Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Too Long - (in progress)

     It's closing in on three years since I've been in the solo canoe. Almost made it two years ago. Even had the canoe strapped atop the truck. A last second phone call and a family emergency had it quickly off-loaded and me packing. That will change next week. I was hoping for a fall Boundary Waters trip but will settle for the waters of the Chippewa National Forest. Mostly I'm thinking smallmouth bass and trout but will no doubt throw in an old favorite or two to get the feel of a fish on the line once again.
     I was thinking minimalist as to gear but have decided to carry enough to cover all possibilities, maybe even a fly rod. At the moment most of the fishing tackle still sits where I left it when Allan and I got home from Canada. I've salvaged line from the reels that'd given me the miseries but there's much more to do.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Where To?

     Good question. At the moment I've written myself out of adventures and have none solidly planned. There's a definite maybe in the Boundary Waters for this fall and a near for-sure, four day fling at the cabin near the end of this month. The cabin will most likely be a solo trip. Haven't been on the water alone for a couple of years. Usually when up there I enjoy my time in the woods. Call it quiet time and as I've grown older I've come to find wholeness in the sounds of nature as they drift in and out and through my thoughts.
     I've finally started sorting out the mess of fishing equipment from the trip Allan and I went on in Manitoba. A pair of my older reels constantly threw loops and quickly were set aside. Oh well, they had fifteen years of use and weren't all that good to begin with even though their price tags said they should have been. I've come to learn quality and price don't always go together. Cost is important when it comes to equipment but the cost I have in mind is time. When I've finally squeezed out the time to be on the water I don't want to lose any of it to faulty gear. Good thing Allan and I always carried a half dozen rigged rods during last summer's trip or we'd have spent a lot of time fiddling and untwisting bird's nests. The reels in question are now on their way out the door and have been replaced with entry level quality. By that I mean finely machined gears and not a dozen ball bearings. Somehow fifty years ago fisherman managed to catch fish without a single ball bearing. How was that possible? Anyhow, yesterday I began to spool line from the buggered reels onto the new ones. Worked slick so long as I took my time. One down and one to go.
     Sometime over the next couple of seasons I'd like to make a wood tackle box. Probably a simple one along the line of an old fashioned tool box. Wouldn't have room for more than a dozen lures, same number of snap swivels, reel oil and grease, a couple of reels, needle nose, jaw spreader, and some backup line. Call it a single purpose box for a second trip to northwest Manitoba. Yeah, it'd be an idiot's delight with little room for error but from what I learned from July's trip, such a box would be more than enough.
     Next, between now and then I'd tie up a dozen spinners, all red and white blades, number one treble hooks, and oversized buck tails. Yup, they'd go in the Canada box. Should Allan and I be rigged the same way there'd be no problem. At the most we went through eight spinners last time and two of them were the result of poorly tied knots. Call me a fool - guess I'll leave it there for now.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Chapter from Between Thought and the Treetops

     This is a fishing chapter from my novel. In 1965 Archie, the narrator, is eighteen and spending his summer before starting college up in Minnesota's Arrowhead region helping to build his Uncle Emil's cabin. At the moment they are still living in a tent on the building site. On this Sunday they are to meet up with Ted who works at the local sawmill and they'll do a little trout fishing. Ted is an even mix of Scot and Ojibway:

Cloudy With a Chance of Trout


 We rose in the dark. Though up and dressed I sure wasn't awake. Took a while for Emil's childlike excitement to infect me like a dose of the measles. Inside the tent the dark was so deep I first thought I was dead. Then blind. Isn't easy being caught between dreams and the waking world. He'd found me in the middle of a good one. But as I rose from the deep I lost it. Gone. Don't have many good dreams that I remember into the waking hours. They seem clear as day when I'm traveling through them. When I come around, all that's left is a smile on my face.
 The ones that stick aren't fun. More of a sweat, panic and get moving in nature. There's the tornado dream when I'm looking for a place to hide and the nuclear war one where I'm going like hell to get out of town before the big one hits. Had 'em both plenty of times. The only good part is I don't die in either. In fact, come out clean as a whistle. Maybe it's just a passing phase or maybe it's the way I am. Never ready, always something on the horizon blowing in to do me harm and me on the run. Run Archie run!
 "Rise and shine Archie. You've fallen back asleep. This is no day to dawdle. Don't want to keep the man waiting. As Ted said, the sermon for this Sunday will be delivered streamside and I don't want to miss a word."
 By the time I'd stumbled out to relieve myself Emil had the stove fired up and coffee perking. Grumbled a good morning to my uncle as I passed and headed toward the woods. While emptying I raised my eyes to the heavens. The stars above drooped from their intense weight of light. I feared I might bump my head against one and set my hat afire. Could have sworn some were lower than the treetops. That's when I smelled the bacon welcoming me back to earth. What a morning! Felt uplifted and I had to make myself useful. Did a brief wash-up under the freeze of the pump. While Emil cracked eggs into foaming butter, I sliced slabs of fresh bakery bread, slathered them thick and dropped a pair into the waiting pan. Oh yeah, bacon and egg sandwiches for breakfast. Even had mustard. By five we were brushing our teeth and ready to hit the road. Inside the cab on the seat and floor rested a thermos of Emil's mud, a box of sweet rolls and fixings for lunch. In the truck bed an expedition's worth of trout tackle laid waiting.
 "Archie me lad, we're as ready as can be. Hope the trout are too."
 We sat idling in the brightening gray of Hovland when Ted came rolling up in a mud-splattered, green pickup truck nearly as old as me.
 Ted wasn't a man of many words. In less than fifty he gave us the lowdown, "First choice here'd be the Flute Reed but the water's down and the fishing's tough. So we'll do what my grandpa calls the Wiskode-zibi, Bois Brule to the French, just Brule these days. Follow me. We'll head up the Camp Road. Let's get to it."
 Seemed the Camp Road was named after a CCC camp built near Tom Lake during the Depression. The C's put a lot of unemployed men to work replanting timber back in the late '30s on land the lumber barons had clear-cut back in the early years of the century. Twenty-five years doesn't allow for a lot of growth in the short growing season of the Arrowhead. The pines we were passing weren't more than ten inches on the stump.
 The dry spring might have turned the Flute Reed unfishable but made Ted easy to track as we wound our way up from the lake. Just followed the yellow plume of dust. Fifteen minutes of zigzag on the Camp Road took us to a rough looking stretch of two-track. Another five minutes of bump, grind, paint scrape and boulder dodge and we were there. Wasn't but a widening in a trail where we squeezed tight to the brush.
 Ted rolled out of his pickup, "We'll pack our gear down to the river. Maybe throw an arm load of sticks and kindling down and tarp the pile over. Weather’s moving in and it looks like it could rain buckets. There's a nice spot off a couple of islands where we can cook up some lunch."
 Took me a minute to realize what I took for aspen leaves rustling in the breeze were actually the rush of the river about a hundred yards below. What I'd had in mind was more like the brook bordering Emil's land. This sounded different. Bigger. More exciting. And the truth be known, a little more challenging. I mumbled, “Big water, big fish.” Yeah, I was all-atingle with excitement and nerves.
 In fact, everything about this day struck me as different from any other I'd spent with my uncle. This time he wasn't in charge; didn't have all the answers. For a change he was walking in my shoes. And he seemed to relish it.
 While winding up the Camp Road he'd said, "Archie me lad, it's not often you get a chance like we have today. Ted's grown up on this land. Probably knows where he is just by the smell. His bloodline's been in these woods for centuries. I'm thrilled just being here with him. Doesn't matter whether we catch a thing today as far as I'm concerned. Being able to share this river with Ted is reward enough."
 That sure put a different spin on it. Maybe Emil never thought of himself as being the boss in any situation. Seemed to be all about sharing and learning and doing. Even back at the cabin he was like that. I barely knew how to hold a hammer when we'd started. Each time something new came up it seemed to me he was telling me how best to tackle the situation. From my life in the city I'd come to see telling as being the same as ordering. With my uncle it was different. For him telling was the same as sharing. He wasn't demanding I do things exactly as he did. No, he was passing on experience and information. More like 'I do it this way, give it a try. It might work for you.'
 And that's how he stood with Ted. Ted had knowledge passed down generation to generation. The dirt beneath our feet coursed through his blood. As it did his parent's, grandparent's, who knows how far back? - Just as it had with our ancestors in the old country. At one time the blood of all our families down through the ages had walked the woods somewhere, Sweden, Germany, Asia, the Middle East, Africa. Today we were passing through Ted's woods on our way to scare up some trout for lunch or maybe bologna sandwiches.
 Down below, the track of the Brule split the forest and bared its flow to the sky. What had been partly cloudy down in Hovland had grown overcast and was hanging lower by the minute as we set down our gear.
 "Don't know about you boys but this Ojibwe's heading back to the truck for his rain gear."
 Emil gave me a glance and we followed. We might be wading wet but dry underwear held its appeal. Taking no chances we donned both pants and jackets.
 Back on the beach Ted gave us the lowdown, "This here's a pretty spot to eat and watch the river pass but not so good for trout. We'll head upstream a ways. The Brule narrows a bit up there. Couple of runs of rapids and some plunge pools that nearly always hold fish. Both brook trout and rainbow in the pools behind the rocks waiting for lunch to come along. Should you have a choice, kill a handful of the rainbows, the DNR stocks them. The brook trout are native. Might even be kin so take care with them. Treat 'em like they're your children. Pack along only what you'll need. Fly box, rod, some extra tippet and needle nose. Should we catch a few I'll show you what to do.”
 Off we traipsed upstream like Christopher Robin and Pooh on an expedition. Up front, Christopher Robin was smoking Camels and far to the rear Piglet was drawing on an Old Gold filter. Ted's smoke cloud didn't rise an inch. Just hung there in the cool, sodden air till Emil passed through and split it into whirlpools and eddies. We wound along streamside on jumbled stone and root, occasionally cutting uphill to avoid wading lengths of bog or climbing over car-sized boulders. The Brule had eroded a valley quite a bit wider than what now flowed through the bottom. At the islands where we'd dropped our gear the stream was better than thirty yards across. A lot of water but spread thin over fields of rubble. Wouldn't have much luck floating the Grumman through there.
Occasionally we traced a faint, rising path. Could have been fishermen, more likely deer. Typical of a deer path the ground was trampled but bowered over with brush three feet above. Emil had taught me well and I followed safely out of whipping range. Hard to tell distance when bushwhacking but I figured it as a quarter-mile when the twenty foot high valley walls narrowed and squeezed the Brule to about a long cast wide. Here it sped up and rumbled down a long series of shelf and boulder. Didn't take a genius to figure out we were there.
 Ted said, “We’ll let Archie and his spinning rod have the first pool. Little spinners'll work just fine. So will a tiny jig and a strip of pork rind should you have any. Me, I learned on worms and a hook. Ain't fancy but it's deadly. This is one of the best pools on the river so knock yourself out. One moment…."
 He pulled his black-handled lineman’s knife, walked into the brush. Returned carrying a straight length of alder branch trimmed to four-feet with an inverted, v-shaped stub midway up. "Should you catch any rainbows Archie, first break their necks then slide the branch through their gills. The stub will hold 'em. Lay the rig in the shallows where it's calm and put a big rock on it. Simple as pie. Lunch is up to you. Me and Emil will head up to the next set of pools and do our best to not fall in. When they stop biting come up stream and bring your catch along."
 He sure seemed confident I wouldn't screw up. I was already working up excuses before I'd even tied on an orange and black beetle-bug and tipped it with a strip of pork rind. Back on the Aspen trial and error had told me that combo almost always produced. The men in the pools up above might be here on some kind of religious pilgrimage but not me. I was here to catch trout. Didn't need to be dozens but it sure would be nice to provide lunch.
 Began with a backhand flip into the edge of the closest run where the river sluiced through a pair of moss-sided rocks. Moments like that have always gotten my juices flowing. Possibility was open-ended. Being eighteen only magnified the feeling. My world had shrunk to twenty feet of fast water and the feel of blue monofilament line sliding over my index finger as it spoke to me of the tick, tick, ticking, rock-tumbling rig.
 Ted was right. This pool was hot. No more than a half-dozen excited heartbeats later I was into trout. The fight was short and sweet. My first landing was no work of angler's art. I simply horsed it in, removed the hook and rind, and squatted there in the shallows admiring the foot-long, dark-backed and silver-sided fish. They call them rainbows but I always figured that an exaggeration. The color's there alright, just not much of it. Snapped its neck and branched it.
 My next, a brook trout, was another story. Had all the darker colors of the rainbow above and the woods below and spread them willy-nilly from nose to tail. Throw in some spots and squiggles and you've got yourself a fish to admire. Looked like something Van Gogh might paint. Starry Trout. I took care with this one and didn't even touch it. Carefully turned the hook out with my pliers and watched the fish wriggle back into the flow.
 Finally, the drizzle started. Not that it mattered much. Slid my hood up and went back to work. My feet grew near numb wading the Brule but I joyfully managed to fish all three chutes. When I headed upstream I carried better than five feet of rainbows on my stick. The drizzle seemed to be getting bigger ideas. Had we been back in camp we'd have been tent-bound listening to the patter on the nylon. Out here the rain seemed a good thing, a friend. The dark above brightened the fishing. Also put a grin on my face.
 Emil and Ted had fished their way upstream through several pools. I came on Ted first and held up my catch. Got a simple nod in response like he expected nothing less. After dousing the trout I found a knee-high boulder beneath a mist shrouded white spruce, sat down, lit up and watched the man fish.
 I'd figured Ted's method would look like the pictures I'd seen in magazines. Maybe even something like the way Emil fished. Long arcing line gracefully waved in and out before laying down many yards away. Then he’d cautiously watch his daintily floating fly drift with the flow. Instead Ted seemed to be all about position. No long casts for him. When he wanted to reach a new target he'd stalk his way within striking range. Never had more than twenty feet of line out and pinched it to the rod with his casting hand. Could have been doing the same thing noodling with a fifteen-foot cane pole. Simple as simple could be. Lift, whip, whip, blip. Sometimes he'd wet and sink his fly, let it drift. Other times he'd blow it dry and skitter it across the surface with a waving motion of the rod. He only retrieved his line when he had a fish on. In the short time I sat there Ted caught and landed three small brook trout, none more than ten inches. Two trout he touchlessly released in the knee-deep water by slipping the hook with his forceps. The third required care. Ted scooped it from the shallows, cradled it in his left hand and carefully eased the hook from deep in the fish's throat. Before the release he quietly said something.
 Half-a-dozen empty casts drew him from the pool. Joined me above and lit a smoke. I asked what he'd said to the fish. If I didn't know better I'd say Ted actually blushed through his leathered skin, "Told her she was beautiful and should go out and make some babies. Hey, fish are people too. Let's you and me go see how the old man's doing."
 Fifty yards up we came on my uncle in mid-stream sitting on a boulder the color of a businessman's gray suit. Alongside him lay two dead trout with heads snapped back. He wasn't taking a break. Though perched, Emil was still going at it. Took me a moment till I realized he was throwing his fly pretty much like Ted.
 "Your uncle's a good man. For an old dog he sure picked up a new trick in short order. Before moving up to his first pool he stopped and watched me for a minute. When I leapfrogged him, I returned the favor, gave him a pointer on how to skate the fly. From the looks of the rock he's been doing just fine. Hope you're hungry, we've got seven trout to eat."
 Catching sight of us, Emil reeled in, snatched his catch and waded over. By now the rain was getting serious. He slid his fish with mine, anchored the branch and joined us above. That's when the skies opened. Not much else to do but sit and hope it'd let off sooner or later.
 Slowly the two of them opened up a little on what they had in common, the war. I figured it best keep my mouth shut. Hadn't been anywhere or done anything to speak of. The two of them were men who'd faced their deaths and no doubt taken part in the deaths of many others.
 "That a glass eye? Seems like every time I look at you, you're only half home."
 "Yeah. Lost it before the war out in the Dakotas. Gust of wind and a bit of wheat chaff did it in."
 Ted paused a moment, "Let me get this right, you had a glass eye and still ended up in the Army? What'd you do, bribe the doc?"
 "Nah. You know what those days were like. Had a friend with my blood type take the physical for me."
 "So, you coulda sat out the war 'cause of your eye. You coulda sat out the war 'cause of your age. And for sure you coulda sat out the war 'cause you're totally crazy."
 "Hang on a second Ted. Weren't you a jarhead? Might just as well have walked up to the recruiting sergeant and volunteered to get shot. Lucky for you Marines it wouldn't have been a head shot unless the sons of Nippon were aiming for your butt. At least I had sense enough to take my chances with the Army. Might have spent the war learning a trade like typing or painting curbs. You dumb-ass Marines more or less jumped up and down yelling 'me first, me first!'"
 Besides being idiots they agreed the A-bomb was the right thing to do. Though they'd both been seriously wounded near the end of the war, the Army and Marines were doing their best to patch them up and ready for the invasion of Japan.
 "Emil, that'd been hell on earth for sure. Don't know about you but I was scared to death. We'd have beat 'em, no doubt about that, but odds are neither of us would be here enjoying this rain. Just the thought of not invading the mainland makes me thankful for every morning I wake up and put my boots on."
 What struck me most was neither mentioned combat. They'd both seen their share but said nothing. I didn't get it until my days in Vietnam. You can talk your way around the outside of combat but never bring up what it was really like. You think and dream about it all the time. Even think you speak of it aloud but never do. The words rise to your tongue then are swallowed like you're embarrassed or ashamed you survived when so many others didn't. Could be they'd have had more to say if I'd have not been there.
 A moment later Ted showed us the fly he was using, "Only use two kinds. One always sinks and the other tends to float." There wasn't much to either. No feathers that I could see and not much color, gray and brown.
Ted said, "They're about as natural as I can make them, a little deer hair near the eye of the hook, coupla turkey spikes for a tail and a few turns of fine wool yarn down the shaft. To the one that'll sink I add a turn or two of copper wire. The secret is in knowing how to work one. They don't look like any kind of bug so you have to make them swim or float like one. Maybe doesn't even matter how I fish them seein' as how the trout up here are so easy to fool."
 The rain had slowed to the point where Ted lit up another Camel, "Damn, this is one fine day. And hungry? You bet. I'm so hungry I could eat two and a third trout. Let's get back and rustle us up some grub."
 Lined up with Ted again in the lead. They gave me the honor of carrying the trout. Right off I slipped and slid on the greasy, clay slope, bottom down, trout arm raised, nearly to the jagged shore. My backside may have gotten caked in soil but lunch was spot free.
 Back at the islands Ted quickly strung the canvas tarp, Emil got a fire kindled and I set to gutting and washing the trout. Ten minutes later Ted had the beans and coffee heating in the twig fire. On the Coleman Emil was tending two pans, trout in one and taters with onions in the other. A north woods feast backed by steam rising from the Brule and hanging in the cedars above. Emil fried the headless, skin-on trout to a crisp in butter. The pink flesh pulled easily off the spine and ribs and steamed like the river below.
 Lunch lasted an hour. Nary a word was spoken till the coffee, sweet rolls and oatmeal raisin cookies came out.
 “Lena never had much use for these. Said the raisins looked too much like dead flies. Who knows? Maybe dead flies taste like raisins.”

 Ted piped up, “Nope. You’re wrong about that. Grandpa used to say when he was a kid they’d eat flies during the starving months in spring. Said they tasted like chicken. ‘Course so does squirrel, frogs, ducks and muskrat. Me? I think chicken tastes like moose poached in a delicate white wine sauce with capers.” 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Pan Bread and an Extra Day - 2003

     Making it to the Burntwood Lake Lodge on Thursday was the plan from the beginning. I figured we'd fly in and leave Snow Lake by ten o'clock to begin our sixteen hour drive and spend the night in Winnipeg. Yeah it'd be nice to have two days. As always there was a job with a six o'clock starting time waiting on Monday. Having a whole weekend at home to clean gear and rest up would make life a lot easier.
     Yes we did make pan bread though calling it bannock would've been an insult to the old timers. What we had was a couple of bags of premix I bought on line from up north in Minnesota. Would've been nice had it gone as slick as advertised. My first attempt was German as all get-out. Why not? After all, I'm half German and have a compulsive need to follow directions. Usually that's a good way to go. What the heck, the same people who the stuff together must've actually checked to see if it'd pan bake like they claimed it would by following what they wrote on the bag. Well, my first shot sure did stick to the pan, almost like the pan was supposed to be part of the bread. However, it did eat good in a kind of torn, chunked out, slightly burned on the bottom way. Second time around Allan gave the bread a shot. The difference in his method had to do with butter, lots and lots of butter. Man oh man, he floated the dough on a sea of yellow. As a result it didn't stick to the pan and there was no need to add anything to the bread but our greasy lips and teeth. Lord was it good.
     Come Thursday morning we dug into the dirty clothes bag, chose our relatively best with the idea we not stink too badly, and set off under a calm overcast with intentions of paddling into the lodge by eight a.m. Once in sight of the buildings we straightened it up to set a strong rhythm and as straight a line as I could muster. Yup, should anyone be watching the idea was to fool 'em good. Seemed to be a party going on as we approached. The dock where the big Norseman float plane was moored was crowded with sports surrounding Larry. Hoping to show off and show the world we knew what we were doing, our landing was nothing short of spectacular. We smoked straight at the poled shore like true north woods maniacs. Just before we'd have smacked head on into the wood I buried a paddle, spun us a full ninety degrees, and we gently touched ashore. As it was we were the only ones to see it. Seems the crowd was more interested in what Larry had to say. I could understand that as it appeared no one was leaving for a while. The Canadian Aviation officials had temporarily shut Gogal Air down till all Larry's paperwork was checked. He assured us he'd be back in the early afternoon to cart all his customers to Snow Lake. Not knowing what else to do we pulled our canoe and gear onto the lawn and headed uphill to the main building with high hopes there was some food left in the kitchen.
     Turned out there was, a full breakfast with eggs, toast, fried potatoes, ham, and juice. Yeah there was enough on each plate for two people. Oddly, as I sat wiping the dregs up with my toast I was still hungry. Made me think we burned a lot of calories in the canoe. Might even explain why our pants always fit looser at the end of a two week paddle. When I asked for the bill we were told Larry had said everything was on the house till he returned, even a boat and motor should we want. Looked like our plans were thrown off kilter but what the heck, the lodge was just short of spectacular and the food wonderful. Not bad at all.
     Come lunch they fed us again. We passed time by checking out the photo albums and came to learn the Gogals had hauled all their thousands of board feet of building material by air. I guess strapping our canoe to a pontoon when leaving Snow Lake was nothing at all. Two o'clock rolled around with the news Larry wasn't returning today. Can't say I was disappointed. We were given beers during cocktail hour, showers 'cause we were well past ripe, dinner, and a room, all on the house. Tomorrow would be a misery of driving but there was nothing we could do about it but take it easy and enjoy the hospitality.
     Mostly we spent a lot of time talking with the guides. Each of them took turns hoisting our kevlar canoe like they'd never seen one before. Could be they hadn't. All thought it was light as a feather and I began to fear they'd play catch with it. Come evening we were again offered a boat and motor but instead walked down to the dock to spend our hours waiting for the sun to go down. When push came to shove that's what we did best. Fishing was great but we'd had enough of that. Instead we talked of next year's trip, that is if there'd be one. Allan was done with school and on the job as a graphic designer. As far as trips went, this might be the end. As it turned out it wasn't but we didn't know that at the time. Al's future was wide open and coming up on him fast as could be, mine was growing shorter as I slowly moved toward retirement.
     Larry did show up early the next morning saying something about not having crossed his T's and dotted his I's. Come the wee hours of Saturday morning we rolled into the garage, another trip of a lifetime in our past.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Burntwood Lake II - 2003

     Logic dictated our next move and proved beyond any doubt that logic is not always right, at least if it's spawned from my brain. Back at the Gogal Air office in Snow Lake we'd been given a sketchy map of Burntwood Lake showing where the shore lunch sites were. To me that meant there was a walleye hot spot nearby. That'd been the case on last year's Claw Lake trip and from what I'd heard from a few old timers, was a pretty common practice. Made sense. The fillets don't get much fresher than if they were swimming in water ten minutes before they were swimming in lard. Adding icing to our cake was the river that entered no more than a couple hundred yards to the east. How could we go wrong?
     The paddle down the big lake drew my attention. To that point we'd not seen a whitecap. In fact we'd been spoiled to the point of feeling set up for the inevitable hammer blow. I'm from Minnesota and we know for certain everything balances out over time. Even though Burntwood was broken up by many points and islands, should the wind kick it up from the east or west there was enough open water to prove a danger. Though we were again under bluebird skies with a gentle breeze to our tail I continually scanned the shores in case we had to bail out. Call that wisdom or cowardice, I didn't much care either way. We were still completely on our own though the lodge was less than a dozen miles away. Should something happen it'd be a long, long time before anyone found our raven-picked bones.
     The river emptied into a long bay protected by a reef. Had there been any lake trout in the lake this would have proved fertile ground. The water was still cold enough to keep them in the shallows where even buffoons could catch them. Midway down we passed a small cabin in a freshly mowed meadow. Looked clean as a whistle and well maintained. Ten years later I placed the building on an island in Wedge Lake in a chapter called The Man Who Isn't There. A quarter mile farther we came on a smooth shelf landing, slid ashore, and were home for the last two nights of our trip. Odd thing was I hoped we weren't trespassing. For all I knew the owner of the little cabin owned the slab we camped on and might call the Mounties on us.
     We had us a campsite god, a protector of sorts. Someone had been here before and had placed a pike skull on a lower tree branch, for what reason I don't know. But she was an impressive skull all right. I don't know about you but I have a hard time estimating a fish's size with nothing but a bone as a guide. Since I have no idea I'll say it was a thirty pounder for sure. Killer of a fish. Would've been nice had we caught anything approaching that size though we did boat a ten pounder.
     Let's just say the fishing in the bay was slow. Had we been fishing for food we'd have done okay and would've even thrown a few back. No complaints, it was a fine spot. On the second day we even had visitors in the form of a brace of boats with guides and sports aboard. A few passing words told us our fishing luck had been about the same as their's, a few walleyes here and a couple of pike there but in nowhere near the numbers they'd come to expect. Though we offered to point out where Allan and I'd hammered them two days earlier the guides showed little interest in motoring another eight miles up lake. We wished them luck and said we'd come visit in another day.
     Like I said, we did explore and did fish. About the only moment of consequence was a confused pike. More from boredom than anything else I'd rigged a jig and twister tail and suspended the pair six feet below a slip bobber. Twenty minutes of casting and bobber bouncing passed with no action. Could be the pike I riled up was as bored as me and slammed the bobber like a floating piece of candy. Had that happen a number of times with bass but then bass'll try to swallow anything they can wrap their mouths around. I did get a few seconds fight out of her, yeah the pike was big enough to be a female and dumb enough to be a male, before she spit the bobber. That was fun in an odd kind of way but it caught me by surprise when she slammed the bobber again on the next cast. Figuring the third time's the charm I shortened the knot till the jig was tight to the bobber, kind of made it into a bob-areno, or a hula-bobber. Long story short I hooked up and got a short fight before the jig hook straightened. Sorry, that's not much of a fishing story but that's all I've got from those two days.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Burntwood Lake - 2003

     Our map, the prototype we were given back at the Winnipeg map store, told us exactly where to go. But having been wrong many times before I knew it was only a guess. To this point we'd found no major steams entering the File. The few side creeks we had come upon had dried into boulder channels and probably wouldn't have been much to begin with. However, the one rolling in from big Guthrie Lake to the west appeared to be a honker and was drawn in as more than a squiggly, black line. With a little luck there'd be a current flow and a dredged drop off where it entered Burntwood Lake.
     Burntwood is a body of serious size and at the same time keeps its personal nature. It meanders every which way for forty or fifty miles and holds hundreds of islands. She's so broken up it appeared as dozens of small lakes hooked together. One look at the map and you knew it had to have fish holding water most everywhere or if you want to look at it from a different angle, anywhere. And anywhere might be hard to find on a lake of over fifty thousand acres. The old saw is ten percent of a lake holds ninety percent of the fish. Don't know if that's true but from my experience, it's close.
     Another blue-skied day and island weave led us to a campsite no more than a quarter of a mile across from the river mouth. Wasn't much of a river as I recall but was wide and deep enough to just sneak past creek status. The site was something else. Our tent was pitched on a die level patch of duff beneath a small jack pine with an open view covering three miles of lake, forest, and swamp. The rock we stood upon was immense, six feet above lake level, and afforded fifty yards of open walking space. Across the bay near the swamp paddled an ever-present flotilla of white pelicans so white they were pale blue. As I recall there were an even dozen of them, usually in a line. Small moments sometimes stick with a person for quite a while and this lineup of pelicans returned to me as I wrote the novel. The white of the birds reflected the blue of the sky as it bounced off the lake. Wrote it with a touch more poesy in the book. Can't say this was the best camp we ever had but it was right up there.
     Then there was the fishing; what it lacked in size it more than made up in numbers. Two, three hundred fish in our day and a half? Possibly. And all but a handful were in the walleye family. Walleyes by the bucketful, jumbo perch now and then, and surprise, surprise, saugers. I'd heard of saugers before, seen pictures of them, knew they looked like a walleye's little faded-brown cousins, but had never seen a one till our hours on Burntwood. As it turned out nary a fish was found directly in the river mouth but once we paddled past, the numbers on the line were as close to a fish a cast as we'd ever had.
     Call it the second night when we hit it right. Whether in a fishing boat or a canoe the drift is critical. Check the wind, position the boat, and let the breeze do the work to carry you over good water. That evening the slightest of breezes carried us along a shore for better than an hour with only a couple of adjusting strokes. Not a one of the walleyes we boated was over twenty inches and the saugers topped out at sixteen. But the numbers were immense. Outside of how many casts in a row produced fish we didn't count. Allan once hit eighteen and had the gall to laugh at my paltry dozen. Our method was simple, we tipped our jigs with three-inch, yellow twister tails, flipped them out a little ways then let them sink till they rested on the bottom. After five seconds of pause we'd take up the line slack and gently lift the rod tip. Should we feel any weight we'd give it a three count before slamming home the set. Simple and effective. Also became a little repetitious after the first hundred. Yeah, I have no idea how many fish we boated and a hundred might be an exaggeration. Also might be a tad short. Could have added to our interest had there been a few lunkers mixed in. Sure is hard to believe such a marginal walleye fisherman as me would dare be audacious enough to say such a thing. Might bring on the curse and I'd never boat another.
     We remained for two nights. On the first we were serenaded by a constant croaking kind of howling across the water. That might not nail down the sound but then no words ever duplicate a sound. Natural noises speak their own language and haven't as yet found the need to come up with an alphabet. Maybe it'd be best if I simply said the sounds we heard were other-worldly, or just weird as hell. Whatever, both of us heard the sounds so they must have happened.
     As night drew toward morning it began to rain. Not a downpour, more of an oversized drizzle. Each time my ears rose to life during the false dawn, a soft scampering on the tent said we were looking at a wet day ahead. Finally, a bit after what I figured to be sunrise my bladder said it was time to rise and greet the morning. Since my nighttime needs are thirty years older than Allan's, I sleep near the door so as not to awaken him when crawling out. Kind of funny actually, my son sleeps like the dead. Anyhow, I unzipped the screen and the fly, slid my shoes on, stood, and was engulfed in a world of white. A glance across the rock told me the limit of vision was maybe fifteen feet. Even my stream started to fade before it hit the ground. 'Course I had to wake my son. Call it two minutes of bitching before he finally crawled out. Though he found the fog impressive, Al had his doubts whether or not it was worth losing sleep over. A check of the heavily dewed jack pine limbs above the tent told me where what I took to be soft rain had come from. Wasn't but fifteen minutes till the fog burned off and we stood beneath another intense blue, far north sky.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Alone - 2003

     We weren't truly alone, there were the four fishermen we passed on the first and third days. We saw them briefly and they saw us, that was about it. Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere on day eight a dark-haired man motored past our camp. Of course we were sitting on our folding chairs thirty yards up and off the river and were unseen. That's it. If something happened to one of us we were screwed, plain and simple. Had we the slightest shred of sanity we'd have stayed home or gone to Minnesota's Boundary Waters where the wilderness was a little more civilized. As it was, the only person who had any idea of where we were was Larry Gogal and his idea was simply 'somewhere on the river - maybe.' In the years since I've given a lot of thought to side trips we might have taken, a half-mile bushwhack to five hundred acres of unnamed water and ten miles up a side river to a lake of serious size. Might have been the best fishing of a lifetime. But for sure not a soul on the planet would've had any idea where we were. Can't say I looked at it that way back then. Nope, that would've been way too wise. Instead we stuck to the plan, more out of fear of more unknown than I was up for and the possible misery it would no doubt require than anything else. Call it the guiding hands of cowardice and sloth. Sometimes character faults are an asset.
     Don't know what provoked me in the first place to running off toward the Canadian bush with my son in tow. Don't get me wrong when I write of the backwoods. The backwoods Allan and I traveled weren't that far back. Nothing at all like running the fast water of a river dumping into the Arctic Ocean or Hudson Bay. Not once did we truly stick our necks in the wringer. We tried back in '09 but a shortage of marking ribbon put a quick end to that foolishness. Better that I daydreamed that bushwhack to an unnamed lake in the novel I wrote. But on the trip of '03 we were as alone as we'd ever been, though it sure didn't feel that way.
     Our next campsite had it all, two side bays of size and structure galore. Would've even been better had we found any fish. Our landing told us to the inch how far the water level was down. Call the boulder strewn shelf a sitting man's belly button above the river. Again we had to pitch the tent back in the mossy woods but our kitchen and sitting area gave us a fine view of the sterile water below. Best part was we did dishes over duff and I didn't fall once. The fishing told us to spend only one night. A couple of hours paddle in the morning would bring us to huge Burntwood Lake and a rebirth of hope we'd find good fishing.