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.

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