Gary's not a blood cousin. More of an in-law once removed. He's my wife's cousin's husband. But in my book he's still blood. The man loves to fish. Get's wound up in it when we're on the water like there's no world beyond him and the end of his line. Yeah, he's a hoot. And about the only man I've been in a canoe with who really knows what he's doing in the stern seat. Kind of an odd feeling when you're used to a flailer to feel his J-stroke kicks for a correction. You're still smokin' forward but at a ten degree angle to the direct line he's shooting.
Gary's got a problem that's he's never let get in his way. He was born five years too early. Had he been my age Salk vaccine would have been around in time to prevent his bout with polio. As it is he has a short leg. You'd never know it from the things he does. When I haven't seen Gary for a while his leg always comes as a surprise. My memory and mental image of the man sees him as a product of the things he does. Which says outdoorsman, short and sweet.
'96 was to be year three with my brother and nephews. But Bill and Rob were no longer all than keen about another trip to the Boundary Waters. And Gary had been wanting just such a trip for years. So he was a natural and began plotting his adventure early in the winter. He came with his own canoe and gear including a quality tent. Short and sweet, he was hepped.
The sixth man was a long time friend of my nephew John. Brian's son wasn't scheduled to break his arm again so we had ourselves a party. And by the end of January, a date.
I wrote about the winter of '95-'96 a while ago in an essay about being frozen out. That winter was the quintessential Minnesota winter. The kind most people assume we always have. And the kind we actually do have once a century. Forty-five below at the cabin a number of times. Sixty below in Tower. And a couple of degrees colder in Embarrass but the weather station froze, so no record for the real ice box of the nation.
Plus the snow was heavy. Up north in the Arrowhead the cold and snow just kept coming. All the way to May. Come our entry date the lakes were still white and tight.
Of course we had an alternate plan. If that plan included not catching fish it would have been perfect. Ahh, next year.
'97's plan was simple. Me and Gary and the Boundary Waters. The Tradition was dead. Allan and I were still doing the BWCA but in late summer. Seems three days in the boonies didn't cut it for me any more. I couldn't take a week at a crack but six days over two trips was doable.
Plus, those were the years I was learning about the small, semi-wilderness lakes near the cabin. They were perfect for Allan and I as a weekend jaunt. The fishing was near excellent. As good as the Boundary Waters and not a major project to get to them. Not quite a secret but close enough to have the lakes to ourselves nearly all the time.
Once up in Grand Marais we had two nights to burn before our entry date. Something in me still felt Northern Light Lake was good water though I'd been skunked two years earlier. Turned out I'd been with the wrong party that first time. With Gary it was jumbo perch heaven. Like I'd written earlier he was a panfisherman supreme.
When he headed up north for a week's fishing Gary traveled with a food-sized cooler of red worms. That's like thousands of worms. Hook tipped with worm, small split shot and slip bobber. The man could sit and watch a bobber 'till he went blind as a third century pole saint staring at the sun.
However we didn't go blind. Bobbers went out. Bobbers went down. Gary hummed to himself and killed a lot of worms. We bantered in atrocious French-Canadian accents, "Thees bobbaire, she works so fine. Ahh, here is anudder feesh for de stringaire."
He tipped a tiny jig with live bait. I used panfish sized, plastic grubs. Coulda used gummy bears. Bobber out, twitch it, twitch it. Down she goes. When out of sight, set the hook. If she looks like a day-glo, mini-walleye, put 'er on the stringer. Chuckle, banter, re-set the rig. Repeat.
Oh we moved a dozen times around the lake. Somewhat to find more fish, somewhat to sightsee. I believe Gary could have kept at it until Northern Light froze over five months later. But we had a two mile paddle to the access, fish to filet, batter, fry and eat. As days go that one was a solid ten.
We were staying in an undersized, one room house. My sister had rented it for the summer and only had the chance to use it sporadically. The house sat four blocks up from Superior. In Grand Marais those four blocks moved you into a different growing zone. From sub-arctic to only damned cold. With a south or east wind coming off the water, lake and air temperatures are the same, high forties. And I'm talkin' about July. However, if you want to warm up, you move up. In my sister's case those steep, uphill, four blocks were worth around eight or ten degrees.
She rented from the owners who lived across the driveway. Nice folk. The kind who spoke the way all Minnesotans are supposed to speak. Like they were hybrid Swede/Finn/Germans fresh off the boat and got their first job as voice coaches for the movie Fargo.
Like most Upnorthlanders, the owners had never eaten a perch. Never crossed their minds that it was a possibility. Wormy and, in general, just disgusting. So when me and Gary knocked on their back door with a jumbo baggie full of filets, they didn't know if we were there to share or to play a joke on them. Seemed they were leaning towards joke.
"Perch you say? But we ain't planted us no tomatoes this year. You say we're supposed to eat 'em. Uh huh. Just like they was walleyes? Are you sure?"
When I explained that Gary was from Wisconsin and that Wisconsinites eat perch all the time they nodded their heads like that explained it all. Buncha cheese-eaters without the sense the good Lord gave 'em.
Finally, more to make us go away than with intentions of eating the fish, they took them and thanked us. Come the next morning I could make out some fresh turned earth back by the trash cans. Hope the bears liked them.