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.

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