Like I said, the weather forecast was for rain and thunderstorms for the next three days. So what's new? It had been raining on and off since it stopped snowing in early May. Some spring, eh? Originally I'd told the Deans, R., L., and El, that we'd hit the water on Wednesday evening. Most every time they'd been up north, their first hour was spent unloading, rod stringing, and trying to remember how to tie a fishing knot. Then we'd throw the gear in the trucks, hop in and roar off twenty miles to what was sometimes great fishing. A mad rush to have fun. And that was on top of the six-hour drive they'd just finished. Figuring we'd all fish better and enjoy ourselves more if they weren't in their usual hurry, evening fishing would give us the better part of an afternoon to get ready, load the trucks, and eat. Civilized.
Of course that wasn't possible. Mother Nature stomped her waterproof duck boot down and told us it was fish right off the bat or don't fish at all. Rain was supposed to move in by late afternoon and slowly turn to thunderstorms. At least it would somewhere in general vicinity. I get my weather forecasts by radio. WJJY to be exact. And they get it from a meteorologist down in the Twin Cities who gets it from the newspaper where some intern, copy boy makes it up in his spare time. More or less. And the person doing the weather report on the radio is sitting in a concrete room without a window and has a better idea of what's happening in the Middle East than what's going on outside.
Last year while listening to public radio during a day long soaker thunderstorm, all I heard from the DJs, once each hour, was that the northern half of Minnesota stood a chance of rain sometime during the day. Made you want to drive to the station during a Bach Fugue, drag the DJ outside and kindly ask if he'd like to possibly alter the forecast. Then not let him back indoors until soaked to the skivvies (I was intending to write something with a little more bite but figured a classical music aficionado deserved a better death than by drowning face up in a downpour).
So, once again, an hour after their arrival, the four of us hit the gravel on our way somewhere with the intention of catching a few walleyes. One thing was for sure and that was there was no way in hell we were heading to the lake I'd visited on Tuesday afternoon. Yup, no way in hell.
But it was a great lake. Or more accurately, in my mind it was a great lake. It'd been at the top of the fish wish list since we'd decided to zero in on walleyes way back in last June. The DNR reports said it was thick with walleyes and I knew for certain even bozos like us could catch 'em by the dozens. Needing to go there was eating at my brain like a cancer. All R. Dean could say when I asked his opinion was that the decision was mine. Crap, I needed an out and he wasn't giving me one. I turned left at the first T in the road with a new plan in the egg and starting to hatch.
Several times over the years I'd entered the state forest from the south side. The sand access road on that side was a decent track, almost too easy. And a few miles in, it accessed and dead-ended at the walleye lake of our dreams. I recalled no great hazards on the way but then I'd never the last quarter-mile of two-track access. But outside of the coming rain I could foresee no problems other than having to possibly share the lake with the beefy boys I'd met the day before.
One mile in, all was well. Another half-mile and we came to a fork. The road less travelled, the one to the right, descended into what looked an acre-sized muck hole before passing on. I went left figuring the better road had to be the right road. I was wrong. We were now heading to a lake for sure, only it was the wrong lake. The forestry sign even said so.
Turning around in a forest with two, seventeen-foot canoes on the trailer, 'specially one with marginal roadways like the one we were in, can be a challenge. Over the years I haven't so much gotten better at it as I have lost any embarrassment at falling short in the manly art of backing a trailer. Seven or eight moves later we reversed direction with few trees damaged and the hope that we'd somehow missed the truly correct turn. We hadn't. Down in the bower of dark the quagmire beckoned. At this point I'd really like to write that we machoed our way through the shit hole. Then did the same through several more before reaching walleye heaven. But that would be fiction. The second look was no more encouraging than the first. And the sky was black.
All things considered, fishing a new lake sounded like a good idea. We were no more than a half mile from the one indicated on the sign. Why not? It had a name, it had a sign, I figured it must have fish. Once again we turned around.
The first obstacle was a steep, rocky hill. Add in the rain, which was now starting in earnest, and it was point it and gun it. We made the top with only a sideways skid or two. What I learned was that the soil on the uphills was mostly clay. Snail snot, slick clay. Once at the top any further progress looked an invitation to spending the night mired down to the hubs. Turn around number three. And much more difficult than the first two. Actually a crap shoot that called for several attempts as the rutted clay trail moved the truck any old way it wanted. Turn it left and it went right, or maybe left, then right, then straight sideways. The only thing to do was keep at it, try again and again, till sheer dumb luck eventually prevailed and, once again, we were on our way out.
I gave serious thought to the tiny three lake chain no more than than six treacherous miles away but the little voice in my head said I was being delusional. Same little voice also tells me to wear socks and mittens when it's cold. I think it's my grandma gene. So, me, the Deans, and Grandma headed to the safe, possibly good walleye fishing, choice number three. Talk about a relaxed start to the day. An hour and a half into it and we were once again back on pavement, not a boat in the water nor a line wet, doin' sixty, and a half-hour away from getting started on havin' fun.
Of course, once we were on the highway the rain began to slow down. By the time I'd made my last wrong turn of the day it'd all but stopped. Things were looking up as I once more backed the trailer in an effort to get us back on track, this time in a gravel pit. On the backup, I hit a couple of ruts and noticed the canoes bounce a foot in the air. I'd say I was alarmed, but I wasn't. That they were virtually unstrapped and hadn't fallen off at sixty mph was cause for the laughter of relief. And amazement.
L. and El. said the canoes had been loose for quite a while. I figured the only thing keeping them from flying off was St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers and canoe trailers. Or maybe the patron saint of those who follow idiots with loose canoes on their trailer. He wasn't so much protecting me and the canoes as he was the innocents behind me. That explained a lot. Take my word for that. Saying any more would only cause confusion. By the time I'd slowed to a safe speed in the gravel pit he was gone. No longer needed. That's why the canoes bounced off the trailer over the ruts. Nothing to hold them down. Let's just call it the Miracle of the North Woods (not involving the Virgin of Guadalupe) and hope no one erects a shrine.
All my turnarounds now in the past, at least for the day, we found our access easily. And put on rain gear immediately even though it wasn't raining at the moment. That it would sometime in the next hour, or minute, was certain.
The lake we were now on was noted for muskies, smallmouth bass, and sixty mph fishing boats. In my mind it was more noted for being connected to an even better lake by a channel that was impassable for sixty mph fishing boats. But no problem for a canoe. The better lake had the same mix of fish but also had a large walleye population. That's why we were where we were (how's that for alliteration?).
The four of us headed onto the water, me and El. together. El. outweighs me by about the size of a mature german shepherd dog. That used to create a navigation problem but last year something clicked and I found the rhythm. Now we more or less track a straight line unless I get lost in watching the shoreline. Two minutes later we found ourselves throwing the first casts of the season under darkening skies and growing mist.
The darkening skies I'm referring to were deep black against a depressive gray. Yeah, she was gonna rain like a cow pissin' on a flat rock. I've been told that's an old farm expression but the boys from Iowa had never heard it even though they come from farm backgrounds. Don't know what this world is coming to when a city boy like me has to teach country boys how to talk like farmers.
For the next twenty minutes me and El. did the canoe waltz toward and from the access as the rain built then quickly subsided. When the skies briefly turned a medium gray we decided to head for the channel and the tiny bridge which spans it.
Under normal conditions there's barely enough water passing under the bridge to float a small jon boat. With lake levels now being as high as they'd been in the last decade that wasn't the problem El. was looking at. You see, El. is more what you'd call a big man. Six-two, maybe taller. He carries a fair amount of weight but he's got a lot of frame to spread it over. Sittin' in the bow seat of a canoe, the bead on his baseball hat rises four and a half feet off the water. And, at sixty-five, El. doesn't bend like he used to (and when he does, usually results in an explosive cloud of sulfur dioxide). That proved a problem 'cause the hole he was looking passing through was three feet high, tops. Must have brought back memories of being born.
The solid thump of hat, flesh, and skull whacking a twelve-by-fifteen inch beam told me he didn't make it on the first attempt. I tried not to give him too much shit about not bending enough but I'm not much on holding back when it comes to passing out abuse, 'specially when it comes to El. Not that it's meant in a serious sense. It's just something that's grown over the years. Like a toenail fungus. Now it's become a routine, and a bad habit. One of these days I'll go too far and he'll cold cock me. Then I'll whine about him going too far. At the moment it was time to give the bridge another go.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the rain was starting to come down in buckets. Big buckets like the kind you'd use to haul grain to a horse. Would have said those words aloud but after the flat rock comment figured it a waste of time. And the thunder that had been to our south was starting to sound like it was almost on top of us. The idea behind heading into the second lake was simply to land and get off the water before we were encased in molten kevlar.
Turned out there was no place to put ashore once we'd hand pulled our way through the tunnel. I recall a second head whacking but don't remember saying anything lest I tempt the god of revenge. Wish I'd kept my mouth shut the first time through 'cause this time it was me who gave the bridge a thump on the return.
The landing was a simple affair. We laid the gear in the bottom of the canoe and hoisted. A brief wind through the woods found us atop the bridge in a steady downpour. Nice rain. And gettin' nicer by the minute. A flash and crack here, another there. Hair crackling on end and the smell of ozone in the air. Had we looked down we'd have seen the bullseye. Seemed we were in the middle of it. I told El. we couldn't be much more than a quarter-mile from the access. He grabbed the bow and I lifted the stern. The first order of business was a steep hill. A piece of cake had we been twenty years younger. But we weren't. Took a half-minute or so of puffing and wheezing at the top before we could say much of anything.
The downhill was just as steep and the bottom afforded us of a fine view of the next, longer, steeper hill. One look and all El. could say was, "Oh shit." That was his way of saying he was done portaging and I was gonna hike the rest of the way myself to get the truck. Turned out my quarter-mile was closer to a full one. The farther I hiked the harder it rained. A gully washer. More water than air. Glad I had rain gear on.
Back at the access R. Dean and L. Dean were warm and cozy in their truck. At least that's where they said they were. Honestly, I looked when I passed the truck but didn't see them. Up ahead their canoe was beached and slowly filling with water. Of course I was upset.
There was only one explanation. By now they were well on their way to another galaxy and an alien, anal probing just to leave me all alone with the dirty work of cleaning up their mess and loading the canoe. I nearly soiled my drawers when out of the blue from over my shoulder I heard L. Dean ask me where El. was. My first thought was that a whole lot can happen in an instant when you're traveling at the speed of light. My second was to keep my mouth shut in case the two of them had actually been abducted and were now minions of a superior species. Played it cool until I was sure they were still completely human.
Don't know what the hell I was thinking of. That alien abduction line is as overused as the word 'awesome'. Let's go with: There was only one explanation. By now they'd been turned into the undead and were wandering throughout the nearby Chippewa National Forest, upturning rocks and looking for bugs to eat for their blood. In years to come they'd be known as Minnesota's version of Bigfoot (or Bigfeet?) in size ten and a halves. Regardless of circumstance I felt it best to play it cool for a while and be ready to pointlessly run should they give me a 'thirsty for blood' look.
I put on my best please and thank you voice when the two of them immediately set about getting us loaded and going. All being done in the blackness of a thunderstorm. Didn't take five minutes and we were halfassedly loaded and on our way back for El. I'd left him at the base of three sharp hills and hoped he hadn't been washed into the lake. If he had I hoped he'd had sense enough to tie the canoe to a tree before being washed to his death so we could easily retrieve the boat.
Dinner was prepared and eaten indoors that evening with a fire in the wood stove providing background music. Over the years we've reached an unspoken agreement. They bring the food and I provide the boats and a roof to sleep beneath. Works out well. And they're always ready to lend a hand to get whatever needs doing, done. Good men.