Saturday, January 29, 2011

Frozen Out

     There was a time, not that long ago, when finding the time to go fishing was a problem laid on me by the circumstances of my life. Clock to punch, family, home and most always having to deal with something in the process of going haywire. Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. That's the life I loved and wanted to keep going. Most everyone I knew was in the same boat and that boat wasn't on the water. Once in a while I'd have the passing thought of what life would be like if I could fish all the time. Simple thought. Simple answer. Boring and as empty as all get out. At least I think it so.
     As far as being an hourly worker, that's the life I chose. Being a Grunt in Vietnam had a lot to do with that choice. I took a look at my officers, their superiors and all the way to the President. It didn't take a genius to figure out they thought a war in Vietnam was keeping all the dominoes from tumbling. Who told us we were stopping the spread of the Evil Red Menace as we stood in formation facing the helmets on bayonetted M-16's with boots in front.  Said to myself 'cuz I couldn't say it aloud, "They be idiots, one and all." Can't say I was all that bright either. Look at where I was. Nam was a place where a lot of baby-boomers like me, grew up. Kind of. I don't think that war made us into men but it sure made us think we were. Oh yeah, we strutted around like we were real warriors when all we wanted was to not stop a bullet. I was a case in point. Anyhow, when I got out of the Army my immediate goal was never to be anyone's boss. The Man? Not me.
     Punching a clock fit me to a T. Slept well at night and knew there was no need to think about my job after hours 'cuz it'd be sittin' there in the morning, all fired up, waiting for me to get a move on. So long as I did my job and did it well, FedEx pretty much left me alone. Once out the door my mind was free to roam. Never carried a radio for entertainment. Sang a lot. Planned the future. Free clothes. Those were the good parts.                                                                                                                                                      
     However, life seems to thrive on balance. Take everything in the Universe, put it in a jar, shake it up like there's no tomorrow and bingo, nothing left in the jar. For every plus there's a minus and it all adds up to zero. One of the not so good parts of work, particularly at FedEx, was bidding vacation. Timing of far north fishing adventures was especially difficult. Simply put, there are good times to go fishing and not so good times. The difference mostly involves catching. And the catching goes hand in hand with winter's moods. Believe me, winters in the far north can be moody as... I'd better not go there. No matter which way that analogy went, it'd piss someone off. In the north where ice on is about the same as ice off, a late winter is a canoeman's bane. Can't put the canoe in the lake if the water ain't movin'. When it finally does move, it takes a couple of weeks to get those baby making hen fish hungry enough to bite steel and feathers.
     Being there when the pike, smallies and walleyes are on the bite gets a little iffy when you're bidding vacation in mid-March. Its a guessing game pure and simple. I can't begin to tell you how purple my butt got sitting on the john during the winter months and pouring over ice out tables. Waste of time. Never found anything to tell me when ice out took place at 55 degrees north. But I'd play my little game, calculate all the numbers out to four decimal points. Then when bidding day came, I'd bag it all and shoot for the first full week or two in June at the beginning of FedEx's fiscal year. Don't get me started on a Boundary Waters trip in late May. That was bidding fourteen months in advance. It would have been so much simpler to get the 'bite's on' call from a friend who knew. Hit the road the next morning. But the chances of that happening during my working years were about the same as they were for a friend of mine who once commented on his life, "Next time around, I think I'll try rich stud." So bidding was Goldilocks time. Too early and bring the skates. Too late, be eaten by bugs. Pray for the bed in the middle.
     The winter of 1995-96 was a honker. Deep, deep snow in the Arrowhead of Minnesota well into April and cold like no other winter of my life. Minus sixty in Tower and colder in Embarrass. However, their official weather station froze - that's hard to grasp - so Embarrass' verified, but not official low of minus sixty-four, remains no more than a footnote. In the BWCA, temperatures exceeded minus 40 many times. Lakes froze deep. During that winter I put together a party of half dozen with the hope of spending four nights on East and West Pike Lakes. Entry permits were for May 21st. On fishing opener, a week and a half before, things were looking bad. The Boundary Waters were still frozen solid.
     On the morning of the 20th, while Allan and I took care of some business that could not be postponed, my cousin Gary from Cedarburg, Wisconsin called an outfitter near our entry point. His was a simple, depressing answer, "White and tight." No Boundary Waters for us this year. Didn't hardly matter. We'd only been looking forward to the trip for a half year. Of course I had a Plan B. But it sucked. As far as fishing went, everything in the north sucked. Ice cold water, no leaves on the trees, four small pike and a handful of desperation bluegills. A week or two later would have given us fine fishing but our 1996 window was closed. Back to work.
     2002. Had it come off anywhere close to the plan it would have been the Year of Years. Al and I had done the research, bought the maps, had a new kevlar canoe. We were set and psyched as only those about to commit an act of extreme stupidity can be.
     The seed for that trip was planted four years earlier by a sketchy map of Grass River Park I'd received from Manitoba Tourism. On the northeast side of the map, extending from huge Reed Lake, was an enormous portage to points unknown. Naturally my Germanic need for numbers got me knuckle measuring and comparing to scale. My best guess, maybe five miles. Insanely long. Not even a remote consideration. More truthfully, I stored the portage in my file marked Extreme, Unrealistic Lust, where it gathered dust amongst the unapproachable ladies and cars of my youth. Every so often it would come to knock on the door of my consciousness to pay its respects.
     Intending to explore a different area of the park in 2002, I completed our collection of Grass River Park maps. Lo and behold! There was the portage, clear as day, on one of them. Had the name of 'The Four Mile Portage'. Off by a mile. Damn. I decided to use my thumb knuckle in all future measurements.  I figured if they named it, it must have a history. This one connected two river systems, the Grass and the Burntwood. Sigurd Olson had paddled the Burntwood and as far as Minnesotans went, he was The Canoeman. There was now no doubt in our minds the Peters boys were gonna walk that path in the woods and were gonna walk it with two hundred pounds of gear and a fifty pound canoe. Oh yeah! We were pumped. And we were idiots.
     As usual the drive up was nine hundred miles of music, talk, fast food and the first cigarettes in a year. More on the smoking in a later blog. The night before leaving I had a premonitional dream. In it we were stuck in a traffic jam approaching the Reed Lake entry point. Was as much like the Far North as "The Great Outdoors" was with John Candy and Dan Akroyd. Disney World at its finest. Cabin cruisers streamed by on Reed. It was a carnival. A joke.
     By 7:30 in the morning following our night in The Pas, we were on our way to the park and our destiny with big water and a long portage. Giggly like school kids. Less than ninety minutes from the jumping off point our blood was running hot. Conversation would fly for a minute then we'd get the stares, locked into the vision of where we were going. What it would be like when we first saw the ten miles of water we'd have to cross? What would the wind tell us about our course? I'm a shortest line fool but I realized I'd have to rein that attitude when crossing 50,000 acres.
     Twenty minutes from Reed we passed along the south shore of Simonhouse Lake. Honestly, the ice chunks floating in the bay made me gasp. Not in the plan at all. Mentally checked my trip notes. Big water, long portage, more water, more portages. Nope. No ice in the plan at all. So we did the logical thing. Drove into the campground on Simonhouse and got advice from three alcoholics doing their best to keep the Canadian whiskey industry afloat. They assured us that life was good and going to get better as the day wore on. Also that the ice had been off Simonhouse for two days. All was not lost.
     Then we hit the Reed access. A carnival of cars and trucks everywhere. Two hundred fisherman who'd been waiting a year for this moment and they hadn't brought their dog sleds. Except for a couple  hundred yards of open water along the shore, Reed was an iceberg. In the open water a couple of twenty foot walleye boats cruised. Pissed of anglers everywhere. Way too much like my dream.
     Of course we were disappointed. But this year we had Plans B and C. And C was still doable. turned out to be fun, outstanding fishing and the two worst portages we'd ever done. Not quite what we wanted but possibly the best of our two week trips north.

     I'd like to say more about the above trip but am awaiting the final rejection of a manuscript  covering the nine trips Allan and I took to Northwest Manitoba. The publishing world is a tough nut to crack these days. Particularly when you're a 63 year old bird who doesn't much give a damn about profit and the necessary ass kissing demanded of entry into the world of print. But I like to write. And also think my manuscript needs a major rewrite more or less along the lines of this blog and The Uncle Emil Tales. Hey, its my fantasy and I'll keep it going until my two index fingers can't poke the keyboard anymore.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


     I suppose you could say its a big deal. Whether Quetico, the BWCA or Northwest Manitoba, water is the reason you're there. You drink it, cook with it, bathe in it, want to see it from your campsite. If it wasn't there it'd be a helluva portage to nowhere. And just maybe you'd think twice about bringing the canoe along. In camp, water is used for coffee, koolaid, iced tea, boiling noodles, dousing campfires, washing dishes and most importantly, freshening up two day old wool socks. Is there nothing water can't do? C'mon and put your hands together for hydrogen and oxygen.
     A lady in the French Quarter of New Orleans with about forty pounds of beads around her neck and a scarf on her head, said my attraction to water had to with me being a Pisces. Of course I expressed my appreciation with a snot flying burst of laughter. Maybe I should mind my manners more 'cuz she growled out something in what sounded like Romanian and my pee came out in Mardi Gras colors for a fortnight.
     Yet it is true that I am drawn to water. Instead of palmology, I'd rather turn to one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, a man who could reach the heart of matters in but four words, W. C. Fields. When asked why he scorned water, Fields simply said, "Fish fart in it." I've had my suspicions he said something other than fart but that was simply his concession to polite society.
     Taking logic one step farther; if fish fart in it, water must be a good spot in which to find them. Kind of a Cartesian, "I fart (there), therefore I am (there)." Furthermore, because they are there, Allan and I are there.
     But water can be more than fun and games. I learned from personal experience, if someone passes you a canteen of root beer fizzie flavored water while on patrol in the Mekong Delta, its best to ask where the water came from before tasting it. Sometimes, when a little water goes in one end, most of your innards explode out the other. And continues to do so for the better part of a month. Lookin' for an instant diet white boy? Try a little rain barrel water from Vietnam. There was a time when even us pansified Americans were known to drink the same stuff with little effect. But no more. That Vietnam experience made me wary of water in its natural settings. My God! There's all kinds of squiggly weird  stuff you can't see, livin' in it. And some of those things have no problem making themselves to home in your insides.
     But even for me it wasn't always that way. Growing up, I swallowed my share of lake water. Hard not to when swimming in a lake with a little chop to the surface. Public pools, or baths as they used to be called. Who knew what human seepages dwelled within their depths? Public pools in the '50s. Eight year olds changing into their suits in public. Seems a little perverse by todays standards. Seemed a little odd back then also. Faster, Markie, faster.
     My first experience with finding water the old fashioned way came during the summer when I first wore glasses, at age eight. My Mom had a good friend, Kelley Bialke, who lived with her husband Ben on the south shore of Lake of the Woods. She was a hairdresser and he, a commercial fisherman. Having no car, me and my Mom took the Greyhound to Williams, Minnesota. The last leg north from Bemidji was in a wood sided bus. Guess that was a long time ago, eh?
     Four things I remember from that trip: 1) the big wooden fishing boat, 2) Ben shooting our beloved state animal, the 13 lined ground squirrel, with a 45-70 buffalo gun, 3) the Marilyn Monroe calendar behind the filleting table. Heck, even at age eight you appreciate something of that nature and 4) Ben Bialke's ability as a dowser. Can't say that any money exchanged hands but one day Ben took me to visit a neighbor with the idea of finding water. My recollection tells me he first cut a Y shaped willow switch, held two ends of the switch in his hands, bent them forward and commenced to walk the property. Every so often the leading branch would twitch downward. Ben would stop, slowly circle the immediate area, find the strongest reaction, then say how deep and how much flow was below. Don't know how he did it. Don't know if it was at all legitimate. But he did what he did and people seemed to respect his abilities.
     Remember Rod from my first trip to the Arrowhead? I suspect the knowledge had filtered down from his father but regardless of source, Rod knew enough to gather our drinking water from a hillside spring. Wasn't filtered, treated or boiled. Left a city boy like Coolfront with a big question mark floating over his head as to possible poisoning. My first sips were nothing more than tongue wettings. Almost like I was expecting snakes to slither out and crawl down my throat. Didn't take long to discover that water from a spring goes down like spring water. Ain't that odd?
     Over our canoe trip years, Allan and I experimented with ever evolving water treatments. Iodine tablets were phase one. They sure enough made the water potable but also made it taste like the stuff brought to us in the field in Vietnam. There, it didn't take a grunt long to pick up on the fact that if you wanted it with you, it had to be humped on your back. At a little over two pounds a canteen, it didn't take but a couple of days for our feet to do the math. Heat and humidity be damned. Four canteens became three, then two. You did without. Simple enough.
     Occasionally we were helped out by the pot head, amateur chemists who treated our resupply. When your brain is in the ozone its easy to lose track of the shovelsful you were dumping into the water trailer. If it tasted like hell, that wasn't your problem. Bummer dudes. When they got it right you could get the water down. When they were grooving, you poured it out and occasionally made the mistake of sipping from an offered canteen.
     So, the similarly flavored iodine water was put high on my never-do-it-again list just ahead of egg nog.
      Cheap water filter. Yeah, it filtered water alright. In fact we used it for several years even though cheap turned out to equal slow. I mean really slow. Slow like a parochial school penance of having to write a thousand word essay on why I should never ever do that filth with my right hand again. When we sat there pumping for a half hour to get a couple of gallons, I could still feel the eyes of Sister Eleanor Marie, God bless her soul, burning a hole in the back of my head.
     That cheap filter was typical of my ways of doing things. It would have been so much simpler to spend a few more bucks and head straight for quality. Several layers of preparatory crap preceded a couple of Thermarest self inflating pads. No more blowing your lungs out. No more cold back. A decade of quickly splitting, fifteen buck, canoe paddles led the way to buying a couple of Bending Branches paddles. A touch up now and then will make them last decades. Quality pays for itself over and over.
     Astounding how much faster a quality filter turned out to be. Cut our time in half. Also astounding was how little we eventually used it. On our first trip to the relatively far north in Grass River Provincial Park, we pumped with a song in our hearts with a hot shot Katahdin hiker. Man that baby sure could filter water. Like it was made for it. Like a cow pissin' on a flat rock. Maybe not the most refreshing of pure water images but you get the picture.
     Innate laziness and a what-the-hell-why-not attitude brought us round trip to the end of our pure water quest. The brochures we'd received concerning Grass River Park flaunted the area's naturally clean water. The bog stain found in the lakes was a blessing in tannish disguise. Turns out that in my blissful state of profound ignorance I had no idea that bog and swamp were nature's water filters. You'd think after fifty years of wandering around with my head inserted in a dark place I'd have learned my lesson. Guess I'm a little slow on the uptake. So, from the second year on we left the filter at home. For the next six trips north of the border, covering ten weeks of travel, we never filtered again. Mea culpa. We did follow conventional wisdom and always did our gathering far from shore in deep water. After the second year we left the nuisance of the collapsible water jug at home. Four canteens of quart size did the trick nicely. If we were on the water, refreshment was but an elbow length dip below.
     What did the water taste like? I won't go so far as to say it was the best I ever had. But it might have been. And it was so very cool to just dip down and fill up. There once was a time and truthfully, there still is a time and place where the waters run clean clean enough to drink as is, even though fish fart in it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Brain Problems

     I'm still here. But on the road. Am learning that place has a lot to do with one's ability to think. Being in the French Quarter doesn't make thoughts of the Northland flow like the Grass River between Elbow and Iskwasum lakes. Me and Uncle Emil have had our discord of late but are ironing things out. I should have known better than to go against the grain of the mental pictures he sent me. I'm 63 but still learning, thank God. Emil calls the shots. I merely poke my fingers at the key board.
     In the next couple of days I'll have Emil's latest story. But its been an on and off kind of thing. Most writers have some hot babe muse. I've got Uncle Emil. My pleasure indeed.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Its the Little Things in Life

     Being an American on a canoe trip in Canada reminded me over and over about my Mekong Delta vacation back in the late '60s. In both places getting wet came with the territory. Likewise, you carried your stuff in a pack, slept outdoors, were at best tolerated by the locals, did your own cooking and learned that though you might be at the top of the food chain, your dues for that privilege were paid in blood. On the other hand, booby traps were almost non-existent in Manitoba. The chances of being shot when near a bear baiting barrel, at least by tracer rounds, rarely happened in the Great White North. And most of all, at least as far as I could see, the fishing in Vietnam sucked.
     The 'skeeters in the Delta were something else. In our night positions we'd roll up in our ponchos when not on watch, after slathering all exposed body parts with bug juice. By slather I mean poured it on with no regard for potential genetic consequences. Bug juice was our friend, came free and was 71% DEET. Studies have been done about the consequences of Agent Orange but what about GI DEET? We did everything but intentionally drink it. But regardless of application method, we'd wake up every morning covered with bites and down about a half-pint of precious bodily fluids. That was glass half empty. The half-full side was the resultant immunity I developed to the wimpy mosquitoes back in The World. The glass full part was the larva floating around in the glass's tepid water.
     In Canada and the BWCAW, Allan and I had the benefit of choosing both the dates and length of time of mosquito exposure. Therefore, nearly all of our trips were within two weeks of ice out or in the Dog Days of August. In the late summer it seemed the 'skeeters were too pooped to party. In the spring, the ones able to winter-over would resurrect and form clouds. When laying in the tent at night, early on we became aware of their background drone sounding much the same as traffic on the freeway a quarter mile away. It ain't loud. Its just there and almost not there simultaneously. That is, until you hear it for the first time. Then its an all-encompassing, Always There. The thought crosses your mind that if they ever got organized, no tent made in this world's gonna keep 'em out. Chaos is a good thing indeed. Your first awareness raises a primal sweat. Your conscious mind keeps repeating, " Its okay. Its okay. You're inside. They're out there," until you fall asleep. Over time, the hum becomes as much a part of the experience as spruce trees or cat holes. Finally it becomes a lullaby that rocks you to sleep all snugly warm in your bag.
     In the world outside the tent, its another story. In the canoe near sunset, glass on the water, you're nothing but flesh on the hoof. That's what the good Lord made DEET for. Gotta be careful with it for quality bug juice is also an effective fish repellent. My Uncle Emil would have told you to pee on your hands to make them smell natural again. You only took him up on that once and then had to live with his laughter for years afterwards to realize he was only funnin'.
     Coming into an early spring camp in the evening, we found the mosquitoes to be no problem at all. The early season ones were big, dumb and slow. Not like their much smaller offspring who were much faster, almost as fast as house flies, and had a bite that almost stung. If Al and I kept up a slow stroll while in camp, the mosquitoes would always show up where we'd been, not where we'd gone. We'd head into the tent one at a time. A slow, outward, twenty second, deceptive, luring trek would be followed by a two second sprint back. Just enough time to strip off boots, unzip the tent, dive in, then lock them little vampires on the outside. The inevitable three who'd been taking a break on your shirt or jacket were then smeared on the tent walls where they could be admired for years to come like works of art.
     Then there's the eternal Red Ant/Leech/Fungi versus Black Fly/Horse Fly/Tick controversy. Which was worse? Which more fearful? Which more interesting companions? Each side had its pros and cons. The only practical difference from my point of view was having to suck it up and live with it in Vietnam and our freedom to pack it up and head home when back in the World.
     Red ants, unlike the Red Chinese or the Reds from North Vietnam who seemed to have no redeeming characteristics for a GI, had both their minuses and their pluses. A wrong step in the right place brought them down on you like itty bitty, scarlet Airborne. Immediately the shout would ring out, "Get 'em off me!" We all knew what that meant and came in a hurry. Strip the jungle shirt off and it was pickin' time in the boonies. Red ants hurt like the devil.
     But they also had their fun side. Fun for you, not for them, that is. It's break time on patrol. Five minutes of smokem if ya gottem. With a little luck you'd be set up in a wood line. A quick eyeballing and maybe a thin marimba line of red, humping scraps of green and miniature body parts, comes into focus. Time for a little sweet revenge. Strike a c-ration match, fire up a two year old Winston, lay down alongside the miniature marchers, get comfy, take a drag, blow off the ash, single out one of the bad boys, lower the ember and intently listen for the satisfying 'sssssss-pop.' Win-win time in the Delta. Smokin' and incineratin'. Ugly American takin' a break.
     Leeches. I grew up with a fear of bloodsuckers. Avoided them with a passion. And I knew for sure they were waiting for me, for all of us potential paddy pounders, from the moment Uncle Sam handed out those prescription sunglasses back in Infantry Training at Fort Lewis. Once the monsoon season arrived in Southeast Asia it was leeches on your legs, leeches on your arms, leeches coming in for a midnight snack while you slept the peaceful sleep of the dead on any piece of muddy, high ground you could find. Big frickin' leeches who could eat Minnesota bloodsuckers like popcorn while watching reruns of The Munsters. When your legs started to itch, it was time to pull up your pant legs and give'm a dose of bug juice. Dropped off like the glowing gold of maple leaves on a heartfelt Minnesota fall day. No. Better make that, fell like 500 pound daisy cutters from a B-52. Yeah, that's more like it. Combat dude macho.
      And then there was a whole universe of invisible stuff that got into your your body and sprouted intricate patterns of itchy, festering, itty-bitty blisters over various limbs. They came and went as they chose. May still be there for all I know. Twenty-five years ago, my children gave me a plastic watch for Father's Day. I got a kick out of that watch. Kept perfect time. Then one fine summer day I incubated a petite nebula of ring worm beneath it. Never wore it again.
     Not even gonna bring up the big, black, bumbly-looking bees that stung the bejeezus out of Thomas C. Smith - not to be confused with either Thomas A. Smith or Thomas E. Smith, both also in Bravo Company - and Iron Mike Whitworth (You ever read this Iron Mike, remember you still owe me ten bucks).
     Back here in North America, not once did I ever see a no-see-um. On the other hand, the Boundary Waters seemed to have a hatch of black flies more often than not. There's no obvious indication you're being fed upon by a black fly until a few minutes later when the organic novocaine they'd spit on you wears off. You find yourself scratching bare spots or up your sleeves or down the back of your undershirt, most any place they can crawl. "Won't you look at that. Little trickles of blood comin' down my neck. Must have sprung a leak." Rule #1: Black flies have a passion for crawling into dark places. Keep your pants on.

     1993. Al and I have set up camp on East Pike Lake. I've solo paddled back to the portage to find a length of rope I'd dropped there. A couple of hours earlier at the access we'd been warned there was an Armageddon-like battle being waged back in the woods between the mosquitoes and the black flies. Should a canoe party pass through, the bugs would quickly sign an armistice then lay in ambush. Flies in the sun, 'skeeters in the shade. We paddled off thinking, "How bad could it be?' Allan and I had no chance.
     Returning toward camp with the errant rope, I caught sight of Al as I glided into the rock slab shore. Blue pants in boots, bright red jacket zipped to neck, gloves and hat on, bug net over hat and tied tight to neck. Looked like a Muppet who'd just stepped out of a flying saucer. That night we took the Coleman stove on the lake with us where we made dinner in the canoe. Next morning we headed back to the cabin.
     During the decade Al and I headed north to Manitoba, one of my co-workers kept bringing up the subject of horseflies. Though I'd heard they were sometimes called bulldogs in Canada - if you'd ever had a chunk taken out of your flesh by one and tried to kill it with anything short of an aluminum baseball bat, you'd know why they were called bulldogs - Allan and I had yet to see one on any of our first seven trips. Then came the fateful and ironic eighth. A later than normal start, Allan's recent bride Maria along, billions of bulldogs. Thank God for Maria! Without her, Al and I would be on the horns of the at-what-point-do-we-wuss-out dilemma. I still have what-might-have-been visions of the two of us sitting in the canoe, watching hordes of horse flies tearin' up the camp, pissed off 'cuz they could smell us but couldn't find us. And us out on the water playing Paper-Scissors-Rock to see which us is gonna take the hit for being the weenie who couldn't tough it out like a man. Like I said, thank God for Maria. We could now blame her.
     Don't have much to say about deer flies. If you ever go for a run in the woods down a snowmobile trail in late July, don't stop. Or even look behind you. Take my word for that.
     The primary difference between leeches and wood ticks has to do with the size of the orifice they can violate. Deer ticks are smaller still. Give that some thought when picking blueberries. Puckering is a good thing.      

Monday, January 3, 2011

An Unexpected Gift (conclusion)

     So where in this was my life altering moment? Four trout, a largemouth, a snaky northern, seeing my first moose - my God they're big! - on the road in front of us, fresh air, camping without being in a campground, drinking water from a hillside spring, all that was neat but not an unforgettable something to bend the twig a quarter century down the road.
     That event was reserved for the last desperate day of our trip. I don't know for sure if East Pike Lake was the last rabbit in Rod's hat or if he saved it for the end fearing it would be the last straw. Back in '66 East Pike wasn't as yet part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It had all the earmarks, it was cabinless and three miles of water and 180 rods of portage off the end of the unpaved Arrowhead Trail (According to the Wikipedia the English declared a rod of distance to be the standardized length of an ox goad. All well and good but what the heck's an ox goad? Apparently it's a cattle prod which in turn begs the question, 'If its a cattle prod, why not call it one?' That settled, you now have a fair idea how far the carry was from John Lake to East Pike. That is, of course, if you happened to be a 17th Century British ox cart driver. If not, figure the rod as 5 1/2 yards).
     During the week, Rod (my friend not the standardized ox goad) made it a point to drill information from the locals whenever we stopped by a store for supplies or gas. As the days passed he homed in on East Pike more and more. Obviously that bee had been in his bonnet way back in Minneapolis. He told me he'd heard the lake was rumored to be an excellent fishing spot, possibly a walleye honey hole. However, none of the locals had either heard of it or had no interest in passing on a local hot spot to an outsider. Knowing there was only one way to solve the mystery, on that last Friday we loaded up, drove fifteen miles to the access at Little John Lake and putt-putted our way to the portage.
     Rod found the portage like he'd been going there all his life. He had a map but finding a path a few feet wide in the middle of a million acres of woods, no signs, no arrows, no nothing to point it out, to me that was no mean trick. Had I known what a Voyageur was or had even heard the word before, I'd have sure felt like one humping our gear up and over that muddy, rock strewn, root entangled, big hill in the middle, trail.
     Having no packs to put our stuff in and a hundred pound boat to boot, we knew the carry had to be done in two stages, exactly like we'd done on the Royal River. First trip over was with the fishing gear and movie camera. Yes, Rod had an old fashioned, hand held, wind up, movie camera. Somewhere, maybe, there might be a couple of minutes of our East Pike adventure captured on film. But I doubt it.
     Seeing East Pike for the first time, we stopped for a minute. Don't know if it's a common thing to do but I've always enjoyed taking a moment to say hello to a lake before throwing the canoe in. Why not? Like Peter Sellers in Being There said, "I like to watch." Nowadays, I'll check out the wind direction, water color, sniff the air, scope the general lay of the lake, say hello and most importantly, spit in the water to see if anything will swim by to check out what fell from the sky. Back on that day, I simply strung my rod, put on a surface plug and gave it a fling. Not exactly expecting but definitely hoping.
     A moment later, gadzooks, two-pound smallmouth bass running to and fro like its life depended on it. Bet we were excited. A whole unknown lake at our feet maybe filled with eager bass and the only way to get on the water was sitting more than a half-mile and one big hill, away. Rod was a track two miler and I was a bullheaded smoker who wasn't gonna let no stinkin' congested lungs keep him away from a lake full of fish. Rod trotted easily along and me, I was sucking air so deeply the birch leaves quivered as we passed.
     The canoe had no yoke so we had to hump it, one at each end, gunwales on hands, letting the frickin' mosquitoes have their way with our faces. One probed its way up my left nostril and made itself at home in my frontal lobe. Since that day I no longer have any recollection of that thing...ahhhh... you know, that thing... kinda does this (makes gesture with hands like monkey picking nits off partner).
     We spent the next two hours hammering smallies on the east, downwind end of the lake. The morning sparkled, the lake glistened, the overly fertile females were just now moving onto the spawning beds and wouldn't let anything alone that was thrown in their direction. The fresh breeze forced us to take turns. One of us fishing till a hookup, the other on boat control. Yeah, it was a full hoot.
     We found the ladies tucked in tight to shore. From what I've learned since, those girls had it all backwards. They shunned small plugs and ignored a slow, twitchy retrieve. They wanted it hard and fast. Wanted it so bad they'd explode out of their beds before the poor lure had a chance to hit the water and make its moves. Don't know if their reactions were a pickles and ice cream thing or they were simply fish in heat. But for two lustfully, exciting hours we threw them the biggest we had, cranked out our fastest retrieves as soon as our bass-o-renos hit the water then held on for all we were worth. Two hours of excitement and jabbering. Than it stopped. Didn't matter, we'd found a moment to remember all our lives. What more could a person want?
      Forty-four years have passed. I can close my eyes and envision that scene exactly as it was, smell the overhanging cedars bent to the water, the toppled pines lining the shore, baseball sized rocks that coated the bottom and hear the lap and shush of the rollers sliding into shore. Never had a better morning on the water.
     The summer job was fifty hours a week turning out howitzer primers for the Army. The war in Vietnam was heating up and American industry was booming. Three years later the government gave me a free trip, including food and clothing, to the same place those primers went. Not as much fun as catchin' bass on East Pike but even more life changing.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

An Unexpected Gift (part one)

     I was cutting up a bunch of onions this morning. Old onions, the last of a last of the season bushel bought at the Farmer's Market. Some were like new, most were close to compost. It wasn't what you'd call a bubbly fun task, especially with the squishier ones.  But both my wife and I find onions to be the enjoyable base for most everything we cook so it has to be done. In other words, a lot like most of life. To enjoy the tomatoes, you have to first turn the soil, fertilize and weed. As you get older, the whole process, from beginning to end, grows more rewarding. That's a good thing.
     Anyhow, as I stood there cutting and dicing, I began to mull over a fishing trip I took with a casual friend that seemed no big deal to me at the time but turned out to be a life changing experience. On that trip I was a lot like the onions on the cutting board in front of me. A little stinky to be with but necessary for my friend to have what he wanted at the time. The story kind of goes like this:
     Okay, I admit I was something of a jerk but not a complete jerk. Lord knows it takes a lot of talent to be a complete anything and on the Standard Jerk Scale I'm no more than a 7.3 on my best day. On the trip in question I was near the top of my game, so call me a 7+.
     Rod and I went to Robbinsdale High School together. Not exactly friends but we lived in the same neighborhood, rode the bus together and said hi to each other when passing in the hall between classes. A mutual friend once, with tongue in cheek, called Rod the first hippie either of us knew. Bleeding Madras shirt, Indian beaded belt and moccasins. The only kid out of thirty-five hundred in school who dressed that way. Maybe he truly was a hippie. If so, he was the only real one I ever met. All the rest who claimed the title, from Woodstock to Haight-Ashbury, gave me the feeling of being in uniform no matter how oddly they dressed and trying their darnedest to be something they weren't. Rod was just being Rod. Didn't seemed to be aware of being anything else.
     On the other hand, back in those miserable high school days, I was part of a small group of insecure outsiders who lacked the pocket protectors required to make it as geeks and pretended at times to be 'too cool to be cool.' Among ourselves we poked a little fun at Rod when he passed through. But deep inside I knew better.
     In May of '66 I still had no full-time summer job after my freshman year at the University of Minnesota and wasn't working very hard to find one. For sure I was beginning to work up a sweat but like my usual self, figured something would come along. Rod had a problem also. A year younger than me, he was graduating from Robbinsdale that June and wanted to do a one week camping and fishing trip to the Arrowhead region of Minnesota. He'd done that with his dad a bunch of times but now wanted to do one on his own. Kind of a forest primeval bar mitzvah. He had everything he needed to pull it off except a partner.
     Working his way down the layers of the neighborhood barrel, he finally ran into me in the Kelly's driveway across the street from my mom's house. Somewhere between chit and chat the subject of his camping problem arose. I more or less blew it off with an, "I would if I could but ain't found a summer job so I can't." Turned out Rod's Dad worked for a machine shop in desperate need of summer help to make artillery primers for the war in Vietnam. And that's how we found ourselves a couple of weeks later having lunch at the drive-in with the big chicken - the chicken's still there but not the drive-in - in Two Harbors, Minnesota surrounded by a camouflage blue, backyard painted, '54 Chevy full of gear.
     Rod provided the car, the camping gear, the access to a 17 foot square stern fiberglass canoe, a 3 horse outboard, the know-how and the area knowledge. I had a few bucks to cover my end of the food and gas, makeshift gear, a willingness to help him put things in order, a never-ending spiel of sarcasm and an impressive ability to sleep a few minutes longer while he made breakfast. Also, I slowly came to realize I was in good hands and having a heckuva fine time.
     Turned out the spring of '66 was a late one, even by the standards of the Arrowhead. The news had made a big deal of Lake Superior's late shedding of ice - we could see it piled up on the shore as we passed - but the possible effect that might have on lakes twenty miles inland never entered our minds. Ice out on Memorial Day? Only happened near the Arctic Circle.
     Over the next week we drove over the graveled back-roads leading from our bushwhacked camp on Tom Lake, hitting spot after spot that should have been hot stuff but wasn't. We trolled for walleyes in the classic, two portages up the Royal River, border lakes Rod knew to be excellent. All we did was needlessly drown minnows. Wore our arms out throwing spoons in the Swamp River to pike that may or may not have been there. Outside of a single hammer-handle it wasn't but castin' practice. Caught a largemouth in a trout lake. Rod spent way more time scratching his head than setting hooks. He kept apologizing but there was no need. To me this was not much different than city fishing except the scenery was a whole lot prettier. For him each day poofed by as his dreams went up in smoke.
     Several times on our drives to access points we passed over fast moving streams that all seemed to have one thing in common. At each stream we'd slow to check out the six-foot aspen stake with a brook trout impaled at the top and then chew over its possibilities for a minute or two. Maybe a modern day Genghis Khan was hording his way through the woods and decimating the trout population just for the fun of it (yeah, the Horde was ruthless). Maybe this was the land of survivalist spear fishermen awaiting the Apocalypse?; suicidal brookies?; an unruly lynch mob of rainbow trout lacking rope? Who knew for sure? What we did conclude was the stick-trout came from the streams below, that someone or something had caught and impaled it and there were probably more where that one came from.
     Pulling to the side of the gravel along Portage Brook, we pondered our options. For sure there were trout down there. How to catch them was the question. First of all, we weren't trout fishermen. Second, we had tackle boxes stocked with trolling rigs, Bass-o-Renos, Dardevles and Lazy Ikes. Searched my brain but could find no recollection of seeing Lee Wolff on Wide World of Sports casting four-inch surface plugs that went glurp, glurp, glurp to skitterish ten-inch trout. Finally, neither of us was all that good a fisherman to begin with.
     Out of the blue, my Uncle Eddie came to the rescue. About five years earlier while on vacation, he'd set me up with a simple rig that worked like magic on small bass and panfish. He'd provided me with two small Beetle Bugs, a bottle of Uncle Josh's genuine, trout-sized pork rind and a clear, casting bobber for the weight to make the rig throwable. And all of that was still in the back of my box. Figuring that if the bobber was eliminated, there was no reason the bug and rind wouldn't work as well on brookies as on bluegills. With a dead drift and finger on the line to detect strikes, it did. We each had a rig, each caught a couple, then killed and ate them that night. We used my Mom's recipe, wrapped them in foil with salt, pepper, lemon, onion and butter then laid them on the campfire. They sure ate good.