Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Learning Curve '03 - First Site

     The floor of the B&B paralleled the planet beneath. It's a harsh country in the far north. The beds were fine, the showers hot. Breakfast was self-serve and a choice between Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes. Guess I wasn't expecting more for fifty bucks. Al and I agreed the plan was to find Larry Gogal. Let him know we'd showed up. Learn the plan for the day. When and figure out where. His answer was supposed to be,
     "Oh, a couple of hours. Maybe a little less. The engine fell out of the plane last night. Won't be long once Gaston sobers up and remembers where he left the tools. If you lads ain't had nuthin' to eat, head on over to Clarissa's Olde Country Inn. Serves the finest breakfast dumplings in Manitoba. Got a hard to describe taste. Her Eggs Canadienne with a side of brown gravy cubes are something else. Sticks to your ribs but not your intestines."
     Didn't have far to drive. Headed toward the lake a block away and there she was. The sign wasn't big but the planes on the lake behind the office were clue enough. His answer to, "How long?" was, "Five minutes." Enough time to hand over the cash, buy a hat and read the article on the wall. Been in the business for twenty-five years, coupla planes, helicopters, reliable, quality man. The main plane was an ancient Norseman. As for breakfast, ah hell, real men don't need no breakfast. Suck it up, head to da horizon. Eat da dirt, drink da lake and crap in da woods.
     Never gave a thought one way or the other how our dealings with Larry Gogal would work out. He sure looked the part. Friendly, neat, clean, outdoorsy, a hint of military in his dress. The whole operation seemed tight. Northwoods office organized, computerized. Any possibility of something going wrong never entered my head. A scan was enough. From step one he quietly took charge. He knew what he was doing and his actions proved it. All we had to do was listen and follow his suggestions. "Why don't you drive down to the dock? Save you a lot of steps."
     I'd read horror stories of canoe fly-ins that started with the questions, "Got any rope?" and "You guys ever tie a canoe on a plane before?" Not Larry. We loaded our gear as instructed, then his lodge supplies. Finally the canoe was placed on a pontoon and leaned on the struts. He grabbed twenty feet of half inch rope. With a couple of simple lashings, a trucker's hitch and she was bonded to the plane. Not one quiver in the twenty minute flight.
     The plane? Looked like it just rolled off the assembly line. Like Uncle Emil's Nomad. Big single prop Norseman with computerized navigation. Set the coordinates. Keep the little plane silhouette on the line. Simple. So long as you could get it up, keep it in and get it down from the sky. Every time. I doubt Mr. Gogal needed the computer but it did instill a lot of confidence in us 21st Century pansies.
     Al sat up front for the view. Larry fired it up then taxied to get an up wind angle. With a roar and a rush we were off. Been in jet liners, four props, two props, Hueys and Chinooks. Never a single engine. Let us know where the air currents were as we bounced and wobbled along in slow motion.
     Back in the office we'd talked destinations. On the phone I'd said File Lake 'cause I knew where it was. Beyond that File was no more than a name to me. When push came to shove, it really didn't matter where we began. Wherever we started it was farther in the boonies than we'd ever been. And the farther we'd previously headed into the bush meant better and better fishing. Larry's first destination for the day was his outpost on Dow Lake. A few miles closer to the lodge than File. And also that much farther in the backwoods. That was fine with us.
     Flying over the land beat the pants off looking at a map. Those blue blobs and squiggles on the map meant lakes and streams. Static and level. From the air it was all about drainage. A couple of thousand feet up the big picture was obvious. So much bare rock. Trees here and there. Burn patches where life was pushed back to square one. And the million square miles scraped clean by glaciers exposed. But mostly the picture was the land trying it's best to drain off glacial melt water and rain. Made me wonder if the drainage would be complete, the lakes gone, before the next ice age.
     Conversation was nearly impossible. The bird we were in was noisier than a hundred raven's nests. Me and Al shot photos like a couple of Japanese tourists. Why not? Probably wouldn't get another chance.
     Landed on Dow and moored to a floating dock at the outpost. Unloaded. Larry scavenged the cabin and removed garbage. I resorted the trash looking for breakfast. What the heck, outside of the tent, we were homeless. Hit a mother load of apples, bananas and pop tarts. Al turned up his nose. I stuffed it down. Didn't taste all that good. Maybe better than c-rations. On the other hand, the calories would come in handy over the next few hours. You are what you eat and ain't what you crap. Words to live by. We hung out on the dock until Gogal was airborne. Fun to watch but mostly I didn't want him to watch our zig-zag into the wilderness. Might call us back and not let us go. The first hour was always tenderfoot time. But we'd get our sea legs in a few miles.
Larry Gogal on Dow Lake 

     No hurry to be anywhere. Seven miles a day would get us to the Burntwood Lake Lodge in time for our flight out. Like all of of our previous trips, this wasn't an expedition. Just a fishing trip by canoe. And time to hang out together. Father-son time? Yeah, that's what I said it was. Made me sound like a real role model. One of my nephews wanted this to be a father-son story that made up for the one I never had. It wasn't that way at all. Never knew my father and never much missed him. Hard to miss someone that was never really there. I went with Al 'cause we'd grown to be best friends. Yup, there was more going on than just friendship. Sometimes that was a good thing. Sometimes it got in the way. Raising a child adds a lot of baggage to a relationship. Let's just say that the first trip was a father-son thing. As for the rest, we were with the person we most wanted to be with on a boonies fishing trip.
     Once in the exit stream Al picked up his rod. No better way to find fish. Or not. Seemed like we were on Minnehaha creek in South Minneapolis. Looked like it. Fished like it. We entered our first lake, Fairwind, a widening of the File River. Twenty yards away stood a pair of sandhill cranes. Good start. First I'd ever seen. Recognized them by their name tags. Two minutes later we spooked a grazing moose. Both came as a surprise. Wilderness animals in the wilderness? Didn't see that coming. Don't think Bullwinkle liked us. A few trots, a swim, a wagging moon from the brush and he was gone. Finally, Al began to find the walleyes. Not a bad start for the day. Fairwind seemed to have it all. The river's egress passed through a small canyon. Looked like there was a landing and a spot for the tent. Not far from Dow but this seemed as good a spot as any.
     Then, no more than a hundred yards from the channel we saw, rub-a-dub-dub, six dudes in three tubs. Boats sunk to the gunwales with beer and gear. Big boys. A couple beyond big. Not moving fast. Doubt their outboards had enough horsepower to move 'em more than canoe speed. Where did they come from? Wasn't a town for forty miles and that was at the end of fifty miles of gravel. And there they were, putt-putting onto our lake. Oh well. Crowded out of paradise. Felt like Adam. First the woman, she was okay. Then the snake. Gettin' crowded. Time to move on. No need to get all huffy, God. This place ain't what it used to be.
     We let 'em pass. Said a fond farewell. Paddled through the canyon and onto Limestone Point Lake.

                               Muskie Aside

     On the 4th of July, on a beach at Leech Lake, Minnesota, my son Allan bare-handed and gill-lifted a 38-40 inch muskie. Yeah, I know, haven't we all? The fish was finning the shallows when we approached the beach. Al spotted it, then he and two others pursued it for five minutes. At first Al only touched the muskie to see what it would do. Rather than attack, the fish surfaced and torpedoed away. Finally, the three of them cornered it on a sand bar. There, Allan pinned it to the bottom, slid his fingers under the gills and hoisted it for a few photos. Probably been done before but then again, maybe not. You never know when a family legend will be born. Guess we could call this one 'muskie plucking'. He's posted photos on his designer blog and on twitter. Allan Peters. Don't know if that will do you any good. Send comments if you'd like.

     Big, meandering, kinda sloppy looking s-curve water. Island and reef filled. Larry had mentioned a trapper's cabin somewhere down lake. Nothing more than a last resort in our minds. Seen 'em before. Building would most likely be a step down from the bottom of an outhouse. With luck there'd be a clearing and a landing. Gotta remember, this was our first real boonies trip. Find-your-own campsite. No grills or diamonds out here. On thousands of acres with dozens of points and islands we figured there'd be something primo. Step one was to find a landing. We kept our eyes open and fished as we moved. Time and miles passed. Hunger built. Clouds moved in. Sprinkles began. The search began in earnest.
     From a half mile's distance most every point looked good. And a disappointment from up close. Larry'd said water levels were down. Those constant mini-cliffs were no doubt fine in high water. Still, they could be done. But why? Had to be something ahead. What low water taketh, it no doubt giveth. Ain't that Biblical?
     Mid afternoon we spotted the trapper's cabin. Had to backtrack a tad. We bobbed and scanned off-shore. Crap Hole City for sure. But we'd seen worse. Collapsing log dock. Logs strewn on shore. All bristling with rusted spikes. By now you know me and my aversion toward rusted spikes. They make big holes in canoes and feet. We landed anyhow to stretch our legs. Waist high thistles filled the clearing.  Misery central. A ten minute smoke break and we moved on. The trapper's cabin made the rest of the world look better.
     Over the next hour we weaved a chain of islands with no success. Nearing the end of the lake we passed a landing, clearing, tepee and building with a sign out front. Don't exactly remember the wording on the sign but it seemed to be a Cree Rotary meeting site. And felt like a major trespass to pull ashore. This was a land Olson had traveled more than a half century earlier. No longer had the feel of the old Hudson Bay Trading posts. Guess if we really wanted the land to ourselves we should have flown five hundred miles farther north. Ah Wilderness! She is a harlot who comes with a steep price tag.
Waikiki North
     A mile farther sat a last gasp peninsula. Anything beyond and we were heading north up the File. At first glance the shore looked the same as all the rest. But the closer we paddled the odder it looked. Out of focus like. To this point the number of sand beaches we'd seen in Canada just about equalled the number of UFO's. Now sand was one up.
     Landing was easy. Climbing to the campsite, not so. An eight foot, root and brush grabbing got us to the top. There, at the very tip of the peninsula was just enough space for tent and kitchen. Really more of a perch than a site. Packs and gear had to be handed up. Set the canoe on logs to keep sand out and give us a rolling launch. Half an hour later we were set and the stove fired up. Allan hadn't eaten all day. Nothing like the sound of drooled saliva sizzling away in a hot pan. His moaning during the meal was understandable.
     Here we began our pattern of travel for the next twelve days. When I'd told Larry Gogal we were going to take a dozen days to paddle from Dow to the lodge, he'd said, "What're you gonna do for the other ten days." Putz, fish and see the country of course. Still not enough time to really see everything and do all the side trips. But we could sure put a dent in it. Larry'd told us to look for moving water. Entering streams and rapids. Not a one near our camp. Also not a lot of walleyes. Back in Minnesota, tough fishing meant put on the slip bobber and jig for panfish. Good luck trying that up here. Not a bluegill within five hundred miles. Too shallow for lakers. Too cold for bass. Walleyes and pike. Love 'em or leave. Hate to let the cat out of the bag but fishing on the File wasn't easy. Hit or miss. Found them once in a while. Even hammered them now and then. Tightly bunched with long spaces between. A whole lot of casting practice. But we didn't know that on our first night. Took it as it came. Tent up, food in the pack and eight hundred pages of From Here to Eternity to work our way through. Life was good.
     You know, not all fishing trips bring a lot of fish. Surprise, surprise. You'd think fifty miles into the bush and six hundred miles north of the border would be fish-a-cast. But it ain't. Maybe the fault was us, throwing the wrong stuff. Maybe the time of year. Wind direction. Barometric pressure. Or that the File just wasn't a fertile looking river. Moving water? Only once. As for entering streams, most weren't entering. A few trickling. From our experience, the northland was going through a drought. Our last three trips, covering thirty-six days, produced no more than a quarter inch of rain. Good for us, not for the land. Hearsay told tales of cold, dry winters. Whatcha gonna do? It was what it was. And mediocre fishing with no rain sure beat the opposite.
     Last observation. Not once during our years in Canada did we have a clue what we were in for. Blind crap-shoot from the get-go. I'd stare at the maps. Find a place that looked interesting and we'd go. If it looked like a tough go, so be it. Simple as that. A lot of fun, actually. Made no sense. I liked that. Can't say I recommend that for most people. Once asked a cousin, single and in good shape, if he'd be interested in a Canada canoe trip. Explained how it'd be. Said, "Sounds a little hard core to me."
     Fished down river on the second evening. In what appeared to be an unnamed lake we worked prime pike property to the tune of more casting practice. It sure were pretty though. Back in the city, stuck in frozen traffic, the idea of being skunked surrounded by Canadian beauty sounds like a trade a person'd take without a second thought. That is if there were no bugs included. Actually sitting there in the back of the canoe, ain't much more than a 'pass the smokes' and a thoughtful 'Hmm.' Feet go up on the gunwales. Look around. Listen. A drag on the cigarette the loudest sound around. Light rush of breeze through the spruces. Aspen rustle. A fly buzzes by like a shot. Butt shift. A creak of cane and ash. There's a time to cast and a time to listen. When you live in a world of noise, being able to hear the brrt of a pine squirrel fart can sound like the squeak of the pearly gates.
     Getting late and headed back. Around the corner, back on the File, bunched in a knot, walleye heaven. Sun below the trees. Drifting into twilight. Three miles from camp. The crack between the worlds when the spooks wake up. The two of us playing catch and release with a whole lot of pickerel. Allan jigging jigs with a Power Grub. Me jigging a spinner 'cause I was too lazy to change rods. He outfished me but not so's anyone would notice. Like there was anyone there to notice. Got me to thinking, 'In eighty miles of river, how many pockets of unseen fish does a person paddle over?' We'd stopped because of a cabbage top. I'm a devout believer in cabbage. And not even Irish. Six feet of water. We sat right on top of them. Beauty of innocence. So unspoiled it seemed a shame to impale them with steel hooks. But we did. Lotsa trash talk and laughter. We slept that night with smiles on our faces. The peace of knowing we could yet outsmart a few fish descended on our dreams.
     The morning found us with gear in canoe and retracing our path down river. No plan, we'd travel 'til we stopped. Figured we'd put a couple of hours under the boat then start looking for a landing. Crossed the Unnamed Lake. At the river's egress fifty yards of fast water, split by an island. Never gave it a second thought. Pulled tight to shore in an ebb alongside the rapids and grabbed the rods. Seeing as how there were no portages in our future, we traveled, rods strung and stashed fore and aft, like whip antennae.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Learning Curve '03 - Changing Plans

     Each succeeding entry gets tougher to write. Yes, each trip was different. But what can be said to keep it interesting? Seems like I keep crossing the line into the repetitive. Even I get bored. Uncle Emil won't talk to me. And when he does, his index finger wags at me like I'm eight years old again. Yes Uncle Emil, it was me who forgot to put the minnow bucket back in the river. Mea culpa (like an old Lutheran like him would know what that meant). Anyhow, I'll give it a shot and see what comes out.

     Last two week trip. Probably our last trip, period. Allan was done with school and on the job. A 21st Century intern affair where you don't get paid much but are thankful for getting paid at all. A Graphic Designer no less. A long cry from his ancestors slinging manure and hoping there was enough food in the larder to last 'til Spring. All by the by. But, as a beginner making next to nothing, his company was open to him disappearing for a couple of weeks in early June. That was fine with both of us.
     Don't know why but any thoughts of reattempting the Four Mile Portage never arose. Grass River was still the destination and new water was the goal. At least for me. Allan didn't seem to mind where we went so long as big fish were involved. Reed and anything accessed through Reed was out. Bob's 'fish a cast' Barb Lake was definitely in. But two weeks on Barb was way too much time. Even with a mucking two mile portage it was no more than five hours each way. A week there, no more. Having no other way to get onto Barb besides air or mucking meant it wasn't going to get crowded. Good. Close to a thousand acres, big walleyes were a possibility. Maybe even trophy pike. Both good. We hung it on the board for a week's stay.
     So, where else? The inexplicably named B.C. Lake rose to the top. Out of the way at the western edge of the park and five to six hundred islanded acres, it looked good on the map. Also not easy to get to. A four mile drive north of Cranberry Portage. An east turn on gravel or sand passed the landfill (had to be a great lake if a dump was involved). A few miles farther with possibly a stream crossing and we'd arrive at a half mile trail to Anvil Lake. From Anvil another five, or so, miles of lake, swamp and portage into B.C. Since the portages were drawn on the official map and since Canadian officials never lie, we figured they must be there. Since the portages were there, B.C. must be accessible. And not just another one of my pipe dreams.


     My nephew spends way too much time guessin' about stuff. And way too little time livin' in the real world. Maybe came from his time in Vietnam. Tells me he was only there in body. Can't say I blame him for doin' that. Heard it was a real shit hole. As for Grass River Park he says, "Who am I gonna call?" and, "No books, no guides, no nothing." The only info is a few paragraphs in the park brochure. Says there's trees, birds, rocks and fish. That's about it.  So what you gonna do? Paddle in, throw a line and see if anything attaches itself to the end. Won't use a fish finder so it's hit and miss. Good thing he doesn't mind gettin' skunked.
     His plan's usually based on the 'that lake looks good on paper' method. Should have been an art critic not an angler. Counts islands and figures acreage by eyeballin' kilometer squares. Allan's headin' in the right direction by being a graphic designer. Maybe he could get into map making and draw out just the kind of lakes his old man would fall for. I can see Markie now. Lookin' at the map, then the lake, over and over. "Somethin's wrong with the lake. It don't match the map at all." Total bozo.

     Come Spring, that was the plan. A week on B.C., Anvil and maybe a bushwhack or two. Then back to the Jeep for resupply and a drive to Iskwasum. Head into Barb for the second week. Maybe try what looked like a dry mile bushwhack into Vanco Lake. Only half the total food weight on each phase. Not necessarily a great plan but it was new water all the way.
     A few years earlier I'd given some thought to a fly-in trip, gear and all. Probably a flashback to the overheard conversation in '65. Went so far as to send off a couple of letters. One reply. The only part of it I remember is the thirty-five hundred buck price tag. Enough of a shock to cause a mucus blast and an are you shittin' me? And that didn't include the getting there and all the incidentals. For that kind of price tag we could have flown to Hawaii, rented kayaks and camped for two weeks. I wrote fly-ins off as a rich man's game.
     Then along came the internet. Took a while but even a schmuck like me eventually hooked on. Began to explore the possibilities of the wilderness via cyber space. And learned that flights on Cranberry Air would fit into blue collar pockets. Cheap enough to make me suspicious. And recall almost being run over by them in '00. Sometimes I'm too distrustful for my own good.
     So I sucked it up and fired off a couple of e-mail inquiries to Cranberry Air and a service out of Snow Lake to the east of the park, called Gogal Air. Good thing I wasn't holding my breath while waiting.
     Not knowing what the two track out of Cranberry Portage would be like, I bought a come-along and stout rope. Been stuck a couple of times in places that seemed designed to do just that. The idea of being able to winch the Jeep out of a bottomless pit had it's appeal. By mid-May we were about as ready as we could be.
     'Bout the same time Allan began to pester me about actually calling one of the air services. That didn't fly with me and my problem with seeking any kind of help from people I didn't know. A long distance call to some unknown dude in Canada was on the level of asking an insurance salesman over for a cup of coffee. I just don't do that. So I chose what seemed the tougher of the two, Gogal Air. Knew nothing about Snow Lake except some guy named Gogal had a plane there. Of course there was no answer.
     Then I shocked myself. Forty miles north of Snow lake sat the Burntwood Lake Lodge. Owned by the Gogal family. The same Gogal maybe? Couldn't hardly believe myself when I called them. Yup, same guy. Nope, not in. Canoe? You better talk to Larry but he ain't here. Left a message and wrote it off as not gonna happen. Locked myself in the hall closet for two hours as punishment for calling strangers.
     Tuesday before departure I came home from work to find out some flyboy from the boonies had called. Twenty minutes later I'd learned:
     1) Round trip to either File Lake or an outpost cabin on remoter Dow Lake was $550 USD,
     2) Cash was best,
     3) Water levels were down on the File River but he'd check them out with a low fly over,
     4) Out of country calls were an extra charge on our Sprint plan, and
     5) I still like to make lists.
     The man on the phone was the one and only Larry Gogal. Easy to deal with. Then again, seemed like most people who'd lived in the far north got that way. When I asked about a place to stay in Snow Lake he immediately thought of the Blue Nose B&B. Years later I learned that the Blue Nose is the sail boat on the back of the Canadian dime. And the boat was named after the title given one for crossing the Arctic Circle in a boat. B&B unfortunately was not named after the liqueur. Told Gogal we'd be there come Saturday morning. A second call to a nice lady got us a room and directions to the house. Like I'd have any problems finding a building in a town of 1200 people. Whoo boy! Set for some adventure now.
     Eventually it had to happen. On the road before 8 a.m. on a workday for the first time. Took some creative finagling, help from those around me and dodging the boss. Good thing we did. The forecast called for us to meet up with a storm front around 9 a.m. And we had to make the map store in Winnipeg before they closed at 4:30. Somewhere between where we were gonna be dropped off and where we were gonna be flown out there was a hole in our area knowledge. Guessing my way through eighty miles of wilderness ain't my idea of fun. Too much like real adventure.
     The storm hit right on schedule. Wind, rain, thunder and lightning. Finally the crosswind got so strong I had to pull over. Checked the straps and turned the wheel over to Al. Our speed slowed from 75 to 60. Semis we'd flown by earlier now wreaked havoc on the Jeep. If the weather got any worse, we'd have to go home and get Lois to drive. Seems like every time the weather turns bad or there's a bad stretch of road, I'm riding shotgun. Long story short, we were falling behind schedule. Way behind.
     The weather improved near the border. We switched seats, bumbled our way through customs and lit out for Winnipeg. City limits with twenty-five minutes to go. Rush hour traffic. Stoplights everywhere. All the sonsabitches red. Our map drawn on the back of a cereal box in crayon. Somehow we found the place at 4:29. On the nose. I rushed to the door. Locked. Frickin' locked. I'd have beaten on the door but was afraid of breaking a nail.  Slump-shouldered, despondent, lost, I stood there. A truck door opened behind me. The ring of jack boots on the pavement. A deep timbered voice says, "One side Yankee Doodle. Let me show you how a real man, a Canadian man, knocks on a locked door." The building shook.
     His wife worked inside. She was more than happy to bail out a couple of foreigners and turn our currency into maps. We needed three, she had two. A minute of rousting and she found what the missing map. Had to do an over scale copy of a Burntwood Lake prototype. Thank you ma'am. Walking out, we had everything but a two mile section of the File. If the edge of the world or stretch of rapids called 'The Cadaver' wasn't missed, we were gold. Roads were empty by then. Went across the street to Wendy's and leisurely drove four hundred, seventy-five miles up the road to Snow Lake.
                                       Emil Again

     Once in a while Markie writes a paragraph even I'd read. Then he goes and edits it out. Good or not? You be the judge:
       No doubt I asked at the front counter if the Wendy's hamburger patties in Canada were square just like the one's in the real world. I can't claim to know anyone else's thoughts but possibly, more likely probably, the young lady behind the counter thought to herself, 'What an idiot. If I ever have children I swear they're not going to end up like that (eh)'. The twig is bent and somewhere down the road, maybe two or three generations, a grandson or great-grandson sits with a high powered fusion rifle at the top of a tall building in Windsor, Ontario. He fires a badly aimed shot into Detroit where it strikes the last remaining copy of Mule Skinner Blues, by the Fendermen. Thus making the world a slightly better place.
     Wordy as all get out. But the gist is interesting. Later on he writes that peeing outdoors ought to be in The Bill of Rights. In my book, that's a fine mind at work. Just needs to put a clamp on the ego and crisp up the action. Heck, it's a fishin' story ain't it? He's gettin' better. But may not live long enough to make it. By the by. About fifty years ago he thought the Mule Skinner Blues was up there with Mozart. If you ain't heard it, check it out. But don't go and write me if you think it stinks.

     Thankfully the Friday night sobriety road block was well and good. Had those five minutes blocked out on the schedule. Didn't want to screw things up. And just to the north sat our new last gasp gas stop at Grand Rapids. Seemed like The Place to be on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. She were a jumpin', inside and out. A peek at the big lake made the canoe shudder. Me too. Then it was all new country. Rolling hills, lake views. Felt like we were rising out of an ancient sea bed. Long before Snow lake the sun went down. We turned into a moving wedge of light cutting through solid black. No traffic whatsoever for two hundred miles. Had the feeling we'd come up over a rise and broadside a wooly mammoth. Needed a periscope to see over the hills. Felt that way until we rolled into Snow Lake around eleven-thirty.
     My scribbled directions failed us immediately. Looking for a log sided building down the hill next to two churches. Found the gold mine. Toured the town. Twice. We were the only thing moving. Town closed 'til Saturday morning. A lucky wrong turn did it. Found the key. Read the note. Made a call to the owners. They were out partying somewhere. Their son paid us a visit instead. Got the low down on the gravel right-of-way. And all the sordid hearsay concerning the Grass River Lodge. Went outside. Had a last smoke and watched the Northern Lights. Nine degrees farther north.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Learning Curve '02 - Outbound

     Time to pack it up and go. Our buddy, the wind, came calling to pass the time of day. Yummy Ramen noodles for breakfast. Better than nothing. But not much. Not a lot of weight left in the food pack. Al brewed and I packed.
     Shooting straight for the portage was not an option. Would have been mostly broadside all the way. We had to tack up lake 'til halfway across.  In a break between gusts we spun it on a dime. Yee haw! For the next mile it was Katy-bar-the-door downwind. The lodge boats were doing their obligatory piking as we shot by with a brief exchange of waves. Shoulda been there last night boys.
     The portage was a simple grind it out affair on another warm, sunny day. Having removed and digested thirty pounds from the food pack helped. But it was still five trips over each portage and we were in the worn down phase of our trip. Two weeks in the boonies does that to me. Fact of life.
Rear View of Incompetent Yoke Builder
     Eventually we reached the last hundred rods with the canoe. My turn. The balance and expertise of throwing a canoe on my shoulders is a small thrill. A flip and we were off. Less than five rods later I heard a sharp crack and was head whacked by the boat. I thought a large branch had fallen on me. Kept asking Allan, "What happened?" He kept saying, "The yoke broke." But I wouldn't believe him. Not my yoke. No way. Then I put the boat down. Crap. No doubt the broken yoke would have added some unexpected fun to the Four Mile Portage. Not to mention the wind we were dealing with and it's effect on Reed Lake. Nothing to do but grab an end and finish the carry.
     By the time we reached Elbow I'd forgotten about the wind. But it hadn't forgotten about us. Still SSW and a quartering, stiff head wind. Still sucked. I'd have spit in it's face but it would have spit right back in mine. The first hundred yards was okay. Then it hit us and it was foot at a time progress for an hour and a half. A small chain of islands led us to the land of screaming ravens once again. Mid afternoon and we were done for the day. We'd burned off our noodles a few hours earlier and were draggin' butt.
     The photo looks like this: In a row, dumped one after the other are the boots he wore on the portage, the socks he wore in the boots, the bottom legs of his zip off pants, Allan laying on a flat rock with life jacket for a pillow and behind him, the whitecaps on Elbow scooting passed. Windbound nap time after six hours of humpin' and pumpin'. Thirty-six miles between us and the access. But there were delusions of making it to the access in one day skipping along out there across the tops of those white horses. Eat. Get a long night's sleep. And all the way home tomorrow. No sweat. A tailwind and ten hours would do it for sure. However, at the moment I couldn't get off my ass.
     Rummaging through the food pack, joy of joys, I rediscovered a treasure. Uncle Ben's rice and a can of chili. Basic Training food at it's finest. Sounded great to me. Turned out I'd forgotten the quality of Army cookin'. Good thing we were hungry. After dishes we checked the TV listings. Nothing worth staying up for so we turned in around 8:30. My mind was still churning over an early start and a long paddle.
     My ears never slept that night. Neither did the wind. Since all winds sound alike, maybe it was shifting. Yeah, shifting. Go with that. Dreams of tailwinds and flying into the access on a unicorn. My dreams, my choice of subject.
     Noodles for breakfast again. Had to eat something. But noodles? They sucked up most of our water supply and the only place to dip more was still running whitecaps. Yup, headwind. Had I a brain in my head any idea of making the access while bucking the wind would have vanished. But I hadn't and it didn't. Don't know if anyone else thinks like me. Continually giving an unrealistic spin on life. Pie in the sky and planning on a miracle. Not a big miracle. No loaves and fishes. Just a little one. Like the functioning of the planet changing it's direction for a day so our paddle would be a smooth cruise. I used to tell people I had this fantasy of waking up one morning to find myself on a yacht on the French Riviera. I'd look around, ring for my man and tell him, "I just had the strangest dream." Maybe I'm exaggerating but I do occasionally have overblown expectations. Like on holidays and odd numbered Thursdays.
     Outside of nearly ramming the only reef rock in a large bay and bucking the wind for a few hours, Elbow was no problem at all. I swear the rock appeared out of nowhere. For all I know it was gone the moment we passed by. Probably hoisted by the ghost fish. The morning mostly shot, we found ourselves at the trestle. Figured Al must have been hungry when he crunched up a pack of noodles and ate them dry. It was there we took our annual one arm photo. Never much of a shot but they always captured the moment. Small piece of who we once were.
Bear or Black Pig?
     Those last three carries were thankfully only triples. Double packed the first time over and then the canoe with loose stuff. The chute. I'd been dreading it for eleven days. Maybe it was the beaver dam on Claw that lowered the river level enough to bring it about. And then the opening of the dam erased the feared chute. But it was gone. Completely gone. Al said it was no different than when we paddled up. Ah, what the heck did he know?
     Once below the last rapids it was sixteen miles of clear sailing to the access. Only thing that could have slowed us down was the dead on headwind. And it was a honker. Crept by a playground of otters, one fisherman and a single swimming bear. The bear seemed to be on its way to our first campsite. Figuring the man in the boat was camping there, we crowded the bear off the river. Passing camp we saw the rickety table spread with food. Lunchtime for Yogi. 'Spose we could have stopped and packed it all up. But the headwind said to forget about it. Besides, the more we packed up, the more the bear would have torn up.
     Another hour brought us to a bend in the river. At last we were somewhat tucked under the storm. A mile later we saw the end of our day. Iskwasum was an angry sea my friend. Totally impossible. Stampede of white horses. We found a shore lunch spot, landed and hunkered down for the night. Allan made dinner while I set up the tent. Fine line between free standing and airborne. Mac and cheese for supper. Maybe better than nothing. Maybe not. We were burnt, fried, kaput, dragged out and were in the bags at 6:30. Been on the water and trail for ten hours and had only done twenty-four miles. Slept like the dead.
     We rose under a black and blue sky at 4:30. Clearing sky approaching from the north. End of the earth overcast to the south. Above us the dividing line. But no wind! Calm and a dozen miles to go. We could already taste the brew of Winnipeg.
     Once we were on the lake the sunrise exploded green against the spruces to our south. Good weather, no hurry. We stopped and watched the show. The cruise down Iskwasum was a pleasure tinged with fear that another blow was right around the corner. Turned out it wasn't. We took our last smoke break surrounded by cattails where the river left the lake. No matter the weather of the last two days, I wasn't ready for this trip to be over. Another longed for journey down the tubes. Memories are fine but making them is so much better. Seems there's never enough time for stuff like this until you're retired and then the body can't do it any more. You betcha it's all ass backwards.
     The access looked like it could have been a walleye tournament. Twenty boats lined up on shore with a few thousands horses waiting for the starting gun so's they go off on a meat hunt. Good luck to each of them. Hope all the 'don't have a clooo boys' fill their stringers. Ah, the arrogance of canoemen. At least this one.
     Load the Jeeped. Headed to Winnipeg. Ate and slept. Crossing the border was ten minutes of interrogation. The young official at the border was much more interested in the canoe than any illegal activities on our part. Wanted to know all the specs and where to get one. That's the kind of questioning I can live with.