After supper we shoved off and paddled upstream to where the map showed some form of fast water. We figured fast water meant fish and since Bob had headed upstream to catch his stringerful, we'd have been fools to head elsewhere. Turned out it was a fifty yard long sluice through a jumble of rocks at the bottom of a knife-cut valley. The pool below was bowered over by spruce, pine, birch, and aspen. Turned the water black as night. Had the sun been directly above we'd have still been paddling in deep shade and past the few remaining ice shelves lining the shore. Regardless of the beauty, over the next couple of hours it proved a honey hole for walleyes and a few large pike. Don't know if Allan was showboating by perching himself atop a car-sized boulder beside the fast water or simply being ready should a crew from Field and Stream show up. Either way he was reeling in fish after fish.
Here's the catch; I could've mentally stepped back to savor the moment or simply continued as I was, getting lost in the fishing, smelling the river, watching Al, and as usual, trying to figure what was going on under the water. Truth is, when you're in the moment, stepping back from it is a waste of time. Hell, when you're nose up against the buds and being buried in the fragrance there's no need to say to yourself, "Gosh, I'm smelling the roses." Sometimes awareness just gets in the way. Yes sir this day had been a wonderful start to a canoeing and fishing trip. It sure wasn't the one we were planning but for a third choice it wasn't bad at all.
Before heading back, we scouted the thirty rod portage around the rapids to check out the pool above. Dear Lord, there at our feet in the glass clear water swam wall-to-wall pickerel. Hundreds of them and not a one was interested in the few half-hearted spinners we threw their way. Guess they had other things on their minds. This sure was different water than what I'd come to know back in Minnesota. How, where, and at what temperature these Canadian fish spawned was a complete mystery to me. Back home the fish at our feet would be waiting for the water to warm to the low 60s. They like their beds cozy when making love. As far as I knew the water in the lakes this far north didn't get that warm till mid-summer. Yup, I din't have a clue but supposed the walleyes had it figured out and that was enough. We paused for a couple of minutes looking at more walleyes that either of us expected to see in a lifetime. Farther on was another sluice of fast water and an even more impressive valley. Satisfied, we turned, loaded the canoe, paddled the three miles back to camp, and went to sleep in the Manitoba dusk. Tomorrow would be a long day.
When we were traveling, breakfast was usually simple, calories in the gut in most any convenient form, along with coffee and a lot of water. I'd usually brew a pot while while doing dishes in the evening and over the years, after many batches of near poison, my coffee had improved to a tad above tolerable. However, on this first morning on the trail, we took a few extra minutes to fry up sausages and eggs. Allan had spent a mid-college summer as a short order cook and could loosen our stools with the best of them. Seeing as how it was a pleasure to travel with an empty intestine, a little extra oil would put some urgency in our urges. We paddled off well-fed, warm, and happy under continuing blue skies.
Our goal was Chinaman's island on Elbow Lake, a leisurely six hours away. The name had drawn me from the day we received our first map. I figured it must have a story to go with the name but no doubt, like the walleye spawn, it'd remain a mystery. Our first portage was a snap. Over the years we'd become accustomed to carries approaching one mile and the thirty rods proved more an annoyance than a challenge. In fact Al grabbed two packs, something over a hundred pounds, and trotted off. Should've had him carry me also.
Immediately above the rapids was the second sluice. So long as we pulled tight to the deeper right bank it presented no more problem than a minute's worth of hard digging. However the force of the water caught my attention and haunted me till our return. Rather than seeing it as fast water, canoe play, all I could envision was being trapped by the force, thrown into the rapids below and dumping ass over teakettle on the rocks. No way to end a trip. Al laughed at my worries every time I brought them up over the next twelve days.
The high-walled valley now spreading in front of us was idyllic. Sunlight played on a rippled stream that meandered aimlessly, braided though brush and reeds, opened into shallow pools, and led us to the next set of fast water and the second short portage. Our approach spooked the seven bald eagles feasting on fresh walleye. Though we approached quietly we were quickly noticed; after all they are eagle-eyed. What can be said of a flock of eagles (oops, a flock of eagles is properly called a convocation. My, how stuffy)? Not much I guess. Call me struck dumb.
We landed on and crunched our way over a bone-covered shore. Tarzan would've called this the Walleye's Graveyard. Many had gone to their reward where we stood offloading and been immediately reincarnated as eagle crap. There was also enough eagle duff (eagle duff?) lining the shore to stuff a camp pillow. How could I pass up such an opportunity? I snatched a five incher and wedged it into the canoe's bow. I believe possession of an eagle feather is a crime but it was just laying there and I figured the bird wouldn't be back to claim it, so what the hell, what not? Call it a gift and maybe a talisman that'd guide our way into the bush.
Another length of winding, placid stream ended at a birch and brush covered hillside that split the Grass into a series of small waterfalls and plunge pools. We landed, hiked inland, hopped across a pair of rivulets, and shared a smoke while sitting above a waterfall. Should anyone ever ask me the aroma of happiness I'd have to say it's a combination of river water, ozone, and Camel filter smoke. Good spot to enjoy but we had Chinaman's Island waiting on our arrival.
This was our longest portage of the day. Mid-way it passed beneath a partially dismembered railroad trestle. At one time a Canadian National track had run above but it'd been gone for quite a while. In 2003 we heard a local rumor the bridge had been dynamited by a lodge to keep the riff-raff from driving to its fly-in water. The demolition must have been last winter as a note was carved into a timber saying R. Lundy had cleared the trail. My hopes he was a trapper.
Back on the water it was shortly obvious we weren't dressed for the weather. Over our years in the bush we'd been taught respect for mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies, and cold weather. Our trip in 2000 said thirty above was just as likely as eighty. That would be me sitting in the stern seat, and dressed in long pants, long sleeves, brimmed hat, wool socks, and boots as we lulled in the sun-beaten, swampy entrance to Elbow Lake. It felt like summer in Dixie. Yeah, I was melting.
Elbow's size is difficult to estimate. She's better than eight miles long north to south and five wide, east to west. Call that twenty-five thousand acres. Subtract the many points and islands and I figured it as less than half that. Didn't matter, it was the points, bays, and islands that held the fish. Call that a balance with the scale tipped our way. But what mattered at the moment was we were on beautiful water, and had it to ourselves with less than two hours to leisurely reach camp.
Chinaman's Island remained hidden behind a chain of islands till we had a quarter-mile left to paddle. And what we saw as it peeked around the corner stopped us dead in our tracks; two tents, a pair of fishing boats, a mattress laid out on a sprawling basalt slab, and one man in a red union suit taking a leak into the lake. Damnation! In five years we'd never seen another camper in the park. What the hell were they thinking of when they took our island (and then pissed in our lake)? We decided to take a break, our feet went up on the gunwales, we lit smokes, and stared evil bullets of death toward shore with the idea of teaching them a lesson they'd not forget.
Union suit boy stared back, tucked in, then turned tail into a tent. A minute later he was back, this time in jeans. We continued to stare. Finally, with cupped hands around his mouth he yelled, "You guys want a beer, eh?" Lord almighty, justice, they were willing to pay for their trespass. We were grinding ashore even before his echo reached our ears.