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Terror at White Otter Castle
As the canoes threaded through the yellowing lily pads and marsh grass, an uneasy silence fell upon the paddlers. Ahead loomed White Otter Castle, the mysterious hundred-year-old monstrosity hidden away in isolated northern Ontario wilderness. The presence of the long-departed James Alexander McOuat pressed down upon the group as they neared the disintegrating structure. Grey logs with missing chinking, vanished shingles, gaping empty windows, and a partially collapsed awning spoke of decay, loss, and neglect.
It was late on the third afternoon of their canoe trip when the group reached the forlorn castle of broken dreams. Laurel, Aster, and Beth were suitably impressed. It was more imposing than its pictures, a massive log building remote by even northern standards. Built by hand by a single man in 1914, there were still no roads leading to its isolated site. It could only be reached by float plane, boat, canoe, helicopter, four—wheeled drive, or, in winter, by snowmobile. The otherworldliness of the log castle emphasized that they were far, far away from civilization as they knew it.
All the canoes stopped as the occupants gazed on this bizarre structure in the middle of nowhere. The plop plop of the paddles ceased. A light breeze swayed the leaves on the deciduous trees on shore and created small waves on the clear empty lake. Overhead, a turkey vulture circled silently.
Three red roofs contrasted vividly with the green foliage of trembling aspen, white birch, white ash, cedar, and spruce trees. A long red-roofed open porch/awning sheltered three dark doorways into the decrepit main building, which was also red-roofed. But what was most startling was the four-storey square tower in the back corner, facing the lake, seemingly transposed from the secluded Scottish highlands. One could imagine an imprisoned princess gazing out over the lake and woods or a mad poet pacing in frustration.
"Hold the canoe still," cried Aster. She took off her sunglasses and set them on top of her large straw hat. "I want to get some photos from the lake."
Matt, the handsome, blond stranger Aster had been partnered with, steadied the canoe by laying his paddle flat on the surface of the water. Aster pulled out her camera and shot several angles. Then she turned the camera on Matt and snapped two more. Her black wavy hair contrasted beautifully with her smooth, pale skin. Her face belonged in a Renoir painting.
"Oh, brother," said Beth as she resumed and paddled past with Laurel in the stern. "It's not enough she's got a gorgeous boyfriend at home, she has to hit on her canoe partner too."
"Sh," said Laurel. "She's just taking pictures. That's what she does."
"Right," said Beth. "She's going to add shots of hot Matt to her portfolio."
"Why not?" snapped Laurel. "He is photogenic."
The guides, Rebekkah and Steve, resumed paddling first. They led the canoes toward the landing through floating arrowhead. No one spoke as the three canoes touched the bank. The canoeists in the bows jumped onto the shore, pulled the canoes up onto the pebbly beach, and held the vessels while the paddlers in the stern made their way carefully along the keel and onto land. Together they hauled the craft further up the beach.
Laurel was first to break the silence. "Jimmy McOuat didn't build the red roofs." She tucked a strand of bright auburn hair behind her ear. "They were put on by the Ministry of Natural Resources in the 1950s to stop the castle from decaying away. Although it looks in pretty rough shape, there have been attempts to stop it from falling apart."
Beth, a wide-shouldered strong woman with short, wiry brown hair, nodded absently. She rubbed the back of her neck, trying to smooth out the small hairs that had risen at the sight of the weird castle.
Even without the red roofs, the castle would have been a marvel for its time. What would possess a man to build a monstrosity so far away from any community with only himself to rattle around in its large, lonely rooms? And what was the purpose of the odd tower?
Beth shivered as a small silhouette with a floppy hat appeared in the top tower window and just as quickly disappeared. The guides had said tourist season was pretty much over. The long weekend at the beginning of September was their slowest time. She could see no campsite on the shore, and no canoe pulled up on the bank. The shadow must have been a trick of the light.
"All right," called Aster as she resumed paddling. "Let's bring her in and check this colossal out. I can't wait to get some shots up close. This is phenomenal."
Beth rolled her eyes. This was only the middle of the third day of their trip and she was already longing to go home. She'd had enough of chirpy little Aster.
* * * * *
Laurel was tired of playing referee. It had been Laurel's idea to go on a five day wilderness canoe trip before the three friends went their separate ways after graduating. She, Aster, and Beth had been best friends since grade one when they formed "The Power Triangle", their protection against bullies or cliques. The idea had come to them when their teacher explained that triangles were the strongest shapes. Whenever one shouted out the cry, "Triangle Power", the other two were honour bound to come to her rescue, whatever the situation. Other students soon learned that to take on one of the girls really meant taking on all three. Laurel was the negotiator. Aster could verbally strip bark off a tree. And Beth was the enforcer. So how had things gone so wrong?
This last year of high school had been darkened by squabbles and resentment. Beth was barely speaking to Aster and Aster seemed bewildered and sad. Laurel, stuck in the middle, feared that once they went their separate ways, a thirteen year friendship would disintegrate. In a desperate hope to mend things, she convinced the other two to join her on a five day canoe trip to the wilderness.
So far the trip had been pretty cool and everyone had been looking forward to White Otter Castle. Beth and Aster didn't speak as they paddled and portaged, but being in separate canoes would have made it difficult anyway. Perhaps Laurel should have gone with Matt and forced the others together. Without teamwork, it was pretty impossible to get anywhere in a canoe.
As Laurel untied and carried her packsack and sleeping bag up onto the open space in front of the castle, she glanced toward the century-old structure. The empty black windows seemed to stare back at her. Maybe she should have read less about its creator's difficult life and sad, lonely death.
After a dinner of tuna, bannock, and carrots prepared by the guides, Rebekkah and Steve, everyone helped set up camp. Beth, Aster, and Laurel had one tent. Rebekkah and Steve shared one. Maxine, a woman in her mid-thirties, and her older husband Ted, shared another. Matt, Maxine's younger brother, had his own pup-tent.
"Make sure all your food, soap, and anything that might attract bears is in your packsacks," said Steve, as he had the last two nights.
"I know," said Laurel. "Tie it high in a tree away from the tents."
She tried not to notice Matt helping Aster with hers. The girl couldn't help being short after all.
Laurel used cocoa butter cream on her sore hands before tucking it into the sack. Paddling was giving her blisters on her palms in addition to sore shoulders. She spent too much time with books and not enough time challenging her body.
She watched Beth toss the rope over the limb with the first shot and pull the heavy pack up without any strain. The muscles in her bare arms flexed. Beth did most of the work paddling, but she hadn't complained. It might have been a different story if Beth had been matched with Aster.
Three days of paddling and portaging had taken its toll. It was time to chillax. Laurel read her e-book while Aster continued to photograph the structure and surroundings as the evening light changed.
"Don't go inside," warned Steve. "Boards could come down on you at any second. The stairs have rotted and most of the floors are gone. One wrong step and we'll have to telephone for a Medivac. That doesn't look good on our website."
"Alrighty," called Aster as she flopped down on her stomach, rolled over, and shot several angles of the tower.
Beth, a competitive swimmer and diver who would be attending Boston University next week on an athletic scholarship, swam in the cool lake as the setting sun turned the water into liquid gold. She was unaware that several of Aster's photographs caught her silhouetted against the gleaming lake.
Laurel watched Aster pause, as though admiring Beth's smooth strokes through the water. Was Aster oblivious to how much Beth's feelings had changed toward her? Or did she even care? Out here, cut off from the rest of the world, under the shadow of that creepy castle, was not the place to cut loose your friends.
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About Bonnie Ferrante
Bonnie Ferrante's work has appeared in various children’s and adult magazines and anthologies. She is a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist lay leader and was a grade school teacher. Her first three novels were published by Noble Romance Publishing. In 2014, her next book will be published by Tradewind Books in Vancouver. Bonnie lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. She loves to chant, bike, garden, read, stitch, volunteer, create visual art, and attend live theatre. She hates cooking and cleaning and loves her robot vacuum, (too bad it can’t move the furniture).