So where in this was my life altering moment? Four trout, a largemouth, a snaky northern, seeing my first moose - my God they're big! - on the road in front of us, fresh air, camping without being in a campground, drinking water from a hillside spring, all that was neat but not an unforgettable something to bend the twig a quarter century down the road.
That event was reserved for the last desperate day of our trip. I don't know for sure if East Pike Lake was the last rabbit in Rod's hat or if he saved it for the end fearing it would be the last straw. Back in '66 East Pike wasn't as yet part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It had all the earmarks, it was cabinless and three miles of water and 180 rods of portage off the end of the unpaved Arrowhead Trail (According to the Wikipedia the English declared a rod of distance to be the standardized length of an ox goad. All well and good but what the heck's an ox goad? Apparently it's a cattle prod which in turn begs the question, 'If its a cattle prod, why not call it one?' That settled, you now have a fair idea how far the carry was from John Lake to East Pike. That is, of course, if you happened to be a 17th Century British ox cart driver. If not, figure the rod as 5 1/2 yards).
During the week, Rod (my friend not the standardized ox goad) made it a point to drill information from the locals whenever we stopped by a store for supplies or gas. As the days passed he homed in on East Pike more and more. Obviously that bee had been in his bonnet way back in Minneapolis. He told me he'd heard the lake was rumored to be an excellent fishing spot, possibly a walleye honey hole. However, none of the locals had either heard of it or had no interest in passing on a local hot spot to an outsider. Knowing there was only one way to solve the mystery, on that last Friday we loaded up, drove fifteen miles to the access at Little John Lake and putt-putted our way to the portage.
Rod found the portage like he'd been going there all his life. He had a map but finding a path a few feet wide in the middle of a million acres of woods, no signs, no arrows, no nothing to point it out, to me that was no mean trick. Had I known what a Voyageur was or had even heard the word before, I'd have sure felt like one humping our gear up and over that muddy, rock strewn, root entangled, big hill in the middle, trail.
Having no packs to put our stuff in and a hundred pound boat to boot, we knew the carry had to be done in two stages, exactly like we'd done on the Royal River. First trip over was with the fishing gear and movie camera. Yes, Rod had an old fashioned, hand held, wind up, movie camera. Somewhere, maybe, there might be a couple of minutes of our East Pike adventure captured on film. But I doubt it.
Seeing East Pike for the first time, we stopped for a minute. Don't know if it's a common thing to do but I've always enjoyed taking a moment to say hello to a lake before throwing the canoe in. Why not? Like Peter Sellers in Being There said, "I like to watch." Nowadays, I'll check out the wind direction, water color, sniff the air, scope the general lay of the lake, say hello and most importantly, spit in the water to see if anything will swim by to check out what fell from the sky. Back on that day, I simply strung my rod, put on a surface plug and gave it a fling. Not exactly expecting but definitely hoping.
A moment later, gadzooks, two-pound smallmouth bass running to and fro like its life depended on it. Bet we were excited. A whole unknown lake at our feet maybe filled with eager bass and the only way to get on the water was sitting more than a half-mile and one big hill, away. Rod was a track two miler and I was a bullheaded smoker who wasn't gonna let no stinkin' congested lungs keep him away from a lake full of fish. Rod trotted easily along and me, I was sucking air so deeply the birch leaves quivered as we passed.
The canoe had no yoke so we had to hump it, one at each end, gunwales on hands, letting the frickin' mosquitoes have their way with our faces. One probed its way up my left nostril and made itself at home in my frontal lobe. Since that day I no longer have any recollection of that thing...ahhhh... you know, that thing... kinda does this (makes gesture with hands like monkey picking nits off partner).
We spent the next two hours hammering smallies on the east, downwind end of the lake. The morning sparkled, the lake glistened, the overly fertile females were just now moving onto the spawning beds and wouldn't let anything alone that was thrown in their direction. The fresh breeze forced us to take turns. One of us fishing till a hookup, the other on boat control. Yeah, it was a full hoot.
We found the ladies tucked in tight to shore. From what I've learned since, those girls had it all backwards. They shunned small plugs and ignored a slow, twitchy retrieve. They wanted it hard and fast. Wanted it so bad they'd explode out of their beds before the poor lure had a chance to hit the water and make its moves. Don't know if their reactions were a pickles and ice cream thing or they were simply fish in heat. But for two lustfully, exciting hours we threw them the biggest we had, cranked out our fastest retrieves as soon as our bass-o-renos hit the water then held on for all we were worth. Two hours of excitement and jabbering. Than it stopped. Didn't matter, we'd found a moment to remember all our lives. What more could a person want?
Forty-four years have passed. I can close my eyes and envision that scene exactly as it was, smell the overhanging cedars bent to the water, the toppled pines lining the shore, baseball sized rocks that coated the bottom and hear the lap and shush of the rollers sliding into shore. Never had a better morning on the water.
The summer job was fifty hours a week turning out howitzer primers for the Army. The war in Vietnam was heating up and American industry was booming. Three years later the government gave me a free trip, including food and clothing, to the same place those primers went. Not as much fun as catchin' bass on East Pike but even more life changing.