'95 was still the Stone Age for BWCAW reservations. Can't say I was any better. Back then it was either a phone call after the beginning of reservations or a written form submitted before some date near the middle of January. Nowadays you can go online, see what's open, then click on where and when.
Yes, we did get the dates hoped for. But those dates were merely a guess. As usual, everything depended on weather and ice out. Both of which required a better crystal ball than the one I had hidden under the bed. All it takes is a cold March followed by a slow warmup and it's still dogsled time in the great northwoods come May 20th.
Even if the lakes have thawed, the water may be too cold for the bass to be thinking of babies. And spawning time is the key. Just before is great. Two weeks after is good. In between and it's casting practice. Hit it on the nose and the ladies will leap out of their beds to protect the young soon to be there. Not a nice thing for a fisherman to do throwin' hooks at those mothers-to-be but it's oh so much fun.
East Pike's saving grace is it's big pike. They spawn earlier than the bass. About the time the smallies are on the beds, the pike are getting hungry again. There's not a lot of them but they average five pounds. That number comes from the DNR and from experience. And a twenty pounder is an honest possibility. Pike, bass, I like 'em both.
Almost forgot. The only possible downside for fishing on East Pike is water temperatures near to ice out. If they're still in the mid-forties or lower... well you don't want to think about that possibility when you're guessing on dates.
Then there's the black fly and mosquito quotient. Mid-June can be hell in camp and on the portage. Short and sweet, Mother Nature holds the cards. A guy I used to work with said he was always hoping for a trifecta; good weather, no bugs, great fishing. And the odds were about seven to one against.
Bought a new canoe and sold the old fifteen footer. A wise man would have already figured out he was going to do this canoeing/camping thing for a while and gone into a quality kevlar unit right off the bat. All I could see was the price tag. Even back in the mid-90s a Wenonah was topping fifteen hundred bucks. A seventeen foot Alumacraft at four-fifty was more up my alley.
Besides, the Alumacraft's sixty-four pounds was less than I'd carried every day in Vietnam. That I was now nearly thirty years older didn't factor in. Hell, I was going to live forever and feel good every step of the way. Didn't need no stinkin' forty-two pound ultralight. Figured, the next thing you know they'll have 'em in pink. You'd have thought a man sneaking up on his fiftieth birthday could have easily seen that didn't make much sense.
As it turned out I still have the Alumacraft. At sixty-five I'm just as fit and trim as ever. However, the canoe has put on quite a few pounds. Sure didn't see that coming.
Spring was slow in arriving that year. Ice out was normal. East Pike sits relatively close to Superior as the crow flies. And that's a big deal. The ice can be off the water seventy-five miles northwest and East Pike will still be white and tight. Normal ice out is in the first week of May and is usually followed by a near daily rise in water temperature. The hitch in the Spring of '95 had to do with the serious cool down that followed the thaw.
At ice out lake water turns over and evens out at a hair over thirty-nine degrees. By the time the five of us headed up north it may have even dropped a degree or two. Cold, cold water. But though Spring wasn't doing its bit, my hope was springing eternally. The fisherman's prayer goes something like, "You never know, eh. You never know." Weather be damned, this might be the trip of a lifetime.
There were five of us as Brian couldn't make the trip. Backed out at the last moment 'cause his five year old son had broken an arm while shopping with his mom. Mom's shopping for clothes. Clothes are on racks. Kid feels the need to be a monkey, climbs rack. Kid realizes he's not a monkey. Panics and falls from rack. Arm breaks. Dad misses fishing trip he's been looking forward to for close to a year. Uncle finds himself with an odd number of fisherman. Has to rent a solo canoe. Doesn't get to use new canoe. Brother and his son-in-law put first scratches in new canoe. Uncle pisses and moans. Age old story.
In addition to the solo canoe, tent, packs, two sleeping bags and self inflating pads had to be rented for three of the gang. Didn't much matter how well we tried to put it all together our load could still barely fit into three canoes. Guess we still had much to learn.
At the time, my idea was we were in the second year of a tradition that would pass on down through the generations. Maybe in some haphazard, skip a decade here and there, it will. But as an every year thing, at least as far as a group goes, we were in the middle of a three year run. Of course there were reasons and I'll get to them in passing.
The drill was the same. The drive to Little John. Paddle down the rapids. Then a spirited hard paddle west on John. Almost a race. Almost. I'd never paddled a solo before. I was used to steering an erratic course in a tandem canoe. But in the tandem I found myself zigging when I should have been zagging. The zig part I had down pat. I could zig with the best of them. But sometimes you've just got to zag. Anyhow, my view of the other four as they paddled off into the distance was magnificent. At least that was my excuse.
An example of our gear was one of my nephew's sleeping bags. When you're packing four days of living on your back, a sleeping bag should stuff down to about football size. His nearly filled a portage pack. Lucky we were only doing the one portage. As it was, we looked something like a parade of red ants tromping through the jungle bringing home dinner. Each of us with a leaf or bug part hoisted above and moving single file. What should have been done in twenty-five minutes dragged out to an hour plus. We needed porters.
The lost forty minutes be damned. We were on the first site to the east. Near great spot. The landing a little tough but the point it ran alongside was off the water high enough to give us a view. A micro cliff of stone actually. Two white pines crowned our aerie. One had a perfect pack hanging branch a good twenty feet up. Black bears weren't so much feared in the Boundary Waters as they were respected for their food robbing abilities.
On this trip Allan and I didn't have to share our tent. The other boys had rented a six man and were set. Now if only they'd paid more attention when the lady at Bear Track Outfitters was explaining the ins and outs of self-inflating air mats. You see, they ain't exactly self-inflating. They need a few puffs of lung air and the valve quickly shut to hold their float. Otherwise you end up sleeping more or less on the ground. In the BWCA that means packed earth and rock. You don't do it right and you wake up saying things like, and I quote, "Those fancy mattresses aren't for shit."
Maybe a portent that on the first morning, I hooked a sunrise smallie while fishing from the point. Good for me but not so for the bass which was impaled through the eye. Made me want to swear off fishing. Maybe should have killed and eaten it but released it instead. Said a prayer that it might find the Valley of Blind Bass where it would no doubt become king.
Pun aside, that one eyed bass still haunts my memory. Every so often in a life a person does something completely unintentional that just goes sour. Most of them are small occurrences but stick with someone like me like a sand burr. Kid whose milk shake I spilled at the Dairy Queen that used to be on Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis, "I'm sorry. I should have bought you another." Maybe not as tough on the kid as the treble hook was on the bass but it still hangs in the clouds of my guilt.
The fishing was slow. Real slow. Water so cold you coulda floated an ice cube in it for a week. The bass were semi-dormant and out in the deep water. Could've been anywhere but sure weren't on the end of a fishing line anywhere near our camp.
I take that back. Rob caught a four pounder by fishing a jig along the bottom at a speed slightly faster than death. I had one hit. Or was it a lethargic tug? That's about it. But we kept on working the water in hopes of a change.
I was fishing out of the solo, a fifteen foot fiberglass thing named after an Indian tribe. Could have been a Blackhawk. On the first morning I helped push the other canoes off then putzed in camp for a few minutes making sure all was right with the world.
On this trip we hadn't brought along anchors figuring they were twenty-four pounds of dead weight on the portage. But we did have lots of rope and the Arrowhead region is built on the bedrock of the continent. Put the two together and you've got a serviceable anchor. Right off the bat I'd sent my nephew John on an organic anchor hunt. He outdid himself with three granite chunks no less than twenty pounds each. True honkers that'd hold a canoe regardless of wind or tsunami.
Back at Bear Track outfitters I was shown the proper way to enter and exit a solo canoe. Simple rule; always have three points of contact with the earth either through a grounded canoe or on the ground itself. Really, I did listen.
On that first morning the solo was beached on a steep, brushy shore. Couldn't conceive of any three points there so I pushed off straight into the lake like I'd done many times before. No sweat. Unless the boulder I had roped aboard shifted. And that shift happened to be, by necessity, toward the side of the canoe tilted down by my entering weight. Took but a second for my testicles to tell me that water could chill beer. And that the steeply dropping shore kept right on dropping into the lake. Fifteen feet from shore and in water over my head. Boy did I feel stupid. And wet, even when I dragged myself out.
Thinking minimalist I'd packed just enough clothes for the trip. Which consisted of the wet stuff on my back, two pairs of socks, undershirts and underpants. Luckily I had a set of long johns. Dried off, put on clean up through the long johns and topped my outfit with rain gear. Mother of necessity clown wear. And pushed out once again, this time leaving the anchor behind. Fool me once.
Later, back in camp, the other boys seemed surprised by my outfit and asked if there was rain in the immediate future. A simple gesture towards the still dripping clothes draped over the brush pretty much said all there was to say. Outside of four men laughing and one grinning foolishly.
In the year's since, I've left the anchors at home. You don't need them unless the wind is up. And if the wind is up an anchor easily becomes a hazard. Take my word for that.
Fishing hadn't changed much on the second morning. After lunch I was ready for something different. In five minutes I gave John a rundown on the ins and outs of the solo canoe. It was time that my son and I had some alone time. Fishing solo was fine but I missed the give, take and insults that go with someone you've known since he popped into the world.
Father and son bonds go deep. Over the years you can grow to be friends. And we have. But that's just the surface. Underneath the skin are shared genes, generations of identical traits that go back into the mist. Who knows what else? Saw him take his first step and now, from the rear as he walks away, you couldn't hardly tell us apart. Variations on a theme with shared blood. And we like each other. Not bad.
The plan was for me and Al to take the small tandem canoe, head down lake to a portage, climb up to the Border Trail and take a short hike. No real reason for it except we were doing it together.
Two years earlier we'd done this same portage. It was a bugger. She climbs straight up out of East Pike for something over a quarter mile then levels to a gradual rise for a few hundred more yards. By climb I mean steep enough to get you on your toes and suck air deeply enough to move nearby leaves. All with a sixty pound pack on your back and a few things in your hands.
Near the peak the portage and the Border Trail cross. The Trail has arrived from a point near the Grand Portage, the granddaddy of them all, something like ten or twenty miles to the east. From the crossing it continues on forty or so miles to the west and joins up with the jumble of trails near Ely. From what I've seen, the Border Trail likes the high ground. Our plan was to mosey no more than a half mile of it. Something to do.
So that's what we did. Took us a bit over an hour in the peacefulness of the woods and on the water. Returning, maybe six hundred yards from camp, we saw the following scene:
My brother and Rob were out fishing and John was still in camp. The fishermen pulled up their paddles, dug in a stroke, lurched briefly up lake then rolled the canoe the opposite direction. In water a half dozen degrees above freezing. Neither of us said a word. Just started pulling deep and fast. As fast as we physically could.
In the closing distance we could see a scene of confusion. Half sunk canoe, gear floating here and there, a life jacket being thrown from Bill to Rob. At that point life was way too short to get upset over the stupidity of not wearing like jackets. You see, it doesn't matter at all if you can swim the English Channel. When the boat rolls you never know what will happen. Especially in water that will drain your body heat in minutes on a lake where there is usually no help to be found.
In the few minutes it took us to get to the scene, Rob had dog paddled his way to shore a hundred yards away. Bill was still out with the canoe, hanging on tight.
Decision making time. Seemed Bill had impaled his index finger with a Rapala when he'd thrown the life jacket to Rob. The good news was that the lure was attached to his line so he didn't lose his rod. That was about it for good news. Both tackle boxes had been open. And Bill's Nikon camera, a quality one, was down about thirty feet. Probably still is. Lures here, plastic bags there. Some afloat, some completely gone. Like a miniature Titanic if the ship had polystyrene in the bow and stern to keep it from sinking after hitting the berg.
Bill wanted to climb into our canoe. I said that wasn't happening for fear he'd capsize us. Three in the water seemed to make less sense than only one. The first plan was to have him hang onto the Alumacraft and we'd tow the entire mess ashore. Didn't work. Seemed the capsize had come about from paddling off with the anchor still down. And the anchor now felt like it was wedged in bottom boulders.
Told Bill to hold onto our canoe and we paddled him to shore. Cut me some slack here. This all happened close to eighteen years ago and these days my lightbulb glows more than it shines. It's possible we cut the anchor line on the canoe and had Bill hold onto the Alumacraft. Then towed the whole shebang ashore. Either way Rob and Bill got into dry clothes. Al had to help my brother 'cause of the Rapala which still dangled.
At this point I would like to have known what I know today. Under all but the most extreme circumstance a barbed hook is not difficult to remove. All you need is a foot of fishing line and a tad of knowhow. Or, even more simply, crimping down the barbs before you leave home. Allan and I had been doing it from our first trip on. Doesn't seem to lose any more fish than barbed and removal from fish or flesh is a whole lot easier.
Regardless, what happened, happened and happens all the time. We all screw up now and then. Usually, like this time, it's nothing more than a memory you sit down and laugh about once in a while. For us at the moment, we had a man impaled and the closest person who knew how to fix that was a little over forty miles away. And it was near sunset. Rob said he'd be my partner and we set off with my brother as baggage. Paddle, portage, paddle and load. The last ten minutes in the dark.
Bill said the emergency room in the Grand Marais hospital was like a shrine to the lures of yore. Walls of them by year and color coded as to lake. Guess he wasn't the first to catch and land himself. The doctor on duty had the hook out before my brother knew he'd started. All that remained was a dot. No blood, no stitches. But Bill did get a bandaid and a tootsie pop. Good thing this happened on a week night or Bill would have had to wait his turn in line behind the bar fights and shotgun blossoms.
Spent the night roughing it at the Comfort Inn. First time I'd shared a bed with him since I was a kid. Bill picked up the tab. Come morning we ate a hearty continental breakfast of fruit loops and doughnuts. By eleven we were back in camp on a cold, overcast, windy, rain threatening, totally crapped out day. Allan and John had everything ship-shape. The fishing looked like it would continue to suck so we packed it up and wimped our way back to the access. No one seemed to mind. Except me, at this moment, sitting here at the keyboard seventeen years in the future.
At Bear Track Outfitters I'd learned how to lash two canoes to the top of the van. And still remembered how. Outside of the trucker's hitch that is. They'd explained it using a rabbit, tree and hole as illustration. Somewhere along the line at the access I had the rabbit climbing the tree, then the tree fell over and the knot came undone. So I went back to my half-hitch braid and threw in a couple of extra lines just in case. In the end both the front and rear of the van looked like it had been captured by giant Canadian Shield spiders.
While this was going on, or so I was told on the drive back down the Arrowhead Trail, an old duffer shuffled by. Stopped and began to ply us with questions as to the fishing. "Where ya been? Any luck? Bet you caught yourselves some real whoppers. Back twenty-two, no, make that thirty-one, year ago me and Purvis...." That kind of stuff. Never got a peep out of us. He babbled and we loaded. Might have been the funniest moment of my life had I known it was happening. Shuffle on old duffer, shuffle on.