Sunday, February 20, 2011

Learning Curve '98 (Part Four)

     The intense cold rain did nothing to make the fishing any better that evening. Looking back, I suspect the problem was mostly between my ears. The fish wanted to play one game and I wasn't having anything to do with their wants. My attitude might as well have been, if they have no interest in our spinners and rapalas, then to hell with them. That's what we brought, that's what we'll throw. Didn't need the fish at all, we could have a great time on our own.  Sunday morning we moved on.


     Yah, old Emil could have told them what to do. Would have saved them a lot of time. But Markie is a hardhead even though he won't admit it. He likes it his way or no way at all. You know, Canada and Minnesota are about the same when it comes to northerns and walleyes. If you want to catch them, you've got to get out where they are and give them what they want to eat. You can't catch pickerel in August the same way you would in June. Believe me, I know. I've crapped in the woods. In the summer daylight the walleyes go deep. Those big eyes of theirs don't give them the edge they like when it's good tanning weather. Gotta find some depth off the points and reefs. And they like real meat, even if the minnows are frozen, a whole lot more than steel and plastic stick baits. And that's coming from a Minnesota bullet head who bought his first Rapala in '58. Markie had a lot to learn.

     We putzed our way down Second Cranberry in a Sunday kinda mood. Took a decadent amount of breaks and basked in the sunshine. Al would occasionally pick up his rod to throw spinners at the hammer handles. He was pretty good at that. Then down through the mile and a half narrows we passed into - guess what? - Third Cranberry. Minnesota has its umpteen Round and Fish lakes so I've got no right to bring up the lack of imagination found north of the border. In case you're wondering, the greatest lake name, at least in my humble opinion, is Jack the Horse Lake.
     It was the kind of lethargic, spell-cast-over, kind of Sunday on which Sigurd Olson in The Lonely Land, pulled out a philosophical clipping from his wallet and read it aloud. He and his partner were paddling on big water at the time,
 "Is there evidence of plan or purpose in the universe? I find it hard to imagine how such a universe was created without assuming there is something in it like a mind. Order suggests purpose. As Sir James Jeans put it, 'The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a machine'.... There is a realm inaccessible to the intellect... and to our senses alone. In this realm open to the insight of the spirit ... we have a sure support for that morality and good will which are necessary for human society."

Introspection followed. Then, a half hour later, the two Voyageurs had a brief discussion concerning life and meaning. A wonderful moment that skirted the edges of true religion.
     I also had a clipping in my wallet. On it I'd inscribed 9M9RF7, my computer password at work. Not an inspiring clipping. But thought provoking. Says a lot about the path we've gone down as a society. Forrest Gump's comment on Vietnam, "It was a whole lot of shit," fits pretty good. I passed on pulling out the slip. We did talk about it. Can't say our conversation was profound. But like Olson, we were alone on Canadian water with the sun and breezes. Father-son talk but we talked as canoe partners. Our words carried weight with each other.
     Down lake stood a couple of tiny island campsites a mile short of the Indian Narrows. A dozen miles for the day was enough for a couple of fish-seeking tenderfeet like us. The Ranger had said the angling was supposed to be good there. Hope rose. The first island looked like the Garden of Eden North. An acre of lush woods. Everything about it was perfect. Except for the lack of a canoe landing. The whole shoreline was jacked up at least three feet above lake level. A year later we watched a walleye boat snub up to a point and the occupants step out easily. The light bulb lit. Grass River Park, at least on the main lakes, was not laid out for us canoe boys. They may have been called campsites but, in reality, they were shore lunch spots. That we didn't fit into their scheme of things made life in the park all the more appealing to me. Kind of a Groucho Marx syndrome in reverse.
     The other site, an eighth mile away, our home sweet home for the night, was an irregularly shaped, half-acre slab of sharply fractured rock, nine and a half jackpines and a splendid canoe landing. We immediately dubbed it The Rock. The only possible tent site was a chunk of bedrock only slightly smaller than our Timberline tent. Tent pegs would have required a hammer drill and carbide bit. Thankfully only a few jagged edges protruded under the tent. On the bright side, we quickly learned the value of parachute cord in tying off to roots, brush and stones. Of which there were few. Our sleeping bodies provided most of the ballast. Should a wind arise in the night, I had fears we'd be carried off kite-like and deposited downwind like a sack of unwanted kittens.
Me Fool Fish
     That evening we found a mid-lake rock pile and had some fine pike fishing. Al finally let me join him in the game. But there was so much lake out there. Four hours on the water didn't begin to put a dent in the six thousand acres of Third Cranberry. About all we could do was eyeball the lake from camp, then head to the few points, bays and islands that look like they might hold fish. Sometimes you find them. Most times you don't. Can't complain. I don't do electronics, big boats or motors. Don't do bait. Somehow, aids like those rub me the wrong way. It's not any kind of philosophy. It just feels right to me. Figuring stuff out on my own, or as close as I can come to that, gets me to relax and have a good time. Also take into consideration that I didn't make the roads, the Jeep, the fuel, the canoe, etc. Yah, me heap big do-it-yourselfer. But a fish on the line, up from the depths, in a place you figured one might be. That's what I like. So you don't always find them. That's the way it goes.
     Trial and error are the two best teachers. They always let you know. So do the fish. They know what they want. You've just got to listen to what they have to say. Turn it over in your mind. In time it all adds up. I've heard they call that learning. In Canada, we weren't exactly at square one but we were close.
     Both Cranberries were surrounded by hillsides. Not the dramatic bluffs of the eastern Boundary Waters but still the shoreline hills rose thirty to fifty feet above the water. Forested but not impenetrably. This was sparse country. Mostly rock with a duff covering. Even viewed from lake level, the infertility of the land was obvious. I suspected the water beneath us was about the same. Life worked hard to make a go of it up here in the northland. We kept that in mind throughout our travels. Took out what we brought in. Left behind most everything we found. Even the unusable parts of the few walleyes we kept, killed and ate, were buried one way or the other. We did our part to make an infertile land fertile.
     One night on The Rock was more than enough. Something over a dozen lake and river miles ahead was Elbow Lake. On the map it appeared to be one of the finest looking fisheries I'd ever seen. Around fifteen thousand acres of bays, points and islands. With a little bit of luck we'd fish a spit in a frying pan's worth of it.
     No portages were on our route so we stored the rods fore and aft like whip antennas. On our paddle through the Indian Narrows proper we passed a tight looking cabin to our west. Provoked a moment of who, what, why and what it would be like to own such a place on the edge. Moments later a cloud of foot long fish passed beneath and ahead of us. We did a Laurel and Hardy for the rods in the blind hope of snagging one. Came a lot closer to snagging each other. My best guess pegged them as ghost fish. Some earlier affront to the God of the Narrows had doomed them to an eternity of wandering this channel. And to wander it smokin' fast. Might have been our only shot at three wishes. But we all know where that'd end.
     Third Cranberry narrowed itself into the Grass River. Elbow was about three flying-crow miles and at least ten placid-river miles ahead. Within minutes we entered a forest fire burn area. How far it went we could not tell but the days ahead told us it had been a honker. The bulrushes and cat tails were green. As were the eight foot high aspens. Not so for the thousands of charred and snapped off trees. Beneath them the duff had been burned to sooted bedrock. No course in environmental science was needed to tell us we wouldn't live long enough to see this forest as it had once been. But fire is a part of this land. Wood burns during a dry year. Nature knocks it down and builds it up again. We paddled by in the blink of the land's eye. But it wasn't pretty. Al said it reminded him of The Land of Skeletor from the Saturday morning cartoons. Buggers! First ghost fish, now this.

Land of Skeletor

     We chased a mama mallard for a mile or two. About the time she tired of the crippled wing routine we came upon a stream tumbling in from the west. Another of the Ranger's worth-trying spots. Allan pitched a few spinners, changed rods and did the jig. No luck. Seemed the walleyes were off to Vancouver for a big 'Free Tibet' rally. We guessed liberal pickerel went hand in glove with socialized medicine north of the border. Better not let the NRA or the AMA hear about that. So, if you are reading this, don't breathe a word.
     The first campsite we passed was an open, grassy spot near another pealing trapper's cabin. Seemed the ghettos were smaller up here in the northland. Didn't even slow down. The second site was another mainlander but sat on a rock shelf peninsula. Good enough. Our view was of islands and tree tufts. Looked like forest fires were hit and miss affairs. Behind us was a hillside that appeared to be prime bear country. More snapped off trees, jackstrawed jumbles of deadfall and the beginning of an aspen forest. If there were any berries to be found, this be the spot. Those thoughts danced through my head the first time I ascended with trowel and paper to do some much needed fertilizing. I envisioned myself in full squat, pants lower than a hip-hopper, awaiting my fate. The bears would have me cleaned out and half peeled. I grunted so hard my liver nearly exited. No bears for me.
     Oh yeah, we did catch some pike. Almost a lot of them. Not a wall-hanger in the lot. Oddly, each of them had sky-blue markings on its gills. Kinda made them bluegill northerns and as such would have made some fine sized panfish. Obviously we still didn't have a clue. A good thing that the most memorable moments from this spot had nothing to do with our lack of ability on the water.
     Tuesday morning. Another sunny day. We crawled out of the tent. Stumbled aimlessly around. Stared at nothing in particular. Then stared up. When that became boring, down. Sometimes across the lake. Couldn't get nothin' goin'. Over the years being in that aimless mood taught me to avoid doing anything that could lead to bodily harm, like paddling out on a lake with no help within thirty miles. So we happily bagged any idea of constructive behavior. Somewhere along the line we ate a breakfast. Probably something that didn't involve a camp stove. The tug of fifteen thousand acres of island and water was strong but you see, sometimes simply knowing it's there is enough. Eventually the camp chairs, canteens, food pack and book were dragged out to the water's edge. Our shoes and socks came off. Pant legs were rolled to the knees. We were set for the day.
Fat of the Lan'

     The air and sun on our usually wool encased feet bordered on ecstasy. Time passed. Shadows moved. We read, snacked and smoked. Forrest and old Sue were doin' jus' fine. A while later a boat from the Elbow Lake Lodge passed, off on an expedition. The sports waved. We waved back. Time passed. Shadows shifted. The boat returned. They waved. We waved back. The sports wrote us off as shiftless dregs of life in shabby clothes. "Gotta wonder what this world's comin' to when they let scum like that stink up the lake." It was a good day.
Forest Fire Sunsets
     We fished in the evening, the long, long evening. The sun seemed to angle down forever. This water looked so good but we sure weren't doing it justice. So many acres of structure. I began to figure the fish were just messin' with us. They know they're sacrificial animals but were hip enough to not piss themselves away on rookies. They'd simply be wasting their lives gettin' caught by the likes of us. We'd no doubt go home and tell the world how easy it was to bag the big ones north of the border and crowd the lakes with more of our kind. The fish wanted us to prove ourselves, let them know our intentions were pure. Come back more than once. Put in the hours and put out the sweat. They had us pegged alright. But we didn't know it. The learning curve is exponential. Low and flat at the beginning - our neck of this woods - and rising ever sharper over time. Seemed like the more we figured out, the more there was to learn.
     Wednesday began our retrace out. We awoke to the heavy smell of smoke. So heavy it seemed a pea soup fog. We had no idea of the source but my brain said forest fire. Smelled like it was just around the corner but there was no wind to tell us which corner. How were we to know the fires were nearly a thousand miles away? Figuring the lakes were safe, the plan became to hit the water and put the Land of Skeletor behind us as quickly as possible.
     Moving in the dead calm was an effortless pleasure. Nothing on the surface moved, only us, the canoe wake and the paddle whirlpools. Only once, years before in the BWCA, had conditions been the same for us. We left a track on Elbow like a trail in the snow. Endless glide. Leaf on the water time that happens rarely.
     Third Cranberry came on us so quickly there was no point in slowing down. The air cleared. The sun came out. A couple of dozen miles into the day we landed at our new camp on Second Cranberry. Nearby was an entering stream and the portage to Bear Lake. Maybe real Canadian fishing at last?
     Again we were on an island. Site was big enough for a platoon to set up camp. Some wood choppin' soul had even stocked it with a small mountain of spruce poles. We could build a fire at last and have a weenie roast. Or maybe 'smores. My stomach was all gurgily with anticipation.
     Night found us all snuggled up in our bags. Around midnight a couple of walleye boats rumbled up and idled off shore. No reason in the world for them to be there unless they figured on camping. I whispered Al awake so that he could share in the fun. The boat dudes fired up a spotlight. The beam crackled as it passed. Though we were deep in our bags I could read the lettering on Al's t-shirt. I feared the tent would burst into flames like it had been hit by the death ray in The War of the Worlds. Then came the fatal words that revealed both their intent and nationality, "Look over der, eh?. Somebody's yooosing da shore-lunch spot. What da hell we gonna do now, eh?" Followed by a few moments of excited mumbling, repeatedly accentuated by the syllable 'eh.' I envisioned the two of us being bagged up in the tent, weighted with stones and ironically fed to the walleyes who'd, up to this point, completely ignored us. After a brief pause we heard the music of empty Labatt's cans tinkling on the shore rocks then the roar of three hundred horses exploding off down lake. I slowly peeked out of the bag and allowed myself to start breathing again. My fears were unfounded. We'd been hiding from gentlemen of the northland. I wished them well in whatever life brought them, eh.
     We slept in. But so did the sun. Sunrise was hours late. Eight in the morning and it was still predawn light. More than that, the wind was howling through the spruce tops like it was being fired from the gates of Hades. While emptying my bladder, I mulled it over. I think my best when I express. Aha! Obviously the wind was blowing so hard the light from the sun was being pushed back below the horizon. Black hole in reverse. Einsteiningly impossible but what the hell, it was happening. No doubt the old guy would have put some kind of a fancy theoretical fight. But as far as I was concerned, Einstein was no fisherman, didn't know beans about life on the water and needed a more open mind. Come back to life then put that in your pipe and smoke it Albert!
     Al and I then did a little theorizing and calculating of our own. Mostly about beating cross-wind to the Bear Lake portage. My plan was based on the blind hope there might be a wall of three hundred foot jackpines on the upwind side of Bear. We'd tuck under their motherly limbs and fish to our heart's content. Fighting the wind on the way back would be a new set of problems. We'd deal with that when the time came. We were into the moment, the future be damned. Groovy.
     So we smoked off downwind, did a four wheel drift through a boulder field and hit the landing on the fly. The trail was a level, hundred and twenty rod affair as slick and clean as had it been in the BWCA. At the end was our initiation into Twentieth Century Canadian portaging. On a sharply angled slab sat a half dozen aluminum fishing boats chained to trees. Scat piles of beer cans and candy wrappers littered the shore.
     My guess was that over the decades the men and women of the north had exchanged portaging canoes for humping small outboard motors from lake to lake to awaiting boats. Most likely they dragged the boats in by snow machines to the lakes they wanted to fish and left them for the arrival of propulsion. The chains spoke of the universality of human nature. At the end of a first portage on your way into the boonies, you might find a dozen boats. The second, down to two or three. The third was entry into canoe-only territory. The outboard motor changed the area a lot but thankfully, pristine pockets remained for those willing to work a little harder.
     Ahead of us ran a mile's worth of stream through a bog and swamp valley before we reached Bear. As usual we had it to ourselves. And it was mostly tucked out of the wind. But Bear told us another story. There we had a ringside seat for a stampede of white horses heading left to right in one helluva hurry to reach the far east shore. We paused to enjoy the challenge. Intelligent canoemen would have bucked the wind a ways up-lake then quartered their down-wind way across. I could see no excitement or joy in the easy way. Any booger could do that. So we shot a die straight line sideways to the mayhem. Laughing all the way and pivoting from the hip when necessary.
     There we found ourselves in a shallow, mostly fishless bay of size. Dear Lord, it was also mostly calm. Calm in the sense of water surface. Anything sticking up from it, like two guys in a canoe, was slapped around by the wind diving over the tree tops. If you've ever been there, you know that no matter which way you've thrown your lure, the canoe will spin quickly in the opposite direction. Inevitably that's followed by crick-in-the-neck syndrome. That the bay was fishless couldn't be told from our map. On paper it looked as good as any water could. No real disappointment. Getting to and fro was worth the effort. This introduction into Canadian portage lakes was simply a case of bad timing.
     Here we made our first of what grew to be over the years, many dead end trips to nowhere. For our first foray into pointlessness, we paddled up what the map showed as a connecting stream for the next lake north, Brunne. We learned that backing out is nearly as easy as paddling in. Somehow that seems like a lesson in life, without apologies or court battles. Next time I'll check lake elevations first.
     On the return, once again die straight, I shot a couple of glances up lake. Hills, tightly forested, many islands and a couple of square miles. Nice looking water. Though we didn't yet consciously realize it, our return was already locked in. No way we weren't coming back.
     That afternoon we explored our island. Though the camp area was well trampled, most of the island was covered with caribou moss - or maybe it was moose, Kate or Sterling Moss. Since there were caribou in the area, that's the kind of moss I figured it to be I suppose it could have been moose moss but what kinda sense would that make? - and deadfall. The full canopy of spruce and pine lent the air a tint of pale green. At least that's how it sticks in my mind.
     Walking the small hills, through and around the jackstrawed timber, a foreboding feeling came over me. That in this expanse of northland very little ground had ever felt a human foot. And here on this island we were trespassing where we ought not. On the shores and paths a person was connected to the civilized world, a hop, step and jump from the nearest Walmart, where the sun was always shining. There one had a feeling of safety and assuredness. But here, even in a park like Grass River, most of the islands were untouched. And on those that were, few venturers ever left the campsites. Once in our island's few acre forest with no visible clue as to where we were, I felt a longing for the safety of bare ground and lake view. Under those trees and on that moss, even with Allan tramping ahead, I was overcome with a feeling of aloneness. Like I could fall off the edge of the normal world at any moment. And there, my someday death would stand waiting for me, whistling softly and flipping a coin. In most ways I consider myself a fairly normal person. But in those virginal woods, I knew there was more to life than a freeway full of people driving to work. Allan, as usual, led the way, excited by what might be ahead. Me, I trailed behind like Little Red Riding Mark.

     Emil: Amen.

      That evening the wind was down. We went fishing. Actually it was no more than a circumnavigation of our island but we brought rods. No sooner had we started than we came upon a bald eagle.

            The View From the Perch -  by Emil 'no Walt Whitman' Schonnemann

     Here come the great white fisherboys.
            Best turn a little to the left,
                    No eye contact.
     Maybe if I pretend they're not there
they'll do the Green Peace thing and just pass by.
                     No such luck.
         Oh man, the kid in the front
                   has a camera out.
Must think I'm the poster bird for the quarter.
     Will ya look at that. They're trying to
                    sneak up on me,
    Like I can't see an ant at a quarter mile.
       Stoic mode freeze time.    Whoa!
          That was one loud whoop.
Hope the pine hid the bejeezus that squeezed out of me.
           Don't move a feather.   Whoa!
They must have heard that canoe whang all the way to
                        Lake Winnipeg.
Best make tracks before the old fart in the back gets a notion
                       to climb this tree.
                          Wait for it,
          Camera's down. I'm outta here.
Now crank left and give 'em the tail feathers.

If you squint just right, up there in the corner of the photo, that almost white speck is the tail of the eagle as it flew away. I'd add the photo to this entry but it'd do no good.  The bird's almost invisible.
     Our twelve mile paddle out on Friday went way too fast. Near dead calm water after the tree-bender the day before. Barely onto First Cranberry we came upon a zaniness of loons. Best guess was a half-hundred count. Per the Peterson Field Guide it was a cacophony of "falsetto wails, weird yodeling, maniacal quavering laughter" and as more arrived an occasional "barking kwuk or low yodel." Reminded me a lot of a management conference I once listened in on. No offense meant toward the birds.
     One more night in The Pas where we learned the bacon on a pizza in Canada is both bacon and Canadian but is definitely not Canadian Bacon. The drive home began discussions of 'we could'ves' then evolved into 'next-years.' This be-all, end-all trip was only an introduction.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Learning Curve '98 (Part Three)

     We came prepared. At least clothing wise. Checked to see if we'd packed our common sense.  Didn't find it right off.  Probably in the bottom of a big pack. After our last showers for a week we donned our goin' to the woods clothes. Looked more or less like we'd hit the closeout rack at Goodwill. Not exactly rags, but close. Comfy was better in my book than hi-tech. The woods weren't new, why should the clothes? Layers and rain gear, warm and dry. Words to live by. The tough part was walking into a breakfast place filled with loggers and feeling like we fell short of the dress code. At least we didn't look too much like city boys.
     Sitting down to that meal was torture. I knew we needed to eat but being so close to our goal, I was wired. I wanted out and I wanted out now. Had I only known just two blocks up the street we'd be passing a McDonalds we'd have already been there with a face full of Egg Mcmuffins.  As far as I was concerned it didn't matter if there was a cook or a microwave in the kitchen, gut bombs were gut bombs. And frying eggs and ham seemed like forever. I wanted to scream out, "Put it in a blender, dump it in a cup with a straw and gimme the check!"
     Finally done we headed to the Jeep. There we found what looked like the climax of Quentin Tarantino's indie epic, "A Billion Flies and a Billion Bees Rumble Somewhere North of Nowhere with Hopes of Chowing Down on Bug Parts." No problem finding the Jeep.  It was under the buzzing cloud. Thirteen years later and some of those badboys are still plastered to the rear bulkhead of the canoe. Memories, memories.
     Filled the tank and headed north to meet our destiny. I had some concerns about the country we'd passed through. For three hundred miles it had been mostly flat scrub and swamp. Crap country. Little appeal to the eye. If that was what we were to expect, the fishing had better be a cut above damned good. Then, about ten miles south of Cranberry Portage a rock outcrop appeared. Poof! Just like that the world around us changed. An environment popped up out of the ground that felt right, familiar even. Rocks, pines, spruce and birch. But most of all, hills. A hint of the Boundary Waters was in the air. I know I've bad mouthed the BWCA but at the same time I'm in love with them. This felt like home ground.
     All was now lined up for us to head out to the horizon and have a great time. Except a couple of minor points. Even though we needed no entry permit, the Park still required us to fill out an itinerary for their office. And didn't know where that was. Also, we had no idea where the access, or even the lake, was. Once we got to square one, wherever the hell that might be, we'd be fine. So we cruised the town in search of a clue. Thankfully, the clue wasn't all that hard to find in Cranberry Portage. All the streets heading west from the highway ended at Park Headquarters.
     Once in the gravel parking lot I instinctively pulled up to the most likely looking place to deliver a box. Always the delivery boy. Ain't much of a skill but it's one of the few I have so I flaunt it. The garage was open. We walked in. Two men working on a chainsaw stopped, turned and stared at us. We greeted them and asked where we might get some information about the park. They continued to expectantly stare, like they wanted us to say more or were too dumbfounded by our radiant Americanness to get any words out. I was befuddled. Then it dawned on me we were on foreign soil and not speaking the lingo. I rephrased my question, this time ending it with an 'eh'. They sprang to life. Began jabbering like pine squirrels about the Canadiennes and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Most importantly they pointed out the door marked 'Office.'
      The gracious lady inside recognized us as lost southerners but could do no more than direct us to the Cranberry Portage Coffee Shop where the man who knew all, was breakfasting. I thanked and assured her we'd have no problem finding the coffee shop. Had to be the only one we'd passed on the way in.
     Entering the restaurant our eyes met. The Ranger instantly knew he was about to be dealing with ignorance afoot and a breakfast interrupted. Thankfully he proved both friendly and informative. In my usual, when excited, manner of trying to get out ten questions at once, he somehow waded in and got my drift. I was shagged out to the Jeep for the park maps. Graciously he cleared a spot on the table for the map. Ketchup was the northwest corner and mustard the northeast. And in less than five minutes he marked out three portages, one he'd cleared himself and the whereabouts of the Government dock, "Can't miss it." Alongside the dock we'd find a bulletin board with park map, itinerary forms and a box to put them in. Several times he brought up the wonderful fishing in the remote lakes. Guess he was trying to tell me something. Of course I knew better. A Forest Ranger, born and raised in the forests of Northern Canada, what the heck did he know, eh? We thanked the man and left. Once outside, Al explained that each time I'd pointed to a spot on the map, I'd used my middle finger. Oops. Must have been my good, old fashioned American way of saying, "Have a nice day hoser!"

     Hard to believe Markie still had a hard time finding the access. My God, how many wrong turns could one man make? And him a professional driver to boot. In this case it was only one. Came to the only fork in the road and went the wrong way. Must have misunderstood the sign. Didn't think, "Take the road to the left, dumbass," was meant for him. Ended up at an old friend of mine, the Caribou Lodge. Went into the bar where he got directions from a guy with a Romania meets Canada accent. Even the 'eh' sounded like Bela Lugosi in a tuque. In their brief palaver, Markie learned there was a portage from First Cranberry to semi-remote Election Lake. Seems the lodge man had cut it himself. Guess that's what Canucks do in their spare time.
     Okay kids it's math time. Two Canadians cut two portages, each being three quarters of a mile. Had there been a forest from the Earth to the moon, how many Canucks would it have taken for Canada to win the Space Race?

     After the one wrong turn - give me a break, there wasn't a sign, really there wasn't - all went well. The government dock, actually a concrete pier big enough to hold a semi or land a corporate jet, was right where it was supposed to be. I filled out the form in detail. Turned out to be the last year an itinerary was required. In our modern cell phone era, some felt the Canadian Forest Service wanted to know the whereabouts of everyone in the park. Then they'd know exactly where to send the helicopter in case someone broke a nail and needed rescue. Like they had the staff or the money to do so.
     To my way of thinking, part of the experience of heading into the boonies has to do with the possibility of something going wrong. A little bit like the old days. That's the whole idea. Wilderness travel, even travel as mundane as ours, is an exercise of preparation and attention. I continually make light of my abilities. Lord knows I'm ignorant in many ways and have to compensate by not going too deeply into the primitive. I've tried my best to not have my head up my ass when there was something to be seen up the road. Didn't always work out that way but that's part of the game. And part of the joy.
     Once the itinerary was put into the box, it took no more than twenty minutes to fit a Jeepful of crap into a seventeen foot canoe. We loaded two number four packs, a duffle of food, a day pack, Coleman stove, cooler, rod tubes, grill and spare paddle. All was battened down, trim and tied in. Al parked the Jeep. We had a last smoke then screamingly ground the Alumacraft off the gravel shore and onto the water of First Cranberry. A quiet, at least in the mental sense, but big moment in our lives.
     Crossing the lake was a straight shot west. Call it something more than four miles. Light tail wind, warm, blue skies. But I was taking no chances. We were rough on the water. Took a bit to settle into a rhythm and then didn't stop 'til we were in the narrows on the far side.
     I will say this now for the first time and will repeat it occasionally over the next eight trips so you don't forget. I can, but rarely do track a straight line. There's too much too see. My mind and eyes wander continually. Allan gives me grief about my zig-zagging. Deservedly so. A straight line thirty miles on the map is three or four miles extra for me. But in a crunch, rock and hard place time, things change. When my cursing is up, my course is die straight. But it's not much fun. On the trip across First Cranberry I did a lot of sight-seeing.
     And finding the egress wasn't a snap. From four miles distance the far shore looked uninterrupted. And the deep bays that would call for extra miles of paddle should we make a bad guess weren't visible.  All I could do was pull out the compass and make my best guess.
     Nothing earth shaking about sittin' in a canoe, feet on the gunwales, sipping a soda, smokin' a Player and bobbing in the sun. Unless you were us, floating in the narrows between the First and Second Cranberries and in CANADA baby! Not a sound but our conversation accompanied by ripples lapping on the shore. We'd had the lake to ourselves. Perfect.
     Our goal for the day was simple and we were half way there. Twenty minutes later the view we had down Second Cranberry made me giddy. Over seven miles long, a couple of miles wide, scattered islands and reefs. As far as I was concerned this was the real deal. Big, beautiful water. We took a look, then angled toward a campsite half an hour away. A few minutes later Al spied a white monolith in the distance. It became the standard by which we judged all future pretenders to the throne. It glowed like a daytime specter. Say the words bird shit rock to Allan and he'll tell you where and when.
     We found our campsite right where the Ranger said it would be. Blaze orange diamond and rules nailed to a jack pine. To my mind nothing says wilderness like rules nailed to a tree. But it was a fine location. Slide-up landing, open kitchen location, level tent spot under a tall, lightning scarred jack pine nearby. Our view was across a channel to the mainland. We ate quickly and immediately cleaned dishes 'cause the moment had arrived. Or, more to the point, in the next few hours Allan fished and I threw lures. Al caught first fish, biggest fish, last fish, all fish. Seriously, I didn't mind. I had a great time watching him catch pike. Didn't care if he always out-fished me. But dear Lord, I wanted to catch at least one of them buggers. I got follows, disdainful follows. If pike could sneer, I'd have been the sneeree.
     Our island was hilly, mostly rock and around five acres. Also had about a half-million cubic yards of caribou droppings scattered everywhere. Thankfully they were dry. Crunched like malted milk balls though I never checked the taste.  While there Allan dragged me along on his explorations be they on the island or into abandoned, collapsing, spike-bristling, trapper's cabins. He was fearless. Iwas thankful for tetanus shots.

First fish 
     There's much more I could say about that site but I'll stick with the lesson it taught us. Outside of seven hours sleep in The Pas, we'd been hammering it for thirty-six hours. Hammering it like a couple of overly civilized city boys who believed in move or die. Middle of the first night in the park that all changed.
     The rain began slowly. Thuk. Thuk. Thuk. By morning it was going like gangbusters. It serenaded our bladders to come out and play. Thankfully we had the rain gear close at hand. When the level dropped to drizzle, we'd suit up, grab smokes and do our business. That pattern held 'til supper time. Mid-morning we committed the sin of bringing snacks into the tent. Figured the rain would wash away any Snicker-fied aromas before reaching any people-eaters who might be roaming around.
     Inside the tent we played cards and napped. But mostly we read. That first full day was the beginning of a pleasurable ritual we continued through all our trips. Our first book was Forrest Gump. I'd always enjoyed reading aloud. Even used different voices for each of the characters. So I began. Hesitantly at first. When Allan didn't complain, I went at it wholeheartedly. Besides "Gump," we covered most of a Garrison Keillor ramble. Yup, it was a hoot. Came to giving a lot of thought during the winter months as to what we'd read. Books were as much of the planning as route or gear.
     Our day in the tent passed a whole lot faster than we'd have ever thought. Sometimes slow and easy moves right along. Got us to decelerate to the speed of nature. That's the way of woods and water. Over the years we came to learn the trip didn't really begin until we left the city behind. And I mean all of the city and its ways. That day-long rain did a fine job of washing Minneapolis from our bones. Learned to move when and where we could. Came to enjoy being where we were at the moment. I know, hearts and flowers. But you can't force your will onto the boonies. Simple as that.
Allan and Second Cranberry Lake

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Learning Curve '98 (Interlude-The Song of Emil)

     I remember my first trip to the Grass River area like it was yesterday. Well, when you ain't ever been alive, I guess most every day is like yesterday, or tomorrow for that matter. Back in '58, Grass River Park wasn't as yet past the talkin' about stage. The lodge I stayed in was still in the narrows between First and Second Cranberry lakes. Ended up in Cranberry Portage 'cuz that was about as far as I felt like driving. Couple of years later the area became an official Provincial Park. The Caribou Lodge had to be torn down and moved to the peninsula on the edge of town. Not boatin' to the cabin changed it for me. And not for the better. Fishin' was still good. Maybe even improved. So I guess it all balanced out.
     The next year I took my tent and camping gear with me. Nothing fancy mind you, canvas tent, Coleman stove, pots and pans, cooler of food, a bottle of Seagrams and canned goods. Lotta bulk but there was plenty of room in the Lund. Still stayed at the lodge but hit the boonies for a couple of nights so's I could feel all Daniel Boone-like. Set up camp on the portage to Wedge Lake. Pike heaven in a nutshell back there. With enough walleyes for supper.
     In '60, I dropped the lodge bit completely. Motored to the portage to Wedge Lake, hauled my gear and canoe over and spent a week under the stars singing with the loons.  Next year I went with my nephew Archie. That's a story in itself.  Did a few things a sane man would've passed on with a fourteen year old along. Lucky we didn't die. Coupla trips followed till, in '65 I built the cabin off the McFarland Road.
     I may now be an old fart but my fishing gear was state of the art in those days. Glass rods, monofilament line and Garcia spinning reels. I learned way back when to put my money where the rubber meets the road. Had a nine foot, eight weight, glass top of the line Shakespeare fly rod for diddling with the pike. On those evenings when Wedge was mirrored out, a 'teener on the long rod was five minutes of poetry. Put that on my tombstone. Me in the Grumman, rod doubled over, line snapped tight, bein' towed around. I'd take that for my heaven any day. You know, life's way too short. Gotta grab some of it that fits you to a 'T' once in a while. Dinner done, cup of coffee, smokin' a Lucky. Knowing there's no real hurry to head out 'cuz the fish'll always be there waiting on me.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Learning Curve '98 (Part Two)


     My letter did its job and then some. One of the Rangers wrote back an equally polite letter and welcomed us with maps and brochures. Turned out Grass River Park was more than half as big as the Boundary Waters, had over a hundred lakes, remote campsites, caribou and, best of all, great fishing. Waste of ink telling me the fishing was great. All they had to say was, "We're talkin' Canada, Yank. What do you expect?."
     Oh yeah, I almost forgot. No permits or fees of any kind were required. A kind of come-as-you-are when-you-darn-well-feel-like-coming wilderness. In other words, my kind. If that wasn't enough, figuring in the exchange rate, our non-resident fishing licenses were three bucks less than resident ones in Minnesota. Seemed like the Manitobans actually wanted us to come and have a good time. Almost too good to be true. A few days a single phone call made me and Al real card carrying Manitoba fisherman. Almost. Guess we'd have to wet a line to make it official. Maybe catch a fish also.
     Another letter and a phone call got us the 1:24,000 scale maps that made the picture of the park come alive. Lakes, lots of lakes, lots of big lakes. Not necessarily huge compared with the inland seas to their immediate south. However, big enough to draw my attention. The largest lake we'd paddled on in the Boundary Waters was a couple of thousand acres. That was entry level in Grass River Park. There may have only been a hundred lakes but acreage-wise, the two parks were on a par. Gave me a new perspective on water. A fresh way of seeing things. So be it. When we got there the lakes would say howdy and tell us what to do. All we'd have to do was listen and follow their advise.
     Weather, bugs and fish. The three gospels of timing for canoe fishing. As I said, the fishing was a given. So it didn't matter when we went. Even bad fishing five hundred miles north of the border would still be good fishing by Minnesota standards. Weather was not ours to control. Outside of the natural tendency of Summer to be warmer than either Fall or Spring. So it was down to bugs and the bugs issue leaned toward August. Too warm and dry for them at that time to be concerned with much more than working on a tan.
     I bid my vacation for the third week in August. As the time of departure drew near, I went into full begging and groveling mode at work hoping to get an extra day and a half off. Those days were necessary for spending a full week on the water. Repeated use of "my son and I," "maybe the last chance I'll ever have," and the always popular, "I'll owe you eternally," worked like a charm. Either that or simple disgust from seeing an adult on his knees and sobbing.
     So it came to be at 10:00 a.m. on a Thursday morning, in a Jeep filled with more gear than could conceivably fit into the Alumacraft canoe on top, we hit the road. Cloud of dust with nuts, bolts and chicken feathers flying like an old time comic strip. The idea we had eight hundred and fifty miles to go before we slept was no problem. It was a thrill. All-American road trip to the Canadian boonies. Great, great moment in my life.
     Can't see what's so appealing about a road trip? Being in a confined space for hours and hours with nothing but a radio and conversation for entertainment. Stopping only for gas, bladder and cheap, greasy road food. Time to be made. Life being a journey has some validity but as far as I can see, there's no big fish until you get to the lake. And, after all, paddling on the lake is part of the journey, ain't it? Could be the joy of the trip is in what's up that road. Regardless, I was thrilled. So was Al.
     The opening miles always demanded one eye on the pavement, the other on the canoe and a hope that only the road would pass into the land of the rear-view mirror. It always took about an hour for a comfort level to be reached. And a sproinging of straps at every gas station. The safety of the canoe and its chances of impaling the windshield of a rapidly approaching BMW was long gone as the border approached.
     And smoking cigarettes. Neither of us was a smoker but felt the need to do like the Voyageurs and have us a pipe now and then. But doing the pipe thing was way too complicated so we simply smoked cigarettes. Our yearly habit became a part of our wilderness experience as erecting the tent.
     Maybe it was simply our means of combatting all that pure fresh air in the Canadian north. Being  city boys through and through we needed some form of poison in our lungs or we just didn't feel right. We'd heard and seen much evidence that smoking was addictive and bad for us. Three hundred, fifty days of the year we paid heed but not in the boonies. As for me, I'd been a smoker back in my Army days. The chances of dying from tobacco sometime way down the road didn't seem like such a big deal in Vietnam. Hell, the odds were a lot better I'd die in the next ten minutes. I'd quit a couple of months after my two years were up. But the pleasure of that last smoke before moving into our night position never left me. Firing up a butt after twenty-eight years was like I'd never stopped. I can't speak for Al and his reasons. Once we got home, we were done 'til the next trip. No doubt we were a couple of bears to be with for a day or two. But the pleasure of that first road cigarette told us the day we'd been waiting for had finally arrived. Huzzah!
     Gettin' there was like passing through a half dozen climate zones. Rain in Minneapolis didn't mean the sun wouldn't be out in Fargo or that it might be snowing in The Pas. The Red River Valley proved itself a terror when the wind was up. Which was most of the time. Nothin' to stop the breeze between Grand Forks and western Montana. Whitecaps in the ditches weren't all that unusual. Forty mile an hour crosswind out of the west with a canoe on top and a hi-balling semi would turn my knuckles white faster than minus fifty windchill.
     One time a gas stop in Grand Forks, wind blowing balls to the wall under the canopy, I commented on the gale and a local responded, "Shit, this ain't nothing. Should have seen it yesterday." Lucky for me, Al was usually behind the wheel for that stretch. Evolved into a tradition to have us switch places at the Pembina exit so that I could handle the border crossing.


     Markie boy was worth the price of admission when he'd pull into the crossing booth. You'd have thought he was trying to exit Nazi Germany in 1938 and his picture was on the wall behind the guard. He once got so desperate he even explained to the Canadian customs guard that he was hard of hearing. But his ears weren't the problem. It was the little voice in his head screaming, "One wrong move and they're gonna pull out the latex gloves!" Couldn't hardly hear a thing over that mental caterwauling. Oh, he got all the answers right. No problem there. Just didn't seem to line them up with the questions. One time he answered 'Minneapolis' when asked if he had any firearms in the car. Shoulda seen the look on the uniformed lady's face. With the fear in his eyes and the sweat streaming down his forehead, it was a miracle they never arrested him on suspicion. How one man could get so worked up even when he was doing nothing wrong, was a mystery to me. 'Spose in his twisted mind he blamed the nuns for that one too.

First Border Crossing

     Fired off a photo right after clearing customs. Allan looked like a kid back then and somebody must have photoshopped out some of my wrinkles. From the border to Winnipeg all the towns seemed to have French names. Felt kind of exotic at first. Then I remembered the names of the streets in downtown Minneapolis. Hennepin, LaSalle, Marquette, Nicollet, First Street North. Now it felt like a homecoming. Our first time around Winnipeg we were looking for Portage Avenue where the Trans-Canadian Highway entered the city over on the west side. Figured that's where we'd find food with the fat content us would-be Voyageurs needed. By the time we realized we were there, it was already in our past. Life in a nutshell. We lost twenty minutes wandering around the Land of Infinite Deadends before stumbling upon a Burger King. Now that was a weird place. They kept the ketchup behind the counter and had vinegar out for the fries. What the hell was that all about?
     While I waited for our order, Al wandered off. On my way out I found him staring blank-eyed at a poster for some concoction called poutine. I first looked at the poster, got its gist and then looked back at the food crazed zombie next to me.  He looked like my son but I wasn't sure.
     It was then I put the two together. Fries, glop of cheese, brown gravy. Poutine. That and Al added up to an explosive combo. The Jeep woulda been unlivable for days. Maybe forever. The stuff of an unrealized urban legend right in front of my eyes. I dragged him out the door.
     Our stop at Ashern was simple logic. From there to our night in The Pas, the odds were against seeing another open gas station. In my civilized mind, two hundred seventy miles was a heckuva long gasless stretch. Not taking any chances, I also filled a five gallon gas can.
     Two weeks earlier I'd been warned against running out of fuel in this stretch. Some people think fortuitous encounters are no more than random chance in a cold, uncaring universe. Not me. 'Specially when the advice comes from a Flin Flon Bombers jersey wearin' dude in a Fleet Farm parking lot. First of all, I found all those 'F's coming together in one place way too eerie to be chance. Second, I'd never-ever met anyone wearing anything that had the town name of Flin Flon on it. How many people do you 'spose I'd seen in my fifty-one years? A million at least. And just one wearing a Flin Flon shirt. The odds were beyond doubting. I had to talk with the man. I grabbed onto him like a Mekong Delta rice paddy leach on a GIs backside.
     He told me, "Der's one gas station between Ashern and La Pas, eh. On de turn off for Easterville. Problem iss, sometime dey open, sometime dey not so open. Got der own idea of time up der. Even if dey are open, it iss some kind strange place anyhow. Better you fill'er up to de brim in Ashern, eh?" Don't recall if that was how he spoke but I have to show off my Canadianese once in a while.
Looks About Like This for 180 Miles
     He went on to add it had been a seriously early spring in northern Manitoba and the fishing had been the best in years. Yeah, they'd really hammered 'em. Half my brain was uploading great fishing. The other half was thinking we'd already blown our chances. Shoulda gone in June. Gas-wise, the 'F' man turned out to be right on the money. Easterville not only looked closed, it looked abandoned. Over the following years I realized that abandoned look was merely an expression of lifestyle. They just weren't into time, man. Or paint.
     10:45. The sun was going down. Light was being replaced by life. Not the moose, black bear or wolf I feared smacking through the grill. Instead, bugs. In clouds. Solid masses of ooze splatting into us like kamikazes. Grill, windshield and Alumacraft. We were being flocked by life itself. In desperation I put on the wipers and washers. Big mistake. Oh the horror! I instinctively knew the carnage on our windshield would have karmic consequences. Come back to bite me in the butt next time around. I said a silent prayer begging The Creator for a reincarnation at least a couple of levels above being a faith-based Republican.
     We were passing through scrub and swamp country. This had once been the bed of glacial Lake Agassiz. The dirt in the ditches was rock, sand and clay. Rarely did we see past the ditch and wall of jack pine, spruce, birch and aspen lining the paved highway. Around us was some of the most water infested land on the planet and only once did we have a glimpse of lake. Foreboding, seemingly empty country.
      "Wanna get lost and die in the woods boy? Wander off in yonder forest. We come and gather your bones in a week or two."
     Dark slowly eased itself onto us. Dragged along a reluctant display of Northern Lights. Made sense to me. We definitely had the Northern part down. The Lights part was a bonus. Al wanted to stop and check them out. The thought crossed my mind that we were only seeing smushed lightning bugs on the windshield but the lights were changing shape. Ever the spoilsport, I said no. We had places to be. Since I'm a master at making crap up, at times so good I even believe myself, I told him what we were seeing was normal up here. Run of the mill. Every clear night we'd have a show so bright we'd see it through the tent walls. Keep us up. We'd curse them constantly. Yup. That was the last time we saw them that year.
     We finally arrived in The Pas sometime after midnight with nary a reserved pillow for our heads. No time to waste. Pulled into the first motel we saw. The ramshackle place had a name something like The Bloody Tomahawk. Out front was a giant lit and leering Indian sign that seemed to be saying to me and me alone, "Spend your last night on earth here, if you dare." The lot was empty. The office door dark. But the vacancy sign was flickering like it might be on. Screw it, we needed a room. Be a man, eh. Got out and knocked on the door. Maybe knocked is too strong a word. Make that, I gently brushed my knuckles once or twice against the door. Then waited no more than four seconds before doing a high speed saunter back to the Jeep. Didn't want to look like the coward that I was. Also had no desire to die. Street to motel to back on the street in a cloud of burning rubber and dust in thirty-five seconds tops.
     Three blocks north. Lot nearly full and roofed entrance brightly lit. Brick two story building in good repair. Wescana Inn. Figuring it was safe this time, I shagged Allan in to check on a room. They did. We were home for the night. Happy day.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Learning Curve '98 Part One (with comments by Uncle Emil)


     So its finally put up or shut up time. 'Spose if you're going to write a blog about wilderness fishing and canoeing experiences, sooner or later you've got to wade in and do it. My intention is to cover all nine Manitoba trips taken by me and my son Allan (including the Great Horsefly Adventure with his wife Maria). That's a lot of trips and a lot of potential repetition. I'll do my best to keep it interesting. So if I say something more than once, blame it on my aging brain. Hopefully there will be a laugh or two along the way. And maybe a bizarre comment from my nonexistent Uncle Emil to spice things up. Occasionally I'll might point you in the direction of as a needed insert. I intend to include photos when I figure out how to do so. Hang with me, this is going to be a long process.

Introduction by Uncle Emil

     I put in my share of days up in the near side of the far north hooking pike and eating walleyes. Not that I'm any kind of expert but I know the taste of the water and the smell of spruce and pine when the sun was beating down. That's why I'm going to stick my nose into this ramble before my nephew goes and stinks it up. My time up on those cold waters was in the days when fishing poles were made of hi-tech fiberglass, or if your tastes and wallets leaned more toward fishing with a tie on, bamboo.  I didn't do bamboo. Wouldn't have minded a good one, no sir, but a week's pay for a stick was too rich for this boy's blood.
     About a hundred miles up Highway 6 out of Winnipeg, Manitoba lies the town of Ashern. Mark and Al usually stop there for gas on the way up to Grass River Provincial Park. Their first year, an episode involving a necessary john straddling at the station on the east side of the highway convinced them to hit the quick-stop on the west side forevermore. That one's a real nice place. Clean bathrooms, large assortment of snack food, low grade porn magazines in the rack, pizza, and an eight year old kid pumping gas. Always made Mark a little edgy having anyone fill his tank, much less a third-grader smoking a non-filtered cigarette 'cause only a wienie needed a filter. Tough kids up in the north land.
      But that's not the main reason Ashern sticks in my head. For that you have to look a couple hundred yards north. There you'll find a seventeen foot high statue of a sharp tail grouse. Guess this must be a good spot to kill ground birds or they wouldn't have put it there. Damn nice statue. Much better than Bemidji's Paul and Babe, unless you're prone to primitive non-art that leans more toward durability than reality. For all I know that's what Bunyan actually looked like. Seems like when people get real tall and go in for plaid shirts they always seem a little on the stiff side.
     Size, accuracy and good bird country to the side, I am one of the very few, maybe the only human being, who knows the truth behind the fiction. Sure the statue's there because the birds are there. But it's as big as it is for a darned good reason.
     It all goes back to the days of the Cold War. That kind of war didn't make much sense seeing as how we wanted to have it out with the Ruskies and they felt pretty much the same about us. Oddly enough, the Cold War wasn't all that cold.  Instead of Russians we killed Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese.  The Russians did in their share of Eastern Europeans and Afghans. You want to know how cold the Cold War was just ask my nephew.
     Occasionally the innocents and the ignorants were dragged into our struggle. Seems like that always happens. As it turned out, in '58 Canada found herself involved in a bout of embarrassing coverup. Of course the good old U. S. of A. was at the root of the snafu. But I'm here to tell you Canada's hands weren't all that clean either. Took a bit of digging and a lot of thought to come up with the truth.
     So, it's the time of Sputnik, A-bomb, and H-bomb tests. Spooky time to say the least. Russkies have the bomb and the rocket. The Great White North had its eyes peeled to the skies knowing if there were any over-the-pole short rounds, it's all over but the shouting. No more curling or hockey. No vinegar on french fries. Even the snow'd be melted. As a result the Canucks took most everything coming from The States way too seriously. So when Hollywood sent their sci-fi movies north of the border, they ended up causing a bit more of a stir than Tinseltown figured on. Seemed the Canadians thought all those giant, irradiated rabbits and bugs were the real deal. Doing the normal, human thing, they panicked.
     It was the bugs that scared them the most. Car-sized bugs that could cross the border at any moment and lay waste to all those grain fields out in Saskatchewan. No more grain meant no more beer and whiskey. That was grounds for mobilizing the military. Armageddon time on the tundra.
     From what the movies told them, the U.S. Army didn't seem to be worth a diddly when it came to bug control. So it was up to the Canadian government to figure out a way. And they did. Started with the simple question, "What eats bugs ?" Simple answer, " Africans and sharp tail grouse." Since it would take too long and cost too much to start up a big "Move to Canada. The Home of Five Course bugs," campaign in the heart of darkness, they went with the birds.
     Problem was the sharptails were way too small. Big problem. The Canucks had no run-amok nuclear program to accidentally zap the birds like down here in the States. So they ended up doing it the Canadian way. Blasted grouse eggs with lightning bolt doses like Dr. Frankenstein, of organic, free river, hydroelectric power. Bam! Instant six footers. Less than a year later they had third generation, seventeen footers penned up by the thousands. All stood ready and trained to be loaded onto cargo planes and parachuted to wherever any six-legged munchables might be crossing the border. Called it Operation Birds of Freedom.
     It was around that time an assistant undersecretary of something up in Ottawa realized the mistake and hush-hush like spread the word behind closed doors. Grown men cried, heads rolled. An emergency midnight session of Parliament worked non-stop for fifty-one hours to hash out a face-saving solution. The Canadian Film Board was called in. On September 17, 1958 a documentary premiered in Washington DC, titled "Saving Uncle Sam." The climax showed swarms of giant Canadian sharptail grouse with distinctive maple leaf wing bands preventing two American armored divisions from being eaten by six-foot, metal-munching ants. It was blood, guts, and mayhem at its finest. Ran non-stop for two years in Toronto and banned after one showing in the U.S. of A.
     President Dwight David Eisenhower himself viewed the film the evening after its single showing. Was a Sunday if memory shows me right. Ike even had to miss Ed Sullivan and his featured act, Senor Wences. I've been told by an old friend who worked in the White House that Eisenhower's jaw slowly dropped as the show went on. Midway through the climax he finally exploded. Turned to his Secretary of Defense, Neil McElroy and yelled, "Why in the Sam Hill am I always the last to know these things? Damn it! Get me Ottawa on the phone pronto."
     Well the truth finally came out. Both sides agreed to tear up all records of what happened and never mention it again. As for the sharptails, it was a Thanksgiving to remember that October in Winnipeg. And there were leftovers for everyone.
      That's a bit of an out of the way to start this thing. But if my slow between the ears nephew pays just the slightest bit of attention, he'll get the gist of how to say things and not be his usual boring self. If not, you have my sympathy.

Learning Curve

                                    Chapter 1

     Uncle Emil broke the ice. Guess it's finally time to start writing about the Grass and File River trips. The original manuscript began with a long convoluted introduction. Wonderful if you like words. But mostly a beating around the bush telling the world more than it needs to know about an ordinary man.
     Some of the introduction was worth saving. At least considering what follows. The seed for all our trips was planted in 1965. As with most of my life, chance played a major role. At a Freshman orientation for the University of Minnesota, I happened to eavesdrop on a conversation about a father-son fly-in fishing trip starting with a crab boil on a cobblestone beach the night before they took off, also the nonchalant attitude of the speaker, as though it was another ho-hum day in his life. It wasn't like I was hit over the head with the wonderfulness of his fly-in trip. I just never forgot it.
     Nine months later came the trip to the Arrowhead of Minnesota with my friend Rod. At the time it was no more than good fun. Outside of hammering East Pike Lake smallmouth bass on the last day that is. Big smallies, sittin' on their spawning beds, doing their best to provide for and protect the future of smallmouth bass. That was another unexpected experience dropped in my lap. I also locked that one away in the never-to-be-forgotten file.
     Flash forward to 1992. Allan was twelve. My daughter Annie, sixteen. I was forty-five. Lois and I had been married for twenty-two years. In our second house. Cabin up north. Grown into a life I enjoyed. All relevant. That East Pike day was one of my fondest memories. I recommended the lake to many people over the years but never gave a thought to returning on my own. Even recalled it to Lois, probably more times than I realized. One May morning in '92, I opened my mouth about it one too many times. Most likely to simply shut me up, she asked, "Why don't you and Allan head up north to see if the bass are still there?" That's all it took; one question and part of my life turned a new direction.
     First I've got to clear something up. I love to fish but I'm not a fisherman. It's the experience, the trip, the planning, the months long anticipation, the love of having a lake to ourselves, the time with my son. And it's not just a father-son thing. Never'd done a real father-son thing when I was growing up. I would have but my Dad died when I was three. A lot of good was missed, also a lot of bad. Such is life, or death. Al and I had a great time together. I like and love him for the man he's become. That he 's my son is icing on the cake. Doesn't really hit the nail on the head but it'll have to do.
     Allan and I did that trip and a bunch of others over the next seventeen years. They grew longer and more involved as time passed. All told, not including our paddling near the cabin, we spent over four months traveling by canoe and portage in search of excellent fishing, all the while learning from the seat of our pants on up. We always found what we were looking for but didn't always know what that was till it found us. To this day I can't exactly tell you what the wonderfulness we experienced was but it sure was there and we knew it.
     The Boundary Waters years were fine. Always looked forward to each from the time one trip ended till the next began. But not a one of them was the trip I really wanted, the 'Drive to the End of the Road, Throw the Canoe in the Water and Paddle From There,' kind of trip. Pavement to gravel, to sand, to two-track, and dead end, where you can just make out a thinning in the treetops saying there's a lake up ahead. Never did that. Came real close but fell short.
     Exactly where that road to the dead end is varies a lot from person to person. Most people don't give a rat's ass about driving to the end of any road much less throwing a canoe in if and when they got there. Some think the road ends at the cabin or the lodge bar. Some, the Quetico or Boundary Waters. Me, I kept looking at those black lines on the Canada map. Where they ended at places like Pickle Lake, Red Lake, Reindeer Lake and way gone up there at Great Slave Lake. That's the kind of road that was calling me.
      Yeah, my eyes got tired looking at the maps. But not my imagination. I love maps, can't have enough of them. It's as though you can see through them to the dreams behind. Finally, one day I sent for information from Ontario. I was still locked into the Paper Age in '98. Thank God for letters, addresses and stamps. Waited for the postman to cometh. Mostly I learned what I didn't want to do. In Grand Marais up on Lake Superior, I put the question about an out of the ordinary trip to take with Allan for his high school graduation. "Maybe kayak to Isle Royale," said he. "Hmm," said I. Translation: "Might as well go shoe shopping at the Mall of America." What I really wanted was to share with Al the trip I'd have wanted when I graduated from high school and had wanted for thirty-three years. Crap. A third of a century to figure it out and I didn't have a clue.
     Seemed to me like all the fishermen in the Midwest migrated straight north to Ontario for their trip of a lifetime.  Flew into a remote cabin, caught walleyes in the places marked with an X on a map nailed to a knotty pine side wall over by the sink. Took pictures, ate steak on the barbeque and flew back out. All in five days. The pull to do something like that was strong. Can't knock some of the aspects. Northwest Ontario is a great place. But it seemed so cut and dried.
     Ontario quickly told me by return mail they didn't want my kind bespoiling their pristine woods. They wanted us to have permits, guides, or at the least, rent equipment from their outfitters. The maps they included had all kinds of areas marked and shaded in. Took a bit of puzzling to get their drift. Which was, they didn't want me to take the trip I wanted to take. Whatever Al and I ended up doing, it would be done in our car, our canoe and with our gear. Do-it-yourself, for better or for worse. Ontario's point of protecting their resources and outdoor industries was completely understandable to me. I admired them for their mother-henning attitude. I'd probably have done the same had I the choice. But their restrictions weren't doin' it from my end of the stick. Xed out Pickle and Red Lake.
     Great Slave was way too far, way too big. Never a serious consideration.
     Finally, Manitoba stood alone. No one I knew had ever said the word Manitoba aloud. But it was alive and well in the lore of Minnesota canoemen. Sigurd Olson, Eric Severeid, Walter Post, Calvin Rutstrom and Scott Anderson had all paddled and then written of its waters. Kinda got me all tingly inside just thinking of it. The land of brave men and huge fish. However, the exploits of those boys were way out of our league. What they did required more time, more daring and the expert fast water skills we lacked in abundance. Mine was a happy day if I managed to keep the open side of the boat pointed at the sky. And in the remote rapids of the far north, I figured my chances of staying dry were slim at best. Not interested in a fast water, head bashing at all. Bringing life and death into the equation was more of a graduation present than I wanted to share with Allan.
     Also, in my mind, the truly remote equalled money. Big money. I grew up with little change in my jeans. Learned to do without. I grew into a two peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, brown paper bag kinda guy. If we couldn't reach an access to something approaching wilderness on our own, we'd be looking at a fly-in trip. Dollar signs with wings flapping off into the sky. Fly-in would also involve others in my scheme. "Couldn't do it on your own. You wuss." Hell, I'd been a grunt in Vietnam. Life was simple there. Sucked big time, but simple. If you wanted it with you, you carried it on your own back like any self-respecting grunt. No one else was gonna. I still more or less felt the same thirty years later.
     Time? We sure didn't have that burden on our hands. I punched a clock, had to bid vacation months in advance and Al had a summer job. The most we could hope for was eight or nine days. For sure, not expedition length. But if we could find a place within a long day's drive, a thousand miles tops, we could squeeze in a week on the water.
     There were several real possibilities in Manitoba. Three were within a couple of hours of Winnipeg. I'd never been to any of them but, in my arrogant ignorance, I immediately blew them all off as too close to civilization. No doubt those parks were swarming with Canadians looking for picnic grounds twenty miles from the nearest road. They were real men and real women up north. Born to plaid shirts and jack boots. Paddles in hand, laughing their way through number three rapids. All descended from from the Second Man, Lucky Pierre, who paddled his way out of the Garden looking for something a little more natural, exciting, with a handful of horse flies thrown in for good measure. The Canadians would take one look at us and know they had impostors on their hands. So I looked farther to the north where Allan and I might find the solitude necessary to not be seen by those who recognized the real thing.
     There it sat right under my nose. And I'd overlooked it dozens of times. There are none so blind.... A green tinted, Chevy bow-tie shaped area almost on the Saskatchewan line, Grass River Provincial Park. Perfect. I'd never heard of it. Had to put my eyeball right up to the map to see the half dozen lakes indicated in blue. Can't say I was wild about the name. A river named Grass sounded too much like the Great Plains. On the upside, it didn't sound like life-defying rapids either. But it was surrounded by more rivers and lakes than in all of Minnesota so it had to be good. It was a done deal in my mind. That's where we were heading for sure. Once again I headed to the library for an address. Then picked up my pen.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Joys of Being Windbound

     Lesson learned: You take what you're given. And maybe grow a little smarter on the way. The year we were frozen out of the Boundary Waters, Allan and I made up for it with a three day trip in August. It was a last minute deal and the pickings can get mighty slim in the BWCA without a few months lead time but there are always a few entry points that never seem to fill up. Leftovers are better than going hungry. Our's was two portages and five paddling miles from the access. Sounds a whole lot worse than it was. If you didn't know you weren't in the Boundary Waters on the way in, you'd have thought you were. Not sure why they drew the line where they did, but they did.
     Once again Mother Nature made us feel unwanted. The forecast was for continued strong winds from the west but we went knowing the water would now at least be in a liquid state. That the going might be tough was okay with me. I've always learned a whole lot more from my mistakes. Mainly I've learned most of my mistakes are self-caused. We all know excrement flows down hill but it takes a lot of wallowing and a bit of thought to realize if you looked up that hill, you'd probably see yourself refilling the bucket.
     I didn't take the weather forecast personally. It'd been windy a lot that summer, the woods were tinder dry and a forest fire of size was working its way across the Gunflint Trail. With conditions like that, it might have been smarter to stay home and weed the garden. But we had those three days, a permit and the never flagging hope that conditions might improve.
     At 3pm on Thursday, right after work, we hit the road with a song in our hearts and a slim chance we might make the Grand Marais ranger station before they closed at 8pm. Under the best of conditions it was a five hour drive. Trouble was Highway 61 out of Duluth. Hwy 61 is a two-laner and didn't have but a couple of stretches where a person could legally and safely pass. One dawdler out to enjoy the beauty of the north woods would put us in the stink hole. Any chance of beating the rising winds of the next day with an early start would be gone. Not to mention about three hours of our precious time on the water.
     By 6:30 I knew our chances were pretty much kaput. Dawdlers from hell ruled the road. Then an angel arrived on the scene at eighty mph. A maniac in a Cadillac Seville pulled up within kissing distance of our rear bumper. Before I had the chance to express my opinion of his parental relations, he - or she - pulled out, passed and resumed warp speed. Here was an opportunity sent from on high and I did not fail. With a hearty "Hi-ho, Silver!," I stomped on the gas. Went by the two near cadavers in their '61 Rambler like they weren't even there. For the next ninety minutes it was balls to the wall keeping that Caddy within firing range. Me and Al weren't alone in the van anymore. A flying death into the birch trees was now calling the shots and riding shotgun. We blew by one terrified Minnesotan after another. They weren't alone in their fear. I'd sweat myself dry by the time we pulled into the USFS office just in time to watch them lock the doors.
     Crapamundo! Thank God for Al and his nimble mind. Instantly he looked me in the eye and said but one word, "Chinatown." The incisive brilliance of that single word told me he was gonna do just fine for the rest of his life. I flipped Al my Swiss Army knife as we ran to an open window on the side of the brown log building. We pounded on the frame till a ranger arrived. By then Allan had an open blade up my left nostril. The look on the ranger's face when Al, in perfect Roman Polanski voice, clipped out, "Thinks he's a tough guy. Thinks he's a tough guy. Open the door or I slit the old man open," was worth a million bucks. Ten minutes later we walked out the door, permit in hand. Didn't even have to view the mandatory video. Fifteen years haven't dulled the warmth of that moment for the two of us.
     We camped out in our van at the John Lake access. My ears didn't sleep that night. They told my dreams the wind was dying, then dying a little more, all the way to sunrise. Looked like our lucky day. The serenity held for at least six minutes after we pushed off. Shazbot (or whatever the heck it was that Mork would exclaim)! An hour later, North Fowl was a barely doable maelstrom. But the winds didn't fully crank up until the end of the Moose Lake portage. The foamed surf on the rocky shore bade us, "Come fools. Bathe in my waters. 'Cuz you sure as hell ain't gonna get out in the whitecaps right side up." Down went the gear and so did Allan. He'd already pulled a comfy slab of bedrock out into a sunbeam and fallen asleep immediately. Two billion year old stone and the kid thought the Grand Plan was all about his nap time.
     For me, the next few hours dragged by one minute at a time. Guess I'd been in the work force too long. Enjoying being where I was, especially when I was where I wanted to be, just wasn't in my deck as yet. I wanted to be over there, not here. I paced, counted my paces, thought, tried to stare the waves into a calm, laid down for a nap at least fourteen times and woke Allan constantly to ask if he was comfy.
     I'd thought I was an outdoorsman, a real modern day Voyageur, but I wasn't. A true outdoorsman takes advantage of the lulls. Learns birdsongs, ponders existence, listens intently to that perfect C-sharp thunk as he repeatedly beats his forehead against a jackpine. The pile of blood stained bark at my feet grew even slower than the time passed.
     Finally the waves dropped maybe an inch or two. A sharp, "Screw it! We're outta here," got us moving again. And that moving was inch by inch into the never-ending wind. But move we did, following the foam line twenty yards out from shore. The Alumacraft liked to thump every third wave and give Al a little holy water sprinkle. Shhhh. Shhhh. Bang! The bangs got me laughing. Seemed so ironically stupid to be doing what we were doing. Stupidity, especially mine, makes me happy. That and the growing knowledge we wouldn't drown.
     A few years later in Manitoba, windbound days became a part of the natural order. When you're on the water for two weeks, it's a certainty you'll spend a day or two of them stuck in camp. Wind, rain, snow, broken ribs; those things happen. Of the forces that refuse to play your game, it's wind that's the most interesting. The playful little zephyrs scooting across the wave tops giggling, "Hang on. We're gonna stop your ass dead cold. Maybe even move you backwards."
     Every time the wind's up, you're always trying to meet it a few degrees off head on. Hard work but safe. Doing so makes you constantly go out of your way. Wind can come from four directions. During a blow, three of them inevitably turn out to be headwinds and the fourth seems to only exist on paper. Go sideways and you're swimming. Or so I'm told. Don't ever want to find out.
     I've been crawling through my mental attic. Among the cobwebs there live only three brief memories of shushing along with whitecaps. Its not quite like surfing for the waves continually build, break and ebb. But the melody of the wave as it breaks is a couple of seconds of ecstasy. On the flip side are at least a half-dozen full days of enjoying them head on. You'd think the numbers would balance out but they don't. When entered into the flow of my entire life I suppose it more than does. I've mostly paddled in a downwind life. But believe me, my friends will tell you to never stand down wind pos my path. Unless you're one of the few who relishes the bouquet of a freshly manured field.  Guess I've grown to be a man of the Earth in all ways.
     Being windbound has its upside. If you're on a good site, everything set up and strack, its time to putz and putz well. Food, camp chairs, rods strung, maybe a little red wine. Keep flipping the spinners. See who comes to pay a visit. Read aloud. Imagine that. We read a lot. Time frees the hands and the mind. During our three months in Canada, being in camp, for whatever reason, was never tedious. More than that, it was a pure pleasure having the time to do whatever we wanted even if only to watch the sky change color. Or maybe watch Al play and land a thirty pound pike. Not bad at all.
     Staying off the water when the wind told us to, was a growing sign of savvy. Relishing that time, a blessing.