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.

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