Saturday, April 2, 2011

Learning Curve '00 (Part Two)

     Yes, the rain did end. Didn't put out more than an inch or two in the forty-five minutes. "That the best you can do? I was ready to sit on this stump for all thirteen days. Candy ass rain." When we made the island, we hit it running. So far the weather forecast had been on the money. Maybe they knew what they were talking about after all. For the first hour it was a game of priorities. Tent up and tied off in all directions. Packs stowed.
     Confession time. We never hung our packs. In my mind the black bears in our neck of the woods weren't hip to untying properly hung packs. Heck, we could barely figure them out ourselves. That we didn't have a tree with an elongated branch anywhere near the island might have been the real reason for no hanging. But I prefer to think our bears simply didn't recognize the aroma of a Snickers Bar as food. Being natural born organic animals from the get-go they probably don't even know the treats available in a garbage can. My real concern was moisture. Even though all packs were double-bagged on the inside, we envelope folded them in a tarp when in camp to keep them dry.
     Inside the tent I laid out a slightly over-sized, plastic tarp like a second bathtub floor. Tents leak even when they're high quality. The tarp's a little insurance in case of a downpour. Bags rolled out, air mattresses inflated, Coleman fired up, food on. No rain. We were up and ready. Nail that on the wall. When I say it felt like we were home, that's exactly what I felt. And the skies had cleared. To be sure it was still cold. Long johns, stocking caps and jackets cold. Considering what we'd already been through, a little cold was no big deal.
     In my mind's eye sittin' here in 2011, what we didn't know about back then, was what was sittin' on the other side of the pole. Something was going on over there weatherwise and firing storms at Canada like ping-pong balls from a 1950's toy bazooka. Soon as one piece of misery would clear off another would come rumbling along. Wind, rain and cold. Enough wind to keep us off the water for about four days. Enough rain to make us thankful for the tent. In the bags at night we wore stocking caps, long johns, socks and jackets. Oh yeah, almost forgot. It snowed. On the coldest days we topped off our usual three layers with rain gear and life jackets. Didn't much need the Weather Channel to tell us it never topped sixty degrees. In spite of all that, we had a humdinger of a good time. What can I say?
     Nights weren't a party for my ribs. Every hour or so they'd wake me up to shift positions. Moving involved a slow, full elbow prop. Then a grunting reposition. But it felt sooo good falling back asleep. Oddly enough, paddling and fishing were no problem. Ribs must know what makes for a good time and don't want to screw it up. By the fourth night the pain was almost gone. Thoughts of Bear and Brunne returned to the picture.
     Our latrine was in the wooded end of the island. Only place with any dirt and duff. After our stay it also had the best fertilized jackpines in the park. On day five I headed into the woods armed with trowel and TP. By choice and fear of inadvertently filling my drawers, I always tree-hugged and rear projected from a semi-squat. No need to visualize that. Going into the squat, I felt and heard two distinct rib pops. Like getting kicked in the back. Hurt so bad I started laughing. Laughed so hard I nearly lost my grip. Fear of losing my grip got me laughing even more. I was on a never-ending, descending, bare-assed spiral into pain and potential rolling in my own filth. Got a grip on myself finally. Not easy to do. Since I was already down, I finished my business. Amazingly, when I came out, Allan claimed he never heard my ribs crack. Could have sworn I heard them echo down the lake. No big deal. Now at least the real healing could begin. And, big and, it still didn't hurt to paddle or fish.
The Long...
and the Short of It
     The fishing. Ahh, the fishing. Now that was another story. As good as we'd hoped. A wealth of walleyes. A plethora of pike. A tidy number of them in the teens. A few over forty inches. Two fish stand out. One at each end of the spectrum. The first was a hands down, one and only, never to be repeated, stuff of legends. You tell me what the odds are for impaling a shiner minnow cleanly through the head with a number five spinner. Aggressive little bugger. The photo shows Allan smugly posing with his trophy.
     Second fish was also Al's. Bad weather and lazy afternoons in camp had us doing plenty of shore fishing. Our little channel saw a lot of passing action. You'd think that most every campsite six degrees north of the border, especially the remote ones, would have good fishing. Not so. Our site on Wedge was the best of a couple of dozen we eventually occupied over the years. Once my ribs snapped, Wedge was the end of the road for us. No Brunne or Bear for us.
     Thank God for the passing parade off shore. Catching a forty incher while wind bound was a big deal for me. Figured it would be the largest either of us saw. And it was, for a couple of days. Came to pass one afternoon, Al was pitching his usual red and white. Me, I was putzing. Maybe trying to square the circle or something equally useful. So Al starts yelling out, "Fish on! Fish on! Bigger than a dog big!" Heard that before. What's with the 'bigger than a dog?' What kind of dog? Decided to settle that dog business once and for all. One look told me mid-sized pooch. Springer spaniel size. Damn big pike. Ran for the pliers, needle nose and camera. Got a good shot of the two of them. Why I took only one is a mystery. Forty-six and a half inches. Call it twenty-eight pounds. Nice shore pike? More like, best of a lifetime.
     Half inches are a big deal with pike that size. Its not like we were being picky or stretching the truth as far as possible. In the old days it was pounds and ounces. To get an accurate weight you had to kill the fish. Dead fish aren't happy fish. Nowadays we're kinder and gentler souls. Hook 'em through the mouth, fight them 'til they're near death, jam a spreader in their mouth, pop it through the beak, rip the hook out with a pair of pliers, take a picture, measure and turn 'em loose with a pat on the butt and a 'have a nice day.' That half inch over the forty-six inches was worth about a pound. You gotta count it.
Esox Luscius - Water Wolf - A perfect Name
     I've given some thought to why I like pike fishing. Maybe 'cause a northern was the first gamefish I caught. Maybe it's simply the name and how it gets me thinking of the steep, rock slab and pine lined lakes of the Canadian shield. More likely it's the way a pike eagerly snatches anything that moves and that some of them get big. Seriously, catching pike ain't what you'd call a skill. They're in nearly every fish holding lake in Minnesota. And if you catch enough of them you'll eventually tie into what Allan calls a fatty. More persistence than skill I guess.
     So, why Canada for pike? I've said it before. There's more of them, they're not all that sharp and there's more big ones. Simply put, my kind of fish.

     One of my goals I've ragged on about to most anyone within shouting distance is to someday fish an unnamed lake. Not just some old slough but one that held some hidden treasures. Like maybe jumbo walleyes as dumb and eager as pike. If I could have found one in Minnesota, maybe we'd have never gone to Canada. But down there in the southland, every mud hole has a name. A fair number are even called Mud and some have two names in case one wasn't enough. Guess that's to make up for all the Round, Long, Fish and Island Lakes.
     Near to Wedge sat a couple of no-namers. The best looking had a few islands and was around three hundred acres. No streams or portages going in or out. Beyond intriguing. Might have sat on its own since the glaciers melted off. Like an itty-bitty Australia with marsupial muskies. Virgin water. Lordy, lordy, the possibilities were endless. One minor problem. Between it and Wedge stretched a mile and a quarter of swamp and untraveled forest. Land of trolls, gnomes and eternally lost souls. Doubted I had it in me to set off into that much of an unknown.
     The other seemed a real possibility. According to the map she wasn't as fancy, around a hundred acres banana shaped acres and nary an island. Oh yeah, another swamp stood in the way. Seems the Canucks go out of their way to keep unnamed lakes unknown. Good news was the less than a half mile slog in the crossing. Throw in some high ground and just maybe....
     Obviously I wouldn't bring this up if we didn't give 'er a go. On our scoping of the shore we were distracted by a chunk of a pike, solidly in the teens. Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do. Turned out the map was too right. Low swampy, unlandable shore and a couple of cattail bays. We were about to bag it when off in the woods I spotted an old blaze on a spruce. Never was a Boy Scout but I knew what a blaze was and what it meant.
     Really, there were no drugs involved. Outside of caffeine and nicotine, we had nothing. Maybe it was all the clean air. Too much oxygen, chlorophyl and all that healthy stuff. Don't really know for sure what caused my brain to become befuddled. That the blaze I spotted and all the others following it, led us down a faint trail going in the wrong direction, never entered my mind. All I could see was an 'ancient path leading to near virginal waters.' Buckskin and wool shirts made this trail long before gortex. Piss on gortex. We were walkin' on history. All the blazes were nearly grown over. Moss ankle deep. Deadfall here and there.
     Had to pause now and then to make out the path. High ground all the way. Too good to be true. This was a fairy tail woods for sure. Thumper and Bambi kinda forest. Maybe sixty rods in we could make out an opening in the trees that could only mean a lake. The time between my thought of 'we're gonna make it' and Allan's realization the water we could see was just another bay on Wedge, could have been measured in nanoseconds. Ecstasy is truly a fleeting thing. We looked at each other and laughed. Same laugh. Different reasons. Seems there's a fine line between embarrassment and ridicule. I'd been wrong many times before. And am looking forward to many more screwups in my future. I've learned to take disappointment well, but not perfectly. Crap!
     Over our remaining days my ribs never got a whole lot better. When the cold would set in at camp I'd get the shivers. The shivers would make the ribs hurt more and bend me over. I'd have to head into the tent, crawl in the bag and warm up. Mostly an inconvenience. Canoeing and throwing spinners would keep me warm. Gotta love that.
     Mister Sunshine paid us a visit on our second Tuesday. The air remained cold and damp but the brightness was uplifting. A few days earlier the small side of Wedge had shown itself to be a big pike hotbed. That is if you consider four in the teens over two hours to be a hotbed. We hit the water after an early supper with the idea of an action-packed five hours. Four hours of mediocrity changed our tune. Figuring to end the evening at the Rainbow Reeds, we headed back toward camp. Hope springs eternal.
     Everything about the evening was good except the effect of the cold and damp on my ribs. Paddling wasn't the problem. Getting out of the canoe at camp to take a leak was. Allan had to lend me a hoisting hand. The leak part I handled alone. While draining I gave the situation some thought. Should anything go wrong on the water, I was a danger. Al was willing to agree with me and also considerate enough to hang around camp with me for the rest of the evening. Had I known that was the end of our canoe fishing for the trip, I'd have taken a couple of ibuprofen and sucked it up. But I didn't know that. It was Tuesday and our planned exit wasn't till Friday. You never know for sure if any decision is the right one. Or the wrong one for that matter. We're all pea brains in the Grand Scheme (whatever that is). Right or wrong, we remained in camp.
     Wednesday was more heavy rain, wind and cold. In and out of the tent all day. Ran out of smokes. You wouldn't think a dozen days would lead to any form of addiction but it sure did. We weren't happy campers. Could have been worse. We had reading material, food and a dry tent. Rained all night. We were beginning to mold. The hundred percent humidity was permeating everything. Constant raindrops on the tent were our wake up call on Thursday. In and out of the tent in the following hours to check on the treetop high clouds.
     A week earlier Al's watch had stopped during the night. Groovy. For sure we definitely weren't into time anymore. Knowing the sun was on the treetops at 10:50pm gave us a ball park reset. On Wednesday his watch stopped again. This time it was reset by a wild guess as to when it was about dark enough under a total overcast to call it sunset. So when I say the rain slowed to a mist around noon on Thursday, that's purely a guess. Figuring the almost lull was as close to a now or never moment as we were going to see, we broke camp. Everything was soaked. Didn't matter. We stuffed it in, burned off our paper and packed out the plastic. Time to go.
     Again, paddling was no problem. A little stiffness, no more than a nuisance. Al had to load me on the portage. And carry all but two packs. I could have felt like a slug but that never entered my head. We were still sharing the load exactly as we'd been doing since our first Boundary Waters trip. The balance point had been moving Allan's direction most every year since then. If we kept doing this wilderness thing long enough, someday he'd be carrying everything, including me and my wheelchair. Don't see me lasting that long but figure I have a few years left.
     The mist came and went as we bucked a light breeze down the Cranberries. By First Cranberry there was nothing left but dying rollers. Only one way to do 'er. Right down the middle, straight toward the radio tower. Pulling into shore it seemed way too dark. Heck, Allan's watch said it was only six o'clock. The Jeep's clock, on the other hand, said it was 8:15. Guess that says a lot about telling time by the sun when you can't see the sun.
    Good old Al. Like I said, we'd run out of smokes. Not life or death but I sure had a hankerin' for some kind of nicotine-like reward once on shore. Seems he'd had some kind of premonition when he'd parked the Jeep thirteen days earlier that we'd return to the access run down, broken boned and buttless. Couldn't do much about the first two. As to the third, he'd squirreled away a couple of Players in the glove box. Man of faith in action. Umm-umm. Two hundred, ninety-seven poisons in each drag. Heaven on earth (is that too heavy?).
     So it's sneaking up on nine when we pulled out of Cranberry Portage at our usual Speed of Light approaching 25 mph. Sure seems fast after two weeks at less than 5 mph.
     Thursday night. Ten o'clock. Wescana Inn. Learned that evening a new paper mill was being built just outside of town. A big deal for The Pas. Not so good for us. Seems most every hammer owner for two hundred miles was in on the deal. And most every man jack of them needed a room in town. The Pas was booked solid every Sunday to Friday. The lady at the desk was a sport. Even though she knew it was a waste of time, she called around. Nada. My brain immediately thought Winnipeg but I quickly slapped that notion down. The desk clerk's best guess for a room was Swan River. Like we had a clue where that was. She said south. The map book said a hundred ninety-five miles. Another short road trip adventure. A full tank, a fresh pack of Players, fast food, coffee, 10:45 and we were off. Black night on a backroad in the Land of Backroads.
     Thirty thousand miles with a canoe on top. Always going somewhere or coming back from somewhere fun and exciting. Cozied into our own little world as the big world rolls by outside the windshield. The first miles always have me looking at the nose of the canoe up front. Checking for movement. Soon I forget it's there. The rack is homemade. Screwed, glued, dadoed, clamped and strapped. Years of trial and error but no lost boats though the windshield of a BMW. So far. Me, my son and the canoe.
     Middle of the night. Swan River in the dark. In no mood to be choosy so we turned into the first motel we saw with a vacancy sign. Didn't look a whole lot different than the Leering Indigenous Person Inn of two years prior. But this time we were in don't-give-a-rat's-ass mode. Looking for warm water and two beds. Nothing more. Any bed bugs would have to take their chances.

                                 Emil Butts In

     The clerk up front must have been the only sober person in town still awake. Kept himself that way by watching Lex Barker action movies from the '50s with Canadian subtitles. As in, "De only good croc is a dead croc, eh." Seems he was also in the mood for fresh ears to bend. And was more than willing to share the full story, in terse detail, of last year's elk hunt. I flipped him two bits and he was off and running. Seems it was one of those serendipity things. The sun rose on elk opener to find a half gross of armed to the teeth hunters loading their trucks and just itching to kill something. At the same time, on the west side of town, a herd of elk wandered in to check out prices on the new Suburu Outback. They'd heard good things about its fuel economy and reliability. The four wheel drive would also ease the trek back into the swamp to save their hides during the upcoming hunting season. Seems elk didn't know dates from a hole in the ground. In truth, they mostly liked the exotic sound of the name Outback. Thought kangaroos were hot or something.
     Anyhow, no sooner did they hit the car dealership then the security guard picked up the phone. Armed hunters met bargain hunter elk about 6:30. 6:33 the guttin', hangin' and moppin' up started. Short and sweet. The man at the desk nodded toward the floor to ceiling mount on the wall behind him.

     The mattresses had seen better days in better decades but the sheets were clean. The room warm and dry. Shower was hot and steamy. Once under the covers I fully relaxed for the first time since we'd put in at the Government dock thirteen days earlier. It'd been a day of days. A trip of trips.
     On the way out of Swan River we stopped at a McDonalds for breakfast. The patrons looked at us like we were a couple of homeless guys who'd scored enough spare change for an Egg McMuffin and small coffee. One blue haired lady screamed in terror. I'd seen my scruffy bearded self in the mirror that morning and couldn't blame her.

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