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.

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