It'd been forty-eight years since I first saw the lake. Brian, my middle aged nephew up there in the front of the canoe, was just out of diapers when Rod Middlested and I first fished its waters. Not that that means a whole lot to anyone but me. But there was a part of me wanting to be where we were heading on Friday morning much the same as that day in '92 when I chose East Pike as Allan's introduction to the Boundary Waters. For me the lake was, and is, the be all, end all.
Brian had fished East Pike in '94 during our first (of three) annual, family style BWCA fishing trip and had a fair amount of luck. He caught more than his share of smallies including a four plus pounder. Don't know if he was more pumped than me to be returning but it wouldn't have surprised me.
As far as I was concerned the only drawback to our day was having to approach the lake from the west instead of the east. We wouldn't paddle the rapids into John Lake, do the up and over portage into East Pike and most of all, wouldn't stand on the basalt slab at the end of the portage. You wouldn't think that last part could carry much meaning but it sure does. Was standing there when I caught my first smallmouth, did a selfie back there with twelve year old Allan and I've dreamt of that rock several times. Simply put, it's one of my happy places.
Back when Lois was pregnant with Allan we took birthing classes. One part of them was learning a kind of self hypnosis technique in which we'd lose ourselves in a happy place of our own choosing. Mine was the basalt slab on East Pike. Hadn't realized the connection for Allan and and I until now. Sometimes there's more going on than meets the eye. I have no idea what makes the world go round but for me that slab is an important place. Guess I'll have to find a way to return next year. Spend some time on the basalt, maybe even take a nap.
Once again, not wanting to stumble around in the dark, we slept in. After a hot and gobble it down before it gets cold breakfast, we pushed off on another splendid day to be alive. Originally the plan had been for a day on a trout lake by the name of Gogebic. In my mind's eye getting there was a simple slog of no more than a hundred rods straight up a steep slope. Brian would carry the canoe, I'd carry the rods and paddles (unless I could convince him to carry it all and maybe also piggy back me). Tough but we were tough guys ready to take on any challenge. When me and my mind's eye took the time to actually scope out the trail I realized my folly. The portage wasn't but a few rods long. Then it turned into the Border Trail and meandered here and there before passing by the lake. The hundred rods turned into something over two hundred. The portage into East Pike on the other hand was listed as a hundred-seventeen rods. Us tough guys quickly turned into us reasonable guys.
Seeing as how the carry was flat and short we left the portage yoke back in camp. I could say I forgot it and was too lazy to turn around after a quarter mile but I won't. What the heck, a couple of reasonable guys like me and Brian could each hoist an end and carry the canoe from West Pike all the way to Duluth without breaking a sweat. Sure didn't work out that way. We not only broke a sweat but had to set the Wenonah down a half dozen times. Why a canoe being carried by two men should seem to weigh more to each than one thrown on the shoulders of a single man is more than I can figure out. But it does. Could be carrying a boat, open side up, bears the weight of all the atmosphere from there to the edge of outer space whereas all that air slips off an upside-down canoe and falls to the ground. Best e-mail Stephen Hawking for his opinion on that.
Flat in the real world isn't flat. Instead it's a constant up and down punctuated by rock, root and mud. Anyhow, that's my excuse for setting the canoe down as much as we did. It also seemed like someone had moved the lake. We didn't come on East Pike until the seventh around the next corner. Allan and I had done the same carry seventeen years earlier and I'd recalled it as being more rods than the number on the map. But memory is fickle 'specially when the brain involved is pushing seventy. Later in the day I learned my twenty year old map was off by sixty rods. Cartographic typo?
I'd also recalled the put-in as being a jumble of pointy rocks. It was. Chalk one up for memory even though I'd rather have been wrong. We could easily see the most used avenue of attack by all the aluminum streaks on the rocks. Made my teeth cringe. A minute of scouting found a better way and we were off.
The first mile of East Pike looks more like a river than a lake. She's nothing but deadfall for the bass and cabbage beds for pike. In fact our first fish was a pike - can't I was happy about that - pushing thirty inches. Brian released it for me. He's a man in his prime who does stuff with skill and aplomb and I'm smart enough to let him show off his talent. Also cuts down on pike punctures. Brian grabbed the fish behind the gills just like he knew what he was doing. A minute later, after I promised to catch no more pike - not easy when one of your nicknames is the Snake Charmer - we moved on in pursuit of bass.
East Pike is noted for its smallmouth bass. One of the best lakes around. But we were nearly an hour into the paddle before we started to find a pattern. At least we thought it was a pattern since our luck never grew to hot and heavy proportions. Mostly Brian did the catching. That was okay with me. Boat control was as much a part of the experience as landing fish. I was happy simply being where I was and watching Brian tie into some bass.
We'd caught a good drift along the north shore only requiring a sculling stroke now and then to correct our course. Over the next hour while casting spinners parallel to shore we landed perhaps ten fish. None was bigger than two pounds but all fought hard and never gave up 'til pulled from the water. Smallies are respected for their fighting ability, no doubt due to their dislike of having holes popped through their faces. Might also have something to do with their fear of hot frying pans. I have to agree with them. Can't say I've ever wanted to have the meat sliced from my bones, dipped in batter and fried in a half inch of boiling oil.
We took a break on a basalt slab point that had seen a lot of traffic over the years (centuries?). Why not, it was a perfect site. The landing was level and wide. Plenty of places to pitch a tent or build a fire for a shore lunch. All told it was the best camp site on the lake but it wasn't designated as such by the Forestry Service. While there I did the usual kicking around in hope of finding something cool, maybe from the Voyageur days. Instead I found artifacts from the previous century, old bottle caps, removable beer can pull tabs and a sheet of rusted steel. Guess I found the cool stuff a couple of hundred years early. I left it all there to age.
The carry back into West Pike was no easier. Same length, same routine and I was a few hours older. On the way we ran into the high-tech twins direct from REI Sporting Goods. Their gear looked to weigh about the same as the stack of hundreds they forked over to pay their bill. Brian recognized their stuff for what it was. All I could think of was, "This canoe keeps getting heavier by the second."
Dinner was home made spaghetti and a bunch of other edibles we wolfed down hoping to reduced the morning's load on the way out. Needing an early start so Brian could get ready for work on Monday morning, we crawled into the bags around nine.