So its finally put up or shut up time. 'Spose if you're going to write a blog about wilderness fishing and canoeing experiences, sooner or later you've got to wade in and do it. My intention is to cover all nine Manitoba trips taken by me and my son Allan (including the Great Horsefly Adventure with his wife Maria). That's a lot of trips and a lot of potential repetition. I'll do my best to keep it interesting. So if I say something more than once, blame it on my aging brain. Hopefully there will be a laugh or two along the way. And maybe a bizarre comment from my nonexistent Uncle Emil to spice things up. Occasionally I'll might point you in the direction of theuncleemiltales.blogspot.com as a needed insert. I intend to include photos when I figure out how to do so. Hang with me, this is going to be a long process.
Introduction by Uncle Emil
I put in my share of days up in the near side of the far north hooking pike and eating walleyes. Not that I'm any kind of expert but I know the taste of the water and the smell of spruce and pine when the sun was beating down. That's why I'm going to stick my nose into this ramble before my nephew goes and stinks it up. My time up on those cold waters was in the days when fishing poles were made of hi-tech fiberglass, or if your tastes and wallets leaned more toward fishing with a tie on, bamboo. I didn't do bamboo. Wouldn't have minded a good one, no sir, but a week's pay for a stick was too rich for this boy's blood.
About a hundred miles up Highway 6 out of Winnipeg, Manitoba lies the town of Ashern. Mark and Al usually stop there for gas on the way up to Grass River Provincial Park. Their first year, an episode involving a necessary john straddling at the station on the east side of the highway convinced them to hit the quick-stop on the west side forevermore. That one's a real nice place. Clean bathrooms, large assortment of snack food, low grade porn magazines in the rack, pizza, and an eight year old kid pumping gas. Always made Mark a little edgy having anyone fill his tank, much less a third-grader smoking a non-filtered cigarette 'cause only a wienie needed a filter. Tough kids up in the north land.
But that's not the main reason Ashern sticks in my head. For that you have to look a couple hundred yards north. There you'll find a seventeen foot high statue of a sharp tail grouse. Guess this must be a good spot to kill ground birds or they wouldn't have put it there. Damn nice statue. Much better than Bemidji's Paul and Babe, unless you're prone to primitive non-art that leans more toward durability than reality. For all I know that's what Bunyan actually looked like. Seems like when people get real tall and go in for plaid shirts they always seem a little on the stiff side.
Size, accuracy and good bird country to the side, I am one of the very few, maybe the only human being, who knows the truth behind the fiction. Sure the statue's there because the birds are there. But it's as big as it is for a darned good reason.
It all goes back to the days of the Cold War. That kind of war didn't make much sense seeing as how we wanted to have it out with the Ruskies and they felt pretty much the same about us. Oddly enough, the Cold War wasn't all that cold. Instead of Russians we killed Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese. The Russians did in their share of Eastern Europeans and Afghans. You want to know how cold the Cold War was just ask my nephew.
Occasionally the innocents and the ignorants were dragged into our struggle. Seems like that always happens. As it turned out, in '58 Canada found herself involved in a bout of embarrassing coverup. Of course the good old U. S. of A. was at the root of the snafu. But I'm here to tell you Canada's hands weren't all that clean either. Took a bit of digging and a lot of thought to come up with the truth.
So, it's the time of Sputnik, A-bomb, and H-bomb tests. Spooky time to say the least. Russkies have the bomb and the rocket. The Great White North had its eyes peeled to the skies knowing if there were any over-the-pole short rounds, it's all over but the shouting. No more curling or hockey. No vinegar on french fries. Even the snow'd be melted. As a result the Canucks took most everything coming from The States way too seriously. So when Hollywood sent their sci-fi movies north of the border, they ended up causing a bit more of a stir than Tinseltown figured on. Seemed the Canadians thought all those giant, irradiated rabbits and bugs were the real deal. Doing the normal, human thing, they panicked.
It was the bugs that scared them the most. Car-sized bugs that could cross the border at any moment and lay waste to all those grain fields out in Saskatchewan. No more grain meant no more beer and whiskey. That was grounds for mobilizing the military. Armageddon time on the tundra.
From what the movies told them, the U.S. Army didn't seem to be worth a diddly when it came to bug control. So it was up to the Canadian government to figure out a way. And they did. Started with the simple question, "What eats bugs ?" Simple answer, " Africans and sharp tail grouse." Since it would take too long and cost too much to start up a big "Move to Canada. The Home of Five Course bugs," campaign in the heart of darkness, they went with the birds.
Problem was the sharptails were way too small. Big problem. The Canucks had no run-amok nuclear program to accidentally zap the birds like down here in the States. So they ended up doing it the Canadian way. Blasted grouse eggs with lightning bolt doses like Dr. Frankenstein, of organic, free river, hydroelectric power. Bam! Instant six footers. Less than a year later they had third generation, seventeen footers penned up by the thousands. All stood ready and trained to be loaded onto cargo planes and parachuted to wherever any six-legged munchables might be crossing the border. Called it Operation Birds of Freedom.
It was around that time an assistant undersecretary of something up in Ottawa realized the mistake and hush-hush like spread the word behind closed doors. Grown men cried, heads rolled. An emergency midnight session of Parliament worked non-stop for fifty-one hours to hash out a face-saving solution. The Canadian Film Board was called in. On September 17, 1958 a documentary premiered in Washington DC, titled "Saving Uncle Sam." The climax showed swarms of giant Canadian sharptail grouse with distinctive maple leaf wing bands preventing two American armored divisions from being eaten by six-foot, metal-munching ants. It was blood, guts, and mayhem at its finest. Ran non-stop for two years in Toronto and banned after one showing in the U.S. of A.
President Dwight David Eisenhower himself viewed the film the evening after its single showing. Was a Sunday if memory shows me right. Ike even had to miss Ed Sullivan and his featured act, Senor Wences. I've been told by an old friend who worked in the White House that Eisenhower's jaw slowly dropped as the show went on. Midway through the climax he finally exploded. Turned to his Secretary of Defense, Neil McElroy and yelled, "Why in the Sam Hill am I always the last to know these things? Damn it! Get me Ottawa on the phone pronto."
Well the truth finally came out. Both sides agreed to tear up all records of what happened and never mention it again. As for the sharptails, it was a Thanksgiving to remember that October in Winnipeg. And there were leftovers for everyone.
That's a bit of an out of the way to start this thing. But if my slow between the ears nephew pays just the slightest bit of attention, he'll get the gist of how to say things and not be his usual boring self. If not, you have my sympathy.
Uncle Emil broke the ice. Guess it's finally time to start writing about the Grass and File River trips. The original manuscript began with a long convoluted introduction. Wonderful if you like words. But mostly a beating around the bush telling the world more than it needs to know about an ordinary man.
Some of the introduction was worth saving. At least considering what follows. The seed for all our trips was planted in 1965. As with most of my life, chance played a major role. At a Freshman orientation for the University of Minnesota, I happened to eavesdrop on a conversation about a father-son fly-in fishing trip starting with a crab boil on a cobblestone beach the night before they took off, also the nonchalant attitude of the speaker, as though it was another ho-hum day in his life. It wasn't like I was hit over the head with the wonderfulness of his fly-in trip. I just never forgot it.
Nine months later came the trip to the Arrowhead of Minnesota with my friend Rod. At the time it was no more than good fun. Outside of hammering East Pike Lake smallmouth bass on the last day that is. Big smallies, sittin' on their spawning beds, doing their best to provide for and protect the future of smallmouth bass. That was another unexpected experience dropped in my lap. I also locked that one away in the never-to-be-forgotten file.
Flash forward to 1992. Allan was twelve. My daughter Annie, sixteen. I was forty-five. Lois and I had been married for twenty-two years. In our second house. Cabin up north. Grown into a life I enjoyed. All relevant. That East Pike day was one of my fondest memories. I recommended the lake to many people over the years but never gave a thought to returning on my own. Even recalled it to Lois, probably more times than I realized. One May morning in '92, I opened my mouth about it one too many times. Most likely to simply shut me up, she asked, "Why don't you and Allan head up north to see if the bass are still there?" That's all it took; one question and part of my life turned a new direction.
First I've got to clear something up. I love to fish but I'm not a fisherman. It's the experience, the trip, the planning, the months long anticipation, the love of having a lake to ourselves, the time with my son. And it's not just a father-son thing. Never'd done a real father-son thing when I was growing up. I would have but my Dad died when I was three. A lot of good was missed, also a lot of bad. Such is life, or death. Al and I had a great time together. I like and love him for the man he's become. That he 's my son is icing on the cake. Doesn't really hit the nail on the head but it'll have to do.
Allan and I did that trip and a bunch of others over the next seventeen years. They grew longer and more involved as time passed. All told, not including our paddling near the cabin, we spent over four months traveling by canoe and portage in search of excellent fishing, all the while learning from the seat of our pants on up. We always found what we were looking for but didn't always know what that was till it found us. To this day I can't exactly tell you what the wonderfulness we experienced was but it sure was there and we knew it.
The Boundary Waters years were fine. Always looked forward to each from the time one trip ended till the next began. But not a one of them was the trip I really wanted, the 'Drive to the End of the Road, Throw the Canoe in the Water and Paddle From There,' kind of trip. Pavement to gravel, to sand, to two-track, and dead end, where you can just make out a thinning in the treetops saying there's a lake up ahead. Never did that. Came real close but fell short.
Exactly where that road to the dead end is varies a lot from person to person. Most people don't give a rat's ass about driving to the end of any road much less throwing a canoe in if and when they got there. Some think the road ends at the cabin or the lodge bar. Some, the Quetico or Boundary Waters. Me, I kept looking at those black lines on the Canada map. Where they ended at places like Pickle Lake, Red Lake, Reindeer Lake and way gone up there at Great Slave Lake. That's the kind of road that was calling me.
Yeah, my eyes got tired looking at the maps. But not my imagination. I love maps, can't have enough of them. It's as though you can see through them to the dreams behind. Finally, one day I sent for information from Ontario. I was still locked into the Paper Age in '98. Thank God for letters, addresses and stamps. Waited for the postman to cometh. Mostly I learned what I didn't want to do. In Grand Marais up on Lake Superior, I put the question about an out of the ordinary trip to take with Allan for his high school graduation. "Maybe kayak to Isle Royale," said he. "Hmm," said I. Translation: "Might as well go shoe shopping at the Mall of America." What I really wanted was to share with Al the trip I'd have wanted when I graduated from high school and had wanted for thirty-three years. Crap. A third of a century to figure it out and I didn't have a clue.
Seemed to me like all the fishermen in the Midwest migrated straight north to Ontario for their trip of a lifetime. Flew into a remote cabin, caught walleyes in the places marked with an X on a map nailed to a knotty pine side wall over by the sink. Took pictures, ate steak on the barbeque and flew back out. All in five days. The pull to do something like that was strong. Can't knock some of the aspects. Northwest Ontario is a great place. But it seemed so cut and dried.
Ontario quickly told me by return mail they didn't want my kind bespoiling their pristine woods. They wanted us to have permits, guides, or at the least, rent equipment from their outfitters. The maps they included had all kinds of areas marked and shaded in. Took a bit of puzzling to get their drift. Which was, they didn't want me to take the trip I wanted to take. Whatever Al and I ended up doing, it would be done in our car, our canoe and with our gear. Do-it-yourself, for better or for worse. Ontario's point of protecting their resources and outdoor industries was completely understandable to me. I admired them for their mother-henning attitude. I'd probably have done the same had I the choice. But their restrictions weren't doin' it from my end of the stick. Xed out Pickle and Red Lake.
Great Slave was way too far, way too big. Never a serious consideration.
Finally, Manitoba stood alone. No one I knew had ever said the word Manitoba aloud. But it was alive and well in the lore of Minnesota canoemen. Sigurd Olson, Eric Severeid, Walter Post, Calvin Rutstrom and Scott Anderson had all paddled and then written of its waters. Kinda got me all tingly inside just thinking of it. The land of brave men and huge fish. However, the exploits of those boys were way out of our league. What they did required more time, more daring and the expert fast water skills we lacked in abundance. Mine was a happy day if I managed to keep the open side of the boat pointed at the sky. And in the remote rapids of the far north, I figured my chances of staying dry were slim at best. Not interested in a fast water, head bashing at all. Bringing life and death into the equation was more of a graduation present than I wanted to share with Allan.
Also, in my mind, the truly remote equalled money. Big money. I grew up with little change in my jeans. Learned to do without. I grew into a two peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, brown paper bag kinda guy. If we couldn't reach an access to something approaching wilderness on our own, we'd be looking at a fly-in trip. Dollar signs with wings flapping off into the sky. Fly-in would also involve others in my scheme. "Couldn't do it on your own. You wuss." Hell, I'd been a grunt in Vietnam. Life was simple there. Sucked big time, but simple. If you wanted it with you, you carried it on your own back like any self-respecting grunt. No one else was gonna. I still more or less felt the same thirty years later.
Time? We sure didn't have that burden on our hands. I punched a clock, had to bid vacation months in advance and Al had a summer job. The most we could hope for was eight or nine days. For sure, not expedition length. But if we could find a place within a long day's drive, a thousand miles tops, we could squeeze in a week on the water.
There were several real possibilities in Manitoba. Three were within a couple of hours of Winnipeg. I'd never been to any of them but, in my arrogant ignorance, I immediately blew them all off as too close to civilization. No doubt those parks were swarming with Canadians looking for picnic grounds twenty miles from the nearest road. They were real men and real women up north. Born to plaid shirts and jack boots. Paddles in hand, laughing their way through number three rapids. All descended from from the Second Man, Lucky Pierre, who paddled his way out of the Garden looking for something a little more natural, exciting, with a handful of horse flies thrown in for good measure. The Canadians would take one look at us and know they had impostors on their hands. So I looked farther to the north where Allan and I might find the solitude necessary to not be seen by those who recognized the real thing.
There it sat right under my nose. And I'd overlooked it dozens of times. There are none so blind.... A green tinted, Chevy bow-tie shaped area almost on the Saskatchewan line, Grass River Provincial Park. Perfect. I'd never heard of it. Had to put my eyeball right up to the map to see the half dozen lakes indicated in blue. Can't say I was wild about the name. A river named Grass sounded too much like the Great Plains. On the upside, it didn't sound like life-defying rapids either. But it was surrounded by more rivers and lakes than in all of Minnesota so it had to be good. It was a done deal in my mind. That's where we were heading for sure. Once again I headed to the library for an address. Then picked up my pen.