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.


  1. " 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."
    You made me laugh out loud on the quiet bus this morning. Great line.