Saturday, July 15, 2017

First Night - 2003

     This File and Burntwood River trip was different than any other. The Boundary Waters of Minnesota required parties to camp in designated spots only. Grass River Park didn't feel as stringent though all but one time we did set up in sites with the big, blaze orange diamond. Not so this trip. We could set up anywhere Mother Nature saw fit. Two years earlier on Brunne Lake we were forced to wing it and began to learn the basics of finding a campsite. Actually there was only one; if you can't land the boat, move on. At the moment we wanted to put a few miles between us and the four men in the tubs. Last year we'd shared Elbow Lake with the boys from Flin Flon which was fine with us. After all, we were in a park and people use parks. In fact, hooray for the Provincial Park System. We would never had come to Manitoba without it. But this year we were outside the boundaries and were seeking the solitude of something close to true wilderness. We paddled on.
     Then there was Allan's empty, bottomless pit of a stomach. I began to worry should the wind pick up he'd blow away and I'd be stranded. In fact I was already considering different ways to keep the canoe balanced without him up front. Around three miles past Fairwind we began our search and quickly, as if anything that comes about as the result of paddling a canoe happens quickly, discovered that from a distance even four foot high, rock shelves look like a beach.
     Before flying off Larry Gogal had said we'd come on a trapper's cabin once we'd paddled through the narrows on Limestone Point Lake and the clearing might prove a good place to camp. At the time a cabin site had seemed way too civilized, even a little immoral for two fine voyageurs like us. But now, nine miles into the day and solidly mid-afternoon, it didn't sound too bad at all. Sounded good enough till we saw what it was. Apparently there'd once been some form of elaborate log dock system along the open beach. What remained was randomly strewn and rotting logs bristling with thirty and forty penny spikes. And if that wasn't forbidding enough the entire clearing surrounding the collapsing building was a thicket of four foot high thistles. Had no one ever set foot here before, this would have been a wonderful spot. Now it was a ghetto in the bush. We carefully landed, looked around, pulled a couple of snack bars, and smoked a butt while talking it over. Both of us were in complete agreement this site sucked to holy hell. We hadn't come this far to spend our first night in such a depressing spot. We eased our way back through the spikes and continued our search.
     Island to island, zigzagging our way through and around with no luck. Late afternoon found us passing a large open meadow with a building to the rear and a large sign up front. As I recall the sign said we were passing a meeting hall of sorts. Damn. Sure wasn't expecting that. If people were living in the area they must be hiding behind the trees. Can't say I remember the exact wording but do remember it said something about it being a First Nation site. Up here in Canada they call the original inhabitants - also probably the current inhabitants - First Nation.Though the grounds appeared empty at the moment we figured it best to move on. A ticket for trespassing would put a damper on the trip.  
      Two miles east where the lake ended and the File River swung back north we spied another beach in the distance alongside a narrow peninsula. Having been fooled a dozen times since Dow Lake, this time we played it cool figuring it was like driving on the highway and constantly seeing pools of water on the pavement ahead. Once you know it's a mirage, a fake, you stop paying attention. But this time it truly was a beach, a real one with sand, the first we'd seen in twelve years of paddling the north land. Up an eight foot, root-grabbing sand and dirt cliff that called for me hoisting and passing the packs from below to Al above, at the far end of the point, we set up our site. It was barely big enough for our stove, tent, and chairs but was open to the breezes and had a view. Not bad at all.
     Though I'd yet to wet a line, dinner was first priority. It sure is tough keeping to a schedule on a canoe trip, particularly a trip like this one where all possibilities are open ended and our ignorance of the area is immense. We had maps so at least we knew where we were and where we were going but that's about it. Even the maps had been a challenge. By the time I'd talked with Larry Gogal there wasn't enough time to order the ones we need from Winnipeg. I had a single map showing most of our planned trip but its scale was 1/250,000, about one step up from a road map and definitely not what a sane person would use to head off into unknown territory. When we left on Friday morning our immediate goal was to walk in the door of the map store in Winnipeg before they closed at 4:30 (might have been 5:00). I knew we could make it but it'd be close.
     All went well till we hit the south end of town a couple of minutes after four with the address in hand and rush hour traffic on the city streets. Like our small scale navigation maps we were forced to use a sketchy Manitoba road map inset of Winnipeg to guide us. You know the kind, ten streets and four historic sights for a city of a half million. I was riding shotgun with the map in hand, yelling instructions as Allan weaved his way through traffic. I recall it being 4:29 when we miraculously screeched to a stop in front of the office only to find the door locked. What the hell? Being a FedEx courier I knew how to knock to catch someone's attention and hammered away till the building shook on its foundation. Thought for a moment I heard someone inside yell, "Earthquake!" Just then a gentle voice from behind asked, "S'pose you're in need of a map, eh?" Seemed the man had been sitting in the pickup truck next to our jeep, waiting on his wife who worked inside. It wasn't but ten minutes later we had what we wanted, even a new prototype made of the Burntwood Lake area the clerk had been nice enough to print in black and white. Now all we needed was fast food, gas, and to put another four hundred, thirty miles behind us.
     That evening we began a fishing pattern that lasted the entire trip. We searched bays and points, islands and trickling stream mouths for hours on end with little on the line. However, when we did find the fish, mostly walleyes, it was Katy bar the door. In the narrows where the File River entered the next lake, in no more than eight feet of water, we hit a school of pickerel. None were large but we boated them like a blue whale sucking down plankton. Al was throwing a jig and twister tail; me, a plain old in-line spinner. Didn't matter at all to the fish what was on the end of the line though working the spinner like a jig seemed to excite them. Of course this was right as the sun dropped below the tree line. After boating a couple of dozen we chickened out and paddled the two miles in deepening twilight.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Return to Elbow Lake - 2017

     One week to go. The fishing gear is cleaned, oiled, reels wound with fresh line, also a full spool for each, and a backup five hundred yards of braided line. Clothes are loaded in a backpack. All is ready but the food. She's a forty mile boat-in trip to the Elbow Lake Lodge run by Steve Japps. We've spoken a few times on the phone and he seems like the man you'd want to rent a cabin from and learn the ins and outs of a big lake.
     My son Allan and I - yeah, he's the guy I'm going with - first paddled Elbow in 1998. He was fresh out of high school and I was eleven years from retirement. Yup, a long time ago. We passed through on our way to and from Claw Lake in 2002 and found Elbow to hold some big pike and walleyes. Just goes to show you don't need to fly in to have good fishing. It's all about the lake. Also the weather. And maybe a little area knowledge. And skill, with a little luck to season the broth. No canoe this time. Guess I'll have to learn how to fish from a boat with a motor.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Float Plane - 2003

     First order of business in the morning was finding Gogal Air Service. Seeing as how Snow Lake wasn't but seven hundred and thirty souls we figured that to be no problem. Also figuring a float plane needed water to float upon we headed downhill toward the lake. Two blocks rolled us into the parking lot. Inside we found Mr. Gogal and another man. We chatted briefly, he said he'd be ready in a little bit, answered a call, I bought a hat (still have it), read the article on the wall, and the three of us strolled downhill to the plane. Damnation, no breakfast.
     Gogal's Norseman was the biggest one engine float plane I'd ever seen - also the only one I'd seen this close. Though it was built in the early '50s the plane looked as though it'd just rolled off the assembly line. I recall Larry dressed in shades of pale green, almost military in appearance. Call him about five-ten, medium build, spectacles free, and well-tanned. Seemed to know what he was doing, which was good seeing as how he had our lives in his hands. He even suggested I drive down to the dock area rather than lug a Jeep-ful of crap a needless hundred yards. Good idea, eh?
     First off we loaded the supplies he was bringing to one of his outpost cabins and the lodge. After our packs and gear were stowed all that remained was the canoe. Years before I'd read fly-in horror stories where the bush pilot asked such questions as, "You guys have any idea how to tie a canoe on a float plane?" And, "You wouldn't happen to have any rope would you?" Though it would have made a more interesting story had Gogal asked us something along those lines, he didn't. Instead he had me help him lean the canoe against the float struts, paused a moment to give the situation a look-see, grabbed a couple of dozen feet of seriously heavy duty rope, and in thirty seconds wrapped and finally tied the boat off with a simple trucker's hitch. Not once in our twenty minute flight did the canoe as much as twitch. Impressive and comforting to know we were in safe hands.
     Years earlier I'd written about my Army days, that the smaller the aircraft the worse the destination. Helicopters more often than not meant fewer men were riding back than flew out. Gogal's broke the mold. His was the smallest plane I'd been on and the loudest but had a pretty good destination as far as I was concerned. As for this ride, let's just say it gave me an appreciation of air currents. Also gave me a feel for the terrain we were passing over, how the water in the rivers and lakes was nothing more than a drainage system. What we were seeing was Mother Earth trying to dry off the land that'd once been beneath the glaciers and was taking her own sweet time getting it done. Inside, Larry's Norseman seemed to run off some kind of computerized GPS. He punched in his coordinates then simply kept the little plane silhouette right atop the line on the computer screen. Slick. Somehow I had the feeling he knew where he was at any given moment by simply by looking out the window and had no need for any stinkin' silhouettes.
     A brief discussion at the dock in Snow Lake had decided us on being dropped off at Gogal's outpost cabin on Dow Lake. This was a little farther down the File River than my winter daydreams had left us off but to me that didn't matter a whole lot. From this point on we were definitely in the bush with not a soul we were aware of between us and the Burntwood Lake Lodge eighty miles away. Had the mood struck us Allan and I could've paddled the distance in three days but that wasn't the way our mood worked. We had no idea how many pike and walleyes swam between us and the lodge and our intention was to find out.
     Ten minutes of cabin cleanup by Larry turned up a small cache of Pop-Tarts and ripe bananas. Al was having nothing to do with such crap but to me calories were calories and I crammed some down. We had miles to go and every one would come in handy. Exactly how many miles would be determined by finding a canoe landing and campsite. Before flying off Larry said we'd find fish wherever we found moving water. Then added water levels were way down and the entering streams were nothing more than trickles. Oh well. Then he was off and we were as alone as we'd ever been.
     We quickly loaded under the dense blue sky, paddled north to the egress, and headed downstream to meet the File River. What struck me was the stream and its intimate, tree bowered flow. Reminded me of floating the Minnehaha Creek in South Minneapolis. Yup, outside of being surrounded by three million people and five million cars it was identical. Allan threw a few listless casts along the way. We knew dead water when we saw it but, what the hell, we were in God's country and figured He might throw a few bones our way. He didn't.
     No sooner did we leave the river and enter Fairwind Lake than we spooked a nesting pair of sandhill cranes on a small island. Not having seen sandhill's before it took a moment to peg them. 'Course they had us pegged from the get-go as a couple of ignorant yahoos from the south land and flew off. A hundred yards later we spooked a moose grazing in the shallows. He/she took one look and set off across the lake in a panic, swam the depths, trundled ashore dragging up a waterfall of lake water, and busted her/his way through the brush. Damnation, this was sure a fine way to enter the bush. Too bad we had to scare the daylights out of everything in our path.
     Now that we were on proper water Allan began to explore the west shore with a spinner while I slowly paddled us toward the river's egress. Each likely looking point and rock pile gave up a walleye. Enough pickerel to give us a thought to calling it a day and set up camp. Why not? Fairwind was a pretty lake, we were as far into the bush as we'd ever been, and the fishing seemed good. Plus we had a dozen days to cover the remaining seventy-five miles; in short, no need to hurry.
     About the time we began to scope the shoreline for a landing we saw the first boat peek its way from the narrows at the north end of the lake. Damnation. Then a second and a third. All were aluminum fishing boats sunk near the gunwales with gear and plus-sized fishermen. Looked like the lake would be a little to crowded for Allan and I.
     To this day I have no idea how six men and three power boats could have reached Fairwind Lake. I've scoped the map many times and there is indeed a road on the map close to twenty miles long and goes from nowhere and ends in a different nowhere. Of course I could be wrong and no doubt am. Anyhow, we waved, they waved back and we paddled on through the canyon-like narrows and into Limestone Point Lake. We were now on the File River system and Al was beginning to get hungry.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Fly In - 2003

     Back in '98 I'd sent a letter to a flying service up near the Land of Little Sticks to see how much it'd cost to fly Allan and I to a point upstream on the river where their lodge sat. I'd had a vision of what a true wilderness trip should look like since the days I used to sit in Ole's Barber Shop reading outdoor magazines to pass the time while waiting for my monthly scalping. Though what we'd done to this point was close it still was short of the picture in my head. Yet, a part of me remained between those long ago pages and off on an adventure to Great Slave Lake where the water was ice free for only a few weeks a year. Of course my vision only included the forty pound lake trout and not the two pound mosquitoes that were more likely to bite. Since then both Allan and I had grown familiar with the roar in the woods and came to know those skeeters as both large and slow but had yet to catch a lake trout, or grayling, or arctic char for that matter.
     Physical mail was something I did back then, it was charming, effective, and slow as molasses, particularly when crossing international borders and approaching the arctic circle. Eventually I did receive a response; short, sweet, friendly, and somewhere over three grand as I recall. African safari money to a man who was paid by the hour. Drive and paddle was more our speed. Still is. However, the idea of a fly in with all our gear never left my thoughts.
     By 2003 my letter days were over and the much faster means of e-mail had taken its place. By now both Allan and I had become attached to northwest Manitoba as a destination. More likely, it was a mostly me destination, since we always went in my car, we always went where I wanted to go. Call it a combination of habit and satisfaction with our days in Grass River Park. We'd come to learn a little about where to go in the park and what to expect. Also, to this point we'd paddled no more than a third of Grass River's waters leaving us much left to see.
     However, the lakes and rivers north of the park always drew my eye. In 2002 we'd tried to reach them by foot and paddle but had been stopped by frozen Reed Lake. Oddly enough the idea of a second shot at the Four Mile Portage never entered my mind. Why, I don't know. What did was an Internet search of flying services in the Cranberry Portage area and over in nearby Snow Lake (if fifty miles away can be considered near) where I found Gogal Air. Also, saw that someone with the last name of Gogal owned the Burntwood Lake Lodge thirty miles to the north of town. I both e-mailed Gogal and spoke with the lodge about possibilities and rates but received no answer from Mr. Gogal.
     On the upside, there remained two unseen lakes of size in the western half of the park, B.C. and Barb (of the walleye a cast per Bob with the black lab). Both offered a challenge concerning access. B.C. was two lake crossings and three portages away into the bush after a five mile long drive on a backwoods sand track. That became the plan. We had four wheel drive for the track but also bought a hundred feet of heavy duty rope just in case. Barb on the other hand, was a simpler shot, six miles of lake followed by two miles of stream and portage. The plan evolved into a week on each with a twenty-five mile car ride between. Not the trip we were hoping for but we'd have a lot of new, near wilderness water to ourselves and no doubt catch a few fish along the way. What more could we want?
     About a week before the trip I came home from work and was told a man from Canada had called. Yes indeed it was Larry Gogal and yes indeed he'd be willing to give us a lift into the bush. We politely chatted for a bit then I asked him the three thousand dollar question. Mr. Gogal was quiet for a few seconds then quoted a price that was so reasonable I accepted immediately. As to a place to stay on the night before he suggested the Blue Nose B and B in Snow Lake. Turned out their price, with the favorable exchange rate, would've been peanuts had I thought the plant would survive in the rocky, frozen soil. Oh boy was I excited. Now all I had to do was find Snow Lake on the map.
     One thing is for certain on a nine hundred mile drive, no matter the weather when you climb into the car, it'll change somewhere along the line, then change again. Mostly it was smooth sailing outside of two hundred miles of wind, rain, and lightening between central Minnesota and the Canadian border. Wind and rain stretches rope and we had to pull off the interstate a couple of times to re-rig.
     The directions we had for the Blue Nose once we reached Snow Lake were at best sketchy. Probably the lady at the B and B gave me a photographically accurate description of where she was but the sketch artist in my brain works with a dull pencil on the back of a soiled napkin. However, after a tour of the midnight dark town we did find the place right where she said it would be. Odd how that works out. Seemed the owners were off partying but their son gave us the lowdown on the building and the local dirt about the railroad grade all the Snow Lake folks used to drive to a couple of remote fly-in lakes. Anyhow, the place was ours alone, even the free Fruit Loops and toast breakfast.
     Snow Lake is a mining town and also does a fair amount of hunting and fishing business. Enough anyway to warrant a cafe in town and that's where we figured to set our sights on come morning. We went outside, smoked a last butt, watched a faint display of northern lights, and went to bed.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Outbound - 2002

     By the time we'd eaten, broken camp, and loaded, the wind was howling out of the southeast. A shot straight at the river's mouth would have placed us sideways to the growing whitecaps. That left us having to paddle away from our goal and buck the breeze till we were mid-lake. There we held our tack till the upwind waves traced no zephyrs. In a split second we spun the boat and shot like an over-weighted bullet toward the river. The sports from the lodge had already flown in and had anchored in pike heaven, hootin' and hollerin' over a ten pound jack fish as we hissed by. Doubt they even noticed us or if they did, wrote us off as local color. Only crazy Canucks would be so foolish as to have canoed a half hour's float plane flight into the bush.
     Once in the river we relaxed knowing all there was left to do was to haul two hundred thirty pounds of gear and boat over two ugly portages. Call it simple, mindless work with little chance of drowning. Three and a half hours and we again found ourselves on the shore of Elbow Lake. Along the way we'd sweat through our clothes and discovered the carry yoke I'd made had a flaw in design. Finally, in the last hundred rods I was able to throw the canoe atop my shoulders with the intention of finishing this portage properly. Call it ten strides later when I heard a loud crack followed immediately by a thud as I was struck in the head. Thought I was hit by a toppling pine. Seemed my creative idea of how to attach the yoke wasn't practical and explained without a shadow of a doubt why they're bolted in from the top of the gunwale rather than screwed in from the side. My immediate reaction was calling out, "What happened? What happened?" Yeah, once again I was clueless.
     At the shore we took a prolonged break and stared at the whitecaps rolling in directly at our feet. Sonsabitch! Looked like weren't as yet done with challenges. By now we were running low on both food and energy. Didn't matter in the least. Our camp was only a couple of miles away and there was an island between that'd allow a couple of minutes rest. We paddled out, inching our way into the teeth of it. The first mile wasn't easy and also wasn't hard. Call it numbing. Once in the thick of it there wasn't but one option, straight ahead. The human body has nearly endless reserves of energy. No matter our fatigue after the portages it came to the fore. A little over an hour of slogging found us grinding ashore. We stumbled our way through the offload then Allan found a warm spot on the basalt shelf, propped his head on his life jacket, and was asleep in seconds. Dinner that night was rice and chili. As hungry as we were it still went down bland. Three hours before sunset we were in our bags and being once again being serenaded to sleep by the ravens.
     Breakfast was a bowl of noodles. Not real wilderness fare but better than nothing. Also, we were low on water. Since we weren't filtering, shore water was out of the question and paddling out into the whitecaps to dunk the canteens, outright dangerous. Six a.m. and the waves were already borderline impassable. Nothing to do about it but break camp and paddle on. When we rose I figured we might make the landing on Iskwasum in the early evening. Heck, it wasn't but thirty-five miles and three portages away. Yeah, I'm a fool. Once we paddled out into the combers I knew that wasn't happening anytime soon.
     Right off the bat I nearly smacked head on into a boulder. Good thing one of us was paying attention. I don't recall how many hours it took to reach our first portage but I do remember we'd been able to dip the canteens on the way, and Allan eating a bag of uncooked Ramen noodles when we landed. Even the grass and aspen leaves were beginning to look tasty. Somehow, in my calorie deprived mind I figured we were done with the worst of it. That the river miles to Lake Iskwasum were both down stream and would be in the shadow of the wind. Not so. On the upside, the sluice above the last last rapids that I'd feared since we paddled up it a dozen days earlier was flooded out. Yup, Allan had been right to not worry about it from the very get-go. In fact, he rubbed it in by saying the current hadn't changed a bit, that once again my fears showed I was becoming more of an old woman than an old man.
     The misery of the wind ratcheted up once the river again widened but we were treated to a family of otters, cute little buggers with teeth like wolves. Then a fisherman in a walleye boat. As we approached our first campsite we paddled beside a black bear for a few yards before driving it off to the far shore. We figured the bear was heading to the camp of the fisherman we'd just passed, even considered paddling back to let him know. But the idea of again beating into the wind over a mile we already had in our past was repugnant. Pounding past his camp we could easily see he'd left out a table full of food. The bear would lunch well that day.
     Again the wind cranked it up a notch to the point where we were sometimes motionless though paddling forward as hard as we could. It was about four p.m. when we finally got a glimpse of the lake itself. Like looking through the gates of hell. Paddling out into the four foot swells would have been beyond stupid. So foolish we'd have deserved to die. We landed at a shore lunch spot and called it a day. Twenty-five miles dead into a blistering headwind, don't ever want to do that again. We could barely move. We left the canoe in the water, tied it off fore and aft, unloaded only what we needed, and made camp. Al cooked supper while I patiently (too pooped to be anything but) set up the tent in the wind. We ate and were in the sack at six-fifteen with hopes for the morning.
     Rose before the sun under a rainbow of pastel clouds, wolfed down what lint and crumbs remained in the food pack, and were off. Iskwasum was almost calm. We paddled the last ten miles with giddy joy knowing we were almost done. The access hadn't changed, the big boats, a new crew for sure, were lined up on the gravel, and the fisherman once again pretty much ignored us. However, one did strike up a conversation as we loaded the jeep. Said he'd spent his days in the bush a few years back. I don't recall the man's age, probably older than I was back then, but he did set me thinking of how many years I had left to do such stupidity. A decade or more I hoped.
     The drive home was uneventful. Nine hundred miles, in bed by midnight, and about ten pounds lighter. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

BWCA - 2017

     Yup, I'm pooped. Expected it and wasn't disappointed. At 70 I don't take to the boonies like I once did. However, being with my grandson Jakob and his dad Ryan for three days was a good, good time but as I said, I'm pooped. Will write more when my brain and body are rested.

     For a simple three day trip ours had pretty much everything, nine kinds of weather, plenty of time on the water, a variety of insects none in great abundance, a touch of irony, better than crappy fishing, no one fell out of the boat, and a single campground rabbit. Never had one of those before and this one was near tame, no doubt to fool us into complacency.
The Terror
     Most bunnies are harmless but for some reason this one gave me the willies. It was a terrifying beast with glowing eyes. Made me think of the rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Worst of all, we had no Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch to fend off the terror. Dying at the hands of a small rodent wasn't something I'd ever expected to happen in the Boundary Waters and I made damned sure such would not happen to us. However, we kept our eyes peeled whenever we were out and about. It always pays to be prepared.
     I had a few realistic worries about this trip and as usual they were pretty much on the money. The Ranger in Grand Marais always says there's a black fly hatch but will never tell me how many will suck blood from my head and ankles. Yeah, the little buggers love to crawl up under my pants to draw a festering line around the top of my socks. Odd thing is the itching doesn't start till I get back home. Maybe body oils and dirt are better than After Bite.
     The canoe rental went slick though I should have been paying more attention to the number on the bow of the canoe. I'd asked for a twenty foot Wenonah! with the idea that bigger is better. Instead we were given a three-seater by Northwind by Northstar (used to be Bell). Same number of seats and a pretty boat for sure but a foot and a half shorter. We did manage to squeeze ourselves in but Jakob and I had no leg room. Oh well, we didn't have far to paddle.
Ryan and Jakob
     The access on McFarland is far too civilized. In fact the entire north and east shores of the lake are lined with cabins. Some wilderness, eh? However, a few of them are downright attractive if you like that kind of stuff. Me, I lean toward barely habitable with a few bats under the steel roof. Some of the cabins we passed looked like they might even have indoor plumbing. Wouldn't surprise me if the Home and Garden Channel will soon be up here doing rehabs with the lesser structures. Who knows, the hardware store in Grand Marais might even stock granite counter tops and subway tiles these days? Don't know how my Uncle Emil would take that.
     The paddle up McFarland was relatively easy though I had to keep my cursing to myself. Profanity in all forms is what I do to let off steam before the pressure builds to boiling. Yeah, I was doing my best to deceive the eleven year old in front of me. The tailwind's function was to kept us moving while I kept us generally traveling in the right direction. Took a few minutes till I came up with a system to keep Jakob from banging paddles with me or vice-versa. When I'd give him a 'hut', he'd switch sides and he was good at it. Still, I struggled and tired easily, as I hadn't had a paddle in my hand in better than a year.
     We also had the opportunity to ride the white horses on our way down Pine. Picked up that image for white caps from one of Sigurd Olson's books. It's a popular, poetic term I've always felt lacking. Could be I'm a little short when it comes to poesy and have a hard time seeing horses in the water when there's no reason for them to be there. But the waves sure do sound neat when you're riding alongside them as they're breaking. The shushing also reminded me to pay attention and keep the boat traveling straight downwind.
     Originally I'd planned camping on the single south shore site. It's close to good fishing and situated near both portages to the two uphill trout lakes. But with the wind and waves I quickly came to see it as an all or nothing option. Should it be taken we'd have to dangerously paddle cross-lake and cross-wave to find another. And, as I said, I was pooping out. Through my fifties I was pretty much tireless when it came to paddling but somewhere around sixty-two my energy level began to wane just a little. Now, at seventy the physical downhill is starting to turn into an avalanche. However, on Pine I pulled out my ace in the hole, wisdom. Wisdom is a good thing and is respected as a sign of tempered intelligence. But truth be known, in my case wisdom is powered by a fear of death or at the least, pain, neither of which appeals to me. I began to look elsewhere.
     First choice, third down the lake and best on the water, was taken. Once again the eleven year old in front of me curbed my foul tongue but did decide he had to take a leak. All three of us handled it nicely. I like Jakob a lot, even have a grandfatherly love for him but dear Lord, he sure is hard on my vocabulary. The fourth site wasn't there and the fifth sucked as to its landing. It was the sixth that was the winner because of its magnificent, gently sloping, immense basalt slab shoreline. Even a bimbo like me could grind ashore on such a spot. We were home for the next three days.
     An hour's work found the tent up, rain tarp strung, and the kitchen organized. My intention was to go full bore and hang the food pack but lacked a towering white pine with a spreading branch. Oh well, we were only a two hour paddle from the car. So long as an invading bear didn't eat us (meaning me), we were good.
     The only time I had bears in camp was back in '94. The moon threw their shadows on the tent as they silently passed by. There's an old saw saying if you hear something in camp it's not a bear. Yup, this pair sure was quiet. Not knowing what to do I made a loud series of kissing sounds. Who in their right mind makes kissing sounds to fend of a possible killer? Maybe that's what the bears were thinking as they ran off. "Holy crap! This weirdo has love on his mind. And he's probably ugly as sin. Best skedaddle."
     By now I was figuring Jake and Ryan had fishing on their minds. But having spent many days in one camp or another, food was at the top of my list. Food had been a big concern right from the get-go. During the early years I'd tried a fair number of freeze dried meals and found them to almost be tolerable. I'd heard they'd gotten better over the years but I recall the ads back in the nineties as saying something like 'Ummm, ummm! They sure do eat good.' Didn't take a genius to figure out if freeze dried was trying to taste as good as fresh food, why not take fresh food? So that's what we had.
Besides snack food, we carried a mid-sized cooler with steaks, eight burgers (with carefully packed buns), frozen homemade spaghetti sauce, two dozen eggs, sausages, frozen hash browns, butter, and fruit. Also packed enough gas to keep the stove going indefinitely. Since this trip involved no portaging, weight wasn't a problem.
Food Altar
     Truth was, we were in no hurry. The wind was still up, even built as the day passed. We putzed the afternoon around camp. Even broke open a Gary Paulsen young man's novel to enjoyably pass the time. Reading has always been a part of my time in the wilderness. Usually I seek literature but my definition has fuzzy borders. Paulsen fit in nicely though his youth stories lack the edge of his adult tales. When I first found him on the library shelves Paulsen would occasionally lay a line on me that'd stop me in my tracks, set the book down, and stare off into the distance till my hackles relaxed. Good writer indeed.
     Come evening the camp was growing restless from a lack of fishing. And I began to fear an insurrection unless something was done about it. One of the reasons we were sitting on my second acceptable choice as to site had to do with the extended point no more than ten paddling minutes away. It gave us just enough protection from the east wind to maybe get in a few casts. Also, the ten foot wide whitecaps of the afternoon had shrunk and retreated to the main channel of the lake. We loaded and paddled out. To be honest I don't recall if any fish were boated. Ryan definitely had a couple on the line, might even have lost one before I could fire off a photo. But should I ask him he'd no doubt tell me in detail every nanosecond of the fights. I blame my lack on short term memory problems and being Jakob's go-fer.
     Ryan had two rods up front, one rigged with a spinner (what else? Though over the days he sometimes switched to a Shad Rap, probably 'cause they're made in Iowa)) and the other a jig-plastic combination. Jakob and I were rigged the same but also carried a third rod. At all times I felt it my function to make sure Jake had a rod in his hand and two ready to go, stashed in the stern behind me. Should he throw a bird's nest it was my task to either untangle it or shorten the line (God bless Swiss Army knives). Not that I'm complaining, no sir. Over the years I'd thrown my share of lures and caught way more than my share of fish, lack of a few more wasn't going to alter my enjoyment of being on the water. Being of service to my grandson was time well spent (I'd originally written 'pleasure' but realized that to be a lie. And 'joy' sure didn't cut the mustard either). Also gave me the chance to see how loops form in fishing line; some were obvious, some merely an act of one of the lesser gods. Over the years I'd seen enough zephyrs come dancing over the water simply to play havoc with the canoe. A man learns to pay them their due. Those lesser gods require no sacrificed goats but do like to be noticed now and then.
Most were larger
     Anyhow, here's a shot of Ryan and a Boundary Waters smallmouth bass. Ryan is the larger of the two. The mist hanging in the cross-lake trees tells me it was shot on the second day. As it turned out the rain gear we had on was our usual uniform of the day. Once back in camp it didn't take long before we packed it in. Eleven year olds and codgers need their sleep. Besides, the bones and shoulder of my fight arm felt like they'd been hammered. Haven't as yet figured out an exercise to get me ready for prolonged j-stoking besides prolonged j-stoking. The tent was ready and waiting and we were willing.
     We'd brought Ryan and Jakob's four man Kelty tent. I'd not as yet given much thought to its having two doors beyond, "Two doors, neat." Figured it no more than a minor convenience till I gave it some practical thought while we assembled it in the afternoon. At my age a man most often rises in the middle of the night to take a leak. Turned out Ryan's bladder was taking on a similar habit. Guess I was also when I was his age. We put Jakob in the middle. I'll let you color in the rest of the picture.
     Come morning I was up and about at my usual six a.m. The boys weren't. Almost wrote they looked too peaceful to disturb but both were unseen and buried deep in their bags. Gave me the thought disturbing them might have the same effect as sticking my hand down a badger hole to find out what might be inside. I dressed and crawled out as silently as I could. That the two slept through my stumbling, farting, and cursing was a tribute to their fatigue.
     Back at home I begin my day with fifteen minutes of stretching. Some might call my attempts yoga. Some would be wrong. Up here in the woods I did no such thing. One look at the muddy, pounded duff, and stone forest floor told me organic is nowhere near as soft as synthetic. The carpeting back home might give me cancer but at least I'd die with clean fingernails. As a substitute I wandered the camp, admired the Japanese woodblock print hills across the lake as the misty-fog crept down from the peaks. I don't get all warm and gooey on the inside when confronted by such beauty but I do take notice. Next order of business was firing up the stove and heating the already made and waiting coffee. Now, that does get me warm and gooey on the inside and will usually remind my sleeping intestines that they're overfull. Reason enough to wander uphill and pay the fiberglass stool homage.
     Along the well trod trek I scanned the woods for deadfall cedar. Two years earlier on East Pike Lake, my nephew Brian and I had stumbled on a treasure trove of beautifully dried limbs and small, dead trunks. Lacking a productive outlet in my waning years, one of the things I do is band saw carve little pine trees from nature provided wood. A few eighteen inch long, two inch diameter sticks would have been wonderful to illegally gather and take home. But I didn't. Over the last two years I'd steeled my resolve and was determined to not make that mistake again. So as I thumped my way along the path my eyes continually scanned the underbrush. My God, this site was surrounded by hundreds of northern white cedar and every damned one of them was alive and healthy. I left my frustrations in the latrine and wandered down a more peaceful soul.
     Outside of the Hansen novel there was nothing to read besides the labeling on food packages. Once done with that, I again wandered to the shore in hope of finding enlightenment in the descending fog. Pulled my camera after eleven seconds of contemplation then fired off a few attempts at some artsy photos.
Artsy Photo
     Around seven-fifteen I could take it no more and rousted the two deadheads. Breakfast was simple, half a pound of sausages were scrambled together with eight eggs in one pan, in the other four hash brown patties and a slathering of butter were chopped and crisped together. Breakfast on a Coleman stove usually takes but ten minutes from beginning to end, eating even less. Top that off with coffee and cookies or granola bar and you're ready for the day. Well, maybe if the wind was down or rain might not be moving in. Truth was the wind was tolerable and we went exploring with loaded fishing rods.
     The fog never left us on Wednesday but was kind enough to remain stuck in the pine and spruce needles of the hills. Again we hit the protected bay then crossed the lake in rising whitecaps. The water gods paint the tips of waves white to remind foolish canoe men to keep their wits about them. We quartered them wisely with only a little grunting and muttering from the stern seat.
     The south shore was dented with a series of small bays but it was the points that proved productive. That is if a half dozen hits and three bass to the boat filled the bill. Yeah, the fishing was slow throughout our three days. Jakob never did catch his big fish though he had and lost a three pounder. His dad tried to convince him that counted but Jake was having nothing to do with Ryan's logic. In his mind a caught fish is one that's in your hand in the photo. Good for Jakob, he's a young man of growing principle.
     We did do one side trip with intentions of some trout fishing. The weather remained overcast, threatened rain, and there was a chop on the water. Good conditions for both walleyes and trout. The portage to Vale Lake rose directly across from our site and the tiny lake was supposed provide a fair chance to land a brook trout. My son Allan and I had fished Vale better than twenty years earlier and had gotten a good tan chasing the trout from one shore to another. So, I remembered the portage. Yup, remembered it well. Starts out steep and quickly grows much steeper as it turns into a boulder pile. The last ten rods is a misery of rubble begging for broken limbs. Back in '95 we carried our gear and aluminum canoe. I had no intentions of doing so this time. For sure I couldn't hoist the beast and had no intentions of putting the misery on my son-in-law. The Minnesota DNR said it was possible to shore fish Vale and there was no reason to doubt such a fine organization. I'd packed an ultralight rod and reel spooled with four pound test in hopes of giving it a go. Also carried a seven foot, buggy whip of a Shakespeare fiberglass rod made in 1956, reeled and spooled the same way. Each was tipped with a tiny, homemade spinner. Yes sir, we were ready.
     I'd bought the map we were using back in '92. In general it'd proved useful many times. A diagonal, upwind paddle brought us to the south shore where we began our search for the small path in the forest. Not always an easy thing to do as a portage and a beaver drag look pretty much the same from a canoe. Long story short, the map wasn't off by more than two hundred yards and we'd only once had the opportunity to dead end at a wall of northern white cedar. Probably the map was just as whacked back in '92 since the portage appeared about the same as I recalled, maybe a little more overgrown. We set off, Jakob in the lead, Ryan next, and me an ever-flagging last. I carefully cradled the rods, butt end first and cautiously inspected every one of my foot placements. Grace is no longer one of my strong points. Probably never was and these days remaining upright while passing over uneven terrain is a challenge.
     By the time I arrived at the lake Ryan and Jake could've had a tent erected, the stove fired up, grilled cheese sandwiches hot and ready, and been sporting a 'where've you been homeboy?' look on their faces. It was there along the shallow, rocky shore I discovered my Shakespeare was missing its spinner. Damnation! Another victim of the Sir Francis Bacon theory of him having made all of the Bard's fishing poles. Seems Shakespeare was an avid angler. Some even think he was actually Isaak Walton. Or maybe that Bacon was Walton but no one knows for sure and completely ignored sections of the Harvard library are filled with doctoral dissertations on the meaningless subject. As I stood there confused, staring skyward, and lost in musing, Ryan and Jakob set off down what looked to be the vaguest of paths. A real face whipper if I ever saw one. Took us close to a hundred yards before we found a crack in the shoreline brush and a perch to cast from. Me first was my thinking. Heck I'd carried the rods. Believe it was my second fling that hung the bottom and sheared the line. Looked like our trout fishing was done before it even started. The curse of Bacon strikes again. Anyhow, that's my excuse.
     Weather-wise we had it all except snow. One of the reasons I chose Pine Lake as our destination was the view. Pine is a seven mile long trench between a pair of ridges that rise nearly four hundred feet from the lake's shores. The hours can easily slip by while you're sitting in a camp chair simply enjoying the view. Thursday morning we awoke to a complete whiteout fog.
Another artsy photo
The lake had glassed out but visibility was down to twenty yards. Not a one of us could see squat but found the view every bit as intriguing as the cross lake hills. Finally the fog lifted and we were able to head out again. 
Once on the lake we worked our way down to what was supposed to be the best fishing water on the east half of Pine but by now the fog had burned off and the brilliant blue sky gave us an excuse to not catch much. Oddly enough I doubt I took more than two dozen casts throughout the three days and half of those were to work out loops in Jakob's reel. So my excuse for not catching anything is both golden and grandfatherly. But I sure had a good time.
     In the bay we briefly talked with a man fishing solo and using a kayak paddle to move from place to place. He said most of the campsites on Pine are situated near good walleye fishing. I'm not a walleye fisherman, plain and simple, unless I stumble on one by accident. Once discovered I can usually figure out a pattern and boat a few. But purposely targeting walleyes is not something I do by choice. I figured both Ryan and Jakob would have loved to tie into a few but happened to be cursed with sharing a canoe with the wrong man.
Last of the fog
     Maybe next year we'll head over to Crocodile Lake where the walleyes find you. There's a single portage, not long but hilly enough to call it a second step in Ryan and Jakob's Boundary Waters evolution. One portage, two tops is about all grandpa will be able to handle next year. In a pinch I could maybe do more but it'd have to be a heck of a pinch. Life, death, out of coffee.  
     Thursday proved to be a perfect ending to our trip. Jakob boated his first Boundary Waters smallmouth, we had intense fog, clear blue skies, a passing storm front wth a hackle raising  lightning strike right in front of us, and an intensely colorful sunset. Best of all, my simple spaghetti received Jakob's approval. Life was indeed good.
    Friday morning we broke camp and once again rode the white horses down wind. Don't know when we'll pay for our good fortune but for sure we owe something something for our two traveling tail winds.
     Usually it takes me a solid week to recover from such a trip, both mentally and physically. As I write these words my body says another trip would be a good thing. My mind said the same on the drive home. Yeah, I must have had a good time. We shot the connecting stream rapids effortlessly, call it eight seconds of fun. Midway down McFarland we caught one last, dangerous blast of wind as though the lake gods were swatting us on the butt and saying it was time to get off the water.
     These days it takes me a week to recover both mentally and physically from such a trip. However, my mind was already telling me on the drive home that I'd had a good time and another trip canoe trip was in order.

Jakob and Ryan


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Claw - 2002

     We found ourselves on the shore of the lake but somehow still in the woods. And were forced to load and launch the canoe in a sapling thicket (I'd have written copse but figured once was enough for such a high falutin' word). For the first couple of minutes we zig-zagged and pulled our way through tree to tree, sometimes having to back up when we dead-ended in the maze. Some lab rats we were. Once through we slid onto the egress stream, paddled up river past a collapsing trapper's cabin (or maybe just an old plywood shack thrown together with an eye for ugly. Ah, Wilderness!), and finally onto the lake.
     A mile ahead the map showed a campsite somewhere on the tallest island in the lake, also the only mature stand of pine and spruce for a dozen miles. Twenty years earlier a forest fire had burned off the northwest corner of the park. A few towering stands remained randomly scattered about to remind us of what it had once been like. The land had greened, mostly poplar, since then but this far north a couple of decades doesn't allow for much growth.
     Our landing was another of the low ledges we'd become familiar with over the years. Once ashore we found ourselves at the base of a hillside steep enough that Allan had to climb it like a mountain road with cut-backs. Below I wandered around searching the steep shore for the campsite that wasn't and couldn't be there. A call from above told me he'd found it. A minute of huffing and puffing and I joined him.
     Wow! What a site. Fifty feet above the lake, grassy, and level. Best of all a thermometer was nailed to a tree above a classic plywood and two-by-four, collapsing table. The bouldered and forested island rolled and sloped gently in the remaining three directions over its four acres. Should we be wind bound, a half-dozen places along the shore offered access to fishing. Looked like we were set for the next week. Camp went up, the stove fired, and a half hour later we sat down to Emeril's Roasted Red Pepper spaghetti and wolfed it down in time for Allan to trot off into the woods, trowel and paper in hand, where he bellowed out a 'Bam!,' just like Emeril would've. Funny kid.
     As it turned out the wind blew for the first two days and we came to know the island well. Most of the time Allan fished and I read aloud. Figure his luck at about a pike or walleye every seven pages, heavier on the pike. Don't know if that's a normal rate though I doubt such a rate exists. Regardless, it's not often a man gets to take part in ground breaking, original activities. A wise man might've tried something involving money or fame or love but I guess fish per page is more my speed. That it required a team effort, a bonding of father and son, made it a fete to be cherished. I'd write more about our accomplishment but am getting all teary-eyed and fear I might short circuit the keyboard.
     We discovered several things from our observation point. The four men we'd passed on the portage returned on each of the next two days. They were walleye dredgers looking for trophy-sized fish but had to be satisfied with nothing more than dozens of twenty-inchers. Allan and I had a hard time feeling sorry for their poor luck and were thankful for the entertainment they provided when passing back and forth in front of our island.
     Finally one of the boats pulled ashore to see what was wrong with the fools on the island. After all, here we were on trophy water and spent most of our time sitting on our backsides shore fishing and reading. Turned out they were from Kansas and Nebraska and had been coming north for better than twenty years. When we explained about being wind bound because of our canoe they took pity on us. Turned out this was their last day and they passed over a frozen container of jumbo minnows, a pair of marabou jigs, and two bottles of Molson Canadian ale. Lord almighty, talk about the kindness of strangers. And we weren't even holding up hand-lettered signs saying we'd be willing to work for fishing supplies.
     Here's when the fun began. Lacking a better plan -- that's the thing with plans; there's the perfect one and then there's the one you go with -- we rigged a rod with a slip bobber set at five feet and tipped the line with one of the marabou jigs and a single minnow. We took turns. Al's gentle back hand cast flipped the rig no more than twenty feet from shore. In the next ten seconds the bobber stood up, bounced several times in the waves, then slowly sank out of sight. Allan set the hook and an eighteen-incher was quickly reeled to shore. Wow. In short, over the next half hour we sipped our way through the ale and landed two dozen pickerel. Also lost one with a poor hook set. All but three were released. Looked like we had walleye on the menu for the morning.
     We'd been able to search a little of Claw's water on the first evening but had no luck. Two hours turned up a couple of small pike. Not much to show for forty miles paddling and portaging. What did catch our attention and also provided an excuse for the crappy fishing was the flooded shoreline. It appeared the lake level had risen between two and three feet. No matter where we paddled trees stood ankle deep in water. Got me wondering if it was possible the small, stationary rain cloud we'd watched from Elbow Lake had dropped this much water in an afternoon's time? Seemed improbable but the shores said otherwise.
     On the third evening we were finally able to paddle out for a couple of hours' fishing and to gather water. We'd hadn't filtered our drinking water since the first trip back in '98. When thirsty we simply dunked our canteens elbow deep and filled up. But a couple of quarts didn't cover camp needs so we brought the big plastic jug along.
     The wind was barely tolerable once we passed from the lee of the island but the east shore looked like it might be protected enough to get in a few casts. It wasn't and again we were virtually skunked. Our shore fishing said we were on good water so I wasn't disappointed and knew the wind had to eventually give us a break. And on the third day it did. From this point on we had the best pike fishing of our lives. The walleye fishing wasn't bad either.
     The third day taught us all we needed to know about fishing Claw Lake. We launched on the rippled water under heavy overcast. Our instincts told us the river mouth was the place to be but fearing it wasn't, I putzed the canoe from island to island with nothing to show for our casting. The egress was another story. Anywhere within fifty yards of where the shores narrowed down and the river formed proved to be pike heaven. And they weren't small pike either, thirty inches on the small end and a solid forty on the big. The action wasn't furious but by the time we paddled in we'd fought a couple of dozen to the canoe.
     The remainder of our lesson descended from the sky in the form of a pair of yellow float planes. Most every morning we were paid a visit from one of the big buck lodges in the area. The story was they'd fly their sports in a roundabout manner to the shores of Claw Lake to give them the feeling of an expedition. The planes would skim in, pull tight to shore in mid-lake and, a few minutes later would motor on down and pay the river mouth a visit for the big pike. An hour's worth of hootin' and hollerin' would find them off to the small side of the lake where they'd catch a shore lunch worth of walleyes. That was their drill and we found no reason to doubt the logic. Worked for them and worked for us. Suppose we could've saved ourselves the effort of canoeing in by simply dropping five hundred bucks a day at the lodge and an additional one-fifty/each to fly in. Some would call our needless effort foolishness and I find it hard to disagree. But then I've always taken pride in being a fool. Also, and this is a big also, come four in the afternoon, long before the best fishing of the day, the sports would load up and fly off to cocktail hour and a fine meal back on Reed Lake. We settled for more spartan fare but sure as hell hammered the bejeezus out of the pike and pickerel when the sun lowered to the treetops.
     Our fishing on Claw reached its peak on the last evening. The wind was beginning to rise once more so we began by letting the it drift us into a narrow, rock-walled bay. Here we began what turned out to be Allan's night of nights. The action didn't begin hot but Al coaxed a dozen walleyes out of hiding while I did what I do best, boat control. You'd've thought I'd have caught on by now that my son is a pike fisherman who merely tolerates pickerel. For him the bay was simply a waste of calories.
     We headed to the river mouth but the wind got the better of me, a cast or two by Allan, me in the stern seat cussin' up a storm, and we'd drift high speed into the reeds. Should you also be a canoe angler you know a brisk wind plays havoc with the boat. Even on a lee shore it'll dive from the treetops and spin you around most every time you cast into tight cover. No wonder the ancients gave the forces of nature human characteristics and considered them gods. Who's to say they were wrong?
     So we struck a compromise, paddled into the river where it was both calm and the fishing sucked to high heaven. Ain't that the way it goes sometimes? And it sure wasn't the way we wanted our last evening to go. We'd both floated enough lakes to recognize sterile fishing water when we saw it and this little stretch of river both looked and smelled a complete waste of time. A brief discussion and we went exploring to see where the stream might lead us. Eight days earlier we'd portaged around most of the river and figured we'd eventually learn why.
     Half a winding mile the placid swamp bordered stream bottle-necked into a waterfall. Across the throat was a beaver dam with a foot-wide opening blown in the middle. Doubt that happens all on its own. We figured to lodge boys may well have had something to do with it. Looked to us like all of Claw was racing to be the first down the shoot. Below began a series of rapids that curved out of sight through the forest. Looked to be fast, bouldered water and explained the mile-long carry. Once again we slid ashore amid hundreds of bleaching walleye remains. Sure looked like the eagles in the park ate well.
     The tumult and view from above was worth the trip but there was more. Backed up behind the dam was a pool maybe thirty yards long and a short cast wide. Figuring moving water might mean fish Allan did a backhand flip across the gullet of the chute and immediately hooked up. For the next minute he chased the fish up and down the pool while I stood aside offering sage advice like, "Don't lose it," and "No, I'm not going to move damn it. I was here first." Call the pike thirty-eight inches. Not bad for a half acre of water. My turn produced a twin, Al's next a triplet, and finally I finished it off with a little five-pounder. Between the eagles and fifteen pound pike it was a miracle there were any walleyes in the lake at all. Damn. Not much more I can say. The oddity of those four pike made this the single best fishing moment in all our trips to Canada. But as it turned out the evening wasn't over.
     By now the lake had calmed a little and we headed upstream to the river mouth. There Allan began a string of pike he may never top. In the last hours of daylight under a heavy gray sky he landed fish after fish. One stretch produced a dozen in as many casts, all over thirty inches and a pair topped forty. I simply sat in the stern and enjoyed the show. To me it was a perfect ending to our days on Claw.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Portage - 2002

     Our two-thirty bedtime led us to sleep in till mid-morning. Sometimes weather calls for a change of plans, sometimes Canucks with beer and fried fish. Also, we'd been on the go since I arose on Friday at four a.m. for a half-day's work. A sprinting three hours on my job as a FedEx courier, nine hundred miles of driving, forty miles of paddle and portage, and a late night was cause enough for us to dog it for a day. Truth is, we were so tired the screaming ravens were no more than a petty annoyance. Besides, the wind was up, we were already surrounded by good fishing, had good reading at hand, and each other's company. Allan and I slowed down and did what we do best, nothing of consequence. Yes, Monday was a joy. Behind our relaxed day stood our upcoming portage. It looked to be a misery and though I knew we'd do it (after all though our original plan had called for a four mile carry) a day's rest proved a blessing.
     As it turned out the fishing was slow but didn't matter. Most of our day was spent lazing in camp, reading aloud, eating, and watching a small storm cloud dumping buckets for hours on end about where we figured Claw Lake to be. The cloud never moved, just hung there like it'd been anchored and rained and rained. Odd thing was, we sat in sunshine. Made me wonder what tomorrow would be like.
     Tuesday rose beneath another bluebird sky. Started cool and quickly warmed. Call it another near perfect June day in the north land. Our spirits were up, camp came down easily, we sat and stuffed down calories, refilled the canteens, and were off. Once again we were excited by the challenge. It'd be a bear for sure but come evening we'd be camped on Claw Lake. We loaded and were off.
     Don't know why they caught my eye, dumb luck maybe, but as we neared the growing beaver dam I spied a pair of empty, aluminum fishing boats pulled up on the shore to our left. My mind immediately bee-lined to, "they weren't there Sunday night and there's no reason for them to be there now with not a soul in sight unless...." We squeezed between and tied up to check it out. A minute's walk told us all we needed to know. It sure looked to be a portage, a high, wide, and handsome one. Felt almost a disappointment we'd have it so easy. We were seeking misery damn it and wanted to earn our reward by the sweat of our brows. We trotted back for the gear.
     Call it a hundred rods when Eden ended and we stood nose to nose with the challenge. There the eight-foot wide trail gave way to a muddy foot path winding its way through a bog before finally angling uphill in the distance and disappearing into a stand of brush. We set down the first load and went back for more. It looked to be enough of the misery to make us happy but sure as hell beat the crawl-through thicket and cliff behind the beaver dam. A nice balance. Our questions answered, now it was a simple matter of work.
     And in a way it was, pick it up, move it, and go back for more. They only thing of consequence was the next foot step. This wasn't Voyageur level portaging. Our loads weren't but a third the size of theirs, also more poorly organized. But they would have recognized what we were doing (and probably made fun of us as a couple of coddled pork-eaters).The bog provided a challenge calling for a lot of hummock-dancing, rivulet-hopping, and brush-busting. Because of the water and dead fall the path went every which way but straight ahead. The last fifteen or twenty rods climbed and wound through a thicket and finally opened on Centre Lake.
     The canoe proved to be the problem. Because of the trees, dead-fall, and tight, jack-strawed corners, the carry yoke was nothing more than unnecessary weight. Carrying the boat was a two man job. Several times a corner called for lifting it as high as possible then sliding the canoe over a jumble of trunk and limbs. Instead of a triple portage, this one and the next demanded five trips. Didn't take long before we'd sweat through our clothes. Odd thing was we didn't complain, more often than not a hard spot called for nothing more than a little cussing immediately followed by the joy that one more blankety-blank was behind us. Unloaded return trips were time for conversation and laughter about our self-caused misery. By the time we sat for a break at Centre Lake nearly two hours had passed.
     The short paddle was a disappointment. My feet even suggested paddling around for a while. Lay God, loading and unloading the canoe took longer than our trip across Centre. Such is life in the bush. Two boats and a series of ice shelves greeted us at the landing. By now we knew something was afoot. Lodges and Canadians in general rarely do canoes anymore. On the shores of remote lakes near lodges you'll usually find a boat or two stashed and padlocked to a tree with a logging chain. They were there for the more adventurous sports who wanted a taste of the backwoods as they once were. Sooner or later we were going to meet up the people who were using these boats. Seemed to us they'd boated to the portage on Elbow, carried their gear across, then boated to the second portage. Lord only knew how far they'd gone.
     In some ways our last carry was easier than the first. The path was generally straighter once we'd hoisted our way through twenty yards of jack-strawed timber at the beginning. Even had to stand the seventeen foot canoe straight up at one corner to get her through. However, the carry was longer, the second half was another series of hummock jumping, and in general the land was flooded. Near midway the trail forked and a plastic water jug was set on the path to the right. Allan always walked faster than his old man and, as usual, was out of sight. One glance at the jug had me yelling his name. The return call came from the an ankle-deep a meadow a hundred yards up the left path. Those things happen.
     Shortly we came upon the boat users. They were heading back to the Elbow Lake Lodge for dinner. Each was in rubber dick boots for the slog and carrying a backpack filled with fishing gear and essentials. A few words let us know they'd been doing this for years and we'd no doubt see them again tomorrow. The portage abruptly ended in a flooded copse beside a massive boulder. Another two hours had passed.



Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Ravens - 2002

     There were four of them camped on Chinaman Island. All were from Flin Flon, thirty miles to the west on the Saskatchewan border. Flin Flon is a mining town and three of them worked at the smelter. Good place to be during a northern Canadian winter. The fourth was a supervisor in the public works department, "So long as people piss and crap I've got work." And yes they had a couple of LaBatts for us. From the looks of the trash bags filled with empties they'd once had a lot of beer. Like back at the Simonhouse access the liquor seemed to have its own tent. From what we'd already seen on this trip, our stash of powdered lemonade and iced tea left us a little short when it came to manning up, though I have to admit the icy beer went down fast under the scorching sun.
     Their camp was spread across a massive basalt slab. The kitchen area, complete with propane tanks, stove, deep fat fryer, stainless steel prep table with an overhead utensil bar, would've felt at home in a restaurant. When it came to food and drink these boys were ready for anything.
     Over our half hour together we were told the fishing had been just okay though I suspected their standards were a few steps above ours. What had impressed them was the single whitefish they'd caught. We figured that a rarity and walleyes were so common they weren't worth a mention. Apparently the island had indeed been home to a Chinese man. Can't say that was surprising. There was even a plaque alongside his long-gone mine. Al and I took their word for that but figured we might give it a look-see should we run out of entertainment.
     Turned out this was their first night on the island. Earlier they'd camped on an island not far away but the constant ruckus from a raven's nest had driven them off. They suggested we try a site on the other side of the mine but being that close to another group felt a little over-populated to me. They seemed nice enough but.... I'd 'x'ed another site to the northwest and we paddled off.
     Twenty minutes found us sliding ashore on another massive basalt slab. Could've landed a fleet of Voyageur canoes had the need arose. Outside of a few dismembered walleye carcasses (by now this should have been an omen) and an interminable cawing (at least we knew where we were) coming from the woods, this was a perfect spot. The tent sat on a bed of moss and our acre-sized kitchen offered a panoramic view of channel and islands when we sat to read. I recall this as the Slaughterhouse 5 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest trip. Odd tales for the north woods but enjoyable enough to give us something to look forward to when in camp.
     Our intention for the next morning was moving on to Claw Lake. How we would get there, besides by canoe and foot, was a mystery. The map showed a stream exiting Claw, passing through little Centre Lake, tumbling over the Mill Rapids, and into Elbow. All-in-all, no more than two miles as the raven flies. Our map even showed a portage from Centre to Claw but it was drawn as a straight line. Portages are rarely straight so I figured the line no more than a guess. The map showed nothing from Elbow to Centre. We packed the fishing gear and paddled into Claw Bay during the early evening in hopes we'd figure it out.
     Ahead, in the deepest part of the bay where the stream entered, we came on the beginning of a beaver dam, a hell of a dam. Looked like the beaver intended to flood the valley from the lake to the rapids, a half-mile inland. She was better than two hundred yards long from shore to shore but looked to be runnable for our keel-less canoe. While I was scanning the structure Allan was reaching for his fishing pole. By the time I saw his reason we were surrounded by submarine-sized 'v's. Didn't take me but a moment to put our scouting trip on the back burner and join in the fun.
     I doubt the water was more than two feet deep but it didn't matter. This wasn't finesse fishing, it was throw the spinner, get it moving and hang on, kind of fishing. Big pike. Lots of big pike. Not a one under thirty inches and most were closer to forty. Dear Lord we hooted and hollered. When hooked, the pike would run toward deep water towing us along for the ride. Once deep we began to reel in walleyes. Back and forth we went for the next hour, pike and walleyes, walleyes and pike, near as many as the number of our casts. Finally, remembering the reason for our paddle we bumped over the dam and slogged ashore.
     The slog didn't take us far. Thirty yards inland we dead-ended. To our right stood forest, ahead a thicket of spruce and brush, to our left the stream passed through a boulder field beneath water touching brush, and on the far shore was more forest. However there was enough of an opening beneath a spruce for us to crawl under. A scramble brought us to a cliff. Wasn't much of a cliff but the ten foot drop was cause for some head scratching. A few hundred yards ahead we could see the rapids. We wouldn't worry about the fast water till we had to. Yeah, it was ugly, maybe more than ugly. But we knew if we didn't over think the problem, took it a little at a time, somehow we'd make it through. Oh well, we'd deal with it in the morning.
     By now we were descending into the long Canadian dusk. Light levels were low and the pike fishing slowed. Walleyes with their big eyes like it dark and were on the bite. Nearly all were around eighteen inches but Allan finally tied into the walleye we'd been looking for since our first cast back in '98. Al fought her to the boat twice. The second rise gave us a good look at what he had, then she spit the hook, no doubt from embarrassment. Damnation. We'd seen a lot of big pike and could guess their length with some accuracy but a pickerel was a different beast. I guessed her at twenty-eight inches for sure though thirty might've been more like it. Keep in mind memory tends to magnify. With a photo and witness Manitoba awards a Master Angler Award for such a fish. Master is a nice word, makes an angler feel competent, though a more accurate word might be Lucky. Throw enough casts into good water and eventually you'll hook up with a hog. Keep in mind I'd thrown near as many casts as Al in walleye water and hadn't boated a pickerel over twenty-one so my view might be tainted by jealousy. There's no doubt Allan is a better fisherman than me but as I've reminded him again and again, we were in my canoe. Call me a Master Facilitator.
     The Boys from Flin Flon were in the next bay, a half-mile away and we'd heard their hooting now and then when they'd tied into a big one. Later, they said the same about us. A few minutes after sunset we finally pulled up stakes knowing camp would be a hard find in the dark. No sooner did we exit the bay than we came upon the boys doing the same as us. A brief discussion led to a midnight fish fry invitation. Seeing as how we'd be paddling back to camp in the dark, I turned them down. The invite and refusal went back and forth for a minute before they wore me down. What the hell, they had fish and cold beer, what more could we want? All Allan and I had to do was sit back, eat, and enjoy. By the time we reached Chinaman Island they were up and running.
     The one called Bubba was behind the fryer filleting, dipping, and turning out battered fillets by the dozens with not a bone to be found. During the next two hours I felt like Hansel with the witch constantly saying, "Eat, eat, you need to fatten up." Yeah we ate a lot that night. Our island, somewhere off in the night, whispered two beers was my limit and not wanting to sleep under the canoe, I listened.
     I'd like to say our conversation was more than the usual campfire banter but it wasn't. We learned a little of each others lives but that was about it. Call it a simple, good moment thirty-five miles into the bush with not another soul around. However, they did ask if we had a satellite phone so they could call in sick back at the smelter. Never been asked that before.
     When we were finally fixing to push off into the dark, union suit man came running over to ask us if we wanted a light. Figuring a borrowed flashlight would do little good I said no. Again we went back and forth till he gave up and flipped us a LaBatt Lite. Funny man.
     We paddled off onto the star-dappled water. Like floating through the sky. Ours was the second island in a small chain and was easy to find. We were welcomed home by the ravens, then they sang us to sleep.