NAMAKAN LAKE, ONTARIO - Some things last and some things don't -- an obvious notion that resonated loudly here the other day.
From my boat, rocking on Namakan, I could see the old store, the docks and the cabin where years ago I tossed my duffle on a bed and slept with the windows thrown open.
In the morning, I'd cook breakfast before leaving early for fishing.
Surrounding the cabin still now were the pines, some angled slightly over the lake, and the water itself lapping against the docks and beyond, to the shore.
This was Betty Lessard's place, vacant now save for occasional visits by surviving relatives.
Betty died Sept. 19, 1997.
She was a breed apart, Betty was, one that isn't found often anymore, if at all. Most of her life, she lived alone on this island, setting traps for food and profit, hunting, fishing, running dog teams and occasionally killing a marauding bear.
Recent publication of a book about Betty and her life on Namakan drew me back here -- that and the pines and the big water and the walleyes.
The book -- "A Bit of a Legend in These Parts" (NJM Enterprises, Brandon, Manitobaemail@example.com) -- was written by Neil McQuarrie, a retired Canadian university professor who never met Betty but whose fascination with her life manifested itself in long months of research and writing and, ultimately, a good and entertaining book.
"There just haven't been many people like her," McQuarrie said.
• • •
Which raises a point:
If a nation can be judged by the people it most admires, what, then, can be said of a land that seems forever obsessed with celebrities and athletes -- ruminations about when Britney will finally implode, or if Brett's passes will be sharp enough to get the Jets into the playoffs?
By rights, McQuarrie's book should be all the buzz.
Talk about the Greatest Generation:
After Betty's grandfather went bust in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the late 1800s, he and his family boarded a steamer for Duluth, then a train for Tower, Minn., and from there paddled birch bark canoes across Lake Vermilion and down the Vermilion River, tramping its 13 portages to Crane Lake.
From Crane Lake, they paddled the same route I took to Namakan: across Sand Point Lake, through Namakan Narrows and finally to Namakan itself and beyond, to Kabetogama Lake.
From "A Bit of a Legend in These Parts."
Eight days after leaving Tower they pulled to shore in front of the little log cabin on the Ash River. The tiny building, with a fireplace on one end, table in the middle of the floor and beds strung out along the walls, was now the crowded home of 10 people.
Betty's family would eventually squat on the island on the eastern end of Namakan where she would spend her life. Her father plied the big lake in a steamboat, netting fish, and as a young girl Betty helped.
She would inherit the squatter's rights in time, and later purchase the island from the Canadian government. But nothing came easily. First she was sent to boarding school in Winnipeg, a transfer she abided reluctantly.
For a while.
Soon she ran back to the country she loved.
Spring was approaching then, and when Betty arrived in Crane Lake by herself at age 13, the lake ice was weak. Her father could not hitch up his horse and sleigh. So at 64 years old, he walked the 18 miles to Crane Lake to fetch his daughter.
Together, they walked back.
• • •
Betty was fetching as a teenager, thin and attractive, and in time, suitors called.
"But most of these were summer visitors to that country, and their futures lay ahead of them in other places," McQuarrie said. "Betty knew that, and knew also her future was on Namakan."
Betty would soon develop the skills that would give her virtual independence from the outside world.
She built a mink ranch on the island. She learned to fly a floatplane. Come winter, she traveled so far by dog sled she would wear out a set of oak runners.
In 1955, she accepted an offer of marriage, and was wed in Fort Frances, Ontario.
Less than a year later, she was widowed.
On a return trip from Crane Lake, where her husband took a barge to carry hay for Betty's mink, he fell from the load and drowned.
She would never marry again.
• • •
I began visiting Betty in the mid-1980s, always staying in the same cabin, fishing on Namakan for smallmouth bass and walleyes, and chatting with her in the evenings.
She loved her dogs, and among her last was one named Magnum.
From an Aug. 3, 1997, column I wrote following a visit to Namakan:
Recently, a visitor pulled up to Betty's dock to check on her and to wish her happy birthday. Two canines of the mutt variety could be seen outside the frame building that serves as headquarters for her small resort.
Missing was Magnum, the big black dog that was part Labrador, part Newfoundland, all friend.
Magnum, Betty would report, died in his sleep last winter at age 14.
Ask Betty about Magnum and his death and she averts her eyes. Just as she does when she recalls the only 11 months of her life she had a husband.
"We were married Aug. 25, 1955," Betty said. "His name was Leon Lessard. We called him Bud. He died July 8 the next year; maybe July 9. I can't remember now. They were hauling a load of hay up the lake and the load shifted. He didn't make it."
After her husband's death, Betty settled in for the long haul. Her life was her island and the bears, wolves and deer that came and went.
In summer, the fishermen motored up the lake; in winter, the snow fell.
Always she was there.
Capable. Sincere. Friendly. Warm-hearted.
Some things last, others don't.
Betty's island with its leaning pines remains. But she's gone.
McQuarrie's book argues we should think about that.
We probably won't.
We'll fret instead about Britney and Brett, and wallow in the fantasies they seem to engender.
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org