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A Flea in Your Ear?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Humans must relieve themselves from time to time.  You probably know this.  At our cottage the place to do so is a “two-holer” outhouse in the forest behind the cabin.  Up a steep path, then up even higher, via some wooden stairs.

At night it is best to take a flashlight,
because with one misstep you could break your leg, or your neck.  Even with the outside light at the end of the cabin turned on, it’s best to have a flashlight.

It’s a bright light, that bulb at the end of the cabin.  Shines much of the way up toward the outhouse.  Shines enough to be very attractive to bugs.  Not only the bugs that want to fly into it, but also the eight-legged sort of bug – spiders, actually – that build webs to catch and eat the ones that fly towards the light.  So life around that shining light is quite active in the dark of night.

I have enjoyed watching the activity sometimes.  For instance, there has been a really large spider in residence by the light, catching and wrapping up all sorts of flying things to be digested at leisure.  Once, I saw her engaged in a contest of some kind with another spider, a smaller more slender version of herself.  He would dart in, and she would lunge, and he would jump out of the way.  I suspect he was a male of the species, and this performance was some sort of amorous encounter, a proposal of marriage perhaps?  Or just a request for a one-night stand?  Probably the latter, for I believe that among some spiders, the guys do get their way with the girls, but then are unceremoniously eaten.

I think that this is what happened that night beside our bright and shining light, for I only saw the skinny fellow once, and soon the big female – possibly a little larger – was once more alone on her web.

A couple of days ago, she was no longer to be seen at the light.  Having eaten her fill of husband and bug, she probably wandered off somewhere to have her spider babies.  Her web, once kept in perfect condition, is now torn and shattered and empty.

And the number of flying bugs has increased dramatically!  Without the big momma to eat them, hundreds of bugs have begun to congregate at the light, diving into it and then flying in crazy circles, blinded.

In order to go to the outhouse at night, one has to walk through this aerial commotion.  The light at the end of the cabin is not much higher than the top of your head, and the blinded moths fly their mad spirals right across the beginning of the path up the hill.

Last night, I stepped out of the cabin and made my way through this whirling madness.  And a bug flew right into my ear.

Not “into” as in “crashing into” my ear and falling to the ground; no, it is “into” as in: “right down my ear canal, almost to the eardrum.”

Deep inside, it frantically tried to fly – only to move further and deeper in, where it struggled, filling my head with a thrumming whirring vibration.


I tried to feel for it with my finger, to pull it out, but it was too far inside – there was none of it for me to pinch and pull out.  If I were to press tightly on my ear from outside, that would squish it and end the maddening thrumming, but would I ever be able to retrieve the remains from so far down the ear canal?


I stumbled back into the cabin, not shouting, but almost crying, “Heather!  I need help!  Get a flashlight, and some tweezers!  There is a bug inside my ear!”

Maybe she could see it, and pull it out.


I was going mad with the thought of a living thing struggling for life deep inside my head.


Heather – who is nearsighted, and thus well-suited, I thought, for the task – peered and peered, and couldn’t see a thing.


Markus, our grandkid visiting our cottage for a couple of days, applied youthful eyes to the project.

“I see it!” said Markus.  And gently, deftly, reached in with the tweezers and pulled out a complete moth, with a wingspan of two and a half centimetres.  It was covered in ear wax, and died with one final twitch.

Relief slowly washed over me.  The silence... hearing the ordinary sounds of the cottage again... was heavenly.

It took me a long while to recover, and to remember what I had been going outside to do.  When I finally did open the door to begin my climb up the hill, I made sure that the light on the corner of the cabin was turned off.  A flashlight would be sufficient.

a human ear, with a moth poised to fly into it
A flea in the ear?  No, a large moth.

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Munch munch munch

Speaking of bugs... up until last week, whenever I was sitting quietly in the cabin, I could hear a tiny scratching scraping sound.  It was very faint and high-pitched, and in fact Heather couldn’t hear it at all.  But I could.

I walked around the cabin, listening, trying to locate it, and eventually I decided that the sound was loudest when I stood near the door to the bunkroom.  Then I made a detective-like connection: there was a small amount of sawdust at the base of that door.

I should tell you that over the past year, every once in a while I would find sawdust there.  I’d vacuum it up, but I wouldn’t pursue the matter, because a forest cabin often gets wood and dust and leaves and other stuff in it.  But now the light dawned: the sawdust and the scratching sound were connected.

Carpenter ants.

Ants are not unusual in a forest cabin.  We would see them from time to time in the food area, and stomp on them.  I also put out ant traps.  But recently we noticed that their numbers were increasing.  Acquiring new ant traps didn’t seem to make a difference, either.  And these fellas were big – well, big for ants, that is.

a carpenter ant
A Typical Carpenter Ant
Sawdust on the floor under a wooden door in which I can hear the sound of small mandibles chewing means only one thing: we have a major infestation.

So last week I decided to put some powerful ant poison inside the door, except that I couldn’t get at the holes from which the ants were coming and going.  The door itself looks just fine, with no visible holes on either side.  The creatures come and go either from the top, or the bottom, and do all their chewing on the door’s interior structure.

There was nothing for it but to take the door off, and while I was at it, take it right outside before I start applying the poison.

But, having done that, I couldn’t be sure that the poison would get them all, so I decided not to put the door back.  I just stuck it under the cabin.

And, we haven’t seen any ants since.

The doorway of the bunkroom is now covered with a curtain of fabric.

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A Wick and a Can of Beans

September 4, 2013

My friend Dennis, a skilled writer, was quite impressed by the account I wrote of the tornado that struck our lake, and by the coping strategies that I used in the days that followed when we had no electricity.

Now you are probably not acquainted with Dennis, so I must tell you that Dennis’ idea of “roughing it” is a hotel where there is nobody to come in at bed time to turn down your covers and place chocolates on the pillow.  He therefore found our privations in the Québec wilderness quite appalling, and wrote about them in a newsletter that he sent out to all his friends – exaggerating to such a degree that Heather and I laughed and laughed.

Father Tony [he wrote] has actually been subjected to all sorts of trials, recently, at his lovely lacustrine retreat, in la belle Province.  There were storms.  The power went out.  He is powering his computer off a small wick inserted into a can of beans, ignited with LARD.  (I think he has had to kill a couple of beavers with his own, desperate, bare hands, and make them into soup, in order to SURVIVE.)

Well then, Dennis will enjoy what we had to do today:

The electricity works – more or less 1 – and the phone works, but the rest of the world is becoming so wired that our simple telephone will no longer suffice for the type of conference call that Heather had to make.

You see, although she is “retired,” Heather has retained her licence to practice law in Manitoba, and has agreed to assist in the teaching of this year’s crop of Articling Students.  When she had to do her articles at the beginning of her career, she attended classes where experienced lawyers explained the practical details of the profession.  This is no longer the case.  People who are fresh out of law school today learn their craft online.  They never see the experienced lawyer’s face.  They read a manual, and are given an assignment, which they complete and submit electronically.

Heather is supposed to comment on the submissions, giving advice by email, or in an online “forum,” and then marking the students’ work.  All online.  She supposed, in fact, that she could do this at the cottage: we can get email through the telephone, by the “dial-up” method.  “Dial-up” is very slow, but surely a typed essay can be received, marked and returned without too much trouble via this increasingly obsolete system.

Yes?  Well, no.  I knew we were in trouble when Heather received a message that there would be a “conference call” that was intended to show her and her colleagues how the online forum was going to work.  The lawyers who were going to monitor and mark the students’ submissions were to speak to one another on the phone, and, at the same time, view the “forum” website on their computer screens.  Sitting there on the phone, they would be instructed to click on this, and click on that, and follow the other link.

This is simply not possible with a single phone line into a cabin in a forest.  With a “dial-up” system of accessing the Internet, you can either talk on the phone, or you can click on a website, but you can’t do both.

The solution was not a “wick and a can of beans” but it was close.  We drove into the town of Hawkesbury, and set up Heather’s laptop in a Tim Horton’s coffee shop, where there is free public wireless Internet.  My cellphone doesn’t work at the cottage, but it works fine in town, so Heather got the “forum” on her laptop screen and dialed in to the conference call.  There, for the next hour, with the other patrons all around us sipping their coffee and munching their doughnuts, Heather discussed legal matters and computer technicalities with a bunch of other lawyers far away.

Of course we ourselves purchased coffee and doughnuts in this process, so as not to freeload on the establishment.

But we know for certain that Heather will not be able to function as law student facilitator from our cottage.  We have to return to Winnipeg.  Which will be alright; I’ve agreed to fill in for a friend, presiding and preaching at Sunday services in his parish on September 15.  So our time here is swiftly coming to an end.

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The Last Week: on the Move!!!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Our last days at the cottage were not really spent at the cottage.  For one thing, Heather’s aunt died.

Her death was not a total tragedy.
  Dorothy Tyler was 93, and her health had plummetted.  Although her mind was still sharp, her body was done, and she was ready and eager for her life in this world to come to an end.  Heather’s cousin Beth, Dorothy’s daughter, knew this, and was therefore not devastated.  Still, we thought that it would be nice to offer family support, and the funeral was taking place in North Bay, Ontario, where Dorothy had lived much of her life.

So we went.

I’m used to driving long distances, and 465 kilometres wasn’t much, compared to some of the trips I’ve made.  So, on Thursday, September 5th we drove from our cottage to North Bay, and booked ourselves into a hotel.  The next morning we attended the funeral, and chatted with the family at the reception, then headed back to the lake.

But now we had to get back to Winnipeg.  Heather’s tasks for the Law Society articling process require a regular and reliable high-speed Internet connection, and besides, I had agreed to fill in for a colleague, presiding and preaching at his Sunday service on the 15th (yesterday).  So, prior to our going to North Bay, we did a lot of the work necessary to close up the cottage for the season.  There remained one big chore – transporting across the lake my share of the firewood that the team of old men had split on August 24.

And we needed to make another trip to Montreal.  Rachael and Michael were going to be there to have their engagement photos taken (can you believe it?  their wedding photographer lives in Montreal, and the wedding itself 2 will be in California!  not bad, eh?).  We planned to meet them and go to church together.

We also wanted to see our friends, John and Karen, one more time before returning to Winnipeg.

So, back at the lake after the quick trip to North Bay, I spent a morning hauling and stacking firewood, then we drove down to the town of Hudson, Québec, where John and Karen live.  An overnight with them, and in the morning, three of us went in to the Anglican cathedral in Montreal (John couldn’t come, because he’s a retired priest like I am, and this was one of the Sundays when he was committed to fill in for someone – presiding and preaching at another church).

The service and the music and the sermon at Christ Church Cathedral were superb, and the day achieved perfection by having Rachael and Michael in the pew beside us.

After church we drove them to the airport and they were gone.

The long drive back to Winnipeg, with “weather bomb”

We returned to John and Karen’s home, and stayed one more night with them, then on Monday morning, a week ago, we got up, had breakfast with our friends, then drove to the lake.  We did the last things required for shutting down the cabin, then said goodbye to our summer place for another year.  By Monday evening we were in Deep River, Ontario.  By Tuesday Evening we were in Sault Ste. Marie.

We might have gone farther that day except that the region had been hit by what I call a “weather bomb:” an enormous storm with torrential rains that washed out roads, sent cars flying into ditches, and killed at least one motorcyclist.  We knew none of this as we drove along, until we were stopped by some men, who said the road ahead was closed, and sent us – along with all the other traffic on the Trans-Canada highway – on a 61 kilometre detour through remote and beautiful countryside.

Oh yes, and Heather was supposed to have another conference call with the Law Society, and our detour took us into a region where there was no cellular phone service whatsoever.  When we found ourselves, finally, in range of a signal, we simply pulled off the road, and parked.  Heather took my cellphone, dialled the requisite number, and said, “It’s Heather; sorry I’m late, but we’re near Sault Ste Marie and have been sent on a long detour where I couldn’t call in!”

Whereupon she proceeded to participate in the discussion with the other lawyer/facilitators about marking and downloading and ways in which the study materials were helpful – or unhelpful – for the students.

It took the better part of an hour.

I watched dragonflies while I waited; they were darting and snapping at their dinner.  And a flock of seagulls also appeared to be feasting in mid-air.  After a torrential rain (which we still didn’t know about; all we knew was that some emergency had forced us on a long detour) bugs must have been dislodged or otherwise caused to swarm, because the gulls and the dragonflies were flying back and forth over our car, snapping and eating to their hearts’ content.

The hotel where we ended up that night was abuzz in a different way: with news of the weather bomb.  And that is where we learned the cause of our long road detour.

Before arriving at the hotel, we had experienced a bit of the deluge ourselves, passing for about half an hour through an intense downpour.

The next day, Wednesday, although it was overcast and foggy at first, we were able to drive without incident twelve hours straight, all the way around the north shore of Lake Superior and stopping after dark in the town of Dryden – within easy striking distince of home.

A Small Passenger

Thursday we made it home, but not without a last notable thing to mark this summer of notable things:

When you head out for a very long motor trip, do you carry snacks to nibble on as the kilometres roll by?  We do.  Inevitably there is a thermos of coffee, and usually a bag or two of crisp and salty thing available in the front seat.

We particularly like what in Canada are called “kettle chips” – thick, deep-fried, oily and salty potato shavings.  Yes, yes, I know: “unhealthy,” “bad for you,” “heart-attack-in-a-bag,” and all that.  But they taste so good!

These delicious snacks can be obtained in a rather large plastic-foil bag – a bag so tightly sealed that the air is trapped inside, so that you could use the thing as a pillow, if need be.  And this one was almost as big as a pillow, come to think of it.  It was also the type of container that is really difficult to open: thick plastic so robust and so well sealed that a person really has to strain to try to pop the thing open.

As I have mentioned, we put in a full day of driving on our second-last day – twelve hours straight from Sault Ste Marie to Dryden.  At some point in that long drive, Heather managed to pop open the bag of kettle chips, and we nibbled at them and sipped our coffee on and off throughout the day.  The bag was so big, however, that we didn’t manage to eat everything in it, and at some point, Heather squished up the open end, in an attempt to re-seal it, and put it in the back seat.  When we got to the motel, it must have dropped to the floor as we pulled out our suitcases and backpacks...

...for that is where we found it the next morning.

On the floor.  Almost under the front seat.  The tough plastic shredded in little bits.  And not a kettle chip left.

A mouse.  Undoubtedly by that point a very FAT mouse.

Might it have gotten in while we were at the motel?  And left, when its meal was done?  That would be most desirable.

But a modern car is pretty well sealed against such small nocturnal guests.  Perhaps the creature had joined us at the cottage, and had been a passenger for several days!

That is unnervingly possible.  One year, when I had taken the car to the dealer for routine maintenance – following one of these huge trips to the lake – the service advisor came out to show me a shredded air filter.  “Mice!” he said.  “They must have come into the engine bay, found the cabin air intake, and made themselves a lovely nest.”

“Cabin air intake...”  Hmmmmm....  Perhaps a mouse can crawl into the vehicle’s cabin, if they get into the heating and ventilation system!

So we drove the rest of the way home with a question mark over our heads... was there a mouse under Heather’s seat?  Disquieting.

But we are home now, safe and sound, having driven a total of 11,446 kilometres since I headed out on July 3; and we are slowly entering the new “normal” life of two retired people living at home, day after day, together.

But we’re setting a mousetrap at nights on the floor of the car.

Nothing in it yet.

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11,446 Kilometres!

It was a summer of bad weather and many days without electricity or telephone or both; it was a summer of woodchopping and critters and bugs; and it was a summer with a steady stream of family visitors.  But most of all it was a summer of constant driving.

Here’s a chart:

July 3from Winnipeg, to Ottawa, to the cottage2,282 km.
July 14From the cottage to Toronto, and back
– bringing Chris, Alexa & Nicholas to the lake
1,136 km.
July 17Shopping and touring in Montreal with Chris, Alexa and Nicholas290 km.
July 19Visiting John and Karen in Hudson QC (+shopping)222 km.
July 20Take Chris and Alexa to Dorval airport225 km.
July 22Pick up Diana H-J at Ottawa airport238 km.
August 3Take Nicholas to Ottawa airport238 km.
August 7Visit John & Karen in Hudson QC160 km.
August 14To Toronto so Heather and Rachael can do wedding dress shopping together
– plus quality time with Ariel and Shai and their friends
620 km.
August 18To Port Hope, stay with our friends Patrick & Cathy, drive back to the lake the next day560 km.
August 27Pick up Markus and Andrew in Montreal, bring them to the lake268 km.
August 30Take Markus and Andrew to Ottawa bus terminal232 km.
September 5To North Bay and back for a funeral930 km.
September 7To Hudson QC, and Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal260 km.
September 9Return home to Winnipeg (with detour)2,322 km.
throughoutAt least two dozen trips into Hawkesbury for supplies, Internet, etc.1,463 km.

And that, my friend, is the story of our summer – the first summer of Heather’s “retirement!”

Your friendly blogger,

'Tony,' handwritten

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from Rene in Winnipeg, MB – September 19, 2013 2:38:50 PM CDT (CA)

Having read your version of “What I Did Last Summer”, I now fully understand why Heather said “Harrumph” when I asked if she’d had a good time at the cottage.  With regard to the moth, may I suggest that you keep a set of earmuffs handy for those attempting the journey to The Heights of Ecstasy or to what my grandfather always called The Ark?  This might be useful in the absence of large female spiders to keep the bug population under control.

from “Junior,” in Vankleek Hill, ON – September 17, 2013 2:56:09 PM CDT (CA)

re:Three Old Men Cutting Wood:” Junior is actually 63 but who is counting.  Enjoyed your entries and was most disappointed not to receive a call from Toronto or Dryden or... 3
Hope you and Heather are well.  Sandy enjoyed your visits and hopes to return to “neighbour status” next summer.

– Ken Duff (a.k.a. “Junior”)

from Beth, in Barrie, ON – September 17, 2013 8:20:55 AM CDT (CA)

Thanks for a wonderful way of starting a day.  If one gets a hang nail they think the world has ended.  What would they be like if they walked in your shoes?
Glad you finally got home in one piece.
Really enjoyed this tale and will read the others when I have more time.  Thanks for starting my day off on a positive step.

End of 2013 Cottage segment; Return to Entry/Exit page


1  In an earlier post, I told you about the five days following the tornado, when we were without electricity, but this summer has had an unacceptably high number of days where the power would go off for two, three, or four hours at a time.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

2  Rachael and Michael will be married in a ceremony at one of the wineries of the Napa valley in California, on Canada’s “Victoria Day” weekend next year, 2014.  I described their equally remarkable proposal and engagement in my entry for July 19, 2013.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

3  “Junior” (a.k.a. Ken Duff) is my neighbour at the lake.  He has a key to my cabin, in case of emergencies.  For several years I would have to phone him when I was half-way home because, despite carefully closing up the place for the season, I realized that I had forgotten food in the fridge, or left the electricity on, and in one case I had left the Canadian flag up, on its flagpole.  Good old youthful Ken would answer my phone call and remedy whatever I had forgotten.  This year nothing important got omitted in the closing-up process, and in this note Ken teases me because he didn't get his annual phone call.  See also what Ken had to do for us in the summer of 2010.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

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