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.

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