Of A Summer in Muskoka and The World’s Greatest Sleeper

By John A. Heddle

I have a valid claim, I believe, to have been, once upon a time, the World’s Champion Sleeper. Not one like Rip Van Winkle who, in the story by Washington Irving, slept under a tree for 20 years and so missed the American Revolution. But he was just a fable. My talent was real, though now fading fast as the years rush by. It first came to light in Muskoka at the cottage of my great uncle, Col. George McLaren, an ophthalmologist who was incapacitated by gas in the first World War was at the cottage, not as a guest but as the “Wood Ice-&-Mail” boy for $30/month, plus room and board. My principal job was to carry blocks of ice from the icehouse where they had been stored buried under sawdust. The ice had been cut out of Lake Rosseau in the winter and stored in a double walled shed called the icehouse. It was in a shady spot and its walls were full of sawdust. At more than 50 lbs a block, the ice was too heavy for a stripling to move and also too large to fit into the refrigerator. An ice-pick, the star in many an old-time murder mystery, solved both problems. The cottage on Tobin Island had no electricity, no reliable telephone, and no motor boats. Ice-moving and rowing were essential. The main part of my job was to row about a mile across the lake in a very old and heavy, slightly waterlogged lapstrake skiff designed to be handled by two men. But I was expected to row it myself, wind or rain notwithstanding. By the end of the summer I was a great deal more muscular.

My tasks did not end with icepick and oars. Indeed, I would better have been called the “Odd-Jobs & Etc Man” though, clearly, I had not attained manhood. One of the odd jobs is related to my claim of being a contender for World Champion Sleeper, but there were many before that. The first was to shoot a racoon. Like many small-town lads, I was quite familiar with guns and racoons, though much fonder of the latter than the former. I procrastinated by saying that I feared where the bullet might fall, as the racoon was perched above us in a nearby tree. Its offense had been to open the jam jar on the breakfast table. The jar was readily available, as breakfast was set outside the night before on the splendid wide porch that ran around the cottage.

Why, you might well ask, was it set the night before. Well, Uncle George was a military man, as I told you, and he liked – or rather, demanded – that things happen on time. Breakfast at 8:00. Not at 7:59, so if one turned up then, one got the sort of earful that Sargent-Majors specialize in, and all in the cottage heard it. At that time, Uncle George was just tidying up his shaving brush and straight razor and did not appreciate being disturbed. At 8:00 he expected the porridge and bacon to be ready with toast on the way and the jam at hand, which is the crucial point. The jam had, therefore, to be on the table in advance. The racoon had easy access during the night.

Racoons, all will know, are very smart. You may not know, however, that they are also very strong. During my procrastination over the assassination of the jam thief, I tried putting the top on the jar with pliers. No dice: the racoon got into the jam the next morning, and the military brass was not pleased. So, the next day I closed the jar with a pipe wrench, fearful of breaking the jar but nevertheless as hard as I could. This too, failed to prevent the nightly burglar from having a feed. Now, it was time to clean and oil the rifle, and to reiterate my concerns about my ability to hit a racoon up in a tree with an unfamiliar rifle and bullets of unknown carrying power. In desperation, I suggested that the jam could be carried out with the toast and this compromise was accepted. This ended the first round with the racoon, but a second was in the cards and it led to my recognition as a sleeper without parallel.

The second round occurred on the long weekend in August. The weekend began on Friday afternoon when I rowed across the lake against a strong wind and two-foot waves, a large cargo which comprised six adults, three children, one baby, a mountain of suitcases, dozens of bags of groceries, a liquor store of gin, and one large dog. Don’t forget the dog. The men offered to help, but the second position was filled above the gunnels with baggage. Fortunately, after two months of this, I was a strippling no more, and managed it without tiring, and quite proud of the fact, at that.

This light brown long-haired dog was of indeterminate breed, loud, boisterous, and naive. It was a city dog more used to cats than raccoons. Later that weekend, at 2:00 am, there was a terrible racket that awakened everyone but me (one point towards the championship). The dog and racoon were having a blistering argument on the beach. Neither felt able to retreat for fear of an attack, so they barked and screeched at one another as the family gathered with flashlights in hand. The ladies screeched, too: “Where is John? Where is John?” I (John) was sound asleep, recovering from the rowing exercise. Shaking me had no effect (point two towards a medal). Just as they gave me up for dead, a flashlight swept over my face and I awoke instantly. Soon I was stumbling down to the beach in PJs and bare feet, with no weapon of any kind, only to discover that the combatants had moved under the dock. Aunts, cousins, and ladies of all sorts were apoplectic for the safety of the dog. Being in water was dangerous for the dog, as raccoons are reputed to drown dogs by holding their heads under water. What to do? The rifle was out of the question in the dark and over water with the dog and target in close proximity. Luckily, one of the men stuck a paddle between two dock boards and it separated the animals. Each, with its rear now protected, turned tail and scampered out, ending the confrontation and allowing us all to resume our sleep. As usual, the moment my head hit the pillow, I was fast asleep (point 3), an ability much decried by my wife who, so often has been late for a final kiss. Now, I am reformed; I have to get up several times in the night and have learned not to put my head down until properly kissed.

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