Friday, March 25, 2011

Learning Curve '00 (Part One)

     2000 had a plan. Yup, it sure did. Seems like all our trips had some kinda plan. However, most of them seemed to do just fine finding their own way. Took us along for the ride. Soon as we started to expect the unexpected, things would smooth out. Life tends to work that way most of the time. But it's the surprises around the corner that keep you interested or at least pay more attention to where your feet are landing. I write these words like I've got it all figured out. 'Bout the only thing I do know for sure is that sooner or later life will put the period on my sentence. Beyond that it's all guesswork.
     Once again the new year's plan got a little updated. Nine days round trip no longer cut it in my mind. Two weeks sounded more like the expedition I wanted to pretend we'd be on. Took a little finagling at work, a little time-off, no-pay. Voila! Instant fortnight. Al managed to fall in the crack between school and summer job. After our time on Wedge, he'd have found the time one way or the other. Another trip of a lifetime, phase III. Beginning to feel like a cat with all those lifetimes.
     More time meant a new tent, new canoe, more food and lots more spinners. Figured four dozen of the latter would do the trick. Being whacked out, spinner fishin' crazies, was a burden. Plus the Canadian bush was hard on the little guys. They got bent 'til they went limp and the squirrel tails started to look like my hair line. At four and a half bucks a crack they were becoming a pricy habit. Seemed like the U.S. of A. bought Alaska for less than our Cabela's bill was gonna be. What to do? What to do?
     Took a close look at them. Turned 'em upside down, peeked between the squirrel hairs and figured I could make my own. Even with having to buy all the necessary equipment, the first year's batch still cut the price in half. Wasn't much good tying the squirrel tail trebles at first. On a scale of one to ten, they were ugly. But given some time and a little thought most anyone, that includes me, gets better at doing dumb stuff. From the get-go they were durable. Couple of years later they were downright pretty. Looked like dangly earrings on a Flower Child of the '60s.
     The tent turned out to be a step above anything I'd ever seriously considered. But the Timberline was starting to show its age. Like saying goodbye to an old friend when it was stuffed on the garage shelf for the last time. Might have been the voice of my guardian angel or at least common sense looking over my shoulder when we picked the new one out. Might even have been the wilderness-is-the-savior-of-us-all, buckskinned, store clerk ranting on about the best tent dollar-for-dollar ever made that got me to buy it simply to shut him up. Turned out he was right. I'm not talking North Face here. It's not like we were going to the pole. Was nothing more than a top end Eureka! four man with two vestibules and a full fly. Big enough for a couple of six footers to stretch out. Magnificently dry. Vestibules turned out to be the best idea since white bread (which turned out to be not such a great idea).
     Lots of food. Maybe sixty pounds. Lots of clothes. Not fancy but enough for all conditions. Rain gear, long johns, stocking caps, gloves plus all the other stuff. You're gonna get dirty, don't worry about that. You're gonna get wet and cold, worry about that. Part of the fun is a little misery. More than a little and the fun heads south.
     Can't say why I felt the need for a new canoe. American need to buy and own stuff most likely. Once again the wallet ruled the decision. Royalex instead of kevlar cut the price in half. Indestructible and quiet, a good combination. I'd been a subscriber to "The Boundary Waters Journal," and found the editor's advice to be solid. I liked his thoughts on carrying fresh food. How far off could his canoe opinions be? He found the Old Towne Camper to be the best boat for under a thousand bucks. Good enough for me. Of course I found one on sale.
     The plan? A first week on Wedge, followed by a second week split between Bear Lake to the west and to its north, Brunne Lake. Brunne gave us access to several smaller lakes. Visions of near virgin waters sang me to sleep at night. Wedge, only one portage off the main lakes, had been glorious. Imagine what three or four portages would do. And imagine I did. Would a half hundred spinners be enough? Fishing frenzy carried me through the blizzards of another Minnesota winter.
     So you'd think if we had a whole two weeks there'd be no need to hit the road until Saturday morning. Whole day of leisurely driving. Relaxed night in The Pas. Off at the crack of dawn. Putz our way into Wedge. Idyllic and sane.
     Hah! No way in hell was that gonna happen. My brain just doesn't work that way. Knowing every minute in the canoe or at camp was golden I was compelled to beg an extra half day off. Friday morning up at four. Go like a manic banshee at work. Hit the highway by nine. In The Pas by eleven at night. Bagels, fast food, caffein and nicotine, the four basic food groups, on the way.
     Finally, another year had passed. Another of the best days of our lives was up and running.
     Once in our motel room, after the obligatory bladder tap, step number one was to put on the Canadian Weather Channel and wait for the Local on the Eh'ts (pause for uproarious laughter). Friday night's extended forecast called for wind, cold and rain 'til it all turned into blizzards in late September. Blew that off with a simple, What the hell do they know? We were the golden boys from the Real World down south. The only reason we ever had rain on vacation was to make rainbows with pots of gold for us to find.
     On the other hand, a big part of me was taking the forecast seriously. Much to be concerned about when the chances were given as ninety and a hundred percent. Didn't sound like they were using scare tactics. More like, Get ready, here she comes. So I turned up the volume on my 'Don't worry, it'll be okay' amplifier. Simple situation. We had the clothes and gear. Ready for the boonies. Didn't have to deal with it 'til we found it. For now, hit the sack and dream about not doing anything stupid.
     Come morning it wasn't so much raining as it was a heavy, wind driven drizzle. No more than twenty miles an hour (sounds much better than 31 kph). No problemo. Like I said, we were golden. If the weather was gonna be miserable, why would the Wescana have a breakfast buffet just to get us on the road faster? They knew something. That they always had one on Saturday mornings only proved my point. they'd known this day was coming for a long time.
     This year Allan didn't have to shame me out of the dining room. I'd learned from last year. Plus our two weeks were already steamrolling into the past. No time to waste. Eggs, bacon, french toast. Stuff 'em all in at the same time and swallow hard. We were gassed and on the road.
     Oh yeah, I did a lot of tree top scanning on the way to First Cranberry. And they weren't moving much. Then again they weren't yet fully leafed out at the end of May. Slowly the rain backed off and the clouds lifted off the treetops. No need for wipers by the time we hit the Government Dock. Golden. No doubt about it. All BS aside, my best hope was for the weather to hold until we had the tent erected on Wedge some six or seven hours up lake. And I wasn't really expecting that to happen. Mostly my mind was focused on loading the canoe, parking the Jeep and getting on the water. We'd figure it out as we went along. That Allan and I were doing it together was ninety-nine percent of the trip. The rest was icing on the cake.
     Once on the bay it didn't look all that bad. The breezes were swirly but no more than a nuisance. No rain. Seen a whole lot worse. Off to our immediate right the engine of Cranberry Air roared to life, then drew a bead on us. Kind of a suggestion that we quickly hang a left or make headlines in the local news. The comic relief of the unexpected took our minds off what might be coming elsewhere about a quarter mile ahead.
     Sometimes my brain doesn't get much of a handle on reality. A brain firing on all eight cylinders would have paused momentarily at the mouth of the bay, said a simple, "We'll wait", and turned around. Wasn't quite a gale out there but she was definitely a blow. Only a fool would have headed out. Only a lazy fool wouldn't have bucked the wind and whitecaps head-first toward the protected south shore. Me, I was a delusional fool. My grand plan was to quarter into the southeast wind, following a small chain of islands. We'd rest in the lee of each until we reached.... Actually I didn't think much past the fourth island. Mostly 'cuz number five only existed in my mind. Next stop was a storm battered shore fronting a swamp. Maybe Al told me to turn around. Probably he didn't. But if he did I couldn't have heard him over the wind and surf. Oh well. Stupidity makes for a good story.
     Reaching the first island was a tough pound. Sometimes we were paddling forward but moving backward. Always holding the angle. As much into the moment as a Zen monk. Maybe more. Working into a strong quartering wind from the right isn't so much moving ahead as it is a sliding diagonally front and left. So it went, down the line. Dig hard.  Pointing it up lake. Angling to the left. Then a break. All the while knowing we were actually going nowhere. Mostly hoping Mother Nature would give us a break.
     Coming around number three, the holes in my plan began to run the show. Every set of waves gave us one that bled over the gunwales. Wet feet in a canoe got me to thinkin'. We were about out of islands and beginning to sink. Couldn't find that combo in the plan book at all. Al didn't seem too thrilled either. Maybe being eyeball to eyeball with the bigger waves didn't sit well with him.  Maybe being a pawn in the old man's foolish game wasn't part of his vision of a perfect vacation. A level landing slab on the lee of the last island handed us an invitation to pause a while. Al said it might be fun to pull ashore and wait there for our rainbow. Wasn't much choice. Oddly, I was still of the opinion we'd soon be moving on.
      Once ashore Al rigged a rod. I pulled out a book. Simply killin' time. To either side of the tiny island the wind howled. Not only wouldn't the gale let up but every so often it'd step it up a notch. The smoke break evolved into pulling out the food pack for snacks. Then quick exploration of our acre turned up a tent site barely big enough but moss carpeted level. It was like this spot had been waiting for us. When the tent went up we knew we were done for the day.
     We had everything we needed to be happy. Another unexpected pleasure. Once you find a camp, set up the tent and store the gear, the pressure is off. Storm be damned. The winds continued to build and powdered the rain as it passed on the level. When we sat on the lee slab, it roared beside and over us. Eye of the hurricane effect. For fun, rain gear on, we'd walk the fifty yards to a windward opening. There, lean into the wind. See what kites felt like. A hoot in a howl. Weather was total crap and we weren't out on the waves. We laughed about how bad it was out there. Long johns, rain gear and tent were causes for joy. Allan and I snacked, read aloud, shore cast for nothin' and talked. We had it all. Just not where we were expecting to find it.
     In the early evening the wind and rain let up. Too late to move on but not too late to fish. Whitecaps still played out on First Cranberry proper but our little chain of islands knocked them down nicely. Didn't expect much action but the casting practice would be fun.
     We learned a lot that evening: 1) A storm on an old time, classic pike lake like First Cranberry slows the action to a crawl, 2) Bad fishing is better than no fishing, 3) Bad fishing in Canada can still produce a fifteen pound pike, 4) Allan will be the one to catch it (nothing new there), 5) A steel jaw spreader clasp will not float (oops) and 6) Neither will a needle nose (damn).
     Having two pairs of pliers was a godsend. Also, making my own spinners gave me the skills to jury-rig piano wire and parachute cord to the second pair allowing us to tie it and the remaining needle nose to Allan's upfront canoe thwart. It was this evening that turned Allan into a master of release. Good news for me.
     The winds remained blustery 'til we turned in for the night. As a precaution I put one of my ears on alert while the rest of me slept. Couple of times in the dark it woke me for a situation report. The treetops, not known to lie, told their tale, each time more softly. Come morning the sun rose on glass. Perfect, cool morning. No need to hurry. Let the wet tent dry while we did steak and eggs for breakfast. Sounds so good but not what it's cracked up to be. That combo was our welcome home meal from Vietnam. Didn't taste all that great even back then. But it sure do loosen a body up. Back in '69 that combo leaned out that last bit of The Nam from my intestines but not from my dreams.
     Might have been pushing nine by the time we slid onto the lake. Hadn't been a ripple to disturb the reflected world to that point. Ripple one found us as we cleared the island. Damnation, we could hear the whoosh and rumble building off in the distance and already knew the story it would tell. Ripples built into waves. By the channel into Second Cranberry whitecaps were hissing and towing the clouds behind them. Seemed familiar.
     Second Cranberry on Sunday looked a twin to Saturday's First Cranberry. Same wind. Same smokin' whitecaps. Same direction. Same senseless me. Not a good combination. Ah, but it seemed this old dog had learned a new trick. For a change we decided to bite the bullet from the get-go. A mile and a half paddle into the teeth of it would bring us a protected shore. And it looked protected enough to make the gamble worthwhile. Really there wasn't much of a choice. It was either tough it out or sit it out.
     We mulled it over while pulled in to shore. Had a smoke, took a leak. We were city boys facing reality. Once out on the lake there was no turning around, no stopping, no resting. There was no doubt in my mind we'd make it across. All we had to do was hold the line and paddle. It just wasn't gonna be a picnic.
     Damn but we were overloaded. Not unsafely but seriously sluggish. Close to six hundred pounds, that's countin' the two of us, aboard sunk too much canoe into the water. Steering was a challenge. Inertia a problem. Once the Camper made up its mind to change our heading, it took more than a little persuasion to bring her back. Digging hard with both of us on the same side proved a waste of time. The only solution was a full draw stroke. And, of course. swearing vehemently to no effect. Then I'd yell for Allan to draw our nose over. He'd think I was swearing at him not the frickin' boat and quietly steam up. The Camper would also get pissed and when she moved, it was Katy-bar-the-door. "How you like them apples canoe boys? Tink dat was fun? How's about da udder side now?" Temperamental bitch.
     Somehow we kept the angle tight enough. Bit more than an hour later we were bobbing tucked under the jackpines, feet on gunwales, drizzle coming on and thankful the rain jackets were close at hand. No sweat. Interesting how some miserable things turn into no sweat when viewed in retrospect.

                                  Emil's View

     What they'd just gone through was near nothing on the scale of pretty much anything you'd care to name. Most anyone could have done it. Most anyone wouldn't have wanted to. Or given a tinker's damn whether anyone ever did. Self-inflicted needless stupidity sums it up nicely. Been through a couple of dumbass things in my time also. Mostly it's bad timing. Sometimes, like paddling in three footers on Second Cranberry, there's no good reason. It's not a macho thing. Not a need to explore, test your mettle. More like you want to get somewhere and it turns out to be tougher than you thought. Not life or death tougher. Just tougher. A little misery makes the good times that much better. Kinda like catching walleyes in June after going through thirty below in January. Ask those of us in the northland and they'll know what you mean. Don't ask my wife Lena though. She'll tell you I'm an idiot bordering on dangerous.

     What we were, bobbing along the shore, was happy. Simply happy. Happy the only problem water we had to deal with at the moment was coming from above. And happy the drizzle wasn't dousing our smokes. Happy a little non-threatening work would put us at the portage in less than three hours. Felt like singing Ren and Stimpy's Happy-happy. Joy-joy. song. Didn't remember the tune but I had the lyrics down.
     Outside of the occasional cross-whip between the islands it was like a paddle with the rainbow ending mid-canoe. In the teeth of the wing briefly for the cross over toward the portage but that was nothin' at all.
     Hello wet, angled, granite slab with your moist lichens. Those slick bastards brought visions of shattered vertebrae dancing through my head.  Before my mental fret worked its way to my mouth, Al was already taking charge. All I had to do was hold the boat to the slab while he hoisted the packs out. Whatever 'doing a man's share of the work' is, Al was already there, shouldering the load and movin' it ashore. Looking back, it was a big moment in our lives. Gotta pay attention to those things. Packs out, Markie out, we picked the canoe clean from the lake. Carried it uphill to join the packs.
     First things first meant a five minute, think it over break taken among our wet on the outside, dry on the inside, packs. Can't say I've ever been an advocate of plastic but double lining the packs with 3 mil contractor bags kept the contents bone dry regardless the weather. We both looked up. Through my rain specked lenses I saw dark-as-death clouds. Al saw that the rain had stopped. Went with his appraisal. Figured with all the rain we'd had, the glass must be way more than half full.
     Things turn on a dime. 'Specially when you're not looking. Most often they're small, personal things. Rarely are they intentional. Say for example, you're sitting in the doorway of a Huey chopper. Lost in the ozone. Enjoying the cool breeze. Mind drifting back to The World. Chopper descends. Part of your brain locks in on where you're at but not close enough to factor in the proximity of the rice paddy below. You step out. After first flailing through eight feet of air, there's the sudden return to absolute reality in the form of toes, knees, face, then PRC 25 radio to hammer it home. A muddy face arises with a silly-ass grin on it. A sergeant passes by and questions your competence. Like I said, on a dime.
     Back on the small hill in Canada, it was time for us to do our grunt thing. Saddle up. Move out. Hoist 'er up with right arm through the strap of a sixty pound pack. Swing it around for the left and suddenly it's time for the laws of Newtonian physics to do their thing. Should've been facing downhill, no doubt about it. But I wasn't. The pack headed toward the lake and didn't want to go alone. A couple of "I've got its," were a waste of breath. Releasing the pack, I opted for a free fall. Al said I landed head first between a couple of rocks. Lucky me. My numb finger and sore ribs could have been much worse. My ribs had been broken before. Something about them at the moment sure felt familiar. But I was mobile. Were the ribs broken they'd slowly get worse before they got better. For now I could shake it off. So long as Allan loaded me up, I could portage. For the time being, life was good and Al was doing more than his share once again.
     Irony struck again. Couldn't have been over thirty rods from the end of our last trip across the portage when someone turned the rain on. Slowly at first, then full volume. Northwoods monsoon, only straight down. The only things missing were the cats and dogs. Ever the neat, drenched fools we at least had the bottom up canoe down by the Hoser aluminum hatch of boats and beer. Packs stuffed beneath. We watched from our log perch beneath the arms of a huge spruce. The only two dry spots in a thousand square miles sat beneath our rain jackets and cap bills. All the rest of the world was soaked to the bone. Biblical. Like it would never end. Should have noticed the rain smelled like Siberian Arctic and was a portent for our future.
     But we were smiling. Hell, no matter the circumstances, this was a great moment in our lives. We had most of thirteen days left. And the show of a billion raindrops dancing on the best lake we'd ever seen no more than twenty yards away. Let 'er rip. Had to stop sooner or later. When it did, we'd be ready. My ribs were on the back burner for now. If I could portage, I could canoe and fish. Nothing in our plans was off the books.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Talkin' Canada Blues

     Disclaimer: The following is written by an aging man who has all the respect in the world for Canadians. No insult is intended. "All the world's a straightline." - Jackie Shakespeare.

     Lookin' at it from a pair of small town, Midwestern eyes, Canada is just about the same as the U.S. of A. And completely different at the same time. Can't put my finger on it exactly. Even the big city, sophisticated ones like the late Peter Jennings, can't hide from what they truly are when down here in the States. They may dress and act like us but sooner or later they always slip up. Kinda like the pod people in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. One moment they're talkin' fine English, then it happens. About, trout, cloud. Can't get 'em out without that extra 'oo' after the 'ow' sound, eh.
     Crossing the border at Pembina, ND.  All of a sudden the world changes. Not like there's third-worlders milkin' goats exactly. Look at the highway and the fields. What happened to the crisp, straight lines? Not quite finished off. The same but at the same time, not the same. Like some some 1960's pot smokin', science fiction, alternate universe thing. Then there's the road signs. All the ass-kickin' eagles and apple pie flags are gone. Replaced by maple leaves. How gay is that?
     You start gettin' a little nervous. Wondering what's coming up the road. Trouble, adventure, anal probe? Head north up that road. What the hell is going on? Ever so slowly the clock starts to run backwards. Full service gas stations selling gas for eighty cents a liter, whatever the hell a liter is. You look in the rear view mirror. The face lookin' back's just as wrinkled as it was in the morning. Time goin' both ways.
     The radio. Both AM and FM. For more than a hundred miles there's nuthin'. Hit seek and watch the numbers spin round and round. Like a slot machine that never pays off. Then, out of nowhere, zap!, in comes a discussion on how the universe works. Look out the window at bog, swamp and forest flyin' by. Inside, the man's talkin' red shift, big bang and quarks. Then it's gone. Poof! An hour later the Northern Lights are shining and you have an uncontrollable urge to call them the Aurora Borealis. Is there any wonder why a body gets to talkin' about UFO's around the campfire?
     Twenty five smokes in a pack. Ten in one foil. Fifteen in the other. Says it's navy cut on the box. Maybe it's not tobacco? The warning on the side more or less says, "Smoking brings on the Apocalypse." Serious stuff, man. Gets you to thinkin'. Ah, what the heck, it don't mean nuthin'. Put twenty of 'em in the old tin and hit the water.
     Then there's Lightfoot. As in Gordon. Blast from the past except up here. Sounds so Canadian when I'm down in the States. Like a chunk of Canada up on the stage. Posing, not movin' around. Those sharp, clipped phrases. Yeah, it's folk. Yup, it's country. Mostly it's just Canadian. Like whatever they call an Alberta Clipper up in Alberta. But north of the border he's overload. Can't put his CD's on without laughing. Just too much Canada to handle at once.
     One time we heard French-Canadian hip hop coming at us like a mini-gun. Didn't matter if we spoke the language. Looked at each other with, "What the hell was that?" in our eyes.
     Travelin' north. End of the road. Canada.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Learning Curve '99 (Part Three)

     Wedge is two lakes in one, connected by a channel. The channel looked like prime water to me but the end of my line said otherwise. Not once on this trip did we venture onto the smaller side of the lake. Didn't much need to. We didn't say it aloud but knew we were coming back in 2000. Trip of a lifetime, phase three.
     During our days on Wedge we settled into a fishing routine that varied little over the years. Having nineteen hours of sun between the horizons allowed us to pick and choose our time to fish. Never did hit the water before mid-morning. Guess we weren't crack of dawn kinda guys. The way we saw it, when you fish in the evening the action gets ever hotter. Always something to look forward to around the bend. The morning's just the opposite. We usually didn't get off the water 'til 11 PM. Put it away, last smoke, brush teeth, read a little and it was midnight. Just didn't have the gumption to drag our asses out of the bags five hours later for morning fishing.
     So that's how we found ourselves on the sun dappled water fishing our way back to lunch when Al hooked the biggest pike we'll ever see. Wasn't much of a morning to that point as far as the fishing went. But we did get to see the exit stream at the west end of the lake. Typical of the far north, if the map shows a thin blue line through a swamp, figure it's nothing but a swamp. The blue line is no more than a symbol that the swamp functions as a stream. 'Spose we could have slogged our way down to the little lake a half mile ahead. It sure was intriguing. 'Spose we could have flapped our arms and flown down there also. But my arms were already tired from paddling so we turned around toward camp.
     Since the morning had been slow and the sun was shining bright and we were in the island filled, middle of the lake, Allan once again demeaned himself into fishing a rapala. Clown-colored and suspending. I know, I know. Al always fishes spinners. But he once again he wasn't. So call it 'most nearly always fishes spinners'. Seems there was one pike that didn't know that. She hit the rapala with a world of confidence. Queen of the waters. "Oh look. It's got hooks. No hurry. When I feel like it, I'll spit it like cheap bubble gum. So for the moment, piss on those weenies in their tin can canoe."
     Al, on the other hand was an explosion of excitement. He instantly knew he had something big on the line. And when he got it close enough to the boat to see the pike he started yelling, "It's bigger than a dog!" Over and over.  Never heard that one before. Not once in my days at Ole's Hair Removal Emporium did I ever read those words in an outdoors magazine. Someday I'll have to ask Allan what kind of dog he had in mind. Can't do any accurate dog/fish ratio calculations without knowing breed. I understood his drift when the pike came into view. And immediately started scanning the islands for a landing site. All were steep sided. Dilemma time. No way could Al successfully hoist that pike for a photo without flipping the boat.
     Yeah, I can hear your snivelly comments about what you'd have done. But you didn't see it like we saw it. It was a beast. Once again I was at a loss. Didn't know how to work the boat, had no useful advice. Should have taken the first big pike more seriously as a precursor. And given some serious thought as to what should be done with a fish that size. In short, Allan was on his own.
     In the coming days and years we landed our fair share of forty-plussers. Enough to give a fairly accurate size assessment. Seriously, this one was in a class by itself. Call it a solid forty-eight inches. More likely fifty. Al got her alongside three times where, had it a hand instead of a fin, she'd have given him the finger. Disdainful bitch. Mid back there was a sizable bite mark. What size of pike did this lake spawn?
     Finally it did the unforgivable and ran under the middle of the canoe. Neither of us knew enough to point the rod straight down to free the line. I didn't know enough to back the boat up. But the northern knew enough to pin Al's Fireline against the canoe's keel. Ping went the strings of his heart. Bye-bye. A dozen years have passed and she remains The Fish. How many shots does a canoe fisherman get at a thirty pounder? Had Allan a few more fatties under his belt, he'd have landed it. Great fish, good try, bad timing.
     Our time on Wedge flew by. No doubt in my mind there's something wrong with the way life doles out time. Good times fly, bad times drag. Longest twenty years of my life were the two years I spent in the Army. No matter the relativity, our last night on the water put an exclamation point on '99.
     I've read the best fishing invention ever is the Coleman stove. No doubt about that in my mind. A cooking fire is never more than a minute away. And it's almost like cooking at home. We always used both burners. Once the food was ready, the dishwater and coffee pot went on. Dinner eaten we were ready to do dishes. Two knives, two forks, plates, cups, fry pans, maybe a spatula. Honestly, less than ten minutes later we were havin' a smoke and brewing coffee. Good coffee. Took a while to figure it out but when I did it was some seriously good stuff. I've been told it's a kind of French press method: 1) Bring water to a rolling boil, 2) Turn off burner, 3) When boiling ceases, add coffee, 4) Stir down grounds and cover, 5) wait a few minutes, restir and cover, 6) When grounds sink to the bottom, coffee is ready. Drink with Pecan Sandies. Food of gods.
     Our cooking gear was hand-me-down. Plates were indestructible melmac from the '50s. Main fry pan a copper bottomed, stainless steel, also from the Eisenhower years. Small pan was a throw-out from our kitchen. Cheap aluminum coffee pot with a lid that didn't fit. Where that came from is a mystery. Gallon and a half, thin walled aluminum kettle from a garage sale. Bent and banged back into shape umpteen times. Silverware came with the plates. Cups were from an outdoor store. Don't know what I was thinking of to pay full price for the cups. Grill was a shelf in an ancient metal kitchen cabinet. Outside of the grill and pans, all the rest nested. Wouldn't change a thing.
     Our last meal on Wedge was eaten in rain gear. Couldn't keep myself from being dragged down by the persistent light drizzle and treetop dense overcast. The heavy bellied clouds hung so low I felt like we could poke a hole in them with a fishing rod. Slowly it dawned on us, this was a perfect fishing evening. Wedge was glassed out, the rain was no more than a nuisance. By the time we pushed off, the rain had all but stopped and the water was midnight black. It was hard to stay blue when it dawned on us that the weather was all but screaming great fishing. What the heck, why not spend it on the best lake you've ever seen?
     We released a lot of fish that evening. There's a limit on keeper size in the park. You've also gotta go barbless. Both restrictions worked fine for us. The idea of impaling myself never had much appeal for me and started crimping barbs years earlier, more out of fear more than concern for the fishies. Can't say barbless cost us many fish either. If you ain't gonna keep 'em, losing a couple's no big deal. So why not crimp?
     Several of the pike we landed that evening were over thirty inches. Enough fatties to give us some landing and releasing practice. Hard to own up to the truth but it turned out our problem was me. Fifty-two years old, I was supposed to have this fishin' business all figured out but hadn't. Wasn't hip to the Old Man and the Sea syndrome. Watching Al hook up with two trophies had given me a lot to consider. And I did give it some serious thought during quiet moments in the canoe. Can't really tell you why but I knew hookin' them wasn't enough. To say we caught something meant we could have boated it if we'd wanted. A photo would be nice. As would a clean hook removal. Didn't like the idea of a jaw spreader but couldn't figure out a way around it. Look down the gullet of a twenty pound pike and you'll understand. Being able to say we could have kept it had we wanted, was enough. Maybe also a t-shirt, tattoo, graphite mount from Cabela's and a 'BIGESOX' license plate wouldn't hurt either.
     My logic evolve into this simple pattern: The old saw 'keep your tip up' = 'keep your rod bent' = 'stick your rod tip straight down into the water if she runs under the boat. Goes to show any bonehead can figure it out once in a while. Worked just fine on my first forty incher.
     The tough part of the catch and release was the release. It may be painful for the fish but it also does a job on the releaser. Like I said, a look at Al's hands would tell you that. Don't know what's worse, the pike, the treble or the steel wire of the lure. All seem to pop holes in your hands. Also not easy on a big pike. They seem to fight to the death unless you can net them quickly. Since we didn't net, we had to get gutsy. Not that easy. Seemed like every time you pointed a needle nose at a pissed-off pike's beak, it'd take off on another run. Al became talented at a forceful release without getting nasty. If you know what I mean.
     We never got into the manly, 'I showed this pecker who's boss,' posed photo. Way too tough on the fish for our tastes. Over the years there were a few shore fishing shots that had us actually holding the fish. All the rest were a quick hoist by the spinner or spreaders, snap and release. Sounds easy but get ready to rock and roll when that twenty pounder decides to wiggle. Never-ever hold a big pike over the canoe! In truth we never did but instinctively knew it was a bad idea. Really big pike deserve attention to detail. And some TLC when back in the water. Once in a while when they're really pooped out and just floating, one of us would grab it by the tail, work her back and forth to get those gills breathing again. Like I said, they deserved our help after what we'd done to them.
Rainbow Reeds
     Maybe two hours before sunset the sky cleared. A shower had just passed and was now dragging a rainbow behind it. Almost worked up a full double. One end of it dropped into a patch of last year's bulrushes doing their best to look like a pot of gold. The treasure we did find on that rock pile was fifteen minutes of walleye party time. Ask Al where the rainbow reeds were and he'd give you both time and place. Life's filled with those seemingly insignificant moments that last forever.
     Three full days on Wedge wasn't enough. But that was our reality and all we had time for. Next year, over on the other side of the Cranberries, sat Bear and Brunne Lakes. On our paddle out we were already counting the days 'til 2000. Coming into Simonhouse we seemed to be passing the same boats we'd seen on the way in. This time I was feeling damned smug about where we'd been and the luck we'd had. Two hundred horses couldn't get them to where our little paddle boat could. Made me almost think we were finally figuring this boonie fishing out. Oddly enough, we'd known the answer all along. Guess somethings have to be learned over and over. That the big boats couldn't do it seemed only fair to me. We all make choices and have to live with them. Can't say ours was better. On the other hand, canoe and tent sure was quieter and the fishing a lot better. A little sweat goes a long way. Like I said earlier, thirty years had passed but I still thought like a grunt. Smelled like one too.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Emil Interlude - Fishin' Savvy

     I had my way on the water, they had theirs. I ran the boat and mostly used bait. Call it old-timer fishing. Markie-boy loved steel. Mostly 'cuz it didn't look like much of anything. Sparkle, wiggle and spin. You tell me what that is? And it claims to be French. Hell, the Frogs don't fish, they eat snails. So go figure. I spent some time on Wedge lake and knew the drill pretty well. Probably out-fished them with my minnows. But they did okay. My plan is to look down on their canoe from above as only a deadman can and give you a spook's eye view of their shenanigans.
     Wedge's bottom is mostly rock, beaver dropped branches and a little weed. Seeing as how they loved to fish tight to the shore, they threw their spinners out and did a fast, straight retrieve. If you're gonna do that and not get hung up, you better start cranking on the way down. Both of them were right handed so their cranks were on the left side. May not seem like a big deal but they were dropping steel on rock in four inches of water. Well, you get the picture. Oh yeah, don't forget to check out the overhanging birch branches.
     Emergent weeds are a hoot. Little minnows seem to love 'em. It's gang busters for pike when a falling lure gets a bunch of minnows to jump. The boys couldn't swim a spinner through the little green spikes. But they could run them across the top. Watchin' Al point his rod tip to the sky and run his spinner like a buzz-bait is poetry in motion. He'll tell you it's not the best way to fish but it'll do in a pinch. Also gets the pike on top of the water. Watching the V of the pike intercept the lure's a pretty good show. My nephew's been known to hoot when that happens.
     Walleye fishing's another story. When they're in shallow, they'll hit a spinner pretty much like a pike. But they seem to pick up on their mistake a little quicker. So you won't catch more than a half dozen before they wise up. Me, I'd outfish'em two to one with with a jig minnow combination. But mostly they're a couple of boneheads, at least Mark is, so they'll sometimes work a spinner like a jig. What the hell is that all about? You jig jigs and spin spinners. 'Swhat the good Lord intended when he passed out names to lures. Let them try that kinda stuff back in the Gopher State and the both of 'em would go hungry. But in the back lakes of Canada where the fish are pretty innocent, droppin' a spinner to the bottom and bouncing it in seems to work okay. A few years later Al came around to my way of thinking. Smart kid. But the old lunkhead insisted jiggin' spinners was just as good. Some people never learn.
     When Markie was paying more attention to his whereabouts rather than his ego he'd position the canoe so that Al could fish forward, parallel to the shore. If the pike were holding tight, his spinner would flash by a couple of pockets on each retrieve. Simple way to cover water. 'Course Markie would end up with leftovers. But leftovers was still good fishing on Wedge. Plus he'd get to work the lake side more than Allan. Maybe pick up a pickerel once in a while. Claims he liked the back seat best anyhow. Watching the boy hook up with fish after fish was better than watchin' Saturday morning fishin' shows in 3-D. Action was just as fast as the money boys but Wedge Lake was happenin' in real time. Fish on. Fish on. Fish on.
     Speaking from personal experience and lookin' at Allan's hands, there was a downside to pike fishin' with spinners. Dealing with treble hooks, steel and toothy fishy did a job on his fingers. A slip here, a wiggle there goes a long way towards pokin' holes in flesh. Even with a master of the jaw spreader and needle nose like Allan. And Wedge Lake transformed him into a jaw spreadin', hook slippin' demon. Got so's Markie would swing a fish around to Al's right side whenever it was hooked too deep. Even got lazy about it. But Al never complained. A bap on the beak, a twist and pop of the spreaders, surgical removal. Jackfish didn't know what hit it. Then it was gone, wonderin' what the hell just happened.
     Seemed like Al grew to be a man up in the northland. And Markie got to be a boy again. I suppose that's the way it's 'sposed to work out.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Learning Curve '99 (Part Two)

     The next morning Al went and screwed things up. It was Al's fault but my ignorance that did the trick. To that point we'd had a near perfect fishing record in Canada. Nine plus days and a few dozen smallish pike to the boat. On the scale of suck, we were a near perfect vacuum. A record a man could hang his hat on and I was feeling cocky as a dragonfly about it. Al Lindner and Roland Martin, eat your hearts out. Seemed to me most anybody could go five hundred miles north of the border and hammer themselves some bigguns. But try and average 1.4 pike per hour over eight days. We stood atop the Everest of craposcity. Most everyone who ever held a fishin' pole stood so far below us they couldn't see us with a telescope. We were magnificent!
     Then, like I said, Al went and ruined it all. Came as such a shock we just sat there gape-jawed trying to figure it out. In the back of a small muddy bay, more or less a slough, Allan finally sank to the level of throwing a Rapala. I'm not knocking Rapalas in any way, shape or form. They're about the finest thing to come out of Finland since Paavo Nuurmi and the sauna. But you see, Al fishes red and white in-line spinners with a squirrel tail. Mepps at first. Home-made later on. When the spinner stops catching fish, he simply clips on a new one. Figures fish like the smell of fresh steel once in a while. Seems to work for him. Way too well in my opinion. As for me, I'll fish a red and white interchangeably with silver or brass. The two of us do have a love affair with the rotating blade.
     Honestly, when that pike hit Al's rapala, neither of us knew what to make of it. Call it an out of body experience. Like it was happening to somebody else and we just happened to be there at the time. As for me, I didn't know what to do. Yelled a few dumb-ass inanities like, "Keep your tip up." Should have been attending to boat control but hadn't ever had to do that before. Al was clueless and asking advice from someone in the same boat, in both senses. A couple of thrashing runs later the hook was spit and she was gone. Maybe forty inches long. Hard to estimate when there's no mental ruler. But she was big. Less than a minute and she was no more than a memory.
     I could get all philosophic about now. But I'll pass on that. Call it being in the right place at the right time on a lake with some big fish in it. That Al was the first to hook one was only appropriate. Between us, he's the better fisherman. That he lost her had more to do with the rapala's smaller hooks. Had he been fishing a spinner, the hooks would have penetrated the jaw and he'd have landed her. Simple as that.
     Even with Al's big pike, I'd lost faith in Simonhouse. One fish does not a love affair make. The continuing volume of boat traffic didn't help much either. Too close to civilization. We moved out on a sunny Sunday. Up the ever narrowing arm until it joined with Second Cranberry about mid-lake. Most all the lakes in the far north are interconnected. Aren't so much lakes as they were widenings in the rivers. That is if you're willing to go along with lakes up to a few hundred thousand acres as widenings. Same here on the Grass River.
     Have to admit I was bummed. Most likely Al was feeling the same way. But he has a way of picking me up when I'm down. So he wouldn't let on even if he was in the pit. Either way, there we were, putzing up the same shore as last year, under the same bright sun, heading to the inevitable but not thinking about it. A few hours later we found ourselves in the one place I'd never wanted to be again, The Rock. Crap. This was the bottom. And it seemed worse the second time around. The dust was dustier, the dirt dirtier, the jack pines more decrepit and the cracked tent slab looked like it'd eroded a little. Thank God all the stone spikes were still there for our backs to curl around. Oh well. It was June this time. The fish were out there waiting for us. Who knew, maybe....
     Fish or no, at least there, a dozen miles farther into the park, boat traffic was reduced to us two bozos from the States. And the fishing did improve. At least numbers wise. Only the dozen hammer handles seemed hungry enough. Oh, did I almost forget to mention the walleye Allan landed in the near dark? Couldn't make up my mind to that point whether he really was the better fisherman. Mostly I was leaning toward his fortunate choice of fore-paddler kept putting him into the rare good spot. Either way we'd finally worked our way up to decent Minnesota fishing.
     Don't get me wrong. I wasn't complaining about the situation. Just befuddled and somewhat deflated. Its like this: A person waits for three seasons. Lines up the dominoes, tips the first one and it falls flat, no more than a hair short of number two. So close but so far. Our time together in Grass River was good but the spark of anticipation was being replaced by accepting pointlessness. That our next cast might be the fish of a lifetime didn't seem to be in the cards. That's not quite it either. But there was a hole somewhere. We were trying to find it and fill it up if we could.

     Monday popped up like a day at the beach. Where the hell was the Canadian plaid shirt weather? Water sparkled, sun hammered down, way too warm for the forest green northland. No doubt about it. The Rock was the wrong place to be. Like the metal box in a 1930s prison yard. Only we didn't have to be there. No shade, with overtones of lethargy surrounded by water and wooded hill.
     In desperation we trolled the lake for pike, walleyes, tarpon and bluefin tuna with equal success. Figured if we weren't catchin' nuthin' we might as well broaden our horizon of failure.
     Afternoon found us laid out on the slab. Shirtless, pants rolled up. Al on his stomach, me on my back right leg over left. Words arose about heading back to the cabin. At least there we knew the score. Didn't want to stay. Didn't actually want to head back. Didn't really want to do anything.

     Maybe out of boredom. Maybe 'cuz he'd been planning it all along from day one. Whatever the reason, Allan spit out the words I needed to hear. "Nothin' better to do, let's check out Wedge Lake." Our world turned on those words. Instant shot of adrenalin. Half hour later we had it broken down, packed up, in the canoe and were pushing off. We were pumped. New men finally gettin' it right.


     Rarely are lakes named what they're named for no reason. Take my word for that. For you useless skeptics I give the following examples. Deadman Lake by Markie's cabin received its moniker from a man who needlessly drowned there. East Pike Lake for its profusion of smallmouth bass. Not sure I understand that but a guy sittin' on the curb outside a Grand Marais bar said that was true as the snot in his beard. Wedge Lake was dubbed as such because of a Voyageur tradition. Rarely did the Frenchmen of days gone by venture off a designated route to explore the surrounding turf. Time was far too critical to waste traipsing around and smellin' the roses. The large meadow on Third Cranberry's Alligator Island was a time honored stopping point on the Grass River. From there, first-timers would be sent down their merry portage way to a neighboring lake said to have gold nuggets the size of a man's fist. When the new paddler would reach the end of said portage, he would be surprised by a group of veterans who'd yank the man's trousers up to his Adam's apple as a kind of initiation for some obscure French-Canadian reason. Over the years indiscriminate cartographers shortened the name to Wedge.

     Seriously, I knew where we were going. Hell the portage was no more than four miles away. The odds on me getting turned around in the dozen islands in our path were.... Let's just say that Al finally pointed the finger and said, "Go that way old man." You could say we were finally on our way to where my mind started heading thirty-four years earlier at the U of M.
     Rocks, pole dock or slab? The choice of landing was ours. The dock reminded me too much of the log bridges in the Mekong Delta. In muddy boots they were true testicle destroyers. Not doin' that again. Jagged rocky beach meant stepping into fifty degree water and being wet for a couple of hours. Yes I am a wimp. Slab it was.
     The portage was a fake. Pole dock and Honda ATV could have told us that. It was there to provide the sports stayin' at the Viking Lodge access to Wedge Lake. End of story. A real portage was part of a highway in the forest. Natives traveled from lake to lake in search of food, clothing and shelter. The idea of hacking a trail for a few big pike wouldn't have made much sense to them unless their dogs were starving. But to us, this was the highway to heaven we'd been seeking. A nauseating analogy but the best I can think of at the moment. The path was mostly level, wide and through a shaded thicket of skinny spruce.

      Maybe two hundred forty rods. Took about an hour to triple portage it. Had we been five and a half foot, herniated Frenchmen we'd have done her in fifteen minutes tops. I'd take the hour any day. On the shore of Wedge we once again found ourselves amongst an aluminum hatch of boats and LaBatts cans. Oh Canada!
View from Wedge Lake campsite

     The lake? She was a thing of beauty, that she was. Looked better than on the map. So crowded with islands there were no long vistas. Intimate in every way. Sometimes a first look says you're home. Our camp had been Xed by the Ranger back at the Cranberry Portage Coffee Shop. Good man. Down lake a half mile, hang a left, another left on the big side of the lake and there it was. A tad bigger than The Rock but a world of charm apart. A fitting site for such a lake. At most a hundred feet by thirty. Lake level landing at one end. Micro forest at the other. Splitting the two, a slab rising slightly from lake to channel side. The channel, a full spinner cast wide. It had taken eleven days but we were home at last.
Wedge Lake Camp, My Hat on Tree

     No hurry. The fire grate on the channel side of the slab became the family room. Lakeside, the inclined tent slab. The slope helped gravity pull us down hill at night. By three AM we'd inchworm back up hill. Small price to pay for this treasure. We savored dinner. I was in no hurry to force the issue. This was push coming to shove time. If we couldn't make it here, it really would be time to pack it in. Dishes done and polished to a gleam, camp trim and the canoe fishing ready. At least four hours of daylight left. With a simple. "Time to rip some lips" and a "Hearty, hi-ho Silver!," we pushed off.
     Began with the normal plan of Al throwing spinners while I worked the boat. 'Bout the first thing I'll say when you're in the canoe with me is, "Pick up the rod and get ready." No different that night. After thousands of casts Allan could drop a Mepps in a bucket at sixty feet more times than not. No more than fifty yards from camp he turned loose. First cast into a small pocket along the shore flanked by brush. Nothin'. I quipped the obligatory, "No fish here. Might as well go home." Second cast, the same. More than used to that. Third cast, the charm. "Fish on!" A small pike but the fastest hookup to that point. Fourth cast. 'Nuther small pike. Hmm.
     By now we were off a small point protecting a bay. There I picked up my rod. Tried the lakeside and found a two to three pound walleye. No doubt this was finally the real deal. What we'd been looking for. That first night on Wedge provided never ending action. Yeah, we might go a couple of dozen casts between fish but then it was fish a cast for ten minutes. No point keeping count. Simply call it classic Canadian fishing.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Learning Curve '99 (Part One)

                               Emil Interlude

     So what exactly did Markie Boy learn on that first trip? Not a whole lot but what he did figure out was important. Next year he sure as hell wasn't going in August. Over the winter his German blood came to the fore. Don't knock it. There are some good points to being anal and overly organized. In this particular case he got out the Manitoba Master Angler Awards for '97 he'd gotten from Manitoba Tourism and a magic marker. Highlighted every walleye and northern caught in the western half of the park. Claimed he nearly went blind with the thousands of big fish and the little print. More time with the purple butt. But one thing was for sure, June out-fished all the other months put together and then some. Coulda told him that but he wouldn'ta listened. 'Course by the time I was his age, me and water had spent a lot more time together. I grew up around water and saw it in all its phases. After a winter in Parkers Prairie 'bout the only thing on my mind was gettin' out on the lake as soon as it would float a boat. Crappies after ice out were better than nothin'. Manitoba was the same drill only it took a bit more guessing than just looking out the window with a cuppa coffee in my hand.              
     However, it doesn't matter much where you are. Water is water and fish are fish. Doesn't take an Einstein to figure out you wanted the ice out, water warming up and the bugs down to have a good time. As for hot fishing I'd time it so the walleyes were done making babies and gettin' hungry. They don't smoke after sex but sure do like a good meal. So for me it was early June. Same for them.
     By the way, he happened to pick up on a little gem. One of my favorite spots also. Wedge Lake. Bit of a wet portage offa Third Cranberry but definitely worth the trip. His eye was drawn to it from the get-go. Didn't let on much more than a mention or two to Al. Even saying the name aloud was kind of like revealing the identity of a secret, from afar, love. The kind only you know about. Wedge was a couple of thousand acres and island heaven. Been there myself a few times. 'Course he longingly paddled by the portage the first year. But it was on his mind, I can guarantee you that.

     Our second Canadian trip began with the Word and the Word was June. The fishing guide told me most everybody and his dog could catch pickerel and jackfish in June. Though the guide didn't exactly say it I figure most everybody included me and Allan. Before I move on there's a little truth that needs telling. We did so badly fishingwise in '98 it unnerved me. No doubt we'd have done a whole lot better around the cabin. Driving nine hundred miles and paddling thirty more into the boonies with a handful of pike to show for it didn't say much for our fishing abilities. I had fears that if '99 was a repeat we wouldn't ever be let back in Canada.
     "Headin' to Grass River Park are ya boys? Let's take a look, eh. Wait for the old computer to come around. Oh my! Can't say as I've ever seen that before. Says here you boys have stunk up our lakes for two years running. Can't be having that. No siree. Don't want anybody giving our wilderness waters a bad name. 'Specially a couple of Yankee Doodlers like you two. Going to have to tell you to turn right around and head back south to your bullheads and sunnies. Tell you what, I'll tell the people in line you're a couple of pornographers so as not to cause you any undue embarrassment. Now skedaddle!"
     Once again we didn't travel light. Seemed like having to drive fifteen hours made us pack more than just the necessities. Besides a cooler of fresh food we threw in a pair of five pound camp chairs. Never saw them included on any 'what to bring to the boonies' lists but we came to swear by them. After six hours on a canoe seat the thought of rock, log or ground as a parking place had little appeal. Our asses loved us for the chairs. Smartest things we ever humped across a bog.
     Also threw in a new access point in hopes of this old dog getting a bone for learning a new trick. This time at the southwest corner of the park we'd drive eastward and enter on Simonhouse Lake. Looking back on it, the change was about the same as putting on the left shoe first once in a while. Either way your shoes were on but the end result was more or less the same. Simonhouse was much bigger than First Cranberry. Twenty thousand wide open acres of water. But it had an island filled north arm that looked really good. That the awards guide told us a lot of big pike and walleyes were caught in Simonhouse sealed the deal. I figured, why not us? I was still wandering around in the dark.
     Again we found our Thursday night bed at the Wescana Inn. Awoke to a truly splendid soaking rain. Had this been farm country, there would have been a lot of smiling faces. But not on mine. From my point of view the weather sucked all the way through breakfast. I tend to sink into the pit of despondent lethargy at the drop of a hat. Would have sat there most of the morning but Al broke my 'poor me' spell with a, "Let's get out of here. If we're gonna sit and watch the puddles grow, let's watch 'em at Simonhouse." Five minutes later we were leaving The Pas behind. Over the miles rain became mist then fog.
     This year we needed a permit so we could park the Jeep. Luckily the ranger at the campground entrance was in. Not only was he in but he spent ten minutes of his day 'X'ing out the fishing hot spots on our map. Seems he'd been a guide in his previous life. Must not have gotten in enough time in the outdoors, or maybe a retirement, so he went for the uniform. Not to spill any future beans but over the years we had a lot of 'X'ing done on our maps. All were suppose to be hot. All were appreciated. None produced fish. Guess they were Canadian-only hot spots.
     Before we left, he emphasized he'd only pointed out the walleye holes. Like that was necessary to say. Guess he figured that since we'd been in the park before, we must know what a pain in the ass jackfish were. Swarmin' after your lure like dock sunfish attacking a grasshopper. So many pike you'd get to cussin' them out and rippin' your lure out of the water. The way he put it, a person could walk all the way to Elbow lake on their slimy pike backs and not get your feet wet. Somehow the look in his eyes told me he knew the truth about our last year adventures and was laying on heavy Canadian sarcasm at its best. Of course we went along with his spiel, bobbing our heads in total agreement like too many pike was the bane of our life. We tried to keep our tails from tucking in as we slunk out the door. Once in the open air we drove down to the ordinary looking wooden access dock. As the sun began to peek out, our hopes for redemption on the water woke up. This year was going to be different. All we had to do was take the gear out, load it up and do a three mile crossing.

Simonhouse Access
     All of Canada was over there waiting for us once again. The fog was all but gone and the water was glass. No problems anywhere except between my ears. What I saw, up ahead a mile, just behind the point on the left, was the God of Eternal Misery. And he had a little squall chained up like a pit bull with a crotch rash. Soon as we hit open water he'd turn it loose. Five foot white caps would build in an instant and we'd be dead meat. Yeah, I knew the truth. The odds on that were zip. Didn't matter at all. We smoked it dead straight across the lake. Could almost have mistaken us for real canoe men.
      There we were bobbing in the sunlight off a friendly slab of point rock, sippin' soda, feet on the gunwales. Coulda been '98. At least until an omen came to pay us a visit. Allan claimed he saw a walleye swim by. Nice of the boonies to send us a welcoming envoy. A person could get all warm and philosophic about something like that. Not here. That kind of crap only seems to work in novels. The real world had me looking over the side of the boat and not seeing anything but green tinted, rubble rock bottom. Maybe adding a, "You must be dreaming." 
     Outside of that the boat traffic sure was different than last year. Seemed like everyone in Manitoba with a motor and something that'd float had decided Grass River Park was the place to be. Big boats, big motors, bigger fishermen. Not what we were looking for but we still had a campsite to find and a few dozen boat wakes to rock and roll through on the way. 
     My thanks to the Canadians for preferring island campsites. We liked them also. Lunch was a quick affair. The plan always called for ribeyes and hash browns. We loved hash browns but they took too long to reconstitute and fry up when the fish were calling. So it was ribeyes and peasant bread slathered with butter. Arteries crying no-no and taste buds in ecstasy. Balance of life again.
     Bluebird skies and power boats should have been a clue. The wilderness feeling we sought was at least a portage away. This could have been Lake Minnetonka by the Twin Cities. We both knew the fishing was gonna suck. All we had to do was go out and prove it. When I find myself in spots like that I can be a real bonehead. Can't see past the game plan. But, what the hell, it was Canada, June and we had rods in the canoe. So we threw spinners 'til our arms grew tired. After a year of not seeing this land, the scenery was enough to carry us through an afternoon and evening of poor fishing. Better than last year? Maybe, maybe not. Little pike here. Little pike there. Not everywhere. Fished right on top of one of the ranger's X's. X marked the not.
     Thankfully we had the dragonfly follies back in camp. Huge, huge hatch. They were everywhere. First, you've gotta understand Allan has no love for them. His distaste goes back as far as I can recall. Don't know if it's their big, bulgy eyes or their habit of landing most anywhere on a person's body they feel like. Or the way they decorate a car's radiator with body parts. The idea of an elaborate wood framed, glass cased and velvet lined insect collection gathered from the front end of my car holds its appeal for me. I'm one sick puppy but also a lazy one. So the bug case hangs only on the wall of my mind.
     As we lazed in camp a show unfolded above us and the dragonfly's role in the scheme of things began to have its appeal for Allan. Not that he ever grew to like them but he did see their use. 
     First let's take a step back. Half of the show above usually found its fun at night.  That night as I  was dropping off to sleep, a background roar stepped in and opened my eyes wide. Not all horrors are big. Bears don't wander through a camp and tear bodies apart all that often. But a soft background roar, not much louder than the exhaust fans in an office building, made me ask the question, "What the hell is that?" And it was a hell. Coming from every direction. Mosquitoes. Big frickin' mosquitoes. Man-eaters tough enough to survive a fifty below Canadian winter. I wanted to kiss the Eureka! for keeping that biomass outside. How many mosquitoes add up to a roar? Don't ever want to know.
     On the flip side that afternoon we found ourselves in a dragonfly hatch to behold. Above us they were decimating a column of 'skeeters. And those little dragons were cocky good at snatching their meals. If insects can have fun, we were watching it in action. Comin' at the mosquitoes from all angles. Right side up, upside down, sideways. Showin' off for each other and maybe doin' a little courting in the process. "Look at me! I can eat four at once. Imagine what I can do in the sack baby!" I liked them before and liked them even more as the show went on and we mulled it over. A simple pleasure to sit in the sunlight, nowhere we had to be but right there watching the food chain in action. Almost made us feel sorry for the 'skeeters.