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.


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