Cribbage in Canada

The Beaver, ready to fly

A short while ago, I was contacted by the Pigeon Flyer, a blog out of Omemee, Ontario, to offer something about cribbage. Here it is.

It is not easy to get to a remote cabin on Whitewater Lake, Ontario, deep in the heart of the Wabakimi Provincial Park wilderness. From Omemee, you might drive northwest about 1400 km on Trans-Canadian Highway 11 to a tiny little town named Armstrong. The more scenic route–Trans-Canadian Highway 17–veers northwest as well, but you’d pass through Sudbury, Sault St. Marie and Thunder Bay, kissing the northern shores of Lakes Huron and Superior, and the route is about 180 km longer. Either way, you’d need an outfitter from Armstrong to fly you another 60 km north, skimming the treetops and flirting with the early Canadian sunrise, at least if you want to fish that day. I have made this journey, albeit from Duluth, MN, not Omemee, Ontario. As we were a group of seven, we split the trip in two beaver seaplanes; the larger otters, with their longer fuselage and more impressive wingspan, were already away.

The author, enjoying himself

It was 2005. My brother, father, a few friends and I had been completely off the grid for a few days. We rose early each day to jig for walleye–sleek, silvery, full-throated Canadian walleye–and cast a bit for pike. We’d return for lunch, clean our catch, take a nap, and spend some time around the cabin before heading out for several more hours. So it must have been after nap-time but before the afternoon fishing, as the aroma of fresh, lemon-squeezed walleye fillets began to fade, when it first occurred to me that people might read a book on cribbage, for a few games of crib was how we often passed those intermittent hours. And on this particular day we were joined by Bill. Bill was the often shirtless, tire-gutted, fast-talking, homemade jerky-toting camp contact from the outfitter. To Bill we looked for fuel, minnow and worm refills, a keen eye and a strong hand. His jerky was fantastic. He loved to play cribbage.

“15-2, 15-4,” he’d growl, throwing a greasy Hoyle on the table, “and t’rest won’t score.” It was a bad cut. As crib players are wont to do, we spoke of, swore by, and savored a few tales of the crib, acknowledging the fickle nature of the game. Over a few annual trips to Whitewater, we had developed an easy rapport with Bill, and made sure to invite him over a few times near the end of our stays in the cabins he so expertly tended. As the games went on, it occurred to me how simple cribbage really is opposed to how confusing it’s often perceived to be by new players. Much of that confusion boils down to language–the 15s, the nobs and nibs, scoring hands like double-runs and Raggedy Anns. In no other card game is the language of scoring so esoteric, so colloquial and downright goofy. We count “19!” when the hand totals zero. We speak of hauling lumber up and down third street and fourth street. We are embarrassed by skunks. We peg out. Where else can you find a game like this?

Bill on the Gator

With his deep Canadian accent, so often delivered in gruff, staccato beats over his humming John Deere Gator or our own stuttering outboards, it might have been easy to miss most of what Bill said. Much is lost in translation whenever one travels. Between bites of homemade jerky and a beer or two, though, we played cribbage, and for the first time, everyone spoke the same language.


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