Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Leech Man

     Like all trips up north, this one had to happen eventually.  R. Dean says this'll be year eight, so I guess we've got ourselves a tradition.  Made it back up to the cabin last Tuesday to get things ready for the fishing boys from down south.  For that to happen Lois had to head to Sioux Falls and take care of the grandchildren.  Without her there'd be no trip.  Odd how that works.

     As for me there was the clearing to mow and canoes to clean, mount on the trailer, and all those other things that need doing but are so workaday you forget you did them even though they sucked up a few hours time.  The grass and weeds weren't all that long but it's wood and deer tick season up north.  Short grass keeps them down a bit but not so short I clip the thousands of blue and purple wildflowers.  As it turned out, the ticks were there by the dozens.  Throw in the first mosquito hatch on Wednesday for good measure and it was blood donor time once again.

     Wood ticks don't bother me all that much and mosquitoes just piss me off.  But deer ticks?  They scare me.  Lyme disease has become almost common up north and it's nothing to fool with.  Had three of the buggers on me over the five days with the last one just starting to bore in when it was tweezed out.  Now I'm waiting to see if the Lyme symptoms appear.  Had my dose two years ago and know the symptoms well. One thing is for sure, once you get a few ticks on your body most every twitching hair feels like one.  When a hair twitches while in a public place there's a decision to be made as to whether or not it's socially correct to be seen down a side aisle with your pants down.  Guess humans aren't big fans of being probed by parasites.

     The lake I'd zeroed in for walleye fishing got me thinking about accessibility.  Worried might be more accurate.  I hadn't been there for six or more years and things change.  The main drive back in the state forest gets graded a couple of times a year but not so the lake accesses off of it. Call it hard scrabble country.

     On our last trip in, the drive hadn't been all that easy.  Of course that was the reason I wanted to return.  Nasty roads kept the riff-raff out and I was hoping we wouldn't be counted among them.  There are several rock covered, steep hills to be climbed and descended on the ways in and out.  Six years earlier I'd been driving a Jeep in four wheel high and the uphills weren't hard to climb.  But now I was in a front wheel drive vehicle.  Great under most circumstances but iffy in the boonies.  So the first order of business after mowing and cleaning the outhouse was a drive in for a look-see.

     Not wanting to give the impression I didn't know what I was doing, I'd printed out a couple of satellite photos of the area and highlighted the two-tracks I wanted to find with a silver paint stick.  There's an inherent touch of irony in trying to look like a savvy woodsman by using the internet.  An irony I can live with.  And actually relish.  But still it ain't by a long shot like getting in a wooden boat and heading to some unknown that may or may not be on the other side of the horizon.

     Outside of having to pull into the brush to let the grader pass, finding the access road was simple.  And the small stream crossing the road a quarter mile in was no problem.  However, the first steep uphill was.  Not at all like I remembered it.  In my mind it'd been a sharp climb over a rock shelf and a few dodges around loose boulders.  Now it was diagonally crossed with eroded trenches.  Thoughts of a split oil pan came to mind as I lurched uphill.  At a couple of points the front tires broke loose.  It's a fine line to tread between having sufficient speed to climb such a hill and taking it easy enough to not slice a tire on a rock that calls for care in passing.

     The roll-in is about a mile and ends at a tiny campsite with room for about as many campers as were down there.  Never saw that many before.  It was a regular bivouac of beefy boys.  Tents, campers, and a large enclosed trailer for the coolers.  Looked almost like the gathering of a dozen Canadians out to enjoy the beauty of nature as seen through blood shot eyes.  I parked and walked up to the crowd parked on lawn chairs under an open, temporary gazebo.  I started my spiel before reaching them much the same as I used to do when approaching strange dogs back in my courier days.  Tell 'em you're friendly before having to go to the emergency room.

     Actually they were friendly.  Said they'd been coming to this lake for years as a way to say hello to the start of fishing season.  That they'd made it in with their tons of gear impressed me.  They were there for the week and had settled in nicely.  Getting out might be another story.  The forecast for the week was for rain, followed by thunderstorms, more rain, and more thunderstorms.  No doubt their exit would be challenging.  Simply getting out of the campground could prove nigh onto impossible seeing as how that called for a sharp, rutted climb of thirty yards.  But, no doubt they'd pull it off.  Or maybe they're still there.  Why not?  They looked to have enough stuff to survive the Apocalypse.

     We talked briefly.  At least one guy and I did.  Yup they'd caught a couple.  Inside, my mind was screaming, "A couple my ass! They nailed 'em, they nailed 'em!"  Visions of walleye boats laden to the point of sinking danced in my head.  But maybe what he said was true.  Didn't matter all that much.  The lake is on the small side and their party was already overcrowding it as far as I was concerned.  Best laid plans sometimes go poof before they can become a reality.  There was no way I was coming back to invade their privacy even though they said, "The more, the merrier."  They'd staked a claim, were the firstest with the mostest, as they used to say before the English language had any rules.

     Yup, I can be an arrogant asshole sometimes and don't want to be part of a crowd.  I try to keep the arrogance hidden where few can see it.  I wished them the best of everything and departed, hoping to not get stuck on my way out.

     Now I had other nuts to crack.  The world's third smallest chain of lakes sat no more than four miles to the north and it was on the must-do list for our few days.  I didn't recall their road access as being all that smooth either.  But at least I didn't remember any steep hills to navigate.  I also remembered missing the turn on my first attempt last summer.  But now I had a steel grip in my memory as to what the turn looked like.  Also had the map so there was no way I could screw up.  You'd think after all the years I'd lived with myself I'd have learned to never underestimate my powers of error.  But I haven't.

     Even though the main dirt road was freshly graded it was a dodge 'em course of soft ground, strewn rock, and torn root.  Don't get me wrong, the drive is beautiful in much the same sense a walk through a dappled sunlight forest is beautiful 'cause that's what it is.  Only you can't enjoy the beauty.  The marginal road with occasional steeply dropping shoulders won't let you.  One wrong move and the thrill is gone and the tow truck is hopefully on the way.  No complaints. That's just the way it is.  Besides, the beauty of the forest really comes alive when viewed from the seat of a canoe.  At least it does for me.

     Didn't seem but two minutes and I was at my turn, just like I remembered it down to the forty foot log lining its shoulder.  Yeah, the correct turn did have a log but not the one I was looking at.  Also seemed like the turn came up a little quickly but my memory, she's not so good any more.  Everything about it looked like it should till the two track narrowed, then narrowed a bit more, and finally turned into a no track in a small meadow.  Was I disappointed?  Well, yes.  But up ahead I could see the ripple of water on a small lake.  I got out and explored while keeping an eye out for poison ivy.

     S'pose that goes against the picture most people have of things to fear in the northwoods.  Bears, wolves, alien abductions at night, usually come to mind for those who haven't spent much time in no cell phone land.  But the real things to be feared are small, innocent appearing, and much more likely.  Ticks, 'skeeters, giardia in the water, and poison ivy.  You ever get a case of 'beaver fever' and you'll never again look at lake water without thinking of personal hygiene.

     The trail led me to an ATV with a rack on top, a large blue and white plastic cooler and a man pouring something into the cooler.  Of course he was pouring leeches.  What else could he have been doing?  The man doing the pouring was trim, fair-haired, and possibly mid-forties.  On the shore behind him was the shortest, widest, and deepest fiberglass canoe I'd ever seen.  Also maybe the oldest or most used.  Both bow and stern decks were worn completely through.  I'm not sure what color it may have once been.  Call it cloudy with a chance of scattered showers.

     His cooler was three or four inches deep in leeches.  Seeing that many in one place was a conversation starter if I'd ever seen one so I waded in about my days in the Mekong Delta and all the fun of getting the little buggers up and down my legs.

     Out in the boonies I'll bring up my time in Vietnam as a way of saying that I'm not a threat.  Been there, done that, crapped in the paddies.  Most outdoorsman have a respect for veterans, particularly combat veterans.  I know Vietnam vets carry the stigma of being a little off kilter what with all the drugs and killing and trunks full of automatic assault weapons and shit.  But the truth is most of us are pretty mellowed out by now and never were that way in the first place.  Call us trustworthy or at least too old now to be of much trouble.  So, when it's one on one back in the bush with a total stranger all I'm saying by mentioning my past is that, for the moment,  I've made a wrong turn back on the main road and am not pressed for time, why not talk a minute?

     So we talked about leeches as a warm up.  Bait had been in short supply because of the late spring and had driven the price up to eighteen bucks a pound for fresh leeches.  About the same as the local restaurant steaks and boneless to boot.  From the way they were slithering around in the cooler, I'd definitely say they were fresh.  How many to a pound?  I never thought to ask.  Mostly 'cause I didn't give a rat's ass.  Didn't like them as a kid, in Vietnam and never fished with them.  That they were a gold mine for the man I was facing was alright with me.  Each to his own.

     A little reading when I got home told me leech traps are a simple affair.  Also got me thinking about the weird crap I look up on line.  The traps cost practically nothing to make.  A small container such as a plastic bucket or coffee can, bait, a few holes in the can to let the leeches in, a float to mark its position, and you're in business.  Kind of like digging for worms outside of the vampire aspect.

     Turned out the man's canoe leaked.  That sure was a surprise.  The fact that it still floated was even more of a surprise.  At first I thought that was why he was wearing waders.  But then I thought about him being in a small boat with hundreds of leeches.  Waders made sense.

     He told me his father worked for a major engineering firm where he designed switches for a variety of electronics.  His old man continually reminded the Leech Man of the many advantages of such a life.  Car, house, retirement, come home to the quiet of good furniture, cable television and a glass of wine, maybe a few more to stifle the crazy voices.  But that life wasn't for the Leechster.  No sir.  He needed the freedom to do as he wanted, when he wanted.  During the winter months he trapped muskrats down in southeast Minnesota.  Whether for pelts or for dinner he didn't say.  A good life in its own, way off center, way.

     The ironic angle, seems irony always comes to pay a visit, in his pursuit of peace had to do with the current shortage of live bait.  The bait shops were on his case in their need for more and were constantly calling to tell him to hurry up.  Had my wits decided to follow me into the woods I'd have checked his hip out for a cell phone.  Seems like everyone's wired these days, why not a trapper?

     However, I couldn't take my mind off of his body and how long it would last.  Nothing lasts forever but, dear Lord, working by yourself with steel traps and blood suckers under the most extreme of conditions seems to beg for a missing limb at the least.  Then where would he be?  End up in some old folks nursing home as a public charge way before his time.  Where's your freedom then?  While I was thinking this he picked out a couple of the smaller leeches and pitched them back in the lake.  But for the moment he was doin' fine and talked of upgrading his canoe.

     The subject moved around to road conditions in the forest.  He blamed their deteriorating state on ATV riders from the Cities.  Said there was a time when you could drive a car up to any of the nearby waters and leech to your heart's content.  But now the State was pretty much turning the forest over to the four wheelers.  That brought to mind the roar in the woods last fall as I sat on a tiny trout lake.  The studded tires on those rigs were hell on the forest floor and explained the poor condition of the access I'd just been on.  Such is life.

     I'm not sure if it was Albert the Alligator or Pogo the 'Possum who said the words but they went something like this, "We have met the enemy and he is us."  It's easy to blame others for the problems in the world but there I was tearin' up the access roads with my tires.

     The Leech Man stood between me and the water.  Like most natural lakes there was no beach to speak of, just a grassy opening between woods and water with some thin alder brush here and there.  Behind him the lake appeared to be at least ten acres before it turned a corner and passed out of sight.  Had possibilities.  I asked if there were any fish in the lake.  What he said both surprised me and filled in a gap in my knowledge.

     "None at all.  Any fish in there and there'd be no leeches.  I used to set traps in a great shiner lake not far from here.  Then locals threw in a few bass and bluegills.  That's all she wrote.  Most of these lakes used to be free of fish.  Not so any more."

     That got me thinking.  Why would there be any fish in most of them?  Nearly all sat completely separated from any others.  Maybe they'd been that way since the glaciers melted.  Why would there be any fish in them unless something put them there.  According to the DNR, forty years ago a couple of my favorite lakes had nothing but bullheads.  Now they were thick with bluegills, bass, and pike.  Guess we just like to mess with our environment and bend it to our wants.  Of course it doesn't always work out.  The little lake we fished last year, Gadbolt, was ruined by adding pike.  Seemed they ate all the bass.  But where did the bass come from?

     About then I felt a little tickling on my right thigh.  Time to go and drop my pants in private.  Then head back to the cabin for a fine meal of doctored leftovers.  We said our good-byes and wished each other luck in our pursuits of both leeches and the fish that ate them.

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