Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Learning Curve '01 (Part One)

     A full two weeks of doing exactly what I'd wanted brought on a guilt attack, an egotistic waste of precious time. Been raised a Catholic. Need I say more? But on the other hand, I'd been spoiled and anything less than a full two weeks seemed paltry. Al was fine with two weeks. Even Lois was willing to go along with it. But I was stuck in the middle of me again. Didn't know which shoulder to listen to. Or which one was which. The devil or the angel? Donald Duck syndrome. Fifty-four years old and in the middle of a Disney toon. So the plan was listening half to one and half to the other. More or less half-assed. We'd take two weeks but they wouldn't all be in Canada. But they'd all be up north. Wouldn't be all play. Wouldn't be all work. Wouldn't be just the two of us. Lois was coming to play for part of the time.
     Once again we had a late Spring. Got me frettin' about another Winter in Summer on the Grass River. Lois said that wouldn't happen. Turned out she was right. I think she was blowing smoke and calling it intuition. There's no way I can prove that so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt.
     Here's how it played out: Over the last three or four years I'd putzed together most of a canoe and equipment storage shed up at the cabin. Twelve by twenty-four feet, dirt floored, roofed with steel. Didn't as yet have doors or siding to match the cabin. Then there was the new outhouse. Made 'cause the old one was turning into what was in the hole underneath it. The new one still needed flooring and trim work. Finishing those two projects became the opening bookend of the two weeks. The back end was a family wedding.
     Like I said, Lois was right about the weather. Two weeks of mostly sun and warmth. Nothing to hold us back but ourselves. The three of us left the Cities on an end of May Friday. All the material we needed was up North and waiting. Like a kit ready to be assembled. Construction is most always kit work. Sometimes you start by making the kit. That's what lumber and saws are for. Shed doors and sheathing were to be of cedar. Dog-eared fence pickets were squared up on an earlier trip and ready to go.
     By six p.m. that first evening Al'd started on the sheathing. I finished the outhouse. Both called for simple, repetitive tasks done efficiently. Get a rhythm and go at it. And always know where your fingers are. Do it once, do it right. Canada was calling. Lois had the tougher jobs. Made meals, provided a third hand and did the running to town for the unforeseen. Life seems to be filled with the unforeseen. Most are no big deal so long as no blood is spilled.
     She's a two holer. Steel roof. Cedar sheathed with moon and star cut in the door. The door came from the old outhouse. Too nice to not use. The bench is a formica counter top, cut to fit the store bought seats. The face of the bench is quarter sawn oak from the same stack as the addition floor and walls. Sometimes I forget and reach for the flushing handle. Walls and ceilings were decoupaged by Lois with family memorabilia and posters. Two large, quarter-inch thick plexiglass windows face the woods and let in plenty of light. Prefinished oak flooring lends a touch of civility. The peaks are screened front and back for ventilation. Might not be the finest outhouse in Christendom but it sure be in the running. I take my dirty work seriously. The flooring and trim were completed as dark was making itself to home.
     For Allan it was a dozen hours of measuring, sawing and nailing. With an additional minute here and there thrown in to remove slivers. Near the end of the day on Saturday he was finishing up and I was well into the shed doors. The same cedar picket material was used to make the doors. The two doors were mirror images and formed a diamond patterned frame when hung. Classic look. Such a design has been used for as long as mankind made doors from boards. The plan was in my head and came from years of seeing old, graying farm sheds with unwarped doors. Like most every job since God made the Garden, this one took longer than planned. Any idea of a Sunday afternoon departure flew out the window. Settling for Monday suited me a whole lot better than a pair of jacked-up doors, poorly hung. We'd be looking at them for years to come. Losing a few hours on the water was well worth it.
     A canoe-fishing story sure doesn't usually start with a construction project. But, truth be known, I don't see a whole lot of difference between the two. Both are being and doing kinda things. We were working and laughing as a family. When work's fun it's just another good way of being alive. Canada or not, we were doing things outdoors surrounded by forest, wind and birdsong. Time passed with the sun. Ate when we were hungry. Worked up a sweat. Washed at the pump. Paused every so often to take it all in. Working with your hands in the out of doors is a connection to the past. Come supper on Sunday, we were as done as we could be. All was a pleasure to the eye.
     Monday morning. Six a.m. We drove down our two track driveway through the woods, Lois in the lead. A quarter mile of gravel led us to the highway. Lois turned south. Allan and I, north. Couldn't take my eye off the rear view mirror as Lois moved into the past. Can't forget our separations during the Vietnam years. They tore me apart each time. That war sure screwed with my mind. This was nothing near that level. But I'll never forget those earlier days. Impossible to forget. A half minute later me and Al were around the first bend and on our way to Canada once again.
     Leaving from the cabin seemed a whole new drill. Sure doesn't take much to perk my interest do it? The miles flew by. Our early start didn't hurt either. And all of it in daylight. Coming from a half day of work as the first three trips had made it feel like a marathon. Bird free this time. Coming into The Pas, lo and behold, we found a brand spankin' new Super 8 motel on the right. Not exactly the Waldorf but what the hell. Though it wasn't finished, it was open and had a vacancy. Mmm. Fresh latex paint and pure olefin carpeting. Smelled just like the good ol' U. S. of A. Asked the man at the desk about a good place to eat. Scratched his head and said, "Beats me. I just got here myself." So we did the easy thing. Walked across the parking lot to a bar and grill. Pizza with Kokanee lager on tap. New beer to me but a big deal here in Canada. Michael J. Fox himself drinks it when out west. Can't go wrong with a recommendation like that. Sure carried a wallop of flavor.
     This year's plan was simple as pie and would take all ten of our days. Finish off last year's plan. Bear-Brunne here we come. The map said there was a lot going on over there besides the two main lakes. Copper, B.C., Amphipod - whatever an amphipod might be, and a fistful of hundred acre lakes. All had names, none had any marked portages. But none were all that far apart. Unless you'd call B.C. Lake with three small lakes and four unmarked portages in the way, a long haul. Copper looked like a definite. Amphipod, a trout lake, was a maybe. We'd do what we could. Still the main ideas were big pike and walleyes.
  

                                         Emil

     Gotta cut in and give the low down on the Minnesota mind. Up here in the Northland we run on guilt. Keeps the furrows straight and the politicians a little less crooked. Markie couldn't stop the bad weather of '00 from cloudin' up the blue skies of '01. He kept smellin' a trap. Us Minnesotans figure life balances out in the long run. Sometimes in the short. You just don't know when the hammer's gonna fall. Topping that off, we figure the balance point to hover around mildly miserable. Think about where we live and you'll see what I'm drivin' at.
     So as he's paddling down the Cranberries, under blue skies and with a tailwind no less, he's figuring the piper is waiting somewhere up ahead to collect his nickel. Maybe bear attack. Or at the very least, a hundred year old black spruce falling on a two year old tent with a fifty-four year old foreigner inside. He'd squirt out both ends like a tube of toothpaste smacked with a ball peen hammer. Markie'll tell you for certain that even when he's having a good time, he's doin' his darnedest to temper the fun with a crazy fear of the improbable. Improbable, not impossible 'cause, if it's bad enough it ain't impossible. Can't say's I find anything wrong with that line of thinkin'.


     Blue sky, sunshine, tail wind all the way. So easy we even took an unscheduled break. to help erode a steep sided island. Sometimes Al has the darnedest time getting from A to B. He got us to pull into that island just has to check things out. I shouldn't complain. Wasn't like we were checking out the new Play Station. But next thing you know, he'll be wanting to smell the roses and find the meaning of life at the same time. Not a good sign. Dear Lord, the extra stop put us ten minutes behind schedule. Fire up your German blood boy. Guess I wasn't as yet out of work mode.
     The portage was easy work on this perfect day. Not a biting bug in the air. And it was an equal  pleasure paddling up the connecting stream and into Bear. No galloping horses this time. How dull. Soon as we were out on the lake we hung a left. New water. Yes, it was a thrill. Thanks for asking. Maybe thousands had been there before but it was new to us. Like finding a treasure chest and not knowing what was inside. On the map it looked so big. On the water, the thicket of islands to our south shrank the lake down to the downright personal. Mid lake we passed what looked to be a fine campsite. But we had other places to go. Base camp on Brunne was at least a half dozen miles ahead. No sites were shown on the map, so for the first time we'd be intentionally winging it. How daring. Going rogue in a foreign land. Sarah Palin would have been proud of us. If only we'd had the vision to arrive by helicopter. Coulda been spearing our jumbo pike from the air like real Americans. Instead, we paddled on. Zig-zagging west then north 'cause there was too much to see while searching for the next portage.
     Portage? Looked like we could have driven the Jeep over it. Way high and dry for the sixty rods to Brunne. Question of the day: What craps like a dog, eats things with hair or fur and lives way up here? I was thinking wolf but willing to scale down to coyote. Nah, wolf seems so much manlier so I'll go with that.
     We also came upon our first fifty-five gallon woods barrel. Maybe for bear baiting? Give us a break, we're ignorant city boys. What do we know about such things? So long as we weren't the bear bait, ours was a happy life. Talked this over with a friend. A lady friend no less. She suggested the best stuff to put in such a barrel was restaurant grease. All those rotting meat smells just had to be primo attractants. The beauty of the grease came into play when you plugged the beast just as it was leaning in to chow down. Carcass falls in grease. Barrel is sealed, flash frozen, then the bear can be deep fat fried at your convenience. So sweet. Hats off to Linda Mayne for the tip of the week!
     At the end of the portage sat the legal minimum of three aluminum boats. Thank God. Now I knew we were still in Canada. What would a wilderness be without locks, chains and discarded beer cans? A person could get bummed enough to head back to the BWCA with all it's rules and regulations. Or head up to the sub-arctic, spend a fortune and play explorer for a week or two. Man's problem with wilderness areas is having to drag himself along when heading into the boonies. Seems all of us, good intentioned or not, are good at screwing things up. Ah, but I piss and moan too much. We were here for da fishin'. And a little quiet time together. Hopefully we could do that without messin' up too much.
     We were there. On Brunne. No campsites posted. No problem. A dozen miles of shoreline and a couple of fistfuls of islands should offer a bounty of landing spots. First off, a half-mile in, we bypassed the biggest island on the lake. Didn't even look at it and almost sneered as we passed. Seventeen miles of water and two portages didn't seem buffer enough to me I guess. Don't know what I was afraid of. Maybe the sound of rush hour traffic back in Cranberry Portage. Even by motor boat we were over two hours from the Government Dock. How many lodge sports would be up for a four to five hour round trip for a couple of hours of trolling? Shoulda stopped and checked it out. Ten years later and I'm still kicking myself in the butt over it. A violation of rule number one: Don't do anything stupid.
     We hung a right on the five mile long lake 'cause that's where the islands were. And began a weave among them looking for a landing. Can't camp unless you can get out of the boat. Checked out every likely spot. Zip. Then weaved our way back. Zip. Who the heck made these islands? Didn't they know we'd need an easy landing someday? We'd finally sunk into the unforgivable of heading back toward the big island. Wussing out again. But then, tah-dah! Halfway back we came upon what looked like a shore lunch spot sitting on a small peninsula. The landing sucked but not so much we couldn't get out of the canoe. Toe and hand-hold time. Followed by a painter rope job to zig-zag the canoe into a brush opening and a hoist up. Took a few years but we were getting competent at doing marginal backwoods stuff.
     The site was just big enough and had a level, mossy tent pad. Looked like it'd never been used. Enough rocks to build a fire stand for our grill on the rock slab. Great view across a quarter mile bay. And just behind us an acre or two of drop zones for the inevitable.
     The wilderness camping books don't give enough space to both ends of digestion. Lord almighty! If you're gonna eat, you're gonna excrete. Simple fact. And when the woods are filled with flying things that want your blood, it's not all that easy a job. No doubt about it, crappin' in the woods is an outdoorsman's skill. For sure. Gives a new meaning to being a tree hugger. By the way, and I'm not saying this happened to me, if you're thinkin' of burning your toilet paper so as to be a no trace camper, remember: There's not much dirt in the far north. Mostly duff and rock. Seeing as how digging a hole in rock is a challenge, you'll most likely bury your leavings in duff. And duff burns. So bury it deep or pack it out. Ickey! 'Course you could put it in the cooking fire. Can't say that would perk up the flavor of fresh caught walleye but you never know.
     I'd sure like to write about all the wonderful fishing action on Brunne. Seeing as how we were a fair ways in from the road you'd have thought it would have been non-stop. But it wasn't. Oh, it was great by Minnesota standards. Just not so for Manitoba. We'd find pockets of game fish most everywhere on our islanded end of the lake. Mostly walleye. What were we doing wrong? We were there to sling spinners for pike. Catching the most curious of the walleyes was not our bag. Should have done like the Romans and gone to jigs and power grubs. But didn't think of that as real fishing I 'spose. Also we hadn't as yet figured out fishing spinners like jigs. Most gopher lovers from south of the border'd have no problems with a few dozen pickerel a day. But we were looking for boat draggers, not shore lunch.
     For sure the pike were around. Though not much for size. Just a bunch of skinny males doing their best to be annoying. I figured it had to do with spawning and the ladies acting coy. Seems like an excuse and it is. When you're on the water nine degrees north of home and no one to ask about such things as ice out, spawning and the alcohol content of beer, it's all a crap shoot. Figured the big mamas we were looking for were taking a break somewhere. Gettin' spruced up mid-lake after a tough time squirting out all those eggs. We did find a fifteen pounder off a rock pile. When I hoisted her for a portrait, she nearly rolled the canoe. Feisty lady. Gives a person pause when the boat rocks like that. 'Specially when you're a half mile out from shore. Remember rule number one.
     By the way, we were back in the Alumacraft. It was noisy and clunky looking but seemed to handle better. At least for us. Besides, she was an old friend. Still is. Lightly loaded, the Camper was kick-ass. For a few years it was our go-to fishing boat at the cabin. Then I sold it. But that's next year's story. To everything there is.... Another truth from Ecclesiastes. Nothing in our universe is a perfect anything.
     Can't complain about our time on Brunne for at least four reasons. Allan caught his one and only sucker. A much maligned fish. People don't much like to eat them but go ask a pike if they're tasty or not. Possibly it's their weak jaw line and turned down mouth. Maybe if they grew a beard like Hemmingway. The one Al caught was mostly black with a slightly rosy-tinted, pale yellow belly. Actually a good looking sucker. That is if you're into color.
     Caribou. In Minnesota we have a chain of coffee shops by that name. Northwest Manitoban's weren't as much into sippin' java while surfing the web on their I-pads as us geeky types down in Minnesota so they had to settle for the actual, real animal on the hoof rather than a logo. We saw our first pair on a wooded hillside near the Copper Lake portage. No doubt they saw us first. And probably by a long shot. Seeing as how we were an exotic species from a foreign country, me and Al were no doubt fascinating as all get out. A couple more to check off on their homo sapiens lifetime list. Soon as we saw them they turned white butt and disappeared. Saw another a couple of days later, also on the north shore.
     Gold mine. The map showed an abandoned mine a short stretch to the northwest of the lake. Of course it might not have been a gold mine but, given the choice, that was mine (Is that confusing or is it just me?). I figured there was little chance we'd find precious metal. However, there might be a slag heap in which to find a sparkly crystal or bit of pyrite. Whatever we might find would make for a good story and not be much of a burden to hump out.
     Off the wet rubbled landing we quickly came upon what looked like a grassed over two track. Wide enough to drive a truck over. I mean that. Most everything about it said truck, even the signage and occasional semaphore. Maybe a winter road? If so, where did it go? And what for? The ruts through the low spots were water filled. Finally it was uphill to the site. A feeling of being very much alone walked in with us. No doubt about it. I said hi and asked if the Solitude surrounding us minded that I was doing my best to ignore it. Seems like those feelings like to hang out twenty water, woods and crow miles from the nearest pair of trousers. Just like us, they get lonely and their dearest wish is for somebody to come along and keep them company. And maybe drag those unsuspecting visitors down into an unknown plaid Hades for all eternity.
     We found the mine area. Maybe even the mine. Or something that looked like a huge gopher hole filled with rocks. Not a slag heap in sight. The rocks in the hole were chunks of granite. Crap! No crystals for me. We wandered off in search of other treasure, any other treasure. A hundred yards away stood - well, maybe fifty years ago they stood - a pair of cabins. The piles of broken bottles and rusted cans led us to think maybe people once lived in them and survived on an unhealthy, canned diet. When the pile of trash got too big they left.
     The inside of the buildings was tetanus shot country. We did find two treasures. An empty can of Spork appealed to our Minnesota, Spam to the bone, selves. Al had to have a photo. Should have been an arm's length shot of the three of us. Captioned, 'Who be the ugly twins with that fine can of Spork?' The other was a small, unbroken bottle which we smuggled across the border. Just like in the days of Prohibition. Only those bottles were full. My old man tried to smuggle a few bottles of liquor across the border on the way home from his honeymoon.  My bottle made it. His didn't.
     We walked the site. Had a fine time passing through the heady and fragrant blend of sunlit pine and spruce. Me and that piney scent have a love-hate relationship. I want to like it. Should like it, but don't. Lord knows I've tried. Probably goes back so far in my past I have no memory of the experience. A lot of a person's attitudes seem to be based on things that happened when they were months old. A person gets bent one way for a darned good reason. But at age fifty-four, I no longer have a clue what that reason was. Can't say this side trip in the woods was a thrill. But should I ever find myself on Brunne again, I'd give it another go.
     Couple of years before, the Simonhouse Ranger had referred to this area as the Copper Lake chain. I thought he had it ass backwards. Copper's no more than three hundred acres. Bear and Brunne, both solidly over a thousand. In my mind that seemed a cart before the horse thing unless the fishing on Copper was world class. First thing on the second morning we paddled straight across toward Copper. No portage was marked on the map. Figuring most everyone was as lazy as us, we headed for the narrowest dry point between the two.  Made me feel like a regular trail blazer when it turned out we were right. Since it was no more than a long city block up and over we threw all the gear in the canoe and each grabbed an end. After much discussion concerning the possibility of levitation, we settled on the necessity of taking opposite ends. One boat sat on Copper's shore. Old and rotting. Good sign. Wasn't even chained up. There's a photo of me looking near as passed my prime as the boat, but trying mightily to affect an air of wisdom.
     Turned out we had a decent morning's walleye fishing. Maybe even pretty good. But hole-moley, look where we were. Should have been 'jumpin' in the boat' great. We were well aware of our walleye limitations. But those fish had probably never seen homemade spinners. Should have been hammering the lures just to see how they tasted. Plus, no fishing boats at the portage. That we should stink more than we thought was perplexing.
     However, there was more to the story. At the Government Dock on the way out we talked with a man who'd fished Copper a number of times in years past. Said his first couple of times the lake was the closest he'd found to virgin water. Then sometime in the mid-nineties it just stopped. Didn't have a clue as to why. I gave it some thought. Put two and two together and figured he wasn't the only one to seek out Copper. Three hundred nearly sterile acres could be easily overfished. Same old story.
     Two years later we learned the truth. Back in the gold rush days a railroad was built across what eventually became the north side of Grass River Park. When the park was established, the rail was torn out. Somehow or other the abandoned grade was turned into a crushed gravel road. A local could now hop into the F-150 and tow his boat to the north end of Copper Lake. Bye-bye near virginity. Guess we were too late. Some wilderness, eh. Not much to do but laugh about it. Still it was a pretty little lake. Even searched it for a campsite. Should have brought a jackhammer, dynamite and a bobcat. Or maybe gone up Copper's north arm and camped out on the road.
     Brunne gave us our finest evening of Canadian fishing. Wasn't so much the amount of fish. Though the walleyes had no problem sacrificing themselves for our sins. It was the black, glassed out water, setting sun and a pair of loons going looney that made our dusk memorable. Excuse me but I'm compelled to write this: the lake's surface was as obsidian. There. I've done it and feel so much better. For an hour we lived in a cliche. Sun under-lighting spruce and pine. Trees reversed on water. Mellow, fine, just right. Jaw hanging, drool flowing. All the while, the loons, a quarter mile away, went nuts. Running on the water and off at the mouth. For most of an hour. It that's their idea of a mating ritual, I'd pay good money to watch loon sex.
     Not much more to say about Brunne. One cool, cloudy day and four of sun. Then off to Bear. Took almost as long to break camp as to travel. Yeah, I know, some voyageurs we were. Here's my excuse. I don't fully buy into that 'life is a journey' drivel. Never liked 'you are what you eat' either. Saw the latter as 'you ain't what you excrete'. Every positive statement has it's corresponding negative. It's a balance, pure and simple. As for the 'journey', I'm more into the being there. Taking the time to be somewhere has more appeal. Get the feel of a location. Know the smells. Get a little feeling of being at home there. More often than not we base camped. Spent a lot of time putzing around. Also spent at least six hours canoeing on the water each day, mostly fishing. Sometimes just checking things out. Takes a while to find a few treasures on a lake. If you get one idea out of this jumble of words, don't always pass on through. Stop for a while. Throw a few spinners.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Endings

     Damn I hated it when each trip was over. Don't get me wrong. Cleaning, airing and storing the gear had to be done. As much a part of the experience as pitchin' spinners. The putziness of the put away made the taking out in the coming spring surprise free. But it's what goes on in my head that does me in. A long awaited adventure over. Finito. Like a little death. Now a whole year 'til the next trip. Don't know whether to cry or scream. But all that gets sucked up. Nothing's gonna make it any better. Keep cleaning the gear. Been through that drill too many times in the past. It's a learned skill. Not one you want to learn. What gets you through is realizing this ain't the end of the world. Knowing there will be a next year helps a lot. In a couple of weeks I'll start counting down the days. Focusing on the long drive, time with Al and back on the water for a week or two. Maybe someplace new. Almost too strong a brew to get a handle on.
     Somewhere down the road there won't be a next year. That's just the way life is. Doesn't make the passing any easier. No point in dwelling on that. So I don't. Knowing that day is there is enough.
     One saving grace. Allan has a son. He'll be 48 when Matthew graduates from High School. Somewhere, somehow, they'll find their own version of Canada. Makes me smile.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Learning Curve '00 (Part Two)

     Yes, the rain did end. Didn't put out more than an inch or two in the forty-five minutes. "That the best you can do? I was ready to sit on this stump for all thirteen days. Candy ass rain." When we made the island, we hit it running. So far the weather forecast had been on the money. Maybe they knew what they were talking about after all. For the first hour it was a game of priorities. Tent up and tied off in all directions. Packs stowed.
     Confession time. We never hung our packs. In my mind the black bears in our neck of the woods weren't hip to untying properly hung packs. Heck, we could barely figure them out ourselves. That we didn't have a tree with an elongated branch anywhere near the island might have been the real reason for no hanging. But I prefer to think our bears simply didn't recognize the aroma of a Snickers Bar as food. Being natural born organic animals from the get-go they probably don't even know the treats available in a garbage can. My real concern was moisture. Even though all packs were double-bagged on the inside, we envelope folded them in a tarp when in camp to keep them dry.
     Inside the tent I laid out a slightly over-sized, plastic tarp like a second bathtub floor. Tents leak even when they're high quality. The tarp's a little insurance in case of a downpour. Bags rolled out, air mattresses inflated, Coleman fired up, food on. No rain. We were up and ready. Nail that on the wall. When I say it felt like we were home, that's exactly what I felt. And the skies had cleared. To be sure it was still cold. Long johns, stocking caps and jackets cold. Considering what we'd already been through, a little cold was no big deal.
     In my mind's eye sittin' here in 2011, what we didn't know about back then, was what was sittin' on the other side of the pole. Something was going on over there weatherwise and firing storms at Canada like ping-pong balls from a 1950's toy bazooka. Soon as one piece of misery would clear off another would come rumbling along. Wind, rain and cold. Enough wind to keep us off the water for about four days. Enough rain to make us thankful for the tent. In the bags at night we wore stocking caps, long johns, socks and jackets. Oh yeah, almost forgot. It snowed. On the coldest days we topped off our usual three layers with rain gear and life jackets. Didn't much need the Weather Channel to tell us it never topped sixty degrees. In spite of all that, we had a humdinger of a good time. What can I say?
     Nights weren't a party for my ribs. Every hour or so they'd wake me up to shift positions. Moving involved a slow, full elbow prop. Then a grunting reposition. But it felt sooo good falling back asleep. Oddly enough, paddling and fishing were no problem. Ribs must know what makes for a good time and don't want to screw it up. By the fourth night the pain was almost gone. Thoughts of Bear and Brunne returned to the picture.
     Our latrine was in the wooded end of the island. Only place with any dirt and duff. After our stay it also had the best fertilized jackpines in the park. On day five I headed into the woods armed with trowel and TP. By choice and fear of inadvertently filling my drawers, I always tree-hugged and rear projected from a semi-squat. No need to visualize that. Going into the squat, I felt and heard two distinct rib pops. Like getting kicked in the back. Hurt so bad I started laughing. Laughed so hard I nearly lost my grip. Fear of losing my grip got me laughing even more. I was on a never-ending, descending, bare-assed spiral into pain and potential rolling in my own filth. Got a grip on myself finally. Not easy to do. Since I was already down, I finished my business. Amazingly, when I came out, Allan claimed he never heard my ribs crack. Could have sworn I heard them echo down the lake. No big deal. Now at least the real healing could begin. And, big and, it still didn't hurt to paddle or fish.
The Long...
and the Short of It
     The fishing. Ahh, the fishing. Now that was another story. As good as we'd hoped. A wealth of walleyes. A plethora of pike. A tidy number of them in the teens. A few over forty inches. Two fish stand out. One at each end of the spectrum. The first was a hands down, one and only, never to be repeated, stuff of legends. You tell me what the odds are for impaling a shiner minnow cleanly through the head with a number five spinner. Aggressive little bugger. The photo shows Allan smugly posing with his trophy.
     Second fish was also Al's. Bad weather and lazy afternoons in camp had us doing plenty of shore fishing. Our little channel saw a lot of passing action. You'd think that most every campsite six degrees north of the border, especially the remote ones, would have good fishing. Not so. Our site on Wedge was the best of a couple of dozen we eventually occupied over the years. Once my ribs snapped, Wedge was the end of the road for us. No Brunne or Bear for us.
     Thank God for the passing parade off shore. Catching a forty incher while wind bound was a big deal for me. Figured it would be the largest either of us saw. And it was, for a couple of days. Came to pass one afternoon, Al was pitching his usual red and white. Me, I was putzing. Maybe trying to square the circle or something equally useful. So Al starts yelling out, "Fish on! Fish on! Bigger than a dog big!" Heard that before. What's with the 'bigger than a dog?' What kind of dog? Decided to settle that dog business once and for all. One look told me mid-sized pooch. Springer spaniel size. Damn big pike. Ran for the pliers, needle nose and camera. Got a good shot of the two of them. Why I took only one is a mystery. Forty-six and a half inches. Call it twenty-eight pounds. Nice shore pike? More like, best of a lifetime.
     Half inches are a big deal with pike that size. Its not like we were being picky or stretching the truth as far as possible. In the old days it was pounds and ounces. To get an accurate weight you had to kill the fish. Dead fish aren't happy fish. Nowadays we're kinder and gentler souls. Hook 'em through the mouth, fight them 'til they're near death, jam a spreader in their mouth, pop it through the beak, rip the hook out with a pair of pliers, take a picture, measure and turn 'em loose with a pat on the butt and a 'have a nice day.' That half inch over the forty-six inches was worth about a pound. You gotta count it.
  
Esox Luscius - Water Wolf - A perfect Name
                     
     I've given some thought to why I like pike fishing. Maybe 'cause a northern was the first gamefish I caught. Maybe it's simply the name and how it gets me thinking of the steep, rock slab and pine lined lakes of the Canadian shield. More likely it's the way a pike eagerly snatches anything that moves and that some of them get big. Seriously, catching pike ain't what you'd call a skill. They're in nearly every fish holding lake in Minnesota. And if you catch enough of them you'll eventually tie into what Allan calls a fatty. More persistence than skill I guess.
     So, why Canada for pike? I've said it before. There's more of them, they're not all that sharp and there's more big ones. Simply put, my kind of fish.

     One of my goals I've ragged on about to most anyone within shouting distance is to someday fish an unnamed lake. Not just some old slough but one that held some hidden treasures. Like maybe jumbo walleyes as dumb and eager as pike. If I could have found one in Minnesota, maybe we'd have never gone to Canada. But down there in the southland, every mud hole has a name. A fair number are even called Mud and some have two names in case one wasn't enough. Guess that's to make up for all the Round, Long, Fish and Island Lakes.
     Near to Wedge sat a couple of no-namers. The best looking had a few islands and was around three hundred acres. No streams or portages going in or out. Beyond intriguing. Might have sat on its own since the glaciers melted off. Like an itty-bitty Australia with marsupial muskies. Virgin water. Lordy, lordy, the possibilities were endless. One minor problem. Between it and Wedge stretched a mile and a quarter of swamp and untraveled forest. Land of trolls, gnomes and eternally lost souls. Doubted I had it in me to set off into that much of an unknown.
     The other seemed a real possibility. According to the map she wasn't as fancy, around a hundred acres banana shaped acres and nary an island. Oh yeah, another swamp stood in the way. Seems the Canucks go out of their way to keep unnamed lakes unknown. Good news was the less than a half mile slog in the crossing. Throw in some high ground and just maybe....
     Obviously I wouldn't bring this up if we didn't give 'er a go. On our scoping of the shore we were distracted by a chunk of a pike, solidly in the teens. Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do. Turned out the map was too right. Low swampy, unlandable shore and a couple of cattail bays. We were about to bag it when off in the woods I spotted an old blaze on a spruce. Never was a Boy Scout but I knew what a blaze was and what it meant.
     Really, there were no drugs involved. Outside of caffeine and nicotine, we had nothing. Maybe it was all the clean air. Too much oxygen, chlorophyl and all that healthy stuff. Don't really know for sure what caused my brain to become befuddled. That the blaze I spotted and all the others following it, led us down a faint trail going in the wrong direction, never entered my mind. All I could see was an 'ancient path leading to near virginal waters.' Buckskin and wool shirts made this trail long before gortex. Piss on gortex. We were walkin' on history. All the blazes were nearly grown over. Moss ankle deep. Deadfall here and there.
     Had to pause now and then to make out the path. High ground all the way. Too good to be true. This was a fairy tail woods for sure. Thumper and Bambi kinda forest. Maybe sixty rods in we could make out an opening in the trees that could only mean a lake. The time between my thought of 'we're gonna make it' and Allan's realization the water we could see was just another bay on Wedge, could have been measured in nanoseconds. Ecstasy is truly a fleeting thing. We looked at each other and laughed. Same laugh. Different reasons. Seems there's a fine line between embarrassment and ridicule. I'd been wrong many times before. And am looking forward to many more screwups in my future. I've learned to take disappointment well, but not perfectly. Crap!
     Over our remaining days my ribs never got a whole lot better. When the cold would set in at camp I'd get the shivers. The shivers would make the ribs hurt more and bend me over. I'd have to head into the tent, crawl in the bag and warm up. Mostly an inconvenience. Canoeing and throwing spinners would keep me warm. Gotta love that.
     Mister Sunshine paid us a visit on our second Tuesday. The air remained cold and damp but the brightness was uplifting. A few days earlier the small side of Wedge had shown itself to be a big pike hotbed. That is if you consider four in the teens over two hours to be a hotbed. We hit the water after an early supper with the idea of an action-packed five hours. Four hours of mediocrity changed our tune. Figuring to end the evening at the Rainbow Reeds, we headed back toward camp. Hope springs eternal.
     Everything about the evening was good except the effect of the cold and damp on my ribs. Paddling wasn't the problem. Getting out of the canoe at camp to take a leak was. Allan had to lend me a hoisting hand. The leak part I handled alone. While draining I gave the situation some thought. Should anything go wrong on the water, I was a danger. Al was willing to agree with me and also considerate enough to hang around camp with me for the rest of the evening. Had I known that was the end of our canoe fishing for the trip, I'd have taken a couple of ibuprofen and sucked it up. But I didn't know that. It was Tuesday and our planned exit wasn't till Friday. You never know for sure if any decision is the right one. Or the wrong one for that matter. We're all pea brains in the Grand Scheme (whatever that is). Right or wrong, we remained in camp.
     Wednesday was more heavy rain, wind and cold. In and out of the tent all day. Ran out of smokes. You wouldn't think a dozen days would lead to any form of addiction but it sure did. We weren't happy campers. Could have been worse. We had reading material, food and a dry tent. Rained all night. We were beginning to mold. The hundred percent humidity was permeating everything. Constant raindrops on the tent were our wake up call on Thursday. In and out of the tent in the following hours to check on the treetop high clouds.
     A week earlier Al's watch had stopped during the night. Groovy. For sure we definitely weren't into time anymore. Knowing the sun was on the treetops at 10:50pm gave us a ball park reset. On Wednesday his watch stopped again. This time it was reset by a wild guess as to when it was about dark enough under a total overcast to call it sunset. So when I say the rain slowed to a mist around noon on Thursday, that's purely a guess. Figuring the almost lull was as close to a now or never moment as we were going to see, we broke camp. Everything was soaked. Didn't matter. We stuffed it in, burned off our paper and packed out the plastic. Time to go.
     Again, paddling was no problem. A little stiffness, no more than a nuisance. Al had to load me on the portage. And carry all but two packs. I could have felt like a slug but that never entered my head. We were still sharing the load exactly as we'd been doing since our first Boundary Waters trip. The balance point had been moving Allan's direction most every year since then. If we kept doing this wilderness thing long enough, someday he'd be carrying everything, including me and my wheelchair. Don't see me lasting that long but figure I have a few years left.
     The mist came and went as we bucked a light breeze down the Cranberries. By First Cranberry there was nothing left but dying rollers. Only one way to do 'er. Right down the middle, straight toward the radio tower. Pulling into shore it seemed way too dark. Heck, Allan's watch said it was only six o'clock. The Jeep's clock, on the other hand, said it was 8:15. Guess that says a lot about telling time by the sun when you can't see the sun.
    Good old Al. Like I said, we'd run out of smokes. Not life or death but I sure had a hankerin' for some kind of nicotine-like reward once on shore. Seems he'd had some kind of premonition when he'd parked the Jeep thirteen days earlier that we'd return to the access run down, broken boned and buttless. Couldn't do much about the first two. As to the third, he'd squirreled away a couple of Players in the glove box. Man of faith in action. Umm-umm. Two hundred, ninety-seven poisons in each drag. Heaven on earth (is that too heavy?).
     So it's sneaking up on nine when we pulled out of Cranberry Portage at our usual Speed of Light approaching 25 mph. Sure seems fast after two weeks at less than 5 mph.
     Thursday night. Ten o'clock. Wescana Inn. Learned that evening a new paper mill was being built just outside of town. A big deal for The Pas. Not so good for us. Seems most every hammer owner for two hundred miles was in on the deal. And most every man jack of them needed a room in town. The Pas was booked solid every Sunday to Friday. The lady at the desk was a sport. Even though she knew it was a waste of time, she called around. Nada. My brain immediately thought Winnipeg but I quickly slapped that notion down. The desk clerk's best guess for a room was Swan River. Like we had a clue where that was. She said south. The map book said a hundred ninety-five miles. Another short road trip adventure. A full tank, a fresh pack of Players, fast food, coffee, 10:45 and we were off. Black night on a backroad in the Land of Backroads.
     Thirty thousand miles with a canoe on top. Always going somewhere or coming back from somewhere fun and exciting. Cozied into our own little world as the big world rolls by outside the windshield. The first miles always have me looking at the nose of the canoe up front. Checking for movement. Soon I forget it's there. The rack is homemade. Screwed, glued, dadoed, clamped and strapped. Years of trial and error but no lost boats though the windshield of a BMW. So far. Me, my son and the canoe.
     Middle of the night. Swan River in the dark. In no mood to be choosy so we turned into the first motel we saw with a vacancy sign. Didn't look a whole lot different than the Leering Indigenous Person Inn of two years prior. But this time we were in don't-give-a-rat's-ass mode. Looking for warm water and two beds. Nothing more. Any bed bugs would have to take their chances.

                                 Emil Butts In

     The clerk up front must have been the only sober person in town still awake. Kept himself that way by watching Lex Barker action movies from the '50s with Canadian subtitles. As in, "De only good croc is a dead croc, eh." Seems he was also in the mood for fresh ears to bend. And was more than willing to share the full story, in terse detail, of last year's elk hunt. I flipped him two bits and he was off and running. Seems it was one of those serendipity things. The sun rose on elk opener to find a half gross of armed to the teeth hunters loading their trucks and just itching to kill something. At the same time, on the west side of town, a herd of elk wandered in to check out prices on the new Suburu Outback. They'd heard good things about its fuel economy and reliability. The four wheel drive would also ease the trek back into the swamp to save their hides during the upcoming hunting season. Seems elk didn't know dates from a hole in the ground. In truth, they mostly liked the exotic sound of the name Outback. Thought kangaroos were hot or something.
     Anyhow, no sooner did they hit the car dealership then the security guard picked up the phone. Armed hunters met bargain hunter elk about 6:30. 6:33 the guttin', hangin' and moppin' up started. Short and sweet. The man at the desk nodded toward the floor to ceiling mount on the wall behind him.


     The mattresses had seen better days in better decades but the sheets were clean. The room warm and dry. Shower was hot and steamy. Once under the covers I fully relaxed for the first time since we'd put in at the Government dock thirteen days earlier. It'd been a day of days. A trip of trips.
     On the way out of Swan River we stopped at a McDonalds for breakfast. The patrons looked at us like we were a couple of homeless guys who'd scored enough spare change for an Egg McMuffin and small coffee. One blue haired lady screamed in terror. I'd seen my scruffy bearded self in the mirror that morning and couldn't blame her.