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.

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