Brannistickles and Sculling Oars


The days and weeks move on as they always do, and while its still winter, it feels like its loosening some as March has made its way around again.

Sated, Ralph leans back in the old rocking chair.  Tired, but the good kind, a day spent out in the open, a fire, good friends, food, and of course the inevitable memories. 

Lets see, we were about 15 then I think, though the trips sometimes run together, that one was special.  That’s when I met Dot.

“Hey Ralph! Up for a trip in the pond and a boil up? Nice and warm, but still tons of ice, we can maybe get some trout!”

“Hell Yeah” Lemme grab some salt pork for bait and the axe! Perhaps we’ll get a rabbit to cook up too.” 

“Perhaps, but I’ve got the old standby anyway, kippers and caplin!”

The familiar trail of the long run lays ahead, and off they walk, comfortable together, past hap’s cap, where they pause, and look out over the harbour as always.  Both thinking it looks smaller than it used to, but both aware that perhaps that’s not a bad thing, and that its big enough. Wise beyond their years.

The path splits off just ahead, one trail continuing, “the old road” they called it, but the pond is not that way.  Following a brook, the side path snakes along till they emerge next to an old beavers dam, ice and and still some snow clinging on, and the icy glass layout of the pond ahead.

Stopping on shore they cut a couple likely alder branches, and notching them around the top to hold their line in place, they rig up some make shift rods.

Marching ahead, they walk out on the ice, following the shoreline, they circle around a small point to enter a sheltered cove. Laying their old canvas ruck sacks down, they move off a few feet, and then start the ice chips flying with each down stroke of their axes. 

They’ve done this before, widening the hole at the top and the sides as they know as soon as they break through they only have a couple seconds to widen the gap before the entire hole will fill with water. 

With a gush the water floods their ice holes. Baiting their hooks with some fat back pork and cheese, they prop their rods over the holes and move off to repeat the process, making 3 holes each.

Once done, they idly wander back and forth between their lines, checking for a bite, or giving them a jig here and there to attract a trout.  Not necessarily an exciting process to some, but a relaxing, enjoyable one that a true outdoor lover can appreciate. 

Sitting back on a flipped over beef bucket, exchanging stories, bragging; topics changing as fast as the wind.  Si gets the first trout, followed soon by several more for each.  Slipped on through the gills over a forked stick, between them they get 10 nice sized trout.

“Getting hungry Si?”

“Damn straight! How about you go ashore and get a fire going, while I pick all this up”

“Works for me!” Ralph replies, then heads ashore into the cove.  A fire will be nice he thinks, and there’s nothing like a cup of tea in the woods!

Knowing exactly what he needs, first off he strips some papery bark from a nearby birch tree, and some dry moss from an old spruce.  Then he walks up over the knob to where someone had been cutting wood or logs and finds a nice blasty tree top, dried to nearly cork, dried needles still attached, perfect to get a roaring fire going.

Gathering a few larger junks of wood, to keep some coals going, he drags it all off near the shore.  Clearing away most of the snow in a sheltered nook, he stacks the moss and bark, snaps off some smaller branches from the top and gently lights the fire.

Soon, its roaring, and larger trees have been put on top; too wild and hot yet to use for cooking but there is something welcoming about the smell of the woodsmoke and the feel of a bonfire that warms you to the core.

The time has passed quickly, but Ralph suddenly realizes that its been much longer than it should have taken Si, he walks back out onto the ice to see him, and a surprise.  Its Cooper, and with him, some strangers.

As they get closer, Ralph greets Cooper, and tries, failing miserably, to size up the newcomers without being obvious. 

Direct and to the point, Ralph asks “Who do you have here Cooper?”

“This here is Aunt Maude’s sister’s kids.  They’ve moved back to the harbour, staying with Aunt Maude for now at least. This here’s Jim, he’s 17, and this here’s Doug, he’s your age.”

Cooper moves closer to the fire, and says “We have a little grub, how many trout did you get? Enough for all 6 of us?”

“Well we have 10, so one each and can split the rest, but I dunno, since one of them is nameless, perhaps she doesn’t eat either?”

“Oh! You noticed her did you? Well perhaps a little since you haven’t looked anywhere else since we got here. Ralph this is Dot, she’s 14, and wants nothing to do with you.”

Blushing and mumbling, Ralph moves off and pokes the fire, then walks to the brook to fill the old apple juice can with water to boil for tea.

Coming back he finds that the others have gotten out the old enamel frying pan and have the pork rendering, trout cleaned and ready to go in.  Ralph gets a long stout branch with a fork and positions it over the fire, hanging the apple juice can over with some attached rabbit wire.

Sitting alone on a log, he stares into the embers for a few moments, till Cooper yells “Come on bye, she’s not gonna bite you, and I was joking before.  She may want something to do with ya after all”.  With this, its Dot’s turn to blush and turn away.

Laughing Cooper digs into his pack and pulls out two bottles.  “I managed to sneak off some of Dad’s lemon gin” he says “and half a bottle of this dog berry wine. Though to my tastes, I think it might be turpentine.”

Passing the bottles round, sipping and cursing and coughing over the rough liquor, they bond like teens have done and will do for hundreds of years.  Stories flying, inhibitions loosened, Dot and Ralph are soon chatting like old friends, immediately a couple without anything further needing to be said.

Soon the “tea kettle” is boiling and a handful of loose tea flung in, the smell of fresh cooked trout wafting over their camp as well as that of kippers, caplin, roasted in brown paper on the coals.

Enamel cups and plates are passed around, the food is dished out and fingers and tongues are burned on the hot simple, but deliciously fresh food.

After everyone has eaten, they clean off their plates and cups by scrubbing them in crusty snow till they are clean. 

Once done, Si and Ralph start to prepare their ruck sacks for home, when Cooper says “Wait boys, Doug and Jim have something I know I’ve never seen and doubt you have either.  Heard about em, but don’t think anyone in the harbour ever had them!”

The two new boys look at each other and dig into their packs to pull out what at first looks like a snowshoe harness, till they see its similar but with a single blade at the bottom.

In awe, Si says “Are them skates? Like on the hockey?”

Well not quite like the hockey, but yeah they are says Jim.  He proceeds to strap them on and stands up and tears off across the pond, followed closely by Doug to the whoops of the others.

When he comes back, Ralph asks “You think I could have a go?”

“Sure, but it takes some getting used to”

Over confident, and conscious of Dot beside him, Ralph grabs them and straps them on, dreams of flying across the ice like Jim in his head.  Proceeding to stand up, he takes one step before his legs decide to go in totally new directions they weren’t designed to go in and he falls flat on his rump with a whoof.

The others break down in gales of laughter before Jim says, “I tole ya!”

With a little prodding, some encouragement and some practice, both Si and Ralph manage to make a few small excursions without breaking any bones, with Doug, Jim and Dot taking their turn to fly across the ice to show them what they have to strive for.

Smiling to himself, Ralph gets up out of the rocking chair where he’s been dozing and puts the electric kettle on. 

Don’t taste nearly as good as it do in the woods he thinks.  Dot was 14 then, 64 when she died. 

Too young, but we had 50 years together, over 40 of them as man and wife. Had good kids of our own, and now grand-kids.  I can see her in them.


The well worn leather traces creak as Bax’s old mare pulls the double slide in the long run. Ralph and Si sitting on an old bren full of hay for a seat, Bax up front giving the reins a flick now and then, though its not really necessary, the horse knows the path and routine as well as they do.

Its been a cold winter, but till now, very little snow, and the stands of birch and maple that Bill and Bax and Si’s father, Walt, had cut last fall before Bill went away to Millertown have just sat in their stack.  But now a fine thick snow was on the ground, and it was time to get the wood out, god knows the woodhouse had taken a cutting this year.

“The boys are growing up” Bax thinks to himself, “nearly men, 12 and 11 now.  Less time for riding on the old slides, more time walking behind” he thinks with a chuckle; with their father’s away for work, they have to shoulder a load too.

Flicking the reins once more, they pull off onto the side path, then Bax brings them to a stop.  Standing up, he remarks “I think there was just as much creaking from my old joints as there was from them traces.  Not sure how many more years we’re gonna be able to do this together boys, soon be just you.”

“Now stop that Uncle Bax” says Ralph, “Your only 62, you’ve got a ton of years left in you yet.  Plus your too contrary to die anyway!”

“Mind your elders, you young pup! Now you and Si get the sled loaded, I’m gonna go check a couple slips I got over the way.”

As Bax marches off, Si and Ralph make there way to the stacks of cut wood.  Picking up the large sticks and balancing them on their shoulders with an arm holding them, as their fathers and grandfathers have for hundreds of years.

Their feet crunch in the snow as they march back and forth.  The horse looks small, but she can pull a tremendous load over the snow, and they stack the sled high, wood held in place with pegs inserted into the sled.

Meanwhile, Bax pushes his way through the old woods trail, following blazes on the trees, and the knowledge and “feel” of years to find his slips, loops of braided wire, tailed in rabbit runs, or in little trails of his own directed into man made rooms of tasty birch and twigs. 

Rabbits can be plentiful, but come in cycles, some years there are barely any.  That can make for a lean winter, as rabbit is a delicious addition to the staple of potatoes and salt fish, and any other game that may have been stored away or cold packed in the fall.

He doesn’t like to say it, but the arthritis makes these treks hard now, especially when the snow is deep.  Of course that also works to cover the slips, but this time its been clear for a while, and some nice moonlit nights have had the rabbits running.  Quite a few lie frozen on the crisp snow, great for the roaster, or stew pot or a pie.

The boys say little, comfortable with each other and their silence, but finally Si breaks the quiet.  “He’s right you know.  Grandpa died when he was 68”

“Yea, I know Si, but old man Sampson is pushing 90 and he’s still tailin’ slips too.  Uncle Bax is gettin’ the arthritis bad though, not sure how much he can do like this anymore.”

“Yeah, I know, anyway, that’s enough for Blackie, lets go see if he got any rabbits.”

The follow the path of Bax’s footprints through the snow, to meet him coming back, red faced and puffing.  “Dear god boys, you got the sled loaded already? I must be getting old, hauling a few braces of rabbits got me beat out!”

“Lard, Bax! There must be 20 there! Been a while since you checked em?”

“Well a week or so yeah, getting so I can’t walk in here all the time like I could.”

Grabbing a few braces each, the boys get the rabbits back to the sled and help Bax up on top.  Grabbing the reins he gives a flick, and Blackie starts to pull, slowly at first but then surely, pulling the wood out the trail as the boys walk behind.

Back at the harbour, they unload the first load at Bax’s house, then turn around to do it all again.

“Your going to have to do it on your own this time boys, my hips are shot, I can’t make another trip today.”

Glancing at each other, they ease the horse around and make their way back to the woods, another first together, another sign of manhood coming on.

Two more loads they pull, one to each of their houses, then they take the horse back to her stable, water her and rub her down and give her some hay and oats for the night.

Returning to Bax’s, they see he has cleaned the rabbits, and has them cut up.  Even has the boiler on to get ready to bottle some. 

“See what I mean Uncle Bax? Too contrary to even take a break”

“Just can’t be idle boys, tis not in me nature, but I wasn’t able to muck the woodhorse around or start sawing any of that.”

“We’ll be back tomorrow Bax, we’ll get that sawed off and stowed in for you.”

“Not quite as cold a winter this year as it was that one”, Ralph says, “That’s a good thing too, cause along with his contrariness, I think I’ve got a touch of Uncle Bax’s arthritis too.”

“Ha, well you got the contrary part right anyway, can’t speak for the arthritis!” says Si as he stirs his tea.  “But, yeah we’ve been lucky, hardly any snow either, though they don’t need it nowadays with the ATV’s and trailers.  Mind you Blackie didn’t tear up the country like they do either.”

“How old was he when he died, Ralph?”

“72.  He worked hard, the old bugger, course we did too, but not like then, and today’s crowd don’t know what work is.  Never had to cut up the winter’s wood with a bucksaw for sure. He was a good man, still miss him.

“Yeah, he was more father to us than our own, with them gone away to work all the time, I miss him too, he made us work, but he made sure we had fun too.”

“Yeah, harbour isn’t the same without him.  But the harbour isn’t the same anyway I guess.  Still not sure why I hang on here.  Prap’s tis just contrariness.  I know I miss those kids when they aren’t around, so damn quiet!”

Silas looks at him appraisingly, “Don’t give up what you have just remembering what you had Ralph.  Kids grow up fast, don’t miss out on the things that give you the most joy.”

“Si, your like a brother to me, I don’t like you being here all alone either.”

“Yeah we were pretty inseparable, weren’t we? Still are some I guess, but I’m not going anywhere Ralph, I’ve got nowhere to go, and I’m content.  But you aren’t, you’re missing things.  You can’t have it both ways, the memories of here won’t go away just cause you do, and while we may not always have a cup for tea together, the phone is there when we wants it, and its not like your kids are on the mainland somewhere. We’ll get together pretty often. Make up your mind old friend, only time I see you smile is when you talk about those grandkids, think on that.”


The house is on the side of a hill, a path climbing up to the well house. Rope clothesline hung between two huge old fir, propped up in the middle by a board sawed at the mill.

“Ralphie! Si! You young devils! Get off that path with them slides, your gonna turn it all to ice! Your father will lounder you!”

Pretending they never heard, they race back up the hill for another run. Shaking her head, she turns away, back into the warm house and the bread baking in the oven of the old wood stove.

His slide is wooden, with flat polished runners, made by his Dad. Not as fancy as the new coaster with the metal runners that Silas got for Christmas, but that one sinks in the heavier snow while his rides up on top. Anyway, taking turns on each others is as natural as breathing for Silas and Ralphie, inseparable as only young boys can be.

Flinging themselves down on the sleds, laying on their stomachs as they race down the ice slickened path, they steer into the huge snowbank by the woodhouse to emerge with red faces in a flurry of snow.

“Let’s go somewhere else, before she really gets mad” Ralphie says. “How about we try the long run?”

Silas’ face lights up, “You think the path is broken enough? Snow hard?”

“I’d say, people have been hauling logs all week, let’s try!”

The long run is the old woods path, used in summer to get to the ponds, berry grounds and wood and log stands, and in winter for ice fishing, and hauling the wood and logs out to shore. The path rises, gradually in some places, more steeply in others, but steadily till it reaches its peak about a mile from the harbour.

Off they race, streaking over the crust, sometimes falling through, never slowing, Silas’ new coaster left behind, they will double on the wooden sled.

The path is well flattened, and smooth, worn by many a horse and slide trip back and forth, as well as by townsfolk checking their rabbit slips and hunting.

Exhausted, exhilarated they arrive at the top of the long run, named Hap’s Cap by the old timers, though who Hap is, or was, no one seems to recall. Breath puffing they take a breather, hands on their sides as they survey the whole harbour. Its like the world has spread out the scene before them; stretching as far as they can see. Just a small harbour, but huge in their eyes.

After positioning the slide on the path, Si sits at front while Ralph gets behind and gives a running push.  Jumping on behind, he wraps his legs round to work the steering bar. Slowly at first, but picking up speed they slide down the hill, seeing the familiar terrain go speeding by.

A rabbit darts across the path in front of them. Si glances back to make sure Ralph has seen, but his delighted eyes already tell the story. Barely avoiding rocks as big as themselves strewn by glaciers in ages past, cruising past stumps of logs and firewood, they careen down the long run.

Suddenly Uncle Bax is in the path, axe in hand, rabbit over his shoulder. Jumping out of the way with a curse, he yells after them “You young sleeveens! You needs your hides tanned!”

Unbelievably quickly the garden is upon them, but they are going too fast and can’t steer through the gate.  Crashing into the paling fence, they splinter several, giving themselves a few scrapes, but no damage as they tumble into the snow drifts.

“Uh oh, Dad’s gonna be mad.”

“Yeah, he’s gonna yell at us, and we’re gonna have to fix that come spring. But man! What a ride! Wanna go again?”

Ralph pauses for a second, “Naw. Its nearly dinner time, and I’m starved, lets work on the fort till mom calls.”

The fort is a snow bank, dug out with hands and packed down with feet to form a rectangular enclosure. It has no roof, but walls packed tight with snow hardened to nearly ice, and a tunnel through the bank to enter. Two small windows are left to the outside world; how else to fight off the imaginary Indians and pirates that assail them?

Crawling through the tunnel, they inspect the fort for damages. Assured all was OK, they settle back on their beef bucket chairs and start stockpiling snow balls for the inevitable assault to come. Hearing a familiar whistle, they peer through their portholes.  Its the long suffering Uncle Bax again, often their target of choice because as much as he may curse and pretend to be mad, he’s as likely to start the game with them as be the target of it.

Two snowballs come flying out of the fort, missing their intended target, but kicking up around his feet.  Startled he lets out another curse, and looking round, sees their bright eyes peering at him.  Making a huge snowball himself, he flings it back, with quite a bit more accuracy, catching the edge of a porthole and dousing Ralphie in snow. 

Satisfied, Bax starts back down the road, his face accentuated by a mischievous grin.

With that, the house door opens and the cry of “Dinner!” echoes over the harbour.

Back through the tunnel, and racing to the house, old fashioned double mitts discarded, boots kicked off, and jackets in a heap on the floor, all to be picked up and hung by the wood range, or put in the warmer or on the oven door.

Dinner is the gourmet meal of Franco-American spaghetti on toast, and hot tea. Simple fare, but eagerly devoured by Ralph and Si.

After dinner has been consumed the boys settle down on the living room floor with a game of snakes and ladders while waiting for their clothes to finish drying near the stove.  

Ralph’s mom sits down for a moment and asks “So boys, what did you do this morning?”

“I’ll tell you what they did, they nearly gave this old man a heart attack barrelling down the long run, that’s what they did.” says Uncle Bax as he walks in the door. “Plus broke a few palings off the fence by the look of it. Here Lucy, I brought you a brace of rabbits for supper.”

“Ralph?” she looks at him sternly “Yes Mom, we couldn’t make the gate, but we’ll fix it come spring before Dad gets home. How many rabbits did you get Uncle Bax?”

“Twelve, cleaned these couple for your supper. Any word from Bill, Lucy?”

“Got a letter this morning, yes.  No problems with the train, he’s at the camp in Millertown.  Might get home for Easter, but might not till they finish up in June. Damn those lumberwoods, taking a man from his family for months at a time.”

“Yes.” replies Bax “But its cash money, and there’s precious little of that around here. All you get for the fish is credit at the merchants, and can’t live on that alone. I’m glad I’m too old for that now, but still, in some ways I kind of miss it too.”

Glancing across at the boys he says “You aren’t playing that right! Go up the snakes, and down the ladders!”

“No Bax” says Silas “That’s not right!”

“Well maybe not, but where’s the fun in doing everything like it says you should? Come on start over, I’m playing too!”

“For god’s sake Bax, your as much a youngster as the two of them.”

“Yep.” he replies “And so is Bill and that’s why you married him and loves his old creaky brother too!”

Soon, after much laughter, and rough housing amongst the “kids” the smell of roasting meat starts to waft around the house.  Bax looks up and says “Oh my, the day is gone and I got nothing done.  I must get meself home.”

“You may as well stay for supper now Bax, your fire is gone out by now, go back after and get it warm for the night once you get something to eat.”

Simple fare, meat from hunting, vegetables from their own gardens, gravy, home made bread, and tea.  Sometimes its the simple things that are best and create the best memories.

“Cat got your tongue Ralph?” says Silas.

“No no, just gathering wool, caught up in memories.  I best get home I guess.”

“Well before you do, lets go down to the woodhouse and junk off that old tree of yours.”

Bundling up, the two old timers, still kids at heart, make their way out to the wood house where Ralph drags over the old wood horse, and Silas digs out his old bucksaw.

“Why do you still burn wood, Si? Can’t be easy to manage anymore.”

“No, your right of course, but the heat is different somehow, and it gives me something to do, even if I do have to buy it now. And I guess, to be honest, the main reason is I’m too contrary to change. It holds its memories too.”


“Old Christmas Day.” thinks Ralph, “Years back we would be listening to see if the animals would talk, like the old timers said. Now I’m the old timer. Where does the time go?”

He can’t move as fast as he once could, time and toil have made the joints and muscles slower than they were.

His face, leathery from years of the elements, filled with creases. Character lines some call it, just another sign of the advancing years, but those creases just add expression when his face lights up in a smile, as it often does. Especially when he remembers the grandkids.

Another Christmas come and gone. The house seems so quiet now, without the sound of their delighted squeals and laughter, the sound of their feet pattering across the old floors.

Sighing “Well, time to get the tree down I guess.”

“Why don’t you come live with us, Dad? Why do you stay?” It’s a familiar refrain, heard many times. It runs through his head again now as he slowly puts away the decorations, some nearly as old as he is, lost in his memories.

The crystal ones were his wife’s favourite, gone now these past 10 years. A wistful look on his face as he looks at them one by one, delicate and beautiful, but strong too, as she was.

After putting the things up in their old familiar spots in the back room, he removes the tree from the old metal stand, it too nearly as old as himself. “Am still able to get about though.” he thinks “Still cut my own tree.”

Carrying it outside to the woodhouse, he pauses and surveys the harbour. Smoke floats straight up from Silas’ chimney, the only other person that seems to be up yet.

It’s so quiet, the water black calm, vapour rising in the chill air. Like the whole world is just pausing, taking a breath. So quiet, he can hear the scrape of Silas’s chair over the old wooden floor.

Why indeed? There’s not a lot here anymore, he has few friends left, most passed on or gone to live with family. Of the old gang, just him and Silas and old man Cooper down the way. “Odd” he thinks, “Always Cooper, never Jacob, not even when we were boys.”

Trimming the branches from the tree with the axe, he grabs the trunk and throws it on his shoulder and strolls towards Silas’ house. Its not much, but Silas can burn it in the old wood range, plus he will have the kettle on, a cup of tea will be good.

“Its not the same anymore Si” he says, as he sips tea from the old china cup, toast and the jam dish nearby.”

“I know its not Ralph, but we’re not the same anymore either. We’ve seen more than one pan of ice come in the harbour.” He pauses “Kids after you to move away again?”

Ralph looks up “Yeah, as usual, and they are likely right, but this is home you know? All the memories are here, my life has been here. Ah the memories.”