First order of business at Iskwasum was finding a ranger so we could buy a parking pass. Turned out it was easier finding the truck than the man and we waited patiently outside the outhouse while he finished whatever it was he was doing inside. A few minutes later, parking pass on the dash, we set to loading the canoe surrounded by an armada of walleye boats, each packing two hundred horses that were resting on the gravel after a hard morning's trolling. Yeah, this was meat hunter territory. A short gallop downriver took the horses and their riders to a lake noted for its big pickerel. Seemed the campground's plan for the week was to head east. Ours was northwest.
For the first time we entered the park on the Grass River rather than one of the lakes. The flow we paddled onto was brush-lined placid and heavily bog-stained. Back in '98 we'd asked the breakfasting ranger if it was possible to paddle upstream from Iskwasum to Elbow Lake on the Grass. His answer was a simple, "Don't see why not." That was our Plan C and it'd been simmering on a back burner since day one. However, our goal this year was beyond Elbow, across two portages that may or may not be there. Like Norris, we knew nothing of Claw Lake beyond it being on the map. At around two thousand island-filled acres it sure looked good, a lot like Wedge had looked to us in '99, only more remote. How could we go wrong?
Twenty minutes of easy upstream paddling found us on the main body of Iskwasum, bucking the slightest of northwest breezes beneath popcorn clouds floating in a deep blue sky, a perfect day to be in a canoe. For the moment we had the lake to ourselves, just the way we liked it. However, this was the second weekend of fishing season and we knew true solitude wouldn't begin till we'd put the first set of rapids behind us. Seems to me in today's world of big boats and big motors, rapids form the doors to wilderness. Being dead on the water with the bottom blown out of your outboard, eight miles from any help, is no way to spend the day (or night). Can't fault the logic in that.
Mid-lake we were approached from the stern by a boat and motor. Rather than passing, it pulled alongside. Dear Lord, the man was in a fifteen foot Lund powered by a rear-tiller, twenty horse motor. Outside of it gleaming like the sun and being covered with fishing equipment decals, his rig could have been at home in 1963. Black hair, deeply tanned with a pencil thin mustache, Bob and his black lab idled along with us and we each passed a few words as to our intentions. A few seconds later he said he'd meet us upriver at our campsite after he'd caught a few pickerel. Guess he knew the area.
We came upon a cluster of family-sized fishing parties trolling the water below the first set of rapids. On the south shore a family of four admired their stringer of fish. Looked like they were boating their share of pickerel and having a fine time. Looked like a Canadian version of a Monet painting. They paid us no heed as we slid past, nosed into the first chute, paddled for all we were worth above a school of foot-long fish heading our direction, and in a minute left civilization behind.
Our first camp was a few miles beyond on a small, river-splitting island. Wasn't much of an island but was typical of those we'd found in Canada, a little dirt and duff, a handful of birch and pine, and a whole lot of rock. However, the landing was good and the tent site level. Greeting us was the man we'd met a couple of hours earlier. He was throwing a ball far into the river and his black dog seemed to be having a great time romping after it.
In the ten minutes we spent together sharing a smoke, Bob spoke of being a fishing guide in the spring and summer, a hunting guide in the fall, an equipment rep at the sportsmen shows down south in the winter, and having an understanding wife. Also was the man who guided Hap Wilson on his paddle through the park. Sounded to us that had we been seeking the Man Who Knew we'd have already found him.
In fifty words or less Allan and I explained what our plans were for the two weeks and received a reply in an accent that sounded like Bob had gone to school to learn Canadian Backwoodsese,
"You boys are doin' it right, eh. Seein' the backcountry is the way to learn this country. Most Americans come up here with their big boats and fish finders and think they're seein' the real Canada but they don't have a clooo, eh. Canoe and portage, yeah that's the way to learn this land."
He turned to Al and said, "You've got a cool old man."
What could I say to that? Maybe I blushed. In most every way you can think of, I'm not cool in the least. Probably not uncool either. I just do what I do. But to get a compliment like that, where we were and doing what we were doing, yeah, it sure made me feel good, eh.
For a minute we talked lakes. He knew nothing of Claw Lake, in fact hadn't heard of it. However he did offer to take us to a lake where the pickerel were a fish a cast. Added it was a two mile swamp slog to the bay where his boat was stashed. Allan piped up, "Could that be Barb Lake? If there's time we've been thinking of fishing it on our way out." That Allan knew of Barb Lake got a rise out of Bob's eyebrows.
Before leaving Bob offered us half his stringer of walleyes for dinner. Seemed he was four over the limit. No doubt he'd caught them with our supper in mind. It hurt like hell to turn him down. I explained we already had thawed ribeye steaks in the cooler. Bob simply said, "Yah, you boys are doin' it right," hopped in the Lund with his dog and they were off.