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

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