explaining there was fresh trout inside, and if Marie could have one for her first supper, she would be happier.
The other two the nurse could do with what she wished. A small gift.
*. *. *. *. *
The first letter came from a man in Niagara Falls, New York, who addressed the correspondence to "Frank Kuiack, Algonquin Park, Canada."
He wrote to say Frank's story had inspired him to quit drinking. He attended his first AA meeting the day after purchasing the book. He had never fished before, but he was thinking of trying that one day as well. He signed the letter with his name, and below that the inscription: "47 days sober."
He remembers the next letter as well, from a woman in Toronto, who wrote to ask if Frank could help her spread her husband's ashes on Peck Lake, as he had requested in his will. She thought Frank might remember her husband. They had gone fishing together back in the '70s, when he was a guide at Hay Lake Lodge.
Most of the letters he has received over the past four years — and there have been hundreds — have been similar to those first two. People wanting to tell him they had quit drinking or quit their jobs to follow a lifelong dream of living away from the city as a guide, or a backwoods farmer, something simple and that made sense to them after reading his life story. People wondering if he remembered them. People asking for help.
He has answered every letter. Several of those people now correspond regularly and have become friends. Many have gone fishing with him.
He says what has happened to him since his story was first published in the Citizen's Weekly goes far beyond the merely unexpected. For many years he was the town drunk in Whitney, a man you crossed the street to avoid. The sudden respect, for him; his life; the way he now lives; it's a strange thing to happen to a man after all these years.
I ask if he has learned anything from the experience, anything new, and without hesitation he says: "People can change. There is no such thing as a person who can't change. Anyone who tells you there is no hope for a person, they're dead wrong.
"There is always hope. That's the only thing in this world that never changes."
Frank unloads the last of the wood and stacks it firmly against the back wall of the covered shed. Two elderly sisters live in the house and they pay Frank for stacking the wood he delivers — $2- per-truckload — a price they agreed upon when Frank said he wouldn't charge them for finishing the job, and the sisters insisted.
Apparently the last man who sold them wood just tossed it from his truck.
When he has finished stacking the wood, he drives to the Algonquin Lunch Bar for a late supper. Frank has started doing that recently, having his meals away from the house a couple of nights a week. Without Marie, it sometimes seems too much effort to cook a full meal.
He eats a hamburger and drinks more coffee. Reads the newspaper. Even though trout season is over, there is plenty of work to do before the snows come for good. He has another tandem trailer of wood being delivered in two days, and he has to split what he already has in his yard to make room for it.
Then there is the dock at Arowhon, which he is going to jack up and level, a job you don't want to do in November. There is a cottage there he might jack up at the same time.
Plus, he wants to see Marie. Maybe this Thanksgiving weekend, if he can get everything done, he will drive down and see her. She doesn't recognize him all the time now, but he doesn't mind sitting in her room.
They will watch television, or he will tell her stories, of the latest fishing trip, or the television crew from New York that wanted to climb a pine tree when he called out one of the biggest bull moose he had ever seen.
Sometimes he will read to her, and because she likes the photos that are in the book, and the stories of people she knows, sometimes it will be chapters from The Last Guide. On one of the last pages there is even a photo of them, taken the day he brought Marie home four years ago.
On the final page is a poem she always liked, by an American poet named Raymond Carver, reportedly the last poem Carver wrote.
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved upon the earth.
Yes, he will have to go and see Marie. Read to her again, while he still can.
Driving home, he is surprised to see snow starting to fall again.