Bear Lake Wilderness Camp in Esponola, Ontario, is just what the name implies: a scattering of rustic, no-frills cabins on a six-acre island rising from, of course, Bear Lake. Just to the south is the Killarney Provincial Park. The entire region is couched in the La Cloche Mountains, whose whitish quartzite cliffs provide a snowcapped aura to what is actually a rocky, low-slung, timbered landscape dotted with dozens of clear, fish-filled lakes linked by creeks, sloughs, beaver ponds and portages.
Most visitors come for the fishing, as I have, although bear hunting is also available (the season opens in mid-August).
There are no roads aside from footpaths and canoe trails.
What is striking is the cleanliness. The land. The air. The water. The camp. Bob Abella has been coming here for nearly half a century. He still dips his drinking water from whatever lake he happens to be fishing. This isn’t generally advised, but so far Abella, who still carries the lean, muscular physique of the outdoorsman he’s always been, has suffered no ill effects.
The camp has been in operation since the 1940s and is owned by Kentuckian Bill Drane. When Drane isn’t in the Canadian outback, he’s at home in Prospect or traveling the winter sport show circuit, trying to entice anglers and hunters to head north for a week.
It’s probably an easy sell because, if for no other reason, Kentucky hospitality abounds.
Each cabin is supplied with a boat and small outboard, and boats are cached at dozens of surrounding lakes. From the camp, fishing options are virtually unlimited. Smallmouth bass are ridiculously plentiful. Northern pike cruise the region’s waters seemingly looking for a fight. Lake trout and brook trout swim here, too. And there are plenty of surprises. Burnt Cabin Lake, a remote, tannin-stained, unpretentious pond that’s a three-hour paddle and portage from camp, harbors bluegill that are hard to hold with one hand.
I’m startled when a moose plunges into Howry Lake, swims maddeningly about 50 yards off our bow, and then awkwardly scrambles up the bank, quickly regains its majesty and vanishes into the woods. Abella, in the lead canoe with his son, Scott, watches the moose then points toward a small island.
The island is long and narrow and home to a log cabin, which is unlocked.
The cabin is clean and well kept. The main room is about 16 by 20 feet. The one interior door is padlocked.
A corner shelf is stocked with a few necessities: insect repellent, duct tape, bathroom tissue, clothespins and playing cards. Another shelf holds Monopoly and Password board games and about 30 books, including a King James Bible. A small mirror hangs by the main door, and there’s a broom in one corner.
Above the locked door, penned in small block letters of fading ink, is this undated message:
“Welcome! You are welcome to the use of this cabin and hope you enjoy your stay. There are just 3 favors I ask: 1- Please respect the privacy of the one room which is locked. 2- Please do not cut any of the trees on the island for wood. I have tried to leave you a supply. If that is gone go to the mainland for what you need. 3- Please leave the cabin and its equipment as you find it.”
Sterling B. Cramer
Another hand-lettered note hangs over the stone fireplace. This one, printed in all caps, is dated August 1982.
“MY GRANDFATHER, STERLING CRAMER, PURCHASED THIS LAND & BUILT THIS CABIN DURING THE SUMMER & WINTER OF 1922-23 WITH ALL PROVISIONS HAVE BEEN HAULED OVER THE ICE THE PREVIOUS WINTER. THE CABIN HAS BEEN AVAILABLE TO TRAVELERS SINCE THE ORIGIN WHEN NOT BEING USED BY OUR FAMILY. IT IS OUR DESIRE TO CONTINUE THIS PRACTICE. WE HAVE NOTICED SOME CARVINGS & ABUSING OF THE CABIN & TREES ON THE ISLAND. WE WOULD REQUEST YOUR RESPECT FOR THE CABIN & ITS SURROUNDINGS, ABIDING BY THE THREE FAVORS ON THE WELCOME SIGN. WE DO HOPE YOU ENJOY YOUR STAY.”
The surroundings include a small aluminum boat and an outhouse. No graffiti. No broken windows. No cut trees.
I wondered how this outpost would look had it been built in the Land Between the Lakes or along the Red River Gorge, where thoughtless visitors occasionally spray silly and vulgar messages on the rock outcroppings—and been left unlocked for 80 years.
Equally well preserved and respected, I hope.
For more information about Bear Lake Wilderness Camp, go to blwc.com or contact Bill Drane at
(502) 648-2758 or email@example.com.
Readers may contact Gary Garth at firstname.lastname@example.org