Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Learning Curve '01 (Part One)

     A full two weeks of doing exactly what I'd wanted brought on a guilt attack, an egotistic waste of precious time. Been raised a Catholic. Need I say more? But on the other hand, I'd been spoiled and anything less than a full two weeks seemed paltry. Al was fine with two weeks. Even Lois was willing to go along with it. But I was stuck in the middle of me again. Didn't know which shoulder to listen to. Or which one was which. The devil or the angel? Donald Duck syndrome. Fifty-four years old and in the middle of a Disney toon. So the plan was listening half to one and half to the other. More or less half-assed. We'd take two weeks but they wouldn't all be in Canada. But they'd all be up north. Wouldn't be all play. Wouldn't be all work. Wouldn't be just the two of us. Lois was coming to play for part of the time.
     Once again we had a late Spring. Got me frettin' about another Winter in Summer on the Grass River. Lois said that wouldn't happen. Turned out she was right. I think she was blowing smoke and calling it intuition. There's no way I can prove that so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt.
     Here's how it played out: Over the last three or four years I'd putzed together most of a canoe and equipment storage shed up at the cabin. Twelve by twenty-four feet, dirt floored, roofed with steel. Didn't as yet have doors or siding to match the cabin. Then there was the new outhouse. Made 'cause the old one was turning into what was in the hole underneath it. The new one still needed flooring and trim work. Finishing those two projects became the opening bookend of the two weeks. The back end was a family wedding.
     Like I said, Lois was right about the weather. Two weeks of mostly sun and warmth. Nothing to hold us back but ourselves. The three of us left the Cities on an end of May Friday. All the material we needed was up North and waiting. Like a kit ready to be assembled. Construction is most always kit work. Sometimes you start by making the kit. That's what lumber and saws are for. Shed doors and sheathing were to be of cedar. Dog-eared fence pickets were squared up on an earlier trip and ready to go.
     By six p.m. that first evening Al'd started on the sheathing. I finished the outhouse. Both called for simple, repetitive tasks done efficiently. Get a rhythm and go at it. And always know where your fingers are. Do it once, do it right. Canada was calling. Lois had the tougher jobs. Made meals, provided a third hand and did the running to town for the unforeseen. Life seems to be filled with the unforeseen. Most are no big deal so long as no blood is spilled.
     She's a two holer. Steel roof. Cedar sheathed with moon and star cut in the door. The door came from the old outhouse. Too nice to not use. The bench is a formica counter top, cut to fit the store bought seats. The face of the bench is quarter sawn oak from the same stack as the addition floor and walls. Sometimes I forget and reach for the flushing handle. Walls and ceilings were decoupaged by Lois with family memorabilia and posters. Two large, quarter-inch thick plexiglass windows face the woods and let in plenty of light. Prefinished oak flooring lends a touch of civility. The peaks are screened front and back for ventilation. Might not be the finest outhouse in Christendom but it sure be in the running. I take my dirty work seriously. The flooring and trim were completed as dark was making itself to home.
     For Allan it was a dozen hours of measuring, sawing and nailing. With an additional minute here and there thrown in to remove slivers. Near the end of the day on Saturday he was finishing up and I was well into the shed doors. The same cedar picket material was used to make the doors. The two doors were mirror images and formed a diamond patterned frame when hung. Classic look. Such a design has been used for as long as mankind made doors from boards. The plan was in my head and came from years of seeing old, graying farm sheds with unwarped doors. Like most every job since God made the Garden, this one took longer than planned. Any idea of a Sunday afternoon departure flew out the window. Settling for Monday suited me a whole lot better than a pair of jacked-up doors, poorly hung. We'd be looking at them for years to come. Losing a few hours on the water was well worth it.
     A canoe-fishing story sure doesn't usually start with a construction project. But, truth be known, I don't see a whole lot of difference between the two. Both are being and doing kinda things. We were working and laughing as a family. When work's fun it's just another good way of being alive. Canada or not, we were doing things outdoors surrounded by forest, wind and birdsong. Time passed with the sun. Ate when we were hungry. Worked up a sweat. Washed at the pump. Paused every so often to take it all in. Working with your hands in the out of doors is a connection to the past. Come supper on Sunday, we were as done as we could be. All was a pleasure to the eye.
     Monday morning. Six a.m. We drove down our two track driveway through the woods, Lois in the lead. A quarter mile of gravel led us to the highway. Lois turned south. Allan and I, north. Couldn't take my eye off the rear view mirror as Lois moved into the past. Can't forget our separations during the Vietnam years. They tore me apart each time. That war sure screwed with my mind. This was nothing near that level. But I'll never forget those earlier days. Impossible to forget. A half minute later me and Al were around the first bend and on our way to Canada once again.
     Leaving from the cabin seemed a whole new drill. Sure doesn't take much to perk my interest do it? The miles flew by. Our early start didn't hurt either. And all of it in daylight. Coming from a half day of work as the first three trips had made it feel like a marathon. Bird free this time. Coming into The Pas, lo and behold, we found a brand spankin' new Super 8 motel on the right. Not exactly the Waldorf but what the hell. Though it wasn't finished, it was open and had a vacancy. Mmm. Fresh latex paint and pure olefin carpeting. Smelled just like the good ol' U. S. of A. Asked the man at the desk about a good place to eat. Scratched his head and said, "Beats me. I just got here myself." So we did the easy thing. Walked across the parking lot to a bar and grill. Pizza with Kokanee lager on tap. New beer to me but a big deal here in Canada. Michael J. Fox himself drinks it when out west. Can't go wrong with a recommendation like that. Sure carried a wallop of flavor.
     This year's plan was simple as pie and would take all ten of our days. Finish off last year's plan. Bear-Brunne here we come. The map said there was a lot going on over there besides the two main lakes. Copper, B.C., Amphipod - whatever an amphipod might be, and a fistful of hundred acre lakes. All had names, none had any marked portages. But none were all that far apart. Unless you'd call B.C. Lake with three small lakes and four unmarked portages in the way, a long haul. Copper looked like a definite. Amphipod, a trout lake, was a maybe. We'd do what we could. Still the main ideas were big pike and walleyes.


     Gotta cut in and give the low down on the Minnesota mind. Up here in the Northland we run on guilt. Keeps the furrows straight and the politicians a little less crooked. Markie couldn't stop the bad weather of '00 from cloudin' up the blue skies of '01. He kept smellin' a trap. Us Minnesotans figure life balances out in the long run. Sometimes in the short. You just don't know when the hammer's gonna fall. Topping that off, we figure the balance point to hover around mildly miserable. Think about where we live and you'll see what I'm drivin' at.
     So as he's paddling down the Cranberries, under blue skies and with a tailwind no less, he's figuring the piper is waiting somewhere up ahead to collect his nickel. Maybe bear attack. Or at the very least, a hundred year old black spruce falling on a two year old tent with a fifty-four year old foreigner inside. He'd squirt out both ends like a tube of toothpaste smacked with a ball peen hammer. Markie'll tell you for certain that even when he's having a good time, he's doin' his darnedest to temper the fun with a crazy fear of the improbable. Improbable, not impossible 'cause, if it's bad enough it ain't impossible. Can't say's I find anything wrong with that line of thinkin'.

     Blue sky, sunshine, tail wind all the way. So easy we even took an unscheduled break. to help erode a steep sided island. Sometimes Al has the darnedest time getting from A to B. He got us to pull into that island just has to check things out. I shouldn't complain. Wasn't like we were checking out the new Play Station. But next thing you know, he'll be wanting to smell the roses and find the meaning of life at the same time. Not a good sign. Dear Lord, the extra stop put us ten minutes behind schedule. Fire up your German blood boy. Guess I wasn't as yet out of work mode.
     The portage was easy work on this perfect day. Not a biting bug in the air. And it was an equal  pleasure paddling up the connecting stream and into Bear. No galloping horses this time. How dull. Soon as we were out on the lake we hung a left. New water. Yes, it was a thrill. Thanks for asking. Maybe thousands had been there before but it was new to us. Like finding a treasure chest and not knowing what was inside. On the map it looked so big. On the water, the thicket of islands to our south shrank the lake down to the downright personal. Mid lake we passed what looked to be a fine campsite. But we had other places to go. Base camp on Brunne was at least a half dozen miles ahead. No sites were shown on the map, so for the first time we'd be intentionally winging it. How daring. Going rogue in a foreign land. Sarah Palin would have been proud of us. If only we'd had the vision to arrive by helicopter. Coulda been spearing our jumbo pike from the air like real Americans. Instead, we paddled on. Zig-zagging west then north 'cause there was too much to see while searching for the next portage.
     Portage? Looked like we could have driven the Jeep over it. Way high and dry for the sixty rods to Brunne. Question of the day: What craps like a dog, eats things with hair or fur and lives way up here? I was thinking wolf but willing to scale down to coyote. Nah, wolf seems so much manlier so I'll go with that.
     We also came upon our first fifty-five gallon woods barrel. Maybe for bear baiting? Give us a break, we're ignorant city boys. What do we know about such things? So long as we weren't the bear bait, ours was a happy life. Talked this over with a friend. A lady friend no less. She suggested the best stuff to put in such a barrel was restaurant grease. All those rotting meat smells just had to be primo attractants. The beauty of the grease came into play when you plugged the beast just as it was leaning in to chow down. Carcass falls in grease. Barrel is sealed, flash frozen, then the bear can be deep fat fried at your convenience. So sweet. Hats off to Linda Mayne for the tip of the week!
     At the end of the portage sat the legal minimum of three aluminum boats. Thank God. Now I knew we were still in Canada. What would a wilderness be without locks, chains and discarded beer cans? A person could get bummed enough to head back to the BWCA with all it's rules and regulations. Or head up to the sub-arctic, spend a fortune and play explorer for a week or two. Man's problem with wilderness areas is having to drag himself along when heading into the boonies. Seems all of us, good intentioned or not, are good at screwing things up. Ah, but I piss and moan too much. We were here for da fishin'. And a little quiet time together. Hopefully we could do that without messin' up too much.
     We were there. On Brunne. No campsites posted. No problem. A dozen miles of shoreline and a couple of fistfuls of islands should offer a bounty of landing spots. First off, a half-mile in, we bypassed the biggest island on the lake. Didn't even look at it and almost sneered as we passed. Seventeen miles of water and two portages didn't seem buffer enough to me I guess. Don't know what I was afraid of. Maybe the sound of rush hour traffic back in Cranberry Portage. Even by motor boat we were over two hours from the Government Dock. How many lodge sports would be up for a four to five hour round trip for a couple of hours of trolling? Shoulda stopped and checked it out. Ten years later and I'm still kicking myself in the butt over it. A violation of rule number one: Don't do anything stupid.
     We hung a right on the five mile long lake 'cause that's where the islands were. And began a weave among them looking for a landing. Can't camp unless you can get out of the boat. Checked out every likely spot. Zip. Then weaved our way back. Zip. Who the heck made these islands? Didn't they know we'd need an easy landing someday? We'd finally sunk into the unforgivable of heading back toward the big island. Wussing out again. But then, tah-dah! Halfway back we came upon what looked like a shore lunch spot sitting on a small peninsula. The landing sucked but not so much we couldn't get out of the canoe. Toe and hand-hold time. Followed by a painter rope job to zig-zag the canoe into a brush opening and a hoist up. Took a few years but we were getting competent at doing marginal backwoods stuff.
     The site was just big enough and had a level, mossy tent pad. Looked like it'd never been used. Enough rocks to build a fire stand for our grill on the rock slab. Great view across a quarter mile bay. And just behind us an acre or two of drop zones for the inevitable.
     The wilderness camping books don't give enough space to both ends of digestion. Lord almighty! If you're gonna eat, you're gonna excrete. Simple fact. And when the woods are filled with flying things that want your blood, it's not all that easy a job. No doubt about it, crappin' in the woods is an outdoorsman's skill. For sure. Gives a new meaning to being a tree hugger. By the way, and I'm not saying this happened to me, if you're thinkin' of burning your toilet paper so as to be a no trace camper, remember: There's not much dirt in the far north. Mostly duff and rock. Seeing as how digging a hole in rock is a challenge, you'll most likely bury your leavings in duff. And duff burns. So bury it deep or pack it out. Ickey! 'Course you could put it in the cooking fire. Can't say that would perk up the flavor of fresh caught walleye but you never know.
     I'd sure like to write about all the wonderful fishing action on Brunne. Seeing as how we were a fair ways in from the road you'd have thought it would have been non-stop. But it wasn't. Oh, it was great by Minnesota standards. Just not so for Manitoba. We'd find pockets of game fish most everywhere on our islanded end of the lake. Mostly walleye. What were we doing wrong? We were there to sling spinners for pike. Catching the most curious of the walleyes was not our bag. Should have done like the Romans and gone to jigs and power grubs. But didn't think of that as real fishing I 'spose. Also we hadn't as yet figured out fishing spinners like jigs. Most gopher lovers from south of the border'd have no problems with a few dozen pickerel a day. But we were looking for boat draggers, not shore lunch.
     For sure the pike were around. Though not much for size. Just a bunch of skinny males doing their best to be annoying. I figured it had to do with spawning and the ladies acting coy. Seems like an excuse and it is. When you're on the water nine degrees north of home and no one to ask about such things as ice out, spawning and the alcohol content of beer, it's all a crap shoot. Figured the big mamas we were looking for were taking a break somewhere. Gettin' spruced up mid-lake after a tough time squirting out all those eggs. We did find a fifteen pounder off a rock pile. When I hoisted her for a portrait, she nearly rolled the canoe. Feisty lady. Gives a person pause when the boat rocks like that. 'Specially when you're a half mile out from shore. Remember rule number one.
     By the way, we were back in the Alumacraft. It was noisy and clunky looking but seemed to handle better. At least for us. Besides, she was an old friend. Still is. Lightly loaded, the Camper was kick-ass. For a few years it was our go-to fishing boat at the cabin. Then I sold it. But that's next year's story. To everything there is.... Another truth from Ecclesiastes. Nothing in our universe is a perfect anything.
     Can't complain about our time on Brunne for at least four reasons. Allan caught his one and only sucker. A much maligned fish. People don't much like to eat them but go ask a pike if they're tasty or not. Possibly it's their weak jaw line and turned down mouth. Maybe if they grew a beard like Hemmingway. The one Al caught was mostly black with a slightly rosy-tinted, pale yellow belly. Actually a good looking sucker. That is if you're into color.
     Caribou. In Minnesota we have a chain of coffee shops by that name. Northwest Manitoban's weren't as much into sippin' java while surfing the web on their I-pads as us geeky types down in Minnesota so they had to settle for the actual, real animal on the hoof rather than a logo. We saw our first pair on a wooded hillside near the Copper Lake portage. No doubt they saw us first. And probably by a long shot. Seeing as how we were an exotic species from a foreign country, me and Al were no doubt fascinating as all get out. A couple more to check off on their homo sapiens lifetime list. Soon as we saw them they turned white butt and disappeared. Saw another a couple of days later, also on the north shore.
     Gold mine. The map showed an abandoned mine a short stretch to the northwest of the lake. Of course it might not have been a gold mine but, given the choice, that was mine (Is that confusing or is it just me?). I figured there was little chance we'd find precious metal. However, there might be a slag heap in which to find a sparkly crystal or bit of pyrite. Whatever we might find would make for a good story and not be much of a burden to hump out.
     Off the wet rubbled landing we quickly came upon what looked like a grassed over two track. Wide enough to drive a truck over. I mean that. Most everything about it said truck, even the signage and occasional semaphore. Maybe a winter road? If so, where did it go? And what for? The ruts through the low spots were water filled. Finally it was uphill to the site. A feeling of being very much alone walked in with us. No doubt about it. I said hi and asked if the Solitude surrounding us minded that I was doing my best to ignore it. Seems like those feelings like to hang out twenty water, woods and crow miles from the nearest pair of trousers. Just like us, they get lonely and their dearest wish is for somebody to come along and keep them company. And maybe drag those unsuspecting visitors down into an unknown plaid Hades for all eternity.
     We found the mine area. Maybe even the mine. Or something that looked like a huge gopher hole filled with rocks. Not a slag heap in sight. The rocks in the hole were chunks of granite. Crap! No crystals for me. We wandered off in search of other treasure, any other treasure. A hundred yards away stood - well, maybe fifty years ago they stood - a pair of cabins. The piles of broken bottles and rusted cans led us to think maybe people once lived in them and survived on an unhealthy, canned diet. When the pile of trash got too big they left.
     The inside of the buildings was tetanus shot country. We did find two treasures. An empty can of Spork appealed to our Minnesota, Spam to the bone, selves. Al had to have a photo. Should have been an arm's length shot of the three of us. Captioned, 'Who be the ugly twins with that fine can of Spork?' The other was a small, unbroken bottle which we smuggled across the border. Just like in the days of Prohibition. Only those bottles were full. My old man tried to smuggle a few bottles of liquor across the border on the way home from his honeymoon.  My bottle made it. His didn't.
     We walked the site. Had a fine time passing through the heady and fragrant blend of sunlit pine and spruce. Me and that piney scent have a love-hate relationship. I want to like it. Should like it, but don't. Lord knows I've tried. Probably goes back so far in my past I have no memory of the experience. A lot of a person's attitudes seem to be based on things that happened when they were months old. A person gets bent one way for a darned good reason. But at age fifty-four, I no longer have a clue what that reason was. Can't say this side trip in the woods was a thrill. But should I ever find myself on Brunne again, I'd give it another go.
     Couple of years before, the Simonhouse Ranger had referred to this area as the Copper Lake chain. I thought he had it ass backwards. Copper's no more than three hundred acres. Bear and Brunne, both solidly over a thousand. In my mind that seemed a cart before the horse thing unless the fishing on Copper was world class. First thing on the second morning we paddled straight across toward Copper. No portage was marked on the map. Figuring most everyone was as lazy as us, we headed for the narrowest dry point between the two.  Made me feel like a regular trail blazer when it turned out we were right. Since it was no more than a long city block up and over we threw all the gear in the canoe and each grabbed an end. After much discussion concerning the possibility of levitation, we settled on the necessity of taking opposite ends. One boat sat on Copper's shore. Old and rotting. Good sign. Wasn't even chained up. There's a photo of me looking near as passed my prime as the boat, but trying mightily to affect an air of wisdom.
     Turned out we had a decent morning's walleye fishing. Maybe even pretty good. But hole-moley, look where we were. Should have been 'jumpin' in the boat' great. We were well aware of our walleye limitations. But those fish had probably never seen homemade spinners. Should have been hammering the lures just to see how they tasted. Plus, no fishing boats at the portage. That we should stink more than we thought was perplexing.
     However, there was more to the story. At the Government Dock on the way out we talked with a man who'd fished Copper a number of times in years past. Said his first couple of times the lake was the closest he'd found to virgin water. Then sometime in the mid-nineties it just stopped. Didn't have a clue as to why. I gave it some thought. Put two and two together and figured he wasn't the only one to seek out Copper. Three hundred nearly sterile acres could be easily overfished. Same old story.
     Two years later we learned the truth. Back in the gold rush days a railroad was built across what eventually became the north side of Grass River Park. When the park was established, the rail was torn out. Somehow or other the abandoned grade was turned into a crushed gravel road. A local could now hop into the F-150 and tow his boat to the north end of Copper Lake. Bye-bye near virginity. Guess we were too late. Some wilderness, eh. Not much to do but laugh about it. Still it was a pretty little lake. Even searched it for a campsite. Should have brought a jackhammer, dynamite and a bobcat. Or maybe gone up Copper's north arm and camped out on the road.
     Brunne gave us our finest evening of Canadian fishing. Wasn't so much the amount of fish. Though the walleyes had no problem sacrificing themselves for our sins. It was the black, glassed out water, setting sun and a pair of loons going looney that made our dusk memorable. Excuse me but I'm compelled to write this: the lake's surface was as obsidian. There. I've done it and feel so much better. For an hour we lived in a cliche. Sun under-lighting spruce and pine. Trees reversed on water. Mellow, fine, just right. Jaw hanging, drool flowing. All the while, the loons, a quarter mile away, went nuts. Running on the water and off at the mouth. For most of an hour. It that's their idea of a mating ritual, I'd pay good money to watch loon sex.
     Not much more to say about Brunne. One cool, cloudy day and four of sun. Then off to Bear. Took almost as long to break camp as to travel. Yeah, I know, some voyageurs we were. Here's my excuse. I don't fully buy into that 'life is a journey' drivel. Never liked 'you are what you eat' either. Saw the latter as 'you ain't what you excrete'. Every positive statement has it's corresponding negative. It's a balance, pure and simple. As for the 'journey', I'm more into the being there. Taking the time to be somewhere has more appeal. Get the feel of a location. Know the smells. Get a little feeling of being at home there. More often than not we base camped. Spent a lot of time putzing around. Also spent at least six hours canoeing on the water each day, mostly fishing. Sometimes just checking things out. Takes a while to find a few treasures on a lake. If you get one idea out of this jumble of words, don't always pass on through. Stop for a while. Throw a few spinners.

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