All I knew was her maiden name, Sybil Varro, that she lived in the woods somewhere in northern Ontario, that she was about fifty seven years old and that she was a witch.

I had to find her for our client. Her niece and only known blood relative urgently needed a kidney transplant. The odds were, we were led to believe, that Aunt Sybil would have the same rare blood type as her niece, type AB negative and share the same ‘markers’ which I understood nothing about.

Our client Dee Tyana, the niece, hadn’t seen her aunt since her parents’ funeral sixteen years prior. She was only eleven when both of her parents were tragically killed in a car accident. She landed up being raised by her uncle’s family, on her father’s side. Sybil was her mother’s only sibling.

I searched every available database I could for the woman. I went through every phone book in North America. I’d scoured voter lists, marriage records, court documents, taxation records, death records, vehicle registrations, prisons and psychiatric institutions, military records and not just in Ontario, but in all of Canada. Nothing. I scoured Missing Persons lists, outstanding warrants worldwide. Nada. I spent days on Google, Facebook, Twitter even, you name it – all with no result. I was able to ascertain that she was born and grew up in Montreal and then…nothing. It’s was as if she disappeared off the face of the earth. Out of desperation, I contacted every post office in Ontario starting in Sudbury and systematically worked my way northwards asking if they recognized the name Sybil Varro.

The post office in Shining Tree in northern Ontario responded positively. They indicated that they knew of her, but did not produce any further contact information.

I drove the seven and a half hour trip from Toronto to Shining Tree in early July. I had three goals, to find the missing aunt, to ascertain her blood type and, in the case of a match, to ask her if she would be willing to donate a kidney to her niece.

I didn’t really believe the witch part. To me it seemed the fantasized recollection of a traumatized eleven year old girl. Living in the woods in northern Ontario, if true, was definitely a little strange.

The odds were, I rationalized, that she was probably a school teacher or a nurse or a cleaning lady or something equally mundane, living in that remote community and that she most likely had a family. At fifty seven, she may have even been a grandmother.

Not knowing what I was in for, I brought a complete set of camping equipment, freeze dried food and supplies for a week and a blood sample kit in a deep freeze pack. I had received instruction on how to take a sample and I knew where to go to have it analyzed.

Shining Tree consists of a Quonset hut and a few scattered buildings. It’s a fishing and hunting wilderness set within a vast area that is dotted with various mines and an active forestry industry. The Quonset hut is a combination general store, gas station, post office, liquor store, beer store, ATM location and hunting and fishing license issuing office, plus they sell bait and ammunition.

It really is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wild boreal forest. All the area waterways eventually drain northward into Hudson Bay.

I was greeted by Ben, the middle aged, slightly portly, owner manager.

“As far as I know she lives alone somewhere up the West Montreal River. Then she goes south for the winter just like half the people up here. Well, anybody with any sense anyway.”

“How do I get there?” I wondered if my three year old Ford Fiesta could take the rough back roads.

“Just leave a note here for her, she’ll get it.”

“No, no. I have to speak with her.”

Ben paused to have a good look at me, “You know, some people ’round here think she’s a bit crazy.” He watched me gauging my reaction.

I spoke carefully not wanting to be judgmental of Sybil nor of any of the locals. “It doesn’t matter. I still need to speak with her. Can I phone her?”

“I wouldn’t think so. I highly doubt she’d have a phone. I certainly don’t have a number.”

“How do I get in touch with her?”

“Well, okay. Listen buddy,” he said, “obviously whatever business you have with her is really important or you wouldn’t be driving up from Toronto to track down a recluse hermit. So as far as I can see you have two choices. One, wait for her to come here, or two, try to go and find her and please understand, even if you find her cabin, she may not be there. And I’m not even sure where her cabin is.”

“How often does she come here?”

“Oh I don’t know, we probably see her five or six times a year, so except for coming and going south, she’s probably in here every month or so, maybe six weeks.”

“Oh boy, what about option B? Me going to her?”

Ben held his palms out at me. “You don’t really want to do that. What do you need her for?”

A bit nosey on his part. “Ben I appreciate that this woman likes her space, and I’m not a cop or tax collector or anything like that. She’s not in trouble or anything, I just need to find her and talk to her.”

“What do you want from her?” He was pushing.

I sighed. “I work for a law firm, it’s a personal, family issue that I’m not at liberty to discuss with anyone but her. Okay?”

He seemed to be a little relived that I wasn’t the law on her tail. “Listen, she’s a full day’s travel away by canoe. Maybe two.”

“I can’t drive to her cabin?”

Ben was a little taken back by my question, “No. There aren’t any roads,” he said regarding me as if I had no brains at all.

“Fine I’ll rent a float plane.”

He led me over to a large wall mounted topographical map. “This is highway 560,” he slid his fingers across the map, “we’re here, this is the West Montreal River,” he traced his hand along the map in a big undulating sine wave. It didn’t even look like a river, most of it was made up of small lakes, swamps and ponds, “the river system crosses the highway in three spots,” he pointed, “here, here and here, plus you can access it from here at Wasapika Lake,” he pointed, then he brushed his open palm over the lower part of the sign wave, “and she’s somewhere in here. I think.”

He was pointing to the long stretch of river between Wasapika Lake and Granite Lake.

“Oh boy.”

“You see a float plane is not going to get you anywhere close to where she is. You might as well walk from here.” He turned to look at me. “Trust me, you don’t want to walk.”

“Okay, how do I get there?”

He shook his head in disbelief, “Is it really that important that it can’t wait for a couple of weeks?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“But she can be anywhere out there. Or, she may show up here tomorrow.”

“Look I understand that you’re trying to protect her…”

“Oh no, she doesn’t need us protecting her. If anything, it’s the other way around.”

“What? Wadda ya mean? Is she dangerous or something?”

He paused for a moment before answering, “Listen buddy, here’s the reality. If she doesn’t want to see you, you’re not going to find her. It’s just that simple.”

“Is she Native?” Dee didn’t look like one or mention anything.

“I don’t think so,” answered Ben, “she may be part Native, I don’t know. She’s got bright red hair.”

So did Dee. “But you or someone around here knows where her cabin is right?”

“I don’t but that’s not the issue.”

“What’s the issue then?”

“Sybil is a very private person. She’s different.” He used air quotes on the word different. “You’ll travel all day to get there…at least. If you do manage to find her cabin, you can sit in it and wait for her. But if she doesn’t want to see you, you can wait till the snow flies, but you won’t see her. And by then she’ll be gone.”

“Oh boy.”

“Or,” he added, “you can go looking for her, but you may never come back.”

What? I turned to Ben, “That sounds a bit ominous.”

He stared me straight in the eyes. “It’s dangerous wild country out there.” Then he added, “And you’re proposing to go in there alone?”

I sighed again.”What should I do?”

“Leave a note.”

“I can’t. This is a serious, serious situation.”

He fiddled his fingers for a while. I could see he was unsure of what to do next. Finally he piped up, “Do you have a canoe?”

“No, can I rent one of those four-wheel all terrain things?”

“You can, but I suggest a canoe. It will be faster and much easier. Do you have any camping gear?”

“Yes I have, plus supplies for a week.”

“We can get you set up with a canoe no problem. You can either go up the river from Wasapika Lake,” he pointed to the map, “or down the river, with the current, from Cryderman Lake,” he pointed again. “Six of one, half dozen of the other, I’d say. If she’s in the area that I think she is.”

“Which way does she go?”

“Don’t know. She just shows up here. Both probably.”

“Which way would you go?”

“I wouldn’t. I thought I made that clear.”

“Come on.” I stood with my palms open at my sides.

“If it was just me and the elements on say a fishing trip, not on a mission to find Sybil,” he took a deep breath, “I’d go with the current from Cryderman, for sure.”


“Here’s my suggestion. Find a cabin around here, there’s a number of lodges, relax, have a good meal and a good night’s sleep, followed by a good breakfast in the morning. I’ll set you up with a canoe and a waterproof map. Be here at nine in the morning.”


“And if you’re going to find Sybil, do you mind taking a few things to her? They’re waiting for her here.” He pointed to a framed window leaning against the wall and three or four packages wrapped in brown paper.

“A window?”

“Yup, and the parcels and I have some letters for her too. I’ll put them in a plastic bag.”

“Sure, I guess.”

I bought a six pack of Coors on my way out.


Ben had a ten foot, red, fiberglass canoe along with paddle, lifejacket, window in frame all wrapped in protective plastic and bubble wrap and Sybil’s brown paper packages all stuffed into the back of a dusty white Ford F-150 pick-up truck waiting for me at the general store the next morning. I stuffed my backpack in the back. He told me where to park my Fiesta. A young lad named Tom delivered me five minutes down the road to Cryderman Lake. Tom handed me Sybil’s letters which I stowed in my backpack.

Pointing to a topographical map enclosed, together with three spent wine corks, within a clear plastic zip-loc baggie, he said, “We think she’s going to be in and around here. Chances are her cabin will be close to the water. When you come back, you’re going to come out either here, here or back here at Cryderman. Leave the canoe by the side of the river or lake and hitch a ride with whoever you find back to Shinning Tree.”


“Good luck, and listen. We’re not going to get worried about you for about a week. So if you’re in trouble, don’t expect any help for a week. If you’re not back, we’ll just phone search and rescue.”

“Okay, thanks.” That sounded gloomy. “Have you not taken this trip yourself?” He was after all, a local.

“Not during the summer no. I’ve been in the area around there by snow machine, but not during summer. No.”

“Why not?”

“Just never got around to it I guess, plus, the third or fourth lake in is very shallow. Besides, why would I want to go find Sybil?”

I looked at Tom and then the map, Cryderman Lake followed by Clark then Casswell Lakes, a bunch of river then Granite Lake and then the general area of the river where Sybil should be.

“Can I give you some advice?” asked Tom.

“Sure,” I looked up from the map.

“Wear the life jacket all the time.”

It was small and thin, the type that water skiers wore. “Good idea.”

“Don’t try to shoot any rapids, especially if you don’t know what’s around the corner.”


“If you do capsize or lose the canoe, the first thing you want to save, beside’s your life, is this map. The corks will ensure that it floats.”

“Okay, makes sense.”

“Make sure you are safely tucked away well before nightfall. Don’t try to move through the woods at night if you don’t know the way and you can’t see.”

Even though he was a young man, it was all sound advice, “Okay.”

“If you do lose the canoe and have to walk out, lichen tends to grow on the north side of a tree trunk. Just keep heading north until you get to the highway.”


“Bears and wolves are not the most dangerous things in these woods.”


“It’s bees,” then he added, “and Sybil.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Good luck and try not to get eaten alive.”


Loaded with camping gear, the window and five brown paper wrapped parcels stowed in the canoe, I set myself down into the bow seat with the canoe turned around into one man configuration and pushed myself off the dock from the hunting/fishing lodge at Cryderman Lake.

The water was cool. It was a lovely day. The sun was out, there were just a few broken clouds. The air temperature was already getting quite warm.

I felt great, a man on a mission. I had a noble task, to save the life of a young lady. I pulled the canoe through the water. The muscles in my arms, back, shoulders, legs…all of me, was thrilled with the physical exertion. Does life get any better than this? What an adventure I was on. And to top it all off…I was being paid to do it.

Gulls were watching me as I made my way down the lake. A Canada goose honked with every wing flap as he breezed past me overhead and then landed in the water with an enormous, inelegant splash. I had to laugh out loud, such a klutz bird. A loon spied at me from a safe distance.

I was loving it.

I noticed that two of the packages were addressed to Sybil Varro, General Delivery, Shining Tree, Ontario, Canada and the postal code, P0M 2X0. One had US stamps, another one was from Slovenia. Another one just had Sybil written on it. From my vantage point in the canoe, I couldn’t make out the other two. I couldn’t see any return addresses.

Huge grey, green and pink granite rocks edged the cool lake, each rock ground down and made smooth by successive ice ages. Stands of spindly black spruce, graceful paper birch and aspen grew in dense clumps reaching out across the water to catch all available sunlight. The occasional majestic white pine would rise above the others. A few hemlocks would crowd together in a little corner. A few lonely, twisted and tortured jack pines would eke out a living on the exposed rock rising above the spiky juniper bushes. From the water I could see just a few yards into the dense bush. It was a jumble of criss-crossed lichen and moss covered branches. Everything inside the bush was damp, fresh and organic.

It was rough, wild country. It was no wonder Ben suggested that I go by canoe.

A small aluminium boat, bristling with fishing rods passed by me heading back towards the lodge. Two little kids, stuffed within life jackets with blonde hair flying in the air, eagerly waved at me while smiling from ear to ear. Mom and dad each lifted a hand to greet me. I waved back, unable to stifle my grin.

About an hour or so later I was at the other end of the Cryderman Lake. A small stream spilled from one lake into the next. A path, about two hundred yards long, wound alongside of the stream. Everything was unloaded onto the shore. I carried the canoe, upside down on my shoulders to the other lake, fighting to maintain my balance all the way. Occasionally I would bump into an overhead tree branch, jarring my whole body and making me almost lose my balance.

It took the better part of an hour to get myself loaded back up and on my way again. The portage taxed me and was looking forward to simply paddling along the in the water. I had gained a whole new appreciation for the Native Americans and the early voyageurs in their choice of canoe travel through these woods. Paddling was easy in comparison to carrying stuff through a forest of branches over fallen logs and hurdles of slippery rocks. Canoe, definitely canoe and the lighter the better.

Clark Lake took only about fifteen minutes to cross, not counting the ten minutes it took to partially unload, lift and haul and reload the canoe over a beaver dam. The portage into the next lake wasn’t as long as the previous, but the pathway wasn’t as clearly defined as the last and there was a steep slippery rock to climb. It took another hour and a half or so to complete the portage. The only thing that freaked me out a little was the fresh looking bear tracks everywhere.

Caswell Lake was lovely except for the shoal that I had to walk the canoe through. I took my running shoes and socks off and rolled up my blue jeans. The shoal was smooth rock but it was covered in some sort of green slime that felt really weird as it tended to get stuck between my toes. I drifted in the water afterwards and ate a pair of granola bars while putting my shoes and socks back on after rinsing my feet.

After making a short portage over another beaver dam, where I got a complete soaker in my left shoe, I found my way into what appeared to be for the first time a river. It was flowing gently, I just needed to steer the canoe along with the current. Ben was right; I wouldn’t want to be fighting the current.

After twenty minutes or so I came across what I can only describe as a large swamp or bog like pond or lake. It indeed was shallow, just like Tom had said. It was a sea of grassy reeds in a couple of inches of water. It wasn’t described on the map as a lake at all. I did see a symbol on the map for grass though. I gained a new appreciation for that printed little symbol — here be dragons! Suddenly, I saw grass symbols all over my map. No wonder Ben said, ‘trust me you don’t want to walk.’ No wonder Tom stressed the importance of saving the map. I tried to figure out which way I would walk if I had to get back to the highway from where I was at the grassy lake. It certainly wasn’t straightforward and linear.

A massive black raven circled around me twice and then set off towards the other end of the grassy lake.

Not more than fifty feet after setting out, I got stuck in the shallow water even though I was angling my way through what I perceived was the deepest route through the reeds. I tried grabbing handfuls of reeds to pull the boat through. It worked for about ten feet.

And then I was truly stuck.

With my paddle I poked down through the matted vegetation as deep as I could. It seemed fairly solid a few feet down.

I didn’t have a choice. I had to do something. Visions of slowly sinking down and getting stuck in the quicksand-like muddy murk gripped me with terror. I could scream for help at the top of my lungs, but I was certain there was no chance that anyone would hear. I was pretty confident the life jacket would stop me from drowning, but if I couldn’t pull my legs up? Could I survive for a week?

My running shoes, socks and pants came off leaving me with only my tee shirt, life jacket and underwear. I put my running shoes back on. One after all, was already wet. The last thing I wanted to do was step down and impale myself on the top of a pointy stick.

I checked with my paddle again, it still felt fairly solid. I turned the paddle over and pushed the handle end in. It too seemed to find something solid-ish a few feet down.