Saturday, May 28, 2011

Learning Curve '02 - Claw lake

     Tuesday. We were as ready as could be. In a kind of don't think about it, just do it, way. At least it was a warm, sunny morning. Good day to work up a sweat. Allan, of course, was in an upbeat mood. Assured me it was gonna be fine. Like he had the slightest clue about the ordeal we were paddling toward. Poorly buried memories of monsoon in the Mekong River Delta tinged my view. Water, mud and heat. Everywhere. Dressed wrong and sixty pounds on our backs. One time it took six hours to cover ten clicks. Feet swelled like soccer balls. Toes pointed straight up. I mentally drifted on and off Claw Bay as we approached the beaver dam.
     But what's that? Over on the left. A couple of fishing boats snubbed into shore. And no one around. Must have gone somewhere. Looking for morels? Too early for blueberries. Claw Lake maybe? Yup, had to be Claw. Nah, that was too good to be true. My inbred Minnesota sense of balance wouldn't let me believe what I was seeing until I had proof. Put my fingers in the wound, let me feel the pain.
     We hung a sharp left and landed. Walked ten rods uphill. Looked down a ten foot wide, grass floored avenue through a grove of mature aspen. Like a portage for Louis XVI to enjoy from his Landau's window. Could this be our piece of cake? Would we be allowed to eat it? Went back for a load and set off.
     The first hundred rods was a romp. A stroll. By then I began to wonder where the stream was. We must have passed the delta. What was going on? Twenty rods around a bend gave us our answer. A bog separated us from the stream. And a quarter mile ahead sat the real rapids. Numerous seeps and tiny drainages dotted the hummocky swamp. Through it snaked a faint trail. Thankfully, jackstraws of deadfall added to the charm. Guess we were out of romp. We dropped our load. All of a sudden the pack had gotten a whole lot heavier. Odd how gravity can do that. Head scratching time. Though what was coming didn't look like fun, it still beat the crawl I'd been anticipating. Nothing to do but go back for more stuff.
     Sooo, for the next ninety minutes we worked up a sweat. Our sweat worked up a sweat. Never thought the canoe, our lightweight kevlar, would have been the toughest part of the carry. Through the bog, we each took an end. Embarrassing. The bugger was too long. Not something real men would do. Jeez, give us a break. The corners were too tight. The deadfall jumble badly placed. Had to inch around the corners and lift it over the piles. Finally, the last ten rods was through a thicket and up a steep hill. Pardon my whining.
     Centre Lake was a spiffy five minute crossing. Two boats and an ice shelf at the landing. Our invisible guides still somewhere ahead. The second portage a bit tougher and longer than the first. More jumble, bog and thicket. Same canoe drill. And mysteriously, the closer we got to Claw, the wetter the ground. Finally, standing water. On the way Al made a wrong turn. Ended up in a flooded meadow. Somehow he missed a bleach bottle trail marker (Kids these days. Don't have a clue about how the Voyageurs always marked their portages with polyethylene containers. Long lasting and easily seen). Nothing about the country we'd been through 'til now said high water. But somehow, Claw was in flood.
     Yup, it was another hot, sweatin', hummock jumpin', quintuple carry. Took us four hours to do the five trips over both portages, finally covering twenty-five hundred rods. Not exactly the Four Mile Portage but still a serious hump for us city boys.
     The trail ended in a grove of flooded trees. Call it another thicket. On the last trip over we passed our guiding party. Four men from the Midwest staying at the Elbow Lake Lodge. Guess they'd've been doing what we were but preferred sleeping indoors. Each morning they loaded lunch and gear into frame packs. Headed to Claw via motor boat. It took three sets of boats each way but they ended up with a remote walleye heaven to themselves. Almost. Hadn't been the trophy year they'd come to expect. Nothing much over six pounds. Allan and I each shed a tear for them. Again we were in the mystery that was Grass River Park. Motor accessible but much less traffic than the BWCA. That is, if you were willing to put in the miles. Blue collar paradise.
     Once in the water we hand pushed and pulled our zig-zag way through the thicket. Then up a short stretch of swampy river complete with one story, plywood trapper's shack on the shore. A bit of crap in a pristine land. Once on Claw, Al spotted our campsite from a half mile away. Biggest island on the lake. Also had the only stand of mature trees for miles. Again the landing shelf seemed designed for a fishing boat. But with water levels high, who could tell what the original intent was?
     On shore I saw no possible place to camp, for the face of the island sharply rose thirty feet in elevation. So I rummaged around. Turned over rocks. Looked under bushes. No campsite there. Hmm. Quite a mystery. Of course Al, lacking my thoroughness, simply climbed the hill and called down, "It's up here." And we were home for eight days. What a site. Moss for tent, slap-dash filleting table, and, tah-dah!, a thermometer. Can't tell you how many times I'd said, "This would be a perfect campsite if it only had a thermometer nailed to a tree." Now when we were warm or cold, we'd know exactly to what degree. Sigh of relief. Our view was for miles. A half dozen prime shore fishing spots. Everything but a view of virgin timber. Unless we looked up. Had I the chance, I'd camp there again anytime. No questions asked. The edge of the hill, a truly fine spot to eat our meals. In the panorama photo above my lure building desk, Allan sits overlooking our temporary world. A small acme in my quiet life.
     By day four of the trip we'd gone into our high cholesterol breakfast phase. Sausages, toast and eggs. Hashbrowns and eggs. French toast and sausages. Eggs, sausages and eggs. Sounds like a Monty Python routine. Two dozen eggs, phht, gone in four meals. Then came several rounds of spaghetti. Emeril's Kicked Up Tomato and his Roasted Peppers. Lotsa noodles. Always ate it fast before it cooled off. Following the first spaghetti meal Allan wandered off, trowel in hand. A minute later a resounding Bam! echoed from the woods. Funny man. Thank you Emeril. All good stuff. Leave the freeze dried at home. Maybe take one along as a backup. They're edible but only taste good if you're really hungry. I mean really hungry.
The Good Life on Claw lake
     We learned a lot that first night on Claw. Mostly where the fish weren't. Spent a lot of time scratching my head again. We threw lures to a lot of likely spots. Weren't skunked but that's about it. I blamed it on the flooded lake. Most shoreline trees stood in the water. Why so, still remained a mystery. Now in our fifth Canadian trip, I liked to think I had it figured out. But each lake holds it's own secrets. Takes a bit to figure them out. But, what the heck, we were on new water and had all two thousand acres to ourselves. Forty miles from the road. They had to be somewhere. We'd find them sooner or later. For the moment we had plenty to eat. Plenty to read. And seven days left on Claw.
     Windbound on Wednesday. Wasn't a roar but out on the water we'd have been fighting the wind more than wetting a line. No fun. So we worked our five acres counter clockwise. I most often go that route on new water. Seems that's the way the world goes round in the Northern Hemisphere. Who am I to question the workings of the universe? Caught our share of pike and walleyes. One or two at a time. We brought a chair along. Sometimes I'd fish, sometimes read aloud. Our Elbow Lake friends returned. While they trolled, we'd fish and watch. They sure did reel in a lot of fish. When they'd pass by, we'd strike up a brief conversation. They had a hard time understanding why we were shore fishing. I ranted off on a detailed explanation of ratios, boat width/wave height. Had no effect on them. Saying I was chickenshit was readily accepted.
     The wind dropped enough that evening to head for what appeared the protected opposite shore. It wasn't. We threw a few spinners to more fish that weren't there. Midway back we bobbed in the waves and gathered water. Not exactly a thrilling day.
     Thursday's child told us all we needed to know about the lake. And the people. Our friends returned. As did two bright yellow float planes from the Grass River Lodge. Guess the sports were getting tired of two hundred buck a day ice skating. Lord A'mighty, looked like we had the cat bird seat on a four star lodge's wilderness fly-in lake. Again we were shore fishing but now had a new show to watch. The lodge boats had their routine set in stone. Fly in after a honkin' resort breakfast. Motor on down to the river's mouth. Hammer some big pike for a couple of hours. The guided fly-in was a hundred and a quarter per sport. The hoots and hollers were free. Done with the pike show, they'd head through a channel into Claw's western bay. There they'd anchor off a walleye honey hole. When boatin' those bad boys finally tuckered them out, the troupe headed to shore a few yards away. A rip snortin' fire would be built and the grill thrown on. Finally Pierre the Chow Chef would work his magic in lard, pickerel, beer batter, onions, spuds and beans. A couple of brews to wash it down and all was well in the boonies. The guides were thankful if the afternoon's breezes overpowered the apris-lunch breezes in the boat. Bye-bye ozone layer.
     We talked with a guide that afternoon. Up front sat a sulking sport, his time being wasted on local color (That be us. Imagine that, we were local color). The guides seemed to seek us out. For all they knew, we had a fair amount of area knowledge. They saw the canoe, our rods and easily picked up our time in the bush fragrance. We'd had twenty-four hours a day to explore the nooks and cranberries. They only had a few. Who knew? We might even turn them on to something new. Good men. Free with information. Never heard a word from the sport. At the time I thought the lodge's fly-in to Claw was something of a ruse. But it was a twenty minute flight and a good lake. The sports were getting their money's worth.
     The kindness of strangers. Not wanting to be left out, the Elbow lake men also pulled ashore that afternoon. Looked like we were gettin' to be the social hub of the wilderness. Yeah, we were still shore fishing. Everybody and their dog was boatin' tons of fish and we were shore fishing. But the wind seemed to be easing off. Like I'd said, the lodge men were outfishing us at least five to one. For sure, they were out in boats but we were casting the same water. And the way Allan could throw a spinner, they didn't have much on us. So, what was their secret?
     Schmoozing time in the woods. 'Bout then I was possessed by an evil demon. Asked for a favor no less. If you knew me, you'd know I don't do that. It's not really a matter of pride like the noble common folk of old. Mostly I don't think I'm worth someone going out of their way for me. An attitude that stems from the same place as growing up and figuring stuff out on my own. Doing without is easier for me than asking a favor. Anyhow, I offered the men twenty bucks to buy a six pack at the lodge and pack it in on Friday. Can't believe I did that. Even now. My face turns red every time it comes to mind.
     The man in front turned to the stern man. We could feel a silent agreement being struck. We're asked, "Do you have any marabou jigs?" We've got jigs, but none with marabou. He handed me three. And a small tub of about two dozen frozen minnows. Couldn't believe my eyes. The stern man opened the cooler. Reached in. Pulled out and handed us two Molson Canadians. Uff dah. "Make sure you pack out the empties." We said we would (and did).
     Turned out this was their last trip into Claw for the year. Been doing it for a couple of decades. With luck, they're still doing it. Bravo for them and all the people who enjoy and don't despoil the ground they walk and the water they fish. For those four men, it seemed as much a social experience as a fishing trip. Being with the right people in the right place makes life worth living. And catching a few huge walleyes along the way doesn't hurt.
     We watched them motor off. No doubt in our minds we were in for some fun. First off let's get on thing straight. I don't fish bait. But I'm not a total hard head. Sure fished it when I was a kid. Hooks were cheap. Worms were free so long as someone had a shovel. Nowadays I do fish plastic. Isn't that odd? Worms and minnows are about as natural as it gets. But plastic? C'mon. All by the by at the moment. But, since I did use plastic, there were slip bobbers and knots in the tackle bag. Guess there was nothin' left to do but rig up, crack open the brew and see what would happen. High life time.
     We took turns. Didn't want to waste a minute of our sinnin' time. Also stretched our free supply of minnows. Here's how it went. Set the knot at five feet. Tipped the jig with a minnow. Lobbed a gentle side arm cast. Maybe ten yards. The bobber would bob in the waves a couple of times. Immediately followed by an angled descent. When the bobber was out of sight, the hook was set. Simple math. Twenty-four minnows, twenty-three walleyes, fifteen to twenty inches per, half an hour's time, two Molsons, one great time. We kept a few for breakfast. I'm a sure-fired butcher when it comes to filleting. What I lose in meat, at least I don't gain in bones. We don't do breading. A little seasoning and fry 'em hot in a couple of butter pats.
     The minnows did it. Our wind spell was broken. For the next five days the lake calmed. The fishing? Like a wilderness lake. Al had been bugging me about the river's mouth for two days. River's mouth. River's mouth. Over and over. We could see it. Just couldn't get there. We paddled down on Thursday after supper just to shut him up. Big deal. So he catches big pike after big pike. Anybody could have done it. Maybe not me but most anybody else. I caught some. Al caught a lot. Nearly all were over thirty inches. A few close to forty. Almost a duplicate of our night on Elbow at the other end of the stream. Once in a while to break the monotony, he'd throw a walleye into the mix. What ya gonna do? The kid's a fish magnet. That's just the way it is. Maybe his hands smell like ciscoes.
     Friday we headed over to the western bay with the idea of paddling into Little Claw lake. They call it that 'cause it's hooked onto Claw and ain't as big. Or so I'm told. A bright, eighty degree day. The lake shallowed and the bottom smoothed out as we approached the connecting channel. Just didn't feel right. So we bagged it. For the better, I guess. The next year when we learned of the graded right-of-way, we also learned that Little Claw was truck and short portage accessible. Fly-in sport asks Snow Laker, "How'd you get here?" Local hoser sprouts big grin, "Drove. That's my truck over there, eh." If that'd happened to us, sure would have let the air out of our ballon.
     Fishing our way back on the far shore, the lake grew a lot more structure. The farther we went, the better the fishing. Then we found the walleye honey hole. Yup, right off a shore lunch spot. Exactly as advertised. Calm, cloudless, hot. Miserable walleye conditions. Should have told the fish. Don't know how many we caught. On spinners no less. Anyhow, we could have fed a small crowd but lacked loaves.
     We returned in the evening. Low light. Walleye time. Gonna hammer 'em by the dozens. But they weren't there. Nary a one. No doubt they were under contract with the Grass River Lodge. They'd already put in their two hours. Damned if they were going to punch the clock for a couple of poachers. A shame. Enslaved for profit.
     We meandered elsewhere. Never made it. Al got the bird's nest of a lifetime on the way. Not much of a highlight for a Canadian canoe trip. On the other hand, if you've been fishing and not had to deal with one then you ain't really been fishing. And if you're pitching spinners with a spinning reel, man you're just beggin' for it. My Uncle Emil claims the spinner was invented in France 'cause they have it in for Americans. Says it's a proven fact that no real fisherman from the States has ever traveled to Europe. Unless, of course, they were in uniform. Since the French chefs can't spit in a Yank fisherman's food, they invented the spinner blade to vex the hell out of them instead.
     Using braided line and a quality ball bearing snap swivel helps (we don't use leaders. Doesn't seem to make a difference with super lines). But sooner or later you won't notice that little loop hanging off the spool lip. Phttttttt. Sure as shootin'.
     The thing about a spinning reel bird's nest is that the line isn't knotted, it's only twisted. The knots will be self-inflicted from frustration. The easy removal method is a knife. Pulling the loops and untwisting the twists is hit and miss at it's best. But if you stick with it. And are gentle. You'll eventually work it out. Ask Allan. Forty-five minutes in a calm bay with the sun going down. He said he'd get 'er. And I was in no hurry to be anywhere. Surrounded by God's country. Who could complain?
     Skip ahead. Last night on the water. Wind up again. But since this was the last night on Claw and it wasn't raining, we weren't gonna waste it. We started by speed drifting a narrow cut bay. Half of us had a good time. I got to be a human drift sock while Allan caught walleyes. Not that I'm complaining. It's just that from the back seat it sucked to high heaven. One other choice came to mind on that north-south lake in a stiff south wind.
     Fish the river. The muddy bottomed, cattail-lined river. We got what we expected. The hammer-handles thanked us for moving on. Passed the portage. Off to see where this stream went. A block in, around a bend and we pulled ashore beside a ten foot waterfall, a beaver dam across the lip. With a yard wide hole in the middle. Light bulb time. Of course. The dam caused the lake to be in flood. Over the week water levels had dropped. Someone or something must have knocked a hole in it. But who? High School, punk, beaver hating vandals? Ah, the mysteries of wilderness life. Where were the Mounties when you needed them?
See. I wasn't Kidding.
     For sure, it was a pretty cool spot. And I almost never use the word 'cool'. The chute ripping through the dam was impressive. The shore was paved with feathers and fish bones. Most likely from different animals. Below, the river split and riffled it's way around a bend and into the forest. Rather be there than Times Square any day.

     The pool behind the dam wasn't much. Fifteen yards across. Thirty long. Of course Al couldn't leave it alone. Seemed pointless to me. Not to him. After a backhand flip he really had to crank it so the spinner wouldn't get sucked down the chute. Bam! Fish on. And a honker. Big, big pike. My turn and it was the same thing. I wasn't quite believing what I was seeing. It was too much like being four years old and thinking I could catch fish by dropping a line down the bathtub drain. Three more followed. All in the teens. Not fish in a bathtub but sure like fish in a barrel.
     Below the dam it was pretty in a babbling brook sense but not much for fishing. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, the punk caught a ten pounder (Disclaimer: All previous weights are approximations by experienced but amateur anglers. Any inaccuracy is unintentional. No fish were killed for the writing of this reminisce. Well, some were but we ate them 'cause they were yummy).
     Finally we headed back up the river toward camp. In the now calm of the river's mouth Al wanted a few more casts. Fine with me. I did boat control. Sat back and watched a Saturday morning fishing show. Except this was in real time. Catch, release. Catch release. Pike a cast for close to an hour. All big and the last one over forty inches.
     What do you say after having three fishing nights of a lifetime in one trip? What can you say? The numbers don't mean squat after a certain point. How much is enough? We were done. Sated. Thankful that it happened. Happy to have been together when it did.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Learning Curve '02 - The Boys

     What to do for a topper on day two? Truly our minds didn't actually ask that question. The way things had gone, we'd take it as it came. Maybe more surprises. Maybe not. Our original Plan Three had us heading all the way to Claw Lake  today. Considering our mid-morning launch, that didn't seem likely. But what the heck. We'd passed the test of not crossing Reed. Neatly sidestepped the baptism of the Four Mile Portage. If we could stare down the impossible and walk away with much easier fish to fry elsewhere, why we were capable of not doing most anything. We'd put the boat in the water, point her upstream and see what we would see.
     From our camp to Elbow Lake, the Grass was a knockout. Four sets of rapids, brief, deep cut stretches between, dappled sunlight and enough depth to make paddling a breeze. Immediately above our fishing hole rapids was a pool so thick with walleyes we had to shoo them away with our paddles so the canoe would float. We'd thrown a few spinners at them the night before with no success. Probably in the spawn.
     Fifty yards above lay our first choice. Walk the canoe through a rock-filled shallows or pump it up a chute. My mind thinking of scratches on the new canoe and wet feet, we pumped. A simple minute long dig, dig, dig. But over the days I couldn't leave it behind. Grew to be an obsession. Constantly reminded me that when we returned, the chute would be waiting. Down we'd come. Have to hang a sharp right to avoid rapids below. We'd roll for sure. The canoe would burst into flames. We'd go down like Vikings but like the Minnesota football team, not in glory. End up encased in plastic. Wouldn't need caskets. Sink to Norsemen Hell. Doomed, doomed, doomed (per Maynard G. Krebs).
     The portages were fairly short. We played at being real men by carrying two packs per trip. Each set of fast water provided it's own spin on beauty. Seven Bald Eagles, heads aglow in sunlight, chowing down on walleyes. So many down feathers on the ground we could have made pillows. Bald Eagle pillows. How illegal is that? Couldn't resist taking one of the largest feathers and wedging it in our bow. Nice wilderness touch to serve as our guide.
     The third portage, around an island where the Grass split into a half dozen tumbling rivulets, was the longest. Ended past an abandoned railroad trestle over the river. The trestle was partly gone, a pick-up-stick pile of timbers beneath. One sawn off beam was signed, 'CLEARED BY R. LUNDIE.' Collapsed or blown up, we could not tell. 'Twas odd country along the Grass.
     The beauty ended as we entered the Realm of Skeletor for the first time in four years. Hadn't gotten a whole lot greener. Brown reeds, charred stumps, blue sky and heat. A mile in and we were pooped in the toulies. Long sleeves, long pants, wool socks and boots. Dressed wrong for summer in the swamp. Kept our eyes open for gators. Floated in a shallow, mud bottomed bay. Had a smoke and sipped warm lemonade. Claw Lake seemed like the other end of the world.
     That's when Chinaman's Island came to the rescue. Chinaman'd caught my eye the first time I saw a map of Elbow Lake. Drew me like only the politically incorrect can. Got a wry smile on my face and thought, "they sure don't name 'em like that anymore." Now, sittin' in the swamp, the island seemed like The place to be in the Northland on a Sunday night. Get the gumption goin' and we could have an evening to scope out the portage. Maybe wet a line.
     High on life once again. Nine miles of paddling now seemed like child's play. Less than an hour later we passed the point where we'd turned around in '98. Back in the split personality of Elbow. A cluster of fire spared spruce and pine here and there. Mostly whippy aspen. We paddled on in hopes of the return of primeval splendor when we neared the far end of the lake. But there was the compensating grace of islands. Many islands. Twenty-five square miles of water so broken up by islands it felt instead like dozens of little lakes. Easy to navigate. Well, easy so long as I occasionally scanned the map hanging from the aft thwart. I'm a firm believer in my ability to screw up. So I keep a tight rein on my brain when that's important. Like being on a fifteen thousand acre lake with a few hundred islands.
     Chinaman played coy with us. Couldn't see it until we came around the last island. There she was. And so were two boats, two umbrella tents, a bed mattress on the immense landing slab and a guy in a red union suit standing on the shore. Staring at us like we'd we'd been dropped from a Zeppelin. Our fifth trip in the park and not once had we seen anyone else camping. Nada. Much less some total asshole in long johns with the overbearing ego to have been squatting on our island. No problem. We'd just sit there on the water, in the sunlight, fire up a couple of Players and stare bullets. We'd show him some serious distainin'. Who's boss now Underwear Boy?
     Finally, he knuckled under like the sniveling coward he was. Headed into a tent. Left us and our bullets sweatin' in the sun. A minute later he came back out. We'd embarrassed him into pants and shirt. Stretched, fiddled with his zipper and strolled on down to the shore like he's gonna piss in our direction. Instead, cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, "You guys want a beer, eh?"
     Didn't need to say a word. Smokes now dangling from lips, the paddles arose instantly. We paddled in like the Voyageurs we were pretending to be. Not the time to look sloppy with beer on the line. A half spin and parallel park. Tight to shore like that was the only way we knew how to do it. A true Gentleman of the Northland there to greet us.
     There were four of them. All from Flin Flon to our west on the Saskatchewan border. LaBatt's on ice. Lots of it. In cans, alas. Bottles would have been the civilized choice. A pint glass even more so. Ah well, such are the sacrifices one makes in the wilderness. But even from the can such a fine Canadian pilsner would have proved itself an excellent accompaniment to the biblical locusts and honey. Would have relabeled it Baptist Brew, A Blessing in Disguise. Crap, two thousand years late again.
     For the next quarter hour we chatted. Mostly the usual social introductory stuff. Weather, fishing, the pros and cons of String Theory, Free Will versus Predestination. All more or less the internationally acceptable way of checking each other out without sniffing each other's orifices like dogs.
     Yes there was a Chinaman who'd lived on the island. Had a gold mine. Now filled in and a plaque alongside. We took their word for that. I felt had we sauntered over, we'd have said to ourselves, "Yup, there it is." Walked around it once or twice and moved on. The Boys said his name was Wong. But I may be wrong about that.
     The good news was they'd been catching a lot of walleyes. One at thirty-one inches. They weren't impressed but their standards were a lot higher than ours. What seemed to impress them was the single whitefish they'd boated. The significance of that was lost on us southerners.
     As luck would have it Chinaman's Island had not been their first campsite. Friday night had found them a mile and a half away. The noise from a raven's nest had driven them out. What kind of men did this area spawn? Fans of whitefish and unable to sleep because of some baby birdies? Sounded a lot like the 'Hoser Princesses and the Pea' to us. To make up for our loss they said we were welcome to camp on the far side of the island. Not this camper. Turned them down. Too small a world in my eyes to share ten acres with a quartet of Canucks. And maybe the ghost of an Asian. We thanked them for the brew and moseyed.
     They were right about the other campsite. For sure, the landing was flat as a board spectacular. And wide? A dozen boats could have landed simultaneously. Even had a fine scrap plywood and two by four table. Looked like it had been thrown together at random by a one-armed, rock wielding, bent-nail driving, bipolar, blind man in a drunken fury. Also, it looked as though whoever had camped there before us had caught quite a few walleyes. And'd not given much thought to tidying up. The ravens were there for sure. Babies constantly screaming, "Feed me! Feed me!" Mom and Dad screaming even louder, "All right already! Stop with the yelling! Those dumbass Yanks are down by your stinking dinner!!! If you little pricks are up all night again, NO MORE NINTENDO!!" But all considered it was a pretty nice site. After twenty miles on the water and three portages, having a spot to put up the tent was enough. The landing, moss bed for the tent and panoramic view, all plusses.
     Supper number two was a repeat of ribeyes. Livin' off da feedlot fat of da lan'. By the time eight p.m. rolled around we were cleaned up, packed away and headed into Claw Bay to check out what the next morning would offer. Threw in the fishing gear just in case. The map showed a stream draining Claw Lake into Centre Lake. A portage was indicated. The stream exited Centre and flowed into Elbow. A rapids was marked but no portage drawn in. I figured there must be a short carry there. Maybe thirty or forty rods. Hopefully our reconnaissance would tell the tale.
     Nearing the end of Claw Bay we could see the beginning of a fifty yard long beaver dam. Behind it a bit of swamp through which a mini-delta spread out. Leprechaun country. The dam stood three inches above lake level. Not a problem. We'd spit the canoe over like a watermelon seed. A half dozen rods short of the dam we were surrounded by swirls and Vs. Big swirls and Vs. Al snapped around wanting to ask if we could stop and fish first. Too late. I already had a rod in my hands. That portage wasn't goin' anywhere. We had better things to do for the moment.
     They were only pike. Big pike. Not a one under thirty inches. A couple over forty. Seeing as how we happened to be pike men, it was heaven on the water. They were laying in foot deep water. Towed us to the right. Towed to the left. And out into the bay. Once in the deeper water we gave the pike a rest and played with the walleyes. Had we a net, Al could've boated a seriously big one. Master Angler size. We got a couple of looks and she was gone.
     After an hour of play we slid over the dam. The left side of the delta looked impassible. The right, a mere living hell. Of course that's on a city boy heaven-hell scale. The landing was fine. What followed wasn't. About eighty rods of uphill brush, thicket, hands and knees crawl under tree branches and a steep twenty foot drop to the stream. No doubt we could do it. Just didn't look like much fun. Dragging a canoe while crawling was low on my pecking order of things to do. When they said 'there's a first time for everything,' I don't think they had this in mind.
     Back on the water we commenced to hoot and holler again. When the sun sat on the treetops it was time to head back to camp. Hard to leave fishing like we'd had. paddling out of Claw Bay we ran into The Boys From Flin Flon motoring out of theirs. Seemed they'd done okay. Had a boatful. And wondered what we'd been yelling about. They were nice enough to say that big pike were a lot of fun to catch. But the way they said it told us otherwise. "Pity the poor Yanks catching jackfish. Better than suckers I guess."
     Whether from pity, friendship or to get rid of the evidence, they invited us to a fish fry. Three things weighed on me immediately:
     1) It was Sunday. I'd been raised a Catholic. Fish was for Fridays, roasts for Sunday,
     2) Something suspicious about their willingness to cook for strangers, and
     3) It was starting to get dark. Now in my mid-fifties, I made it a point of never paddling on a large,
virtually unknown, island filled, wilderness lake after midnight. The idea of sleeping in the bottom of a mosquito filled canoe held no appeal.
     So I refused. But they insisted. Again I refused. Again they insisted. Finally, in confusion, I said yes when I meant no. We paddled off into the tender night toward an unknown destiny. In the distance the ravens called, "Never more! Never more!"
     Camping in Canada, Canuck style. Obviously we were doing it wrong from the moment I bought my first canoe. Seemed all canoemen did it wrong. Simply a matter of logistics I guess. At least two sizable aluminum boats were required to carry a minimum of four adults, half dozen cases of beer, a case or two of hard liquor, ten pounds of beer batter, queen sized mattress (maybe two), two aging canvas tents, full kitchen with metal propane stove table, bent nails and graying lumber, lawn chairs w/drink holders, generator, 55" rear projection television, satellite dish, inflatable companionship, four chests of ice, fishing gear and the inevitable Anne Murray shrine complete with upturned half bathtub.
     Bubba handled the fish. Beginning to end. Yes, even in Canada, Bubba lives. By hissing propane lantern light he turned recently deceased pickerel into sizzling filets faster than we could turn the filets into future compost. While Bubba created, the five of us got to know each other. We covered all the bases. Vietnam? "I saw the movie." Had to laugh about that one. Deliverance? "How do you know that might not be happenin' right now, eh? " Music? All six of us sang "Snowbird" in four part harmony. Twice. The filets just kept coming 'til we could eat no more. But The Boys kept insisting, "Eat. Eat," like we were being fattened up for the oven.
     After a couple of beers, Al was asked if he'd like anything else to drink. He stroked his chin. A moment's thought. "Maybe a gin-tonic?" They apologized for having no fresh lime but Al was okay with that. Being the designated navigator, I slowly sipped my second LaBatts. And pondered what the chances were for being pulled over for a CWI when thirty-five miles off the road.
     Work? Three in the smelter. One in Public Works. "So long as people drink water and shit, I've got a job." In the years since, I've passed that line down many a time. We could tell job security was high on their list of importance. To this point they'd been having what passed for fun in the backwaters of Canada. On one hand, another day off was what they wanted. On the other, a paycheck was what they needed. "You guys got a satellite phone?" Never been asked that question before. Their look of disappointment when I said no, was heartwrenching. But I almost got American on them and nearly blurted out, "What the hell is your problem? Fishin's fun but a job's one of the hubs of your life." Where were my priorities?
     We definitely had a good time. No doubt about it. But sittin' around sipping cocktails in the boonies didn't seem like a real wilderness experience. Sure, Sigurd Olson and his fellow Voyageurs had their dutchman of rum. Their nightly pick-me-up mixed with fruit crystals. However, I don't remember references to any of them ever being totally wasted (Forgive me for the following. I mean no disrespect to a Minnesota icon):

     "Tony was of no use the following morning. Time and again I feared he'd tumble out of the canoe as we shot rapids after rapids. Such fast water. And Tony with such a hangover. For all his years as a diplomat, in the give and take of international affairs, he could now utter nothing but simple guttural phrases. For the first time in all our travels, I was thankful I spoke no Dutch."

     Some time after one p.m. it was time to leave. More simply, we had to get the hell out of there. I couldn't put away the thought that somewhere out there, a mile and a half away, in a cluster of islands, was our once-seen campsite. In the moonless Canadian dark, our map was useless. With only starlight above, islands were nothing more than shadows. Wasn't spooky so much as nearly invisible. Alcohol probably didn't help much either.
     As we walked down to the canoe, our long-johned friend called out, "You guys need a light?" Idiot. Like a flashlight would do us any good trying to find a point in the middle of the nowhere night. "No thank you." Mom always said we should be polite when in the wilderness. He insisted, "C'mon, you gotta have a light." "No thanks." Give it up Hoser. Went on a couple more times. Finally, as we paddled off, a can of LaBatts Lite came arcing our way. Funny man.
     Finding the island turned out to be no problem. Al had his doubts. But Lord only knew how much gin was in his drink. Did it the logical way. Started with the first island on the right. And listened for our little black feathered friends. Second island was the charm. Had a last smoke. Watched a small show of Northern lights. Brushed teeth and turned in. Starting to think this was the trip we were meant to go on. Plans get you out the door. And that's about it.
     Monday morning seemed a lot like most monday mornings. Didn't want to go to work. Wind was up.  Sky was blue. And we had great fishing at our doorstep. Two a.m. bedtime did little to pump us. Didn't know how Allan felt but the idea of that first portage seemed like a tuesday thing to me. No complaints from him. So we fished and took it easy. Wasn't as great as Sunday night but still pretty good. Tuesday. Yeah, tuesday. Gonna be some kinda a fun.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Learning Curve '02 - First Day

     The Canadian Weather Channel guaranteed no rain for at least five days. Highs in the '60s and low'70s. Huzzah. We woke up pumped. Primped for the last time. Pulled on our fancy zip-offs and pranced to the front desk. There we stoked up on a high sugar continental breakfast. The morning of mornings. Today we'd become men, real canoemen. Out the door. Fired up the Players. Hit the road. Genuine bakery-made sweet rolls in the Jeep to continue the carb load. Stuff 'em in. Burn 'em out on the water. What with the forecast and a little ( lot) luck we might even be camping on Morton that night. Hung a right on Highway 39 toward Reed Lake. So excited the calories burned off faster than we could shove them in.
     All was as it should be. The electricity built with each passing mile. 'Til we passed the first bay on Simonhouse. Double-take. An actual double-take when we saw the ice stacked up on the shore. Looked like the whole lake was open. But ice? Nothing about ice in the playbook. We hung a left into the campground to get the lowdown. Put this ice crap behind us as soon as possible. Needed someone to hold our hands and tell us it was going to be alright. No Ranger in the office. No one at the dock. Ghost town. Finally, we came upon three gentlemen as we passed through the sites. Nine-thirty a.m. and they were already well into cocktail hour. Had a second tent for their liquor supply. No exaggeration. In five minutes of conversation we learned:
     1) The ice had been out for two days,
     2) Lake trout should be called Canadian carp,
     3) If not in the frying pan within ten seconds of being caught, lake trout caused terminal trots and
     4) Gene had been abducted, probed and was going to give birth to an alien life form.
     Finding some of this information informative, we were uplifted, told Gene he'd make a wonderful mother and were back on the road whistling a happy tune.
     I know, I know. You've heard this dream garbage before. But this one was so close to reality. And I'd had it the night before we left home. Allan and I were stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the way into the Reed lake access. Finally entering, it looked like a scene from the "Great Outdoors" with John Candy and Dan Akroyd (both Canadians by the way). Cars, trucks, trailers everywhere. A mob scene. On the lake humongous power boats cruised by. Seemed like Disney World North, not an entry point to the boonies.
     Reality. Allan and I turned into the Reed Lake access. Cars, trucks, trailers everywhere. People milling about. On the lake powerful walleye boats slowly cruised by in the hundred feet of open water between shore and the icepack. Holy crapamundo! Should have brought the dog sled. No longer an entry point to the boonies for us. Took a half second to accept the situation. We got out to look at the iced-in lake. Some guy wandered by, maybe looking for sympathy. Mumbled something about his second freezeout in seventeen years. Bummer dude. And our condolences to all the other bummed out dudes. Their wad was shot. A winter of waiting and the lake was a glacier. Seems big boats have their limitations. Old Man Balance occasionally pays a visit. You gain speed and the ability to pee over the side. You lose flexibility. Sometimes you go real fast. Sometimes you don't move at all.
Ready for the L.L. Bean Catalog 
     But we had a backup plan. And a ten minute drive back to Iskwasum. Had to find Mr. Ranger and get a park pass for the Jeep. Another tour of a campground. We found our man, or should I say his truck, parked outside the latrine. Not knowing whether he was cleaning up or emptying out, we respectfully waited outside. The brush and broom he toted out told the story. Seemed he wasn't quite done so we headed to the office to wait. A few minutes later while I filled out the forms, Al grilled the man for fishing information. All he got was a "beats me, eh." And that Reed was the only iced-in lake. Good enough. We were goin' up the Grass.
     While we took it out and put it in, we were once again serenaded by a chorus of griping. This time about the slow bite. Seems no one was catching anything down river, the usual hot spot. The Ancient Mariner shuffled by chanting, "Too cold. The pickerel are still in the spawn. Couldn't get nuthin' but a couple of Jacks on the line." Sounded like an audition for the latest Robert Redford movie. Me and Al were an upbeat island. Humming and loading. Headin' forty miles up river and two weeks to burn. A little bit of heaven. Our only immediate concern was a re-sort of gear. No Four Mile Portage. We were packing everything but the bath mat. Twenty minutes later we pushed off. Going places we'd never been before. How good was that?
     Couple a miles up the cattail lined river and a turn north into Iskwasum. Somewhere, a dozen or so miles ahead, was our vaguely marked campsite. Supposed to be below a rapids. Maybe on shore, maybe not. Around eight thousand acres, Iskwasum took us north, then arced northwest. The lake was ours alone. Seemed most of the big boat boys chose to head downriver.
     Except for one annoying buzz. Like a horsefly coming from a ways back. Didn't have the high tech roar of a 150 Mercury. Most likely some old fart in a tri-hull. Over the years we'd been passed by a truckload of fishing boats. Most huge. Most kept their distance. All ignored us. This guy didn't. Go away. But he didn't. Slowed and pulled alongside. Great. Probably a game warden.
     Wasn't. No uniform. Maybe the law incognito. Gonna arrest us for being happy in a No-Smile Zone. Had a bouncing black lab aboard. Fourteen foot Lund, rear tiller, twenty horse engine. Boat covered inside and out with enough product decals to do a NASCAR driver proud. Mid-forties, hatless, fit looking, leather skinned, name of Bob. Said he was a fishing guide off on a lark to catch him some walleyes below the rapids upstream. Easy to talk to. Liked him from the get-go. In twenty-five words or less we gave him the lowdown on our plans. Probably was our canoe that had him ask if we'd heard of Hap Wilson. Well I had, but at the moment I drew a complete blank. I figured it was worth a bucket of points if I knew Hap from Woodrow. So I said something like, "The name sure sounds familiar. Yeahhh, that's the ticket."  Bob gave us a nod, said he'd meet us at our campsite. He'd be the one throwing a ball for his lab to fetch. Fired it up and was gone.
     To this point nothing had gone by the playbook. An unexpected pleasure. Paddling into the northwest arm we passed an elderly couple doing what Manitobans do for fun. Bob had put us in a talkative mood so we shouted a brief conversation in passing. Yup, they were catching some pickerel. Not big but definitely some. I could easily imagine their quiet conversation between the occasional walleye. Klaus had been a spy for the Czechoslovakian government when they'd met in Montreal. Clarissa made dumplings laced with strychnine and liked to torch houses she felt were improperly maintained. Once every few years they vacationed in Argentina where they visited friends from the old country. "Ach the good old days. You didn't like someone, they disappeared. No questions asked."
     Iskwasum turned into the Grass at a small shot of fast water. Seemed a hot spot. The pool below looked a lot like "Canuck Families Hammerin' Pickerel," by Monet. Each of the three boats had staked out its territory in the two acre pool. One tied to shore, stringer in six hands, smiling for the family album. We passed through, unheard and unseen. Seemed only Bob could detect a canoe on the water. Were we a part of the Canadian past most everyone wanted to forget?
     Guess who came to visit as we bucked our way up the dropoff? Remember the Ghost Fish from '98. There they were again, stuck in their little limbo, still searching for wayward souls on the Grass River. Passed right beneath us. No doubt out to do us in. "Come on boys, give us a look-see." Turn us sideways in the current. Roll us over. Split us in half on the sharp rocks. No sir. Not this cowboy. Wasn't gonna descend into their picayune version of hell. I yelled for Al to move his eyes forward and dig deep. In the calm above I knew just how Odysseus felt.
     Upstream we went. Had a man and dog to meet. Can't say I wanted them to be there. Wasn't used to such a high density of population in the park. Our contact with others, until today, had been limited to a few nods, waves and good-days. I liked that arrangement. Just me and Al. That was enough. But I gotta admit there was a little tingle inching it's way up my spine (could have been the uncomfortable plastic canoe seat). Something about this guy seemed like the real deal. A throwback. Maybe not to the wooly past but at least to the '50s.
     He was there. So was the still bouncing dog. The ball was flying off a tiny island that nearly blocked the stream.  We landed. I pressed him for his name. He hesitated. Like he knew he'd be the unwitting subject of a blog someday. Said, "Just call me Bob wit de black lab. Say that and most everyone around here'll know who you mean, eh." My God, you could make a movie about his voice. Like he'd gone to school to learn how to speak Canadian. Guided both hunting and fishing as the seasons dictated. Toured the States come winter with the All-Canada shows. Seemed to be a product rep for most every kind of fishing gear. That explained the boat decorations. Said he was lucky to have an understanding wife. Big time understatement for sure. His Lund turned out to be twenty years old. You'd never guess that from its new-boat shine. Reminded me of the barracks trash cans back at Fort Campbell. They'd been Brassoed smooth by a generation of screw-up trainees. A couple of those coats laid on by my hands, thank you.
     Ball goes out. Dog goes out. Ball and dog return. Repeat ad infinitum.
     Hap Wilson enters the conversation again. My memory still a blank. Bob says he was the man who guided the Wilson's though the park. Bob next mentions Hap's wife and her waist length blonde braid. Bingo! There we go. Her picture on the back cover of "Canoeing Manitoba's Wilderness Rivers" has stuck with me. Odd what a person recalls. Turned out when I was BS-ing about remembering Hap Wilson, I wasn't. Maybe something mystical going on there. I don't know if I understand that.
    Ball goes out. I'm bouncing back and forth trying to get the canoe unloaded but accomplishing nothing. Am considering diving in to get the ball. Finally, Al and Bob get the unloading ball rolling. Two minutes later we light up. Bob isn't smoking Players. I consider for a moment that real outdoorsman don't smoke Players and have fears that I'm a wuss. He says he knows of a lake where the walleyes are fish a cast. Invites us along if we don't mind getting our feet wet. The talk turns to canoes, wilderness, the back country and American sports in big boats.
     "Dey tink dere seeing de real Canada. But dey don't have a clooo, eh? Paddle and portage (pronounced the French way). Take your time. Work your way back in de bush. You guys are doin' it de right way."
     Continues, says we should get a Dagger canoe like the Wilson's. It's fast. Real fast. I find a stick. Draw a straight line. "That's them." Draw a zig-zag. "That's us." That got a laugh from the man.
     Al starts heads off on an angle he's gotten pretty good at. We're talking with a font of outdoor knowledge, so Allan throws a few lake names at Bob. Heard of some. Not heard of the others. Hadn't fished any of them. Then Al asks about Barb Lake to our immediate northeast. "Dat's de lake I wass telling you abouoot (not sure of correct Canadian spelling)." Score one for Allan. Guess he does pay attention when I ramble on about fishing.
     Before leaving, Bob offers us some walleyes for dinner. Oh yeah, he knew where the pickerel were on the bite.  I had to turn him down. Didn't want to but I did. The ribeyes had thawed and were calling our names. Bob understood. He turned to Al, "You've gotta cool old man." Made my day.
     After supper we fired up the canoe. If the rapids were good enough for Bob, they were more than good enough for us. Late Spring in the Northland. Upstream we passed several small ice shelves. As the river narrowed down, the current picked up. Fifty feet wide and we were surrounded by a whole lotta swirlin' walleyes. Good spot? Great spot. The river, a cut in the forest with a slice of sky above. The rapids ahead were half the stream's width. Almost a falls shooting down a rock jumbled slide. The landing was torture. Sharp edged rocks everywhere. My poor, poor brand new, scratch-free baby. A virgin no more. Close up of tear on cheek.
     Once ashore, Al grabbed a rod. Worked his way across a boulder field to a spot alongside the tumbling water and began to do his thing. Closer to shore, I caught me some pickerel. A bunch of 'em. Didn't seem at all shy about hitting home made spinners. But Al? He put me to shame. Like watching a ballet. Perched on chunk of granite seemed all he could do was maintain his balance, set the hook and serenade me with "Fish on." He was having a great time but it was my pleasure watching him.
     What a night. What a day. No way I could have guessed our third choice, the dull choice, the anybody could do it choice, would have gone like this. Maybe our best day in Canada. Was it only sixteen hours since we walked out of the Super 8? We paddled back to camp as the sun dropped into the forest. Hoped it didn't start any fires.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Learning Curve '02 - The Plan

     Guess you could say this trip began in '98 when our first crude maps of Grass River Park showed up in the mailbox. In '98 we didn't figure the trip of '02 was in our future. But one thing led to another. Next thing we knew it's the fifth year of a tradition. So, off in the northeast corner of that page sized map was this incredibly long portage snaking somewhere to the north. I'd like to say that I'm looking at that map right now. But I'm not. It disappeared. Probably back in '98. Maybe I dreamt it. You know how those things go. You remember it clear as a bell, like yesterday, a photograph. Had to be just like that. Of course it's usually not. That map may not have existed. I can accept that and all it's weirdness. But there was no doubt I gave it some 'what if?' thought. On that maybe, not to scale map, she was at least four knuckles long. Mile, mile and a half to the knuckle. Called it a five miler. Five miles? Ooo-eee, that's a long portage. Only a true idiot or one serious gear-humpin' maniac would do something like that. No way in God's green earth I'd ever remotely, even jokingly, consider such a sure fire ordeal. Done enough of that kinda crap in Vietnam for a lifetime, thank you.
     Turned out that Unknown Portage became like a rough spot on a molar. You know, something that doesn't much bother you but once in a while your tongue finds it and can't leave it alone. On first seeing it, I'd pointed it out to Al. We both had a good laugh.
     Guess it stuck with Allan also. Might even have been his idea. Maybe mine. But sometime during the winter of '02, our thoughts turned toward doing a long hike with a couple hundred pounds of gear on our backs. The more we thought about it, the more we talked about it. In a way kinda like trash talk. Next thing we knew, it was the plan for the next trip. I've said this before. I'll say it again. We be idiots.
     Couldn't do it without new maps. Turned out the portage even had a name. The Four Mile Portage. A little thought and interpretation, I figured it to be between three and five miles. Connected The Grass River and Burntwood River drainage systems. Must be an easy four-miler or it would have been named for some dude who died doin' it. A lot of straight lines on the map. Didn't cross any swamps. Our kind of honker portage.
     Let's talk four miles. In the city, an hour. In the woods, bad footing, hills, bog, deadfall and sixty-five pounds of carry stretches the miles. No way either one of us could pick up a hundred thirty pounds much less hump it four miles. So we're talking leap-frog stages. Four evolves into twelve. Eight under load. Four, a resting return for more stuff. So how long would that take? My guess was five to six hours.
     Oh yeah, I almost forgot. First we'd have to cross Reed lake. Ten miles on a straight line to the portage with a fifteen mile wide open stretch for the wind to pump up. Big assed Reed scared me. Hap Wilson wrote he'd been caught in six-footers crossing Reed when a storm blew up. Markie don't do six-footers. Makes me uneasy having hitch hiking Death add it's weight to the canoe. In my book, even though it's necessary, Death sucks. No offense. Should a breeze blow up, even an idiot like me would have to wait it out or follow the shoreline. Barring near calm, ten becomes fifteen. Probably four hours. If a headwind, a bit more. So did we want to do the Four Mile Portage immediately after the crossing? At most, maybe.
     Here comes my favorite part. Irony. I love irony. So we get a good, early start crossing Reed. Glass on the water. Maybe a slight tailwind. We spring across the portage with wings on our feet. Still, we'd be pooped after eight or nine hours of solid work. Where do we end up? Morton Lake. Three thousand acres of fine fishing per the Grass River Lodge website. That is if you're a Canadian citizen or an American staying in the Lodge's outpost on Morton. The Peters boys couldn't legally wet a line. Guess we'd been paying the wrong dues. Not my business to question the reasons behind that law. We were guests of Canada. I did however have my suspicions.


     You've got to forgive my nephew about running on about stuff most people don't care to know. Spent many an hour in the boat with him just sayin' "Uh-huh," over and over while he ranted on about the number of nails it took to build his outhouse. At least an outhouse is a fitting topic for him.
     As to his fishin' trips, you should see his first attempt at putting all of them on paper. Like he was back in High School having to write a thousand word essay. And couldn't think of more than three hundred worth saying.
     Mostly though, he's writing this so's he can print it up when he's done. Throw in some pictures and come up with a book or two for him and Allan. Then when Markie's an old, drooling fool, he can remember the days when he was only a fool.

     Lucky for us our destination wasn't Morton. Next lake north was File, then what the locals call Little Norris Lake and finally Norris proper. Actually Little Norris' real name is Padruski. But who can remember that, eh? A total of about twenty-five water miles and five portage. One way. And then the return. A fair hump for us pansies. Three days in and three days on Norris. Putz and fish our way out. Two weeks. Never gave much thought to the fishing. Once over the big portage it was all fly-in country. Had to be beyond good.
     Should the weather be like the Wedge Lake trip, we needed a backup plan. Should the thought of the Four Mile Portage or crossing Reed scare us off, we needed two. Should one of us win the lottery, we might go to Hawaii and ocean fish from kayaks. The first backup, the 'fear of blisters' plan, had us hug the south and east shores of Reed. Head a dozen miles up Woosey Creek to Woosey Lake, spend a week and return. Bunches of options on the way. Small rapids, short portages. Still having to deal with Reed was the one hangup.
     The 'total chicken-out' plan was hatched back in '99. We'd asked the Ranger at the Simonhouse campground if it was possible to go upstream on the Grass River. "Maybe, eh. Who knows?" A good enough answer for us. We'd paddle up the Grass from Iskwasum Lake, into and across Elbow. Then one, maybe two, portages into Claw Lake. Forty miles one way. Piece of cake. But no tingle of excitement to it. No death march aura. Probably some good fishing on Claw.
     The thoughts of winter turned to weight loss. Seeing as how we were both pretty lean we figured most of the paring down would have to be with gear. Odd how when weight goes down, price goes up. No way would we cut down on food or fishing stuff. So it was air mattresses, sleeping bags, clothes and canoe (ouch). I was hoping for at least twenty pounds.
     Campmor catalog. Overstock and factory second. Words to live by. The catalog saved us four pounds of sleeping weight for less than two hundred bucks. Don't make me do the math. It hurts me to spend money. Don't want to talk about it.
     The canoe was the deal. A friend bought the Camper. Fit his needs, no longer fit ours. Still, it was like saying goodbye to a member of the family. Now we had to buy a new one. Sixty-four pounds of Alumacraft didn't allow for carrying a small pack with it. Anal retentive time. Months to mentally shop until the Spring scratch and dent sales. And save a few more dollars.
     The canoe had to be light, quiet, wide and deep. Didn't need to be built for speed. We weren't great but could move a canoe along just fine. And keep the open side pointed up. Al, at 22, didn't really know what it was to be tired. I'd been up and down the road. When I got a little tired I knew it wouldn't kill me. Still, crossing Reed weighed on my mind. My mantra was 'wide and deep, wide and deep.' And on sale.
     Finally it was down to the Bell Northwind and Wenonah Spirit II. Both Minnesota made. I liked that. The designers had spent their time on the water up north. The Bell was a little longer. The Wenonah, a little deeper. A local outdoors store had an annual overstock and factory second sale in May. We were there, smokin' cash in pocket, ten minutes before they opened. I spotted the Wenonah immediately. Gruffly mumbled, "Gimme boat now." By opening time it was going on the Jeep. Price was great. The boat perfect. Made out of patches and floor sweepings. A lot of time went into making it from leftover material. Crapsmanship at it's best. The boat didn't have a yoke. But I had ash boards. And the know-it-all, do-it-all confidence that making one couldn't be all that hard. After nine years the Spirit has proven itself many times. Thirteen pounds.
     Clothing was simple. On a one step from the trash rack in Kohls, four pairs of lightweight, zipoff Dungarees called me over. Shorts and pants in one, what will the Chinese think of next? The only items we didn't pare down were socks, t-shirts and underpants. The rest would get dirty stinky. Such is life in the boonies. Be of one smell with the animals. Three pounds.
     Food weight went up. Not much. But fourteen days for two growing boys meant a lot of burned calories. Food, smokes and coffee. Close to sixty pounds. We'd shaved our twenty but still food, clothing, shelter, gear and transport totaled two-sixty. Uf-dah.
     The first driving mile was always the hardest. Never trusted my tying of the canoe. Constantly eyeballed the straps, searching for movement. Inevitably, usually approaching St. Cloud, my fear of it breaking loose and exploding through Jesse Ventura's windshield (the Porsche with the baseball stitched, leather seats) passed. Then it was time to relax until I made an ass of myself at the border crossing.
     Our evening's only hitch came at the intersection of Highways 6 and 60, two hundred-fifty miles north of Winnipeg. There we returned to civilization by passing through a Friday night sobriety check. Real cops, real Mounties. Alas, no Smokie Bear hats, red uniforms or steeds. Didn't take but a glance to let them know we were harmless, goofball Yanks. No weekend joyrides for us in our canoe-topped Jeep. A short but important lost six minutes.
     Super 8 again. Strolled across the lot again. Ale and pizza again. Had we been five minutes earlier, the kitchen would have been open. And a full menu of Canadian delicacies available. We tried a little wheedling. The waitress checked with the kitchen. She returned. Said the chef, Fabian Scarzini, would be more than happy to meet us in the alley where we could discuss our options with his cleaver. Or we could have pizza. The large Hawaiian with green olives was scrumptious.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Learning Curve '01 (Part two)

     Bear seemed almost a return to civilization. We'd had Brunne to ourselves for all but three hours. The lodge boys didn't even know we were there as they putt-putted by out in mid-lake. And believe me, we did nothing to attract their attention. In fact I tried to pretend I was a rock. In contrast, most every day on Bear we had someone trolling by trailing a small blue haze in never-ending ovals down below our campsite perch. Can't say we saw anyone land any fish. But then they were restricted by breakfast and cocktail hour. Were always battling mid-day sun and near calm. Tough walleye conditions. The low sun hours were ours alone.
     The campsite was boffo. Level slab, glide-up landing. Kitchen and tent pad dominated the lake from above the treetops. Made us feel like lords of Manitoba sittin' up in our lakeside aerie. Stupendously fine site. And showed more use than any we'd seen to date. Such is life in the land of the slightly out of the way.
     Best of all we had the fishing pegged from the get-go. A classic situation of ninety-percent of the fish in ten-percent of the lake. Okay, so I'm exaggerating a little. Call it ninety-percent in thirty-percent. A single look at the map told the story. Our campsite was the front door to what I've come to call a lake-within-a-lake. Four hundred acres nearly separated by islands from the rest of the body. If you ever camp on Bear, take the first camp site on the south side. Stand on the hill facing the main body of the lake. The good fishing's to your rear.
     That's the direction we headed on our first evening. Honestly, it looked good on paper but we'd been wrong before. We eventually tried other spots around Bear but nothing came close to what sat behind us. Lots and lots of walleyes. Most around twenty inches. Rock piles and points. Simple enough. Pike everywhere. A few pushing twenty pounds. Sometimes in the cabbage. Sometimes chowing down on walleyes. Big fish love to eat.
     From cast one it was The Allan Show. I caught my share but he hammered 'em. All the big pike. All the big walleyes. It was my obligation to continually remind him as he reeled them in, that it was my expertise at boat control and location choice that made it all possible. Can't say he ever bought that line. Didn't actually say one way or the other. Too busy catching fish I guess.
     His biggest pike was a Master Angler for sure. Well, it would have been if I'd taken the picture. Soon as we got a look at the fish, I began to maneuver, in reverse, toward a likely landing. Me going one way, pike towing the other. You see, I wanted the shot to be a classic. Al on slab, forest behind, on one knee, hat cocked at jaunty angle, white teeth gleaming, pike held horizontal toward camera. Photo framed and someday hanging on office wall. "Yup. My old man made it all possible. Greatest human being that ever tied a bucktail." Never did make the slab. The picture on the wall changed to Allan with empty hands while kneeing on slab, "Yup. My old man screwed up again."
     A few hundred yards behind our site sat a colossal cabbage bed. Was always good for a dozen casts each time we passed. Not a real hot spot but I've got this thing for cabbage. Even the kind that goes with corned beef. So, Al hooked this hammer handle. Not unusual. Until the little bugger quit the fight and made a bee-line for the canoe. Weird. Al cranked as fast as he could, line rooster tailing a spray  of over heated water as it gathered on his reel. 'Bout the time he's back in control, bang! It thumped the bottom of the boat like a Japanese bell log. Then turned tail and stripped out line. Weirder. Now, Al's got a fight on his hands and wondering, what the hell? Finally gets the snake alongside only to find it sideways in the jaws of a forty-incher. When he tried to hoist the pair for a photo, the big girl finally turned loose, no doubt feeling cheated out of a snack. Al released the little pike, who tried to get back in the canoe. Figuring the fatty hadn't felt the hooks, Allan commenced to fan cast. And hooked up again,  this time landed the northern. Quite a change from his first big pike on Simonhouse.xxxxxx
     Answer to the question of the week. An amphipod is a fresh water scud. More or less looks like a shrimp and floats around in a lake's plankton. Seems to be an important part of a trout lake's ecology. Seeing as how Amphipod was a trout lake that fit nicely. In a dull, couldn't think of a more creative name for a lake than a bug that fish eat, kind of way. Again made me miss good old Round Lake back home. Guess I'm a sucker for color.
     We didn't know that at the time we were paddling down to back door it from Bear. Too easy going in the front door from Third Cranberry like everyone else. Oh, we'd had our chances the first two years but it was a low priority. Also, we didn't have trout gear. Not that we were chest wader and match-the-hatch ready this time. Best we could do was little spinners. Not elegant but a proven tactic. Shoot, even us bozos had caught a few 'bows and brookies with them ( I almost sound like I knew what I was doing. But if you've read this far, you know the truth). Truth is I've never caught trout with a fly rod. Spinners, worm and hook and the ever popular beetle-bug and pork rind. Cut me some slack here. At least I didn't use bleach.
     Bushwhack. Here we go again. Been there, not done that. By gum, this time we were gonna give it something close to a good shot. No swamps in the way. Just a mile of forest without a trail. Not like the Copper Lake romp. But our chances solidly better than the snowball in hell. Honestly, I didn't think we'd make it. But we had the time. Give 'er a shot. We'd either find Amphipod or a good excuse on the way.
     A tough landing of brush above a short rock wall. Grumbled about Canadian conspiracy. There being no way to hoist the canoe, it was left in lake and tied off to brush. Knew for a fact rope would break. Worked our way uphill through the thicket, occasionally dropping to our knees. Pissed and moaned about eventually having to drag canoe through such crap. Regained my composure when finally on level. Life again good. In love with whole world. Could see for quarter mile. Occasional deadfall jumble broke up the otherwise open area. It almost looked like it had been logged off. Whistled while we walked. A half mile in we dead ended at a wall of forest with only the most general idea of Amphipod's direction. Checked the compass. Allowed for vague amount of declination. Thankfully the arrow pointed to a spot on the map that said, "Good enough excuse for city boys to pack it in." Followed by an asterisk referring to a note saying simply 'Wieners.' That and the idea of another half mile of zig-zag through a much thicker stretch of woods told me it was time to turn around. Gave me an appreciation of pioneers and those way-back Asians who wandered into North America twenty-thousand years earlier without having the slightest clue where the hell they were going. I felt awash with relief as we walked back. Maybe I didn't like heading into a world without signposts. Maybe I'd cheated death one too many times in Vietnam. Whatever the reason, not getting lost in the Canadian woods appealed to me a lot.
     Allan. This remembrance just doesn't have enough of him in it. And he's there every mile, step and paddle of the way. He's the necessary half. Without Al there'd be no Canada for me. He was the excuse, the spark. Yeah, the idea for all of it was in my head for decades. But it was Al who made it come to life. Who got us heading for Wedge. Look for the mine. Amphipod. Trapper's cabins. To stop once in a while to take a leak in a new place, on a new island. Mostly to put up with my never-ending idiocy. Talk, talk, talk. We talked all the time. Always something to say, even if what was said was better off not being said. He let me read aloud. Even encouraged it. He knew we could do things I knew we couldn't. being in Canada with my son was a gift. Pure and simple. He turned out to be the son I'd like to have been if my old man had lived long enough to do things with me.
     Come the end of our week and a half, his lips were shot. Chapped, windburned, sunburned, cracked all to hell. Lemonade burned to the touch, water burned, it hurt to eat. He was still enjoying his time. Just wasn't having as much fun enjoying it.
     The plan was to leave on our second Wednesday. The weather had been great but it could turn at any moment. Couple of days being windbound and we wouldn't make the wedding. We'd hear about it for sure. And for years after. Mostly, I didn't want to miss it. It was family. Not only important but pleasureful being around both in-laws and out-laws. So it had to be Wednesday.
     We got up real early. Didn't want to rush it. We sure did that well. Putting together and eating breakfast was a challenge. 'Course at the end of a trip you're down to mold and crumbs. Took a while, maybe a while and a half. Al said he'd do dishes and pack the kitchen. I shuffled back to break down and pack up the camping stuff. Beautiful day. Seemed a shame to waste it traveling but.... I pulled the plugs on the air mattresses. Folded a couple of things neatly. Sat and stared. Stuffed most of a sleeping bag into a sack. I was pooped. Sat and stared. Pulled the bag back out and went to talk with Al. He seemed to be having a difficult time deciding which to pack first, the salt or the pepper. The only thing around him that'd moved was his shadow.
     Al put it simply, "The weather will hold, let's fish today and travel tomorrow."
     It seemed so right. Over the next fourteen hours we spent a dozen on the water. Full sun all day. Fish beyond count. Covered close to half the shoreline. We were obsessed. Somewhere around nine p.m., Al took the photo of me with our last walleye. Then for the next two hours we caught dozens more. Hotter and hotter as the sun went down. Close to fish a cast. What a day it had been. Allan's gift to his old man. Only dark drove us from the water.
     Thursday. Another treasure of a day. Time to pack it in for real. And I'd almost forgotten to mention Old Notch, the eagle. The one missing a big wing feather. All he wanted from life was to eat one of the baby loons across the lake from us. His were the only eagle wings I'd ever been close enough to hear. He nearly dropped a load when he all but ran into me early one morning.
     This time leaving was easy. Laughed our way through it. On the water early with Winnipeg and cold beer on our minds. Travel was a pleasure on that calm, sunny day. The miles flew faster and faster as Al's watch slowed to a stop. Again.
     On Friday we were searched as we passed through customs. Don't know what went on or what they were looking for 'cause we were asked to leave the Jeep. My apologies to the drug sniffing dog. Then again, after ten days in the boonies, our stuff probably smelled like a dog's butt.