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.