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.