The creek flowed slowly by, taking its time to get to Lake Ontario. A yellow leaf spiraled down and alighted on the water, an upturned edge catching a bit of the breeze. Its gliding path gave me the idea to pull the canoe out of the brush and ride downstream, paddling just enough to steer. It was a drifting kind of day.
Every so often I would have to bend low in the canoe to get under a fallen tree. Other than that, nothing interrupted the feeling of timelessness.
Then I got that unmistakable feeling of being watched. I grabbed a branch to stop the canoe while I studied the banks of creek. In a minute, just as I expected, I spotted old Lem crouched under the leaning trunk of a willow. He nodded at me.
I pulled the canoe in and disembarked, tying the bow line to a sapling that leaned from the bank. Lem was roasting a piece of meat on a stick. It smelled good.
Lem's small smokeless fire sat on a thick bed of ashes. I presumed that meant he had been spending time on this bend of Johnson Creek, and I asked him if this was so. He nodded and looked at the cooking meat.
"Didn't expect no comp'ny, or I'd of catched another squirrel." He poked at the meat and decided it was cooked enough, then scattered the sticks of the fire. A film of smoke drifted out over the water. Lem pulled off a scrap of meat and began to chew it slowly.
"I been makin' ashes here for most of two hundred years, lots of 'em in the early days."
"Tell me about it," I prompted, eager to hear him talk of his pioneer days.
"Well, boy, you can't farm in the dark woods, so I girdled and cut trees to clear some land. A year later I started burnin'. Burned big for week on week, breathed more smoke than air."
"The ashes must have sweetened the soil, too," I offered.
"Nope. A man come through talkin' how he wanted me to boil wood-ash lye for that potash, sayin' he'd buy up all the black salts we could make. Frenchman he was, from up the end of the lake. Said he'd loan out kettles, even.
"I worked from can-see to can't-see, ahaulin' an' leaching boilin' ash. Kept the black salts in a barrel I made from a holla sycamore."
"How much money did you make, Lem?" I had read about people making enough from potash to pay for their land.
"Not much, after all."
"I made me a big dugout canoe to take them salts down the creek to the lakeshore. I burned and scraped that boat from a tulip-popple tree, like I seen the Indians do.
"Loaded my black salts into my boat and started polling her downstream, tellin' Mathild that I'd be a day gone. Halfway down to the lake, the boat hung up and spun round and rolled over before I could do nothin' about it. By the time I got her righted up, most of them black salts had gone downstream by themselves, makin' for some bitter water.
"What salts was left in the dugout was just a wet mess. I boiled 'em down again and traded that little bit to the Frenchman for some tinware for Mathild and some lead and powder for me. A jug of rum, too, to add to my trouble. Don't be drinkin', boy."
"Sad story," I said, poking at the ashes from his cooking fire with a stick.
"Way it goes sometimes. But I had some land clear, and the Frenchman let us keep the kettle, and we boiled salts for a couple years after, made a few dollars is all. Finally we just used the ash-juice for makin' soap.
"Want to go upstream in my canoe?" I asked. Lem ignored my invitation. A bird warbled in the woods behind us. Lem jumped up and chuckled. He whistled back convincingly, and a second later he was gone.
I polled the canoe back upstream. It moved easier than Lem's dugout would have coming back from the lake with its heavy load of disappointment.