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.      

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