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.

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