Sunday, July 31, 2011

Eppy Log (Last Trip)

     The trip of '09 is a bugger for me to write about. Lotta reasons. Most of them between the ears. Call it brain deterioration or SFB syndrome if you prefer. I remember the trip up. The paddle in. And the trip out. The days in the middle all jumble together like a pile of jackstrawed spruces back a hundred yards from shore. It's all there but it sure is a mess.
     No doubt that the trip was Lois and Maria's gift to me and Al. Neither of us is the type to lay down the law and go off as we please. We're more of the throw-an-idea-out-and-see-what-the-response-is types. The idea arose. They said, "Why not?," and we were off and planning. I think we all knew this would be the last trip of its kind. Don't like to think in those terms. Try to fool myself that there's more of 'em down the road but both my age and changing outlook on life like to throw their weight around. At 64 I've got most of what I've always had. The word 'most', however, is a big deal. Ten or more years ago, like a lot of people, I could do more than I was capable of doing for short periods of time. Nowadays I can only do what I'm able to do. And am short on desire to do even that. Don't know if I'd want to push off into headwind whitecaps and grunt for an hour to cross a bay anymore. The trip of '09 threw a few hints in that direction. All that plus Maria and Allan were thinking in terms of having their own family. Scenes change, actors come and go.
     We knew where we were going from the get-go, Wedge Lake. A return to the root of all great fishing. The little island campsite and the big pike. All would be as it had been. Except that smokes were a thing of the past. Made a reservation at the Winnipeg HoJo for Friday night. Hey, all we were looking for was a bed. How bad could it be? Just off the freeway, perfect. Only one negative internet review. Seems the writer was in a dither about a little noise coming from the bar downstairs. Wrote that off as some candy-ass with overly sensitive ears. A regular Princess and the Pea type. Nothing better to do than pick away at the littlest fault and complain to the world at large. Boy were they on the money! Don't ever stay at the HoJo on Portage Avenue if it's a Friday night. Live Rock music. And after ten o'clock, every ten minutes the door opens, a group exits and a Hoser yells out, "Jeezus it's cold out, eh!" However, on the bright side, it does quiet down after 2 a.m. Not a big deal really. Our alarm was set for 5:45 and real men don't need sleep, do they?
     Maybe they do. Or maybe we're not. Either way, I have no memory of the road between Winnipeg and The Pas. I knew for sure we were at the Esso station, me pumpin' gas and Al buying frozen minnows. But how we got there was a mystery. The Jeep looked okay, no dirt mud or dents. Probably never left the road anywhere. My experience as a driver told me those things just happen. You pull into your first stop in downtown Minneapolis and don't remember a thing since leaving the airport. Then say a prayer that nothing bad happened on the way I'll hear about later when the cops come to take me away.
     McDonalds plus an hour and we arrived at the Government Dock. Showed up just in time to watch a flotilla of deep-draught fishing boats load up with food, gear, beer, oxygen bottles, defibrillators and a platoon of  seriously aged fishermen. From their banter we learned they'd followed the retreating glaciers north in their youth in search of quality fishing. Claimed they'd been fishing Elbow Lake before the lodge was there, before the Cree had come onto the land, maybe even before the land bridge between Asia and North America. "Fishin's nothin' like it used to be back in the Bronze Age, sonny. Caught stuff that ain't been seen in a couple millennia. Shit, you boys ain't started to live 'til you accidentally tied onto a baby Wooly Mammoth. On the other hand it was a helluva trip over from Europe back then. Three years each way. Hard to get that much vacation all at once."
     Simply being among men who fluently spoke a long dead language like Anatolian, sent chills up my spine. I begged to snap a few pics of them. Turned me down saying all our shots would be out of focus, "Don't get us wrong, we're not The Undead. Just the Slow in Dying."
     Their goal for the day, outside of continued breathing, was the lodge on Elbow Lake. Ours was a tad closer, on Second Cranberry. It was pushing mid-afternoon. Wouldn't be able to fish that day if we pushed it all the way into Wedge. But we'd known that to be an iffy goal since hitting the road in the morning. Back in'99 the Simonhouse Ranger had X-ed the north side of our destination as a regular lake trout factory. While watching the dance of the Ancient Mariners we'd learned the ice had gone out during the last week. And lakers like cold water. Oh boy. We'd more or less been hoping for such a combo. Even packed shiny silver lures just in case. Also had the minnows. Now if we only knew which end was up concerning lake trout, we were set.
     Okie-dokie, everything was pretty much as usual to this point. I guess. Once out on the water it seemed things had changed. Same boat, same load, same paddlers. Moving into a gentle head wind. Waves but no whitecaps. Done that before and moved along smartly. This year it felt like we were oozing our way through Jello. Maybe to Allan it felt fine. Why not? He was twenty-nine and in good shape. To me the miles felt longer and slower, the far side of First Cranberry a never ending slog away. Interesting that the watch called me a liar when we reached the channel. I figure my mindset had gotten used to smaller water with ten pounds of fishing gear aboard. I'd locked into a lake equals a mile. That First Cranberry was over four sure stretched that equation out. But not the canoe. Up ahead lay seven mile long Second Cranberry. Uff dah. Thank God all the beauty was still around us.
     Along the way our banter was much the same. A lot passes through a person's head. Every so often something sicks out and gets spoken aloud. Maybe, but rarely, profound. More likely mundane or borderline stupid. A lot of silence in between. A conversation ends but the mind doesn't stop. One thought leads to another, to another. The next conversation is directly related to the last except all the intermediate connections are gone. We're remembering a moment from a trip of the past. A minute of silence follows. Then Global Warming and how it relates to shoe size. It turns into a game of mental ping-pong. Then silence again.
     We'd passed the campsite we were heading on earlier trips. Always saw it from a distance. Had this picture in my head of a broad, flat shelf sloping to the waterline with long views to the north. Turned out that was a hallucination. What we found was a single acre, raw, scruffy hump with not a single flat spot for a tent. Not as bad as The Rock on Third Cranberry, barely. Didn't really matter much. Moved some boulders for the tent, fired up the stove and we were home on a lake in Canada again. Felt good, really good.
     In the evening we worked our little archipelago with nothing more than wet line to show. Threw spinners, bottomed fished, even trolled. It was one of those times on the water that didn't feel the least bit fishy. Maybe the lakers picked up on my mood. Maybe X didn't mark the spot. No lakers for us.
     Had the fishing been better we'd have not moved on come Sunday. Four, my-God-is-this-never-going-to-end, miles took us to the connecting channel. From there it was a breeze. The portage landing was a simple slide into shore. Not at all what I remembered. The slope above was a friendly, gradual rise. Almost embarrassing to have broken my ribs on it. I knew it had happened but just couldn't picture it. Could it be the world changes any old way it wants if you don't keep a close eye on it? Perhaps we live on a devious planet. Out to wipe us out in the blink of that same eye. Maybe the inertia of the pack didn't pull me off that slope so much as Mother Earth pulled the rug out from under me. Seems impossible but after revisiting that 'hillside', I'm sticking with my little conspiracy theory. No way I'm taking the blame.
     The portage also had a new twist to it. Midway, what had once been an ease-your-way-around-the-edge puddle, was now a half acre pond. Any bigger and we'd have fished it. As such it took a forty rod, hummock jumping, log straddling, side trip to get around it. This year Allan carried the bulk of the load. By that I mean the cooler. More accurately we each carried it the same distance measured by effort. My effort move it thirty rods, his about two hundred eighty. He also got the joy of the canoe. Have to admit I got a kick out of him bushwhacking the seventeen footer through the tree thick side trip. Nothing gives an onlooker pleasure like an eighty foot spruce getting in the way of a canoe portager. A solid thwack!, a brief stagger and an echo chamber series of curses. Knew the feeling well. Glad it wasn't me.
     The portage itself had evolved and had a heavily used look. Appeared Wedge Lake had become a destination. We shared most of the carry with a day tripping Canadian family. 'Course they were moving motors, gas and coolers in addition to fishing gear. There weren't but eight of them but covered four generations. They had a raggedy three wheel ATV to help cart the bulk. The puddle put the end to that so it was steel on the shoulder for the last half. Having their company was a portent for the week. Most days we were serenaded by the buzz of an outboard. But the evenings, nights and mornings were still ours alone.
     Caught sight of a swimming caribou as we entered the channel. A rare sight for Minnesota eyes. Around the corner our island had visibly changed. The lower end had suffered a blowdown. Five missing jackpines made a big difference on God's half-acre. Almost blocked our landing. After we eked our way ashore, Al set to work with the branch saw. Cut enough lengths of firewood to make up for what we'd burned over the years. Got the canoe on high ground. In three trips we finally spent nineteen nights on that island. Not many places on the planet could I say that about.
     Over by the fire grate the jackpine from which we'd hung wet shoes, and the occasional lure suspended rod, gone also. It'd been nine years since we'd left in the mists and dying winds of '00. Maybe others had camped there since. If so, I hope they enjoyed it as much as we did. Tent on sloping slab. Kitchen by grate. We were home for the last time.
     I know we'd changed since '00. Still father and son. No doubt about that. But the balance point had moved. We didn't read aloud anymore. Just didn't seem to fit. Allan now pulled me along as much as he followed, maybe more. Didn't want to get into that back then. Don't know if the thought even entered my head. Looking back on that week, the gut feeling was there for sure. You don't have to like it much when the world is passing you by but pass you by it will, if you live long enough. And it seems I was living long enough. Ain't that sweet. Just like me to get a grip on things two years after they've happened. I'd been that way all my life. If I was quicker on the uptake, I'd be quicker on knowing why I was depressed. That'd make me happy for sure (almost want to put a smiley-face here. If that ever happens I'll be ready for the compost heap). In short, Allan was nice enough to let me have the rear seat in the canoe but I knew who was moving the boat.
     The cold water made for slow fishing. Or possibly there was a direct relationship between portage wear and fewer, smaller pike and pickerel. No doubt they'd seen seen better tricks than we'd up our sleeves. Throw in nary an emergent weed. No glitter of flying minnows when our lures hit the water. We were a week or two early. Oh, there were fish to be caught. Even a few fatty pike. Big surprise when I caught the first one in an inside corner of a small bay. No reason for her to be there. Ten years earlier it would have been a thrill. Now it was more of a satisfying chuckle that I could still fool one with a homemade lure.
     Got me to thinking that sex and fishing are related somewhere down deep. Old guy humor but maybe more truth in it than most of Freud's guesses about human nature. Not that I'm claiming to be smarter than the old guy. However, I never espoused the following: I think it was in Eros and Civilization that he threw out the idea of women ending up in the kitchen back in the hunter/gatherer days 'cause they were physically unable to piss out a campfire. Can't say I didn't admire the logic of his thought but c'mon. Maybe the ladies had no desire to do such a thing. Mostly I was left with the image of little Siggy, wee-wee out, dousing flames and dreaming of being a fireman and not a chef.
     One way or  t'other I had my fish. Didn't catch anything else near that size. From then on Al took over. At least I had a good seat from which to watch. But walleyes? Far and few. Not a clue where they were hiding.
     Seagulls. Down in Florida last winter there was this flock of them working the water a ways out from shore. I asked one of the cigar-smoking shore fisherman what the gulls were feeding on, "Probably garbage. Gulls can't catch squat." To that point I'd always assumed gulls were at least as good at fishing as I was. When we'd seen the flock working the small side of Wedge I wrote it off as birds chowing down on baitfish. Made that assumption many times in the past. Even used it as a sign where the fish were. With no success. Figured the problem had to be me. The gulls couldn't be wrong, could they? Seeing them several times in the same spot on Wedge had no effect on me. We were on a walleye and pike factory. Didn't need no stinkin' gulls or baitfish to help us catch fish.
     By Wednesday we hadn't caught but a couple of walleyes. Obviously we needed help. We were working the small side of Wedge near the portage. A few hundred yards away the gulls were still doing their own working. Al was still throwing his spinner. I got into watching the gulls. They'd dive, skim the surface briefly then cut it sharply into the sky. Gradually Allan joined in the watch. Why not? It was a good show. Wanting a closer look we began a slow drift. The gulls began a slower drift away from us. But we were gaining. Seems they were more into what they were chowing down on. When the distance was cut in half we could see they were skimming but not touching the water. Flying fish? Drifted past a few spent mayflies. Then a few more. Then wigglers floating to the surface. Aha! The birdies were snatching mayflies as they left the water. "I'm free and lookin' for love!" Bam! "Crap! I'm lunch!" Life is fleeting.
     Seemed like a lotta work for a few little bugs. How many calories in a mayfly? How many calories to hover and snatch one? No hurry we continued to watch. Waited for the birds to drop from the sky as they ran out of gas.  And wondered if we had any spinners that looked like emergent bugs.
     The story goes that walleyes are hard to catch when mayflies are hatching. The fish don't eat the fly so much as they suck up the worms on the way up. The story goes on to add that if you could find where the mayflies are hatching, and we had, throw the pickerel a meal and you might fool a few. So we trolled through the hatch. Allan dragged a minnow tipped jig and me, a spinner. He caught a single walleye. I got me a branch. What was the conclusion? Not much. Except that maybe aspen also eat mayflies.
     'Bout the time we thought we'd seen most everything on Wedge, there sat an aging homestead on a mid-lake island. Had to pull ashore and check it out. Whoever'd built it had done a fine job. Even in their tumbling-down phase the buildings and layout showed eye-pleasing care and planning. Part of someone's history sat in that clearing. Like most everyone's, the story died with the main character. From what we saw it had been a story worth telling. The grayed logs we were looking at sure beat the hell out of the more modern, plywood crap we'd passed a half dozen times in the past. Got me to thinking. Someday I'm gonna be gone. Might not be a bad idea to consider what I'm gonna leave behind for my kids and Mother Nature to clean up. Maybe that's the Last Judgement.
     After a couple of dozen trips in the woods, our cooking had reached borderline extravagance. Began with the always mundane ribeyes and hashbrowns. Allan couldn't part with his usual breakfast of eggs and maple sausages. Since he made it and it tasted good, I was fine with that. My old man loved pork chops. Must have passed that on to me. Only he liked 'em crisp. Me, I went for browned thick-cut chops in onion, diced Italian tomato sauce and simmered for an hour or two over the Coleman stove. Maybe healthy, maybe not. But damned good eatin'. Throw in some spicy chili on the off night. And accompany most of the evening meals with a simple red wine that feels at home in the northwoods. Slab-sized sandwiches on breads from the New French Bakery for lunch. Roughin' it vittles. All in all, food so good we didn't deserve great fishing.
     Said it before but here she goes again. The ground under your feet and the trees in your face let you know that the map doesn't tell the whole story. In seventeen years we'd come to expect and accept that. Yes, I'm talking bushwhack once again. We had a sure-fire plan for this one. And the sure-fire notion that it probably wouldn't work out. Sometimes nature throws a whammy at you. Sometimes you shoot yourself in the foot. The foot-shootin' in this case was misreading the number of zeros on the spool of fluorescent yellow ribbon.
      The plan was to pull ashore, shoot an azimuth with the compass and tie highly visible ribbon to trees along the route to an unnamed lake a mile away. Good plan, eh? Not so good if you need about fifty and only have enough ribbon for fourteen. We gave it a shot anyhow. Figured we could resort to some form of Boy Scout idiocy. Like pointer branches, tree blazes or dropping colored pebbles. Well, call it a valiantly attempted, miserable failure. The landing was a slide ashore. The rest was downhill all the way. The swamps too large and our desire marginal. Finally I held the last ribbon position while Al disappeared into the bog. We kept voice contact knowing that if I could still hear him, he hadn't fallen off the planet or sunk out of sight. People disappear all the time in Canada. I could accept that. Still, I was very happy to see him return. So we found a piece of high ground and did what all Americans do, took pictures of each other. By the way, I was never a Boy Scout.
     Friday arrived with us up in the air about when to leave. The plan called for Saturday but the fishing wasn't great and we were out of wine. We headed down lake after breakfast with the unspoken understanding that should the fishing pick up, we'd stay. Around lunch we paddled back in the sunshine and packed it up. Spend the night in The Pas. Wasn't difficult working our way over the portage and up the Cranberries. It wasn't until we hit First Cranberry that the clouds rolled in. With a mile left we were staring into the teeth of a wall cloud. Picked up the pace.
     Under ideal conditions, how long does it take for glassed out water to build into whitecaps? From what we saw, figure two minutes tops. The blow nearly stopped us. When I was thirteen, under similar conditions while in a row boat, some dude with a red beard dove in the lake and bailed me out. Yeah, a young Viking came to the rescue. Doubt that anything would have happened. Cripes, I was holding my own. My Uncle Eddie said that should something similar ever happen again, drop to the bottom of the boat and ride it out. Row back when the wind died down.
     So there we were. Holding our own. Waiting for our Viking. Didn't look like that was gonna happen. Guess he'd gotten a little to old in the last half century. And not a square inch of space was left in the bottom of the pack-filled canoe. One thing I knew for sure. We were no more than a quarter mile from the access and there was no way in hell we were going down. I was both scared and pissed at the same time. A little bit of adrenalin pump goin' on. The closest shore was no more than a hundred yards to our right. By angling the bow a few degrees that way, I turned our lack of forward motion into a sideways slide. Wasn't much of a shore, cattails and brush. But it was enough to cut the wind slightly. Slowly we moved forward. Seemed like one of those forever things. Probably fought it no more than fifteen minutes. A fitting ending to our nine Canadian trips. Guess the Great White North didn't want us to leave.
     No sooner did we land than the wind died down. And the temperature plummeted. Al went for the Jeep. While I waited, a party of fisherman motored in and off-loaded a nice stringer of walleyes. They'd sure had better luck than us. Then headed straight for the cleaning house and cranked up the hand pump. 'Eerkh, eerkh, eerkh' she went. When Allan returned they were still at it. I asked him to give a listen. "You know what that is?" Pause. "It's the sound of old men masturbating."
     On The drive back to The Pas the rains came. The temperature dropped into the forties. A good night to be out of the bush.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Eppy Log (Honeymoon)

     We did no trip in '05. First miss in thirteen years. In '06 there was a trip in the offing. But not the kind of one I'd have ever guessed would happen. That we were returning to Wedge Lake was no surprise. Maybe going in late June was a bit odd. But Larry Gogal had said the best time for fishing was July and for me, the last week of June was pretty darned close.
     Why this was happening in the way it was, had to do with a wedding, Allan's. He and Maria had decided to do a two phase honeymoon. The first phase was in Hawaii. How mundane. But a romantic notion nonetheless. The second was to share with Maria a different kind of paradise. That Maria was willing to go along with a Canadian canoeing and fishing trip said a lot about her. Also seems she wanted to catch a big fish. Okay. A couple of mahi-mahi or big-eye tuna off the Makaha coast would have done the trick nicely. Why Canada? Better ask her. I know I loved it. So did Al. Must have been contagious, in the disease sense. In short, I felt honored to be a fifth wheel on a three person trip. Even rented a Minnesota III canoe to celebrate and at the same time, have room for all of us in the same boat. Long, fast and slow to turn. Maria and I picked Al up from work at noon on a Friday and we were off.
     Spent the night in Winnipeg. All went well 'til we gassed up in Ashern. There I was hit and knocked down by a three pound horse fly. And that wasn't the only one. Maybe a sign of things to come? Long story short. The northland had gone through it's first wet Winter and Spring in half a decade. Also had a horse fly hatch of biblical proportions. Seriously biblical. If I'd been pharaoh, a hatch like that and I'd have sent Moses and all of Israel packing in a minute. Had it only been me and Al, the bulldogs would've been no more than a sincere misery. We wouldn't have liked it and would have bitched about it forever more. But Maria, she was another story. You see, she's a woman. I know, in this day and age we're all supposed to be equal in every way. But when it comes to flesh chomping horse flies, there is indeed a difference. When the bulldogs are biting, they thrive on exposed flesh (though it wouldn't surprise me if they could bite through a boot). Simply put, a woman doesn't want to pee in the woods under those conditions if she doesn't have to.
     That leads us to this interesting and maybe funny, depending upon your point of view, anecdote. Way back when, I'd been warned. The man in the Flin Flon - Flin Flon is the only city in Canada named for a character in a Science Fiction novel. The novel being The Sunless City, by E. Preston Muddock. And the character Josiah Flintabbety Flonatin - Bombers t-shirt told me the gas station on the road to Easterville wasn't dependably open. So not to count on it. He didn't however, say it was strange. He also didn't say it was the setting for an episode of The Twilight Zone. Or that it might be a portal to Hell. Somehow that all fits in with the story of J. S. Flonatin.
     Inevitably the inevitable happened. As it inevitably must. In the cover of brush at what was usually the Friday night sobriety checkpoint, Maria made a valiant attempt to do the necessary. It was there in the lot that I noticed we were being followed by a cloud of horse flies. At least I think we were. They were there when we came to a stop and didn't seem interested in doing much more than follow us around. So Maria had to deal with them and another cloud already waiting in the bushes. With no success. So she was stuck. Not an indoor bathroom for at least two hours unless....
     Twenty minutes later we turned into the gravel lot of the Easterville gas station. No cars around. Didn't seem closed. Didn't seem open. Didn't need gas. Didn't find out if the pumps were operating. And the cloud of flies was still with us. Had been for over a hundred miles. Had to look them up on the internet to see if that was possible. Seems they can do about ninety mph. Damn. That's smokin'. Could very well have been the same flies we'd been married to since Ashern. Wonder if they knew the way home to their moms, dads and local bar?
     What I'm working my way around to is that I didn't have to pee. And since Maria had Allan as her gallant escort, there was no way in hell I was going out in the cloud or confront whatever might be waiting for us in the gas station. Yes, this is an admission of cowardice. I can live with that. Therefore the description of what came next is only a guess. I never saw Maria and Allan again. What happened remains a mystery. One moment they were there, the next they weren't. Oh well. What ya gonna do? It's just Canada. Things happen.
     Sorry about that. Sometimes I get carried away.
     Maria and Allan entered the building. Dead flies covered the floor, window sills, counter, the Virgin of Guadeloupe. Pretty much everything. The few live flies seemed to be trying to smash their way out through the encrusted windows. Screaming in their itty bitty voices, like out of the '50s sci-fi movie The Fly, "Help me! Help me!" For some reason, being in that room terrified them - both the flies and Maria and Allan. A small, black and white television flickeringly played the same scene from an ancient episode of The Days of Our Lives, over and over. No sound from the set. Occasionally the characters stopped to watch Maria and Allan as they moved about. No one around. No answer when they called out, "Hello. Anybody here?" A door open to a back room. Finally Maria crunched her way to the restroom. A small, gloomy, not-much. But it beat the alternative.
     Maria tells the story much better. Her very real, emotional involvement tells me I did the right thing by staying in the car.
     By this point there was no doubt in anyone's mind, except mine, that we weren't going to Wedge lake this year. I'm a little slow on the uptake. Kept suggesting impossible scenarios involving air conditioned bubble suits that would allow us to walk on the water and fish as normal. No matter what I came up with there was this situation with Maria. Finally I realized she was the perfect scapegoat, the perfect out. "Yeah, me and Al woulda gone in for sure. But we had the woman with us. You know how they are."
     Made it to The Pas. Knew we'd get the gospel about the flies from the locals. They were pretty taciturn folk. If they made any fuss, we'd know there was a real problem. Gassed up at the Esso station and asked around. "Oh yeah. De're sure sumthin', aren't they?" Strike one. Lunch at the lodge up the street. Same story. That was enough for me. By the way, lunch was a couple of degrees short of plumb. Snappy, crisp buffalo burger. Summer sausage instead of pepperoni on the pizza.
     Back at the Jeep the flock was still hovering. Not so bad elsewhere. Wrote that off to urban pest control. We decided to go with Plan B. Then set to figuring out what that might be. Back in '00 we'd done a drive though Riding Mountain National Park on the way home. Nice looking area. Big hills, vistas, lakes and lotsa traffic. So we looked down that way on the map. We also recalled a couple of signs passed in the dark. Porcupine Provincial Forest and Duck Mountain Provincial Park. Figuring Porcupine was both closest to us and farthest from big towns, we went there.
     On paper the Forest looked good. Hills and lakes. And no horse flies. Couple of billion mosquitos but they were a simple job for DEET. The Ranger who paid us a visit wore a head net. Said the bugs were unbearable. Made us feel like real people of the backwoods. Ate a few as a snack while we talked. Nice wide open site. Too bad the fishing wasn't much. Some of the small but car accessible back lakes were stocked with trout, grayling and arctic char. In the intense sunshine of our stay we had no luck.
     Confession time. I may have screwed up. Or chickened out. Or made the right decision. On the west edge of the park sat Armit Lake. At least five thousand acres of pike. Some big. Didn't know about the pike at the time. But I did know that to get to the ten miles of muddy ATV track that accessed the lake, it was a seventy mile drive into Saskatchewan. At least that's what we were told. Never seriously considered it. But we were traveling in a Jeep with true four wheel drive. Might have been a tight fit but we probably could have done it. Or maybe gotten stuck in some sink hole with no possible way of extraction. Brought back memories of earlier fun times. Another of those what-ifs that have no answer. Life seems to be filled with them.
     Maria did catch her big fish. Two of them in fact. Not huge, but big. A thirty-two inch pike in the park. And a little later a nineteen inch bass near the cabin on the way home. She's got bigger ones in her future. It's just a matter of wetting a line in the right spot.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Eppy Log (Quetico)

     This here's not really an epilogue. So I gave it a woodsier sound. Ain't I clever?
     Since the six Manitoba trips already covered there have been three more. None had the passion of those first six. My fault. I just couldn't get all fired up. Not that I didn't want to. But it just wasn't in the cards and you can't force emotion. Maybe it was age. Maybe Al and I turned a corner in '03. He was moving on, moving into a new life on his own. Things change. And not always the way you want them to. Like a person has any say in the way life deals the cards. Maybe it was age. Not so young anymore. The body okay but the mind was moving on toward late middle age.
     So, you could say it was weather that sent us to Quetico in late September of '04. I'd checked the forecasts for there and up in Grass River Park. Quetico was supposed to be so-so, Grass River cold and wet. Turned out the forecasters were wrong. Oh well. Then the day before we left, my back went out. Found it hiding in the garage. Being the chicken that I am, our plans changed.
      We'd planned on entry at Beaverhouse Lake. Then through Quetico Lake and finally into Jean. Deep enough into the boonies to find good fishing. Jean looked something like Wedge Lake in size. Short about eighty islands but made up for that with lake trout. My back out, we cut it shorter. Quetico and Cirrus lakes. Both supposed to be good in a park known for it's fishing.
     Hate to say it but being that much closer to the border took away from the trip of a lifetime feeling that Grass River brought to the table. Six cars at the access didn't help either. All of that felt too normal. Too Boundary Waters for me. Being the only canoe in Grass River Park, passin' through the fishing boats, on our way to the back country, that was my cup of tea. Doin' what others weren't. Doin' it right by doin' it wrong. I won't and can't say taking the road less travelled for fear of feeling like a Harley owner with a snot rag on my head. It's a dilemma. A person does what a person does. Hopefully has a good time on the way and gives it some thought.
     By the way, we hit the Quetico lakes during turnover. That's my way of saying the fishing wasn't much to brag about and I'm sure as hell not taking the blame for that. Though I could be wrong.
     One experience doesn't tell the whole story. Given the chance, I'd go back. I've heard Quetico is a tough park to get an entry permit. But not in late September when the northern accesses turn into an all come-all served situation. Maybe that was the problem and why there were so many canoeists.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Learning Curve '03 - Burntwood Lake

     Morning paddling in the ever widening File 'til it turned into Burntwood Lake. Big water. Biggest we'd ever or will ever canoe. A sprawling reservoir forty miles long. Nothing but points, islands and bays. Hundreds of miles of shoreline. The question was where to go? Four days left, we couldn't fish it all. Hah, that's funny. Couldn't fish it all if we had the entire summer. Even under the current slow conditions there had to be a bunch of hot spots. Might as well close our eyes, spin the map and pin the tail on a campsite. Stuck in a rut, we went with Larry Gogal's advice and looked for an entering stream. A big entering stream in the hope that water might actually be in it. About five miles west of our entry sat one fitting the bill. Lacking a better idea we headed that way.
     The stream and area in general looked good as we approached. Three minutes away we found our best campsite of the trip. Smooth, mud greased landing next to a huge, wide open rock sitting six feet above the water. Some grass on the rock and a single jackpine. Should a thunder storm come pay a visit, I'd no doubt get a free fusing of all my old, cracked silver fillings. Save a fortune in dental bills.
     By rock, I mean ROCK, big flat rock, thirty yards wide and eighty yards long. Hooked to the earth's core, ain't goin' nowhere for a long time, rock. Great view across five miles of lake. Just enough sand and soil to prevent slippage. Chairs out. Coffee on. Book open. Feet up. Oops, sorry. Got carried away. Forgot where we were. Make that, quick lunch, throw gear in boat and give 'er a go.
     The unspoken plan was most always to sneak up on good looking water. Ease ourselves in. Don't let it know you're coming. Kind of like Winnie the Pooh pretending he's a cloud, humming a cloud song so as not to spook the bees. Whoa, that sure ain't very macho. Pretend I didn't write that please. By fishing the obvious crap first, it made the good water seem all that much better.
     Turned out the good water was just that. At least for that first day and evening. All were in the perch family. Walleyes, another coupla jumbo perch and whodathunkit?, sauger. Never caught one before. Never seen one before. Neither had Allan. Made us wonder what the Canucks called one. Came up blank when I checked the American-Canadian dictionary. Closest I could come up with was sogger, Canuck for a donut dunker.  At first we peered at it like some post-ice age mutant strain of pickerel. A lot like our sighting of the sandhill cranes. Knew they had to be something 'cause they were there. Also figured they must have names. The cranes were identified by a birding book. And the saugers, well, they looked like little, brown walleyes just like I'd heard they did.
     Woke up the next morning to white. White everywhere from the end of my nose to the far side of the universe. There'd been a slow dripping on the tent from early morning on. Wrote it down as never-ending drizzle. Finally, me and my bladder said it was time to get up. Unzipped the tent fly and immediately thought, 'Huh?' Took a moment for my brain to sort through all the possibilities before my brain fog cleared and the word fog arrived. Had to wake Allan to share my wonderment. But didn't want to spill the beans and spoil his thrill. Took a bit of prodding to get past his cursing and grumbling. Finally he stumbled out to say, "You woke me for that?" Another example of youth being wasted on youth.
     The second evening's fishing was, depending how you want to look at it, the best of a lifetime. Sixteen inch walleyes and fourteen inch saugers by the score. Hours of fun. Except for Allan's half hour rant. On and on he went, trying his best to sound like the Lucky Charms leprechaun and blithering endlessly how he had the luck of the Irish. So he was outfishing me. But not by much. I'd catch six in a row, he'd pull in eight. I'd do ten, he'd do eighteen. Then he'd run on with that Lucky Leprechaun crap. Yeah, he had me laughing. But in my defense, I've already said I was an idiot. By the way, those numbers weren't made up. Plus we had a world class drift going on. A dead quarter of a mile an hour. A scull now and then. How many total fish? Not a clue.
     Headed east in the morning. Moving toward the lodge a dozen miles away. We had a site in mind. Back at the office I'd grabbed a Burntwood Lodge map. On it, four miles west of the lodge, sat a shore lunch spot right where a large stream entered the lake. Could simply have said 'Walleyes nearby.' Two days left to find that patch. The candle was gettin' short but still throwin' light, by gar.
     Sure was an easy day for travel. Sunshine and shade. Light breeze. Deep bay after deep bay. Islands everywhere. So much lake and it all looked good. Huge but more like dozens of small lakes hooked together. Should have flown directly into Burntwood and explored it for twelve days. You know, that's a helluvan idea. Maybe call Larry Gogal. Run the idea by him. When do we leave?  Ten days. Five campsites. Fish as we go. Stop when we find them. No portages. Big coolers. Lotta food and bug juice. Oh yeah, I forgot. Al's married. Wife and child. Everyone else thinks I'm an idiot. An old idiot to boot. Guess I'll head on down the block and fish for bullheads instead.
     Finally, in the deepest bay, tight cabin on the east shore and total wreck, ghetto trapper's cabin on the west, sat a fine site. With a view of the ghetto no less. Rather see it from across the bay than camp by it. Easy landing. Tent ten yards back, hidden from shore by a brush line. Only drawback was an occasional buzzing outboard in the distance. Probably gonna have company sooner or later.
Glass on the Water
     I could go into detail about the fishing but there wasn't much to detail. The trip was winding down. Our hopes for glory and master patches dwindling to nil. Can't say I was disappointed. We'd terrorized our share. Mostly it was time to enjoy where we were. Make the time stretch. Awareness of the moment is a big deal. Relax, pay attention. Doing nothing, after all, was what we did best. The food pack wasn't much fun any more. Outside of mastering pan bread. No, we weren't turning into grizzled bannock pros. Prepackaged was more our speed. Allan had spent a summer vacation as a griddle cook. His solution to pan bread was lots of lube in the pan. Float it, don't burn it. All we had was butter. That was fine with him and he troweled it on. Didn't look healthy to me. But since I'm a believer in balance, I figured the stiffening of my arteries would be easily offset by the loosening of my bowels. On the other hand, it sure ate good.
     On Wednesday we had our first visitors. Not much more than a nod and howdy as they trolled by. Figured the boys in the front to be lodge sports. The black haired man at the tiller, the guide. I looked at them, particularly the guide, feeling a little nervous. We weren't but a half mile from the well manicured cabin. The thought of trespass, if such a thing was possible up here, had entered my mind. Nothing was said as they passed about getting the hell off their land. So we didn't.
Scruffy Dudes on Last Night
     Back when we'd flown out, I'd told Larry we'd be showin' up at the lodge in twelve days. Didn't want to disappoint. We were out of the bags by six on Thursday. Had a flight to catch. Put on our least stained duds. Rummaged through the refuse in the food pack for some calories. On the water way early with only an hour's paddle to the lodge. No hurry. Wasn't much past seven on a light breeze morning. Took our first break at the head of the bay. Weren't ready for this trip to end. Meant another year was down the tubes. A second break with a mile to go, the lodge in view. Figured if we could see them, they could see us. Then we cranked it up. Die straight. Time to look like the real deal. Fool 'em but good. Make a serious wake. Flew past the the small mob assembled around Larry and the docked float plane. Came in at full speed parallel to the spruce pole landing beach. Finished it off with a spinning one-eighty park job, tight to the poles. No one saw it. Had to stroke my ego once again. Seemed the others had bigger fish to fry.
     The group was gathered around Gogal to get the pecking order for the first flight out. Way too many bodies to fit in the Norseman at once. Then a loony spun it's way into the air. Tails. Half a dozen began to load gear, the rest mumbled off. Al and I edged our way up to the man. Larry said he'd be back after an Air Canada inspection. We'd be on the next flight. Probably by eleven. 'Til then we should make ourselves at home. Not a problem. Still deep into the on the trail mode we did takin' it easy like a couple of masters.
     We turned just in time to see the aroma lines drifting in the air just like in a cartoon. Let me tell ya, something about the smell of fried bacon lets a body know that breakfast ain't really breakfast if it's gorp and warm lemonade. Also reminds me of Basic Training. Can't get away from that balance in life stuff. We followed those floating lines uphill toward the lodge to see if there was actual food hooked onto that smell. Knowing how we looked and we were also non-paying outsiders and there was an air about us, we were extra special polite when we asked if there might be a crust of bread we could gnaw on. "French toast okay with you boys?" Holey moley! With bacon, milk and orange juice no less. Had to keep reminding myself, 'Chew it. Taste it. Don't just inhale it'. Seeing as how we did have cash and plastic, I asked for the tab. "Larry says its on the house." I almost ran outside to see if the bill was actually up there - we'd been in the boonies for a dozen days but thank God I hadn't lost my poor sense of humor. A simple "Wow" and "Thank you," was enough.
     Then she crinkled her nose. Waved a hand in front of it. "You boys by any chance want a shower, eh?"  She pointed toward the lodge bathroom. "Towels and wash cloths are in the hall closet. And, by the way, you might want to take the dead walleyes out of your pockets. They're gettin' a might too natural smelling." The sarcasm alone nearly burned us clean. And what that missed, hot water and soap finished off. Not much we could do about the same old clothes. Nothin' left to do now but head out back, pitch the shoes and pass the old half-inflated football. Heard they didn't much care whether there was any air in the ball at all up here in the Great White North. The game they played on an over-sized field was just an excuse to pummel the hell out of someone else also silly enough to wear tight pants with padded shoulders.
     Headed indoors and perused the lodge photo album.  The fish pictures were okay but the one's showing all the lodge building material and equipment being flown and helicoptered in were impressive. Seeing a small fleet of fishing boats being delivered in one flight told me that roping a canoe to a pontoon was child's play at the Burntwood Lodge. Getting a glimpse of the work that went into setting up and keeping an operation like this one running told me a lot about the Gogal family. I hope things go well for them for as long as they want to keep the lodge open.
     Lunch rolled around and still no Larry. Sports and guides also rolled around. Buzzed from their morning's free fishing. They'd been working a spot called the barrel. To this point the fish hadn't been big or found anywhere else. The day before, when we'd had our first visitors, they were checking out the shore lunch spot for any action. Nada. Seems our luck had been typical. The word came down that Larry and the Feds were still hashing it out. Not goin' anywhere 'til at least three. Howdy do, the lunch was on the house. Northwoods meat and 'taters. Livin' off de fat of de lan'.
     Spent the afternoon schmoozing with the guides. Good men. Met the man who owned the fine cabin we'd been camped near. Talked with a guide from eastern Canada name of Paul. At one time or another they all gave the Wenonah a hoist. Not a one had seen kevlar before. Seems they'd all been raised on cedar and canvas or heavy duty aluminum. "You hoist one of dem bad boys wit da ten horse Johnson still hooked on, plus da food pack for two weeks an' you've got yourself a man's load, eh. Da toilet paper I wipe my butt wit weigh more den dat plastic birdie boat of yours." None of them actually said that but when one of the Gogal boys balanced our canoe on his nose, I got the message. Struck me as ironic that up here on the edge where such a boat would spend more time on the water than in the garage, they'd never seen kevlar.
     Paul gave us an idea for a trip we'll never take. Got a few of those. This one wasn't exactly a trek but did cover some miles. A seven to nine day'er depending on the weather or the fishing. We'd have Larry fly us into File or Little Norris. Then it was south through Morton. The Four Mile Portage that Paul called the Three Mile Portage. I guess up in the Land of Real Men it's Four miles, Three Miles, what's the difference, eh? He says it's an easy carry (guffaw). Then follow the north shore of Reed through what he called the maze of islands. Out on the Grass River. Down twelve mile long Tramping Lake. Back on the Grass to Larry's house on the edge of Snow Lake. Three big lakes and that portage. Even at sixty-four, I think it'd still be something I could do. Not alone, that's for sure.
     Larry didn't make it at three o'clock either. The Feds were still working him over. No flight out today. A dozen sports got a free day on the water. The breaks of a fly-in. Al and I were given a lodge bedroom. And dinner. And free beer. And the use of a boat and motor if we wanted. Guess we were sports now.
     Got the clothes packs from under the canoe and moved into our room. Wasn't fancy. Just clean and not a tent. Tidied up and out for beer during social hour. In the short stroll down the hall the spirit came upon me. This spirit has visited me many times over the years. Its a kind of possession. Having a priest and holy water handy would have been helpful. But it was just poor defenseless me against the powers of darkness. The introductory sentences had already formed in my brain but that was it. Entering the room I called out, "Gentlemen! Gentlemen! May I please have your attention!. My son and I have just arrived from twelve days in the bush. We are very tired. When you return from fishing this evening could you please hold the noise down?" Dead silence. My demon hadn't gone beyond this point. Left me holding the bag. A single bead of sweat eased it's way down behind my left ear. Off in the distance the first mayfly of the year could be heard gracefully touching down on the lake. In the hope something would come out, I opened my mouth, "Headline in paper. Minnesota Man Found Dead in Manitoba Forest." A burst of laughter. No doubt springing from the relief of not making the headline real.
     Supper a tad lighter than lunch. One of the guides reminded us that Larry'd said we could use a boat and motor. Turned it down. Heck, we were fished out. Headed for the dock with smokes and book. Never cracked open the book. For three hours we sat and talked. Allan's life in the working world was just starting. Mine, on the downturn toward retirement. Mostly Al talked of his present and how it related to his future. Why not? His future carried a lot more weight than mine. I'd learned a few things of importance in my fifty-six years. Hard not to. Threw in a word once in a while. After all, he was living in a world I'd helped make. What can you say to a son that carries weight and truth? Probably our few months in the boonies and how we handled it together probably said more than any words I could come up with. Twenty-four hours a day for nearly three months. What a great time. Sunshine, storm, broken bones, zillions of fish. We'd seen a lot. Each moment a treasure. Life is good? Damn right it is.
     A guide and sport trolled by. We waved. Wished them luck. An hour later they trolled back. We hadn't moved. Then what we'd been waiting for happened. The sun dropped below the trees. And we headed into bed.
     Larry Gogal flew in Friday morning. Paperwork snafu. Something about dotted 'i's and crossed 't's. Overnight the temperature had plummeted. Strong winds roared down from the Arctic. Good day to not be paddling across Iskwasum as originally planned. We were on the first load out.
     In Snow Lake Al said we were driving all the way home that day even if he had to drive every mile himself. Left around ten a.m. Arrived home sixteen hours later. Dropped Al off at his apartment. Bone tired.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Learning Curve '03 - Third and Fourth Sites

     Around lunchtime we found our river narrows. But no moving water. And no walleyes. A shallow reef ran shore to shore. On the upside there was a splendid landing a hundred yards downstream. Too good to pass up. So here's the drill; if you can land the boat there'll always be a bed of moss waiting for your tent nearby. May not have a water view but that's no problem. In this case we had a minute's uphill walk into the woods. You know, wilderness camping's kind of like a cruise ship. Outside of bedtime, you're not going to be in your cabin. Once in the tent you can't see anything anyhow. So having a view is meaningless. 'Spose you could leave the fly off. I said, you could. Not me. When I'm outside the realm of, the only way I want to know that it's raining at night is the sound of drops on a taut fly, not on my sleeping bag. The Voyageurs slept in the open. If they were wealthy they had a blanket. A different era. If top hats made of beaver come back into fashion, I'll shuck the tent. 'Til then....
     Spent three nights there. Woulda been two but were windbound on departure day. Gray skies, white caps, blue boys. That first afternoon and evening we worked miles of river. Nothin' nowhere. No weeds, no minnows jumping. 'Til we came to a small, swampy bay. Wasn't more than a fistful of small pike but maybe a sign of what to look for. Got me to pondering. Around the corner from our camp there sat a seriously big, swampy bay. Three feeder streams shown on the map. And a twenty acre pool in the middle. Itty, bitty lake-in-a-lake.
Always the Panfisherman
     When there's no fish on the line my mind drifts into theorizing about it. Fills in the gaps. There's always a dozen possibilities why it's bad. Nearly as many when it's good. Always searching for a pattern. Sometimes I'm right on. Most times I'm not. Try this, try that. Here or there? When we catch a couple, does that mean anything more than dumb luck? Turned out that night the big bay was on the money. Lotta weeds. Lotta fish. Good sized pike. A double on ten pounders. More sixteen inch walleyes. And a couple of jumbo perch. Perch? What the hell was that all about? Best eating fish in fresh water. Let 'em go.
     Our sittin' and cookin' area was out on the slab. Spent a lot of time there. So it had a slight tilt to it. And it may have been the center of a heavy gravity zone. Kurt Vonnegut made mention of their partners, light gravity zones, and their effect on the male member. No doubt they both have an effect on a person's sense of balance. In truth I have no excuse. While finishing supper dishes Allan simply said, "Don't step there Dad. I spilled some water." Used the same elbow as the first time to break my fall.
     A front moved in on day two. Slowed fishing to a crawl. Even in the swamp. Everywhere else it was about the same. While sittin' in our chairs we watched a mama bear and her cubs pass by on the far side of the swamp. Bears are supposed to have a keen sense of smell. Good thing we were down wind or they'd have lit upon us like we were the town dump. Licked us to death like stinksickles.

                                    Emil on Bears

     I don't usually give a rat's patoot about bears so long as they leave me alone. But I just gotta get a couple of things off my chest. First off my nephew never mentioned the great white hunter at the Burntwood Lodge. Just like him to forget that. During the Larry Gogal paper work snafu, this old guy, yeah he was around seventy years old and seventy pounds on the south side of healthy, felt the need to kill him a bear. So he forked over the cash, hooked up with a guide and the two of them lit out for the garbage barrel. Don't know what happened next but it seems he got his rug. Just don't get those kind of people.
     Not the real reason I butted in though. My grand niece-in-law made this request, so here she goes. Smokey Bear. Not Smokey the Bear. That's some song from the '50s. Smokey Bear, that's his real name. He was born after Walt Disney took back Bambi from the USFS. Seems the Japanese had been trying to start forest fires out in California during the war by shelling the shore from a submarine. That's the Second World War for those of you who don't know. Didn't fight them outside of that one. The government made up these posters showing how the bad guys, Hitler and Tojo, were trying to win the war by burning up our woods. So's people could tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys on those posters, they put Bambi on ours and gave Tojo these big buck teeth and super thick glasses on their's. Even Tojo's mother would have thought him to be one seriously ugly bastard. Disney must have figured he wasn't getting enough of the war chest so he took Bambi back after one year. Way to go Walt!
     After that the USFS did a cartoon search for a replacement cartoon character. Almost came out with a series of Porky Pig posters but couldn't get the Only You can Prevent Forest Fires! in big enough letters to fit on the poster what with Porky's speech impediment and all. Would have been a humdinger in my opinion. So as a last resort they went with a bear. Perfectly woodsy and all. Of course they couldn't have his dingle-dangle hangin' out so they put pants on him. Gave him a Smokey Bear hat for his head. Only it wasn't called that until afterwards. The rest is... well, you know.

     Catch and release, I've mentioned it now and then but never gone into the whys and wherefores. Some say they do it to improve the fish stock for future generations. Admirable. Some argue against it and the pursuit of fish in general. A barbaric and needless torturing of our fellow animals. Logical and humane. As for myself, I see it this way. Hooking a fish in the face definitely puts the fear of God in them. At some point in the fight they might even figure they're as good as dead. Give up the ghost. Then they're pulled into the air. Not their element for sure. Jaws spread by steel. Pliers jammed in their mouth. All horrors. Can't argue with that. Ah, but then they're released. Freed. Raised from the dead. It's all so Christian I get goose bumps. Imagine their joy in rejoining the living. Swimming away thinking, "I'm alive! I'm alive! Ain't never gonna do that again!" Catch 'em, release 'em, teach 'em a lesson. Words to live by. Also, filleting is a whole lot of icky work.
     Warning: Ecological moment coming up. There was a single opening in the brush behind the slab which directed our path to the tent. As did the following trees and boulders. Probably stomped down the resulting path at least two dozen times.  Over the three days we'd visibly beaten a trail. Not exactly the Cumberland Gap, but a trail for sure. Might even be there now, eight years later. The northwoods has the look of eternity. And underneath it's about as close as this planet comes. But it doesn't take much for Mother Nature to break a nail while trying to get a grip on a land where the growing season is only four months long. Fragile country up north.
Ready to Move On
     Needing a new rock to on which to fall, we moved on. The river had us spoiled. Wound a lot but wasn't snake-like. Mostly we moved forward. Our next corner usually no more than a quarter mile away. Distant lake shores, tree lines that never seemed to grow, took endless chunks of time. A river, now that was a lot of fun. Twisting, moving in and out like a concertina. Always changing. Intimate. Playful. The miles are the same length but pass so much faster.
     We paddled through a small burn area. Larry'd said there was an Indian fish camp nearby. Saw no camp, no First Nationers. Guessed they weren't in camp 'cause the the fish weren't ready to be caught. No surprise there. Would have been an interesting sight. Maybe even a place to pull in and pass a few minutes. I'd read about them. Olson described one in detail in The Lonely Land. As it was, we were heading toward a small, fishy looking river opening, thick with islands. When we found it, the shorelines toyed with us. Hundreds of yards of canoe slicing shelf. If the water was two feet higher it'd have been a slide ashore. Finally we bit the bullet. Pulled tight and carefully offloaded. Back in the old days, it would have been large scale pitchin' and tarin' the birchbark time. Thank you space-age.
"Can't Seem to Find Any Moss  Allan"
     Wasn't much of a site. Landing, kitchen and tent were set up in a triangle, two hundred yards to the side. The tent way back in the woods. The kitchen in a small clearing back in the bush. We had a brief river view from where we sat. If anything, the fishing was worse.
     Deep in the bay behind our camp a small stream entered. She was like a winding staircase. Forty or fifty foot descent. Falls, pool, falls, pool. Trickle, trickle. Had we peed at the top of it, the flow would have doubled. We climbed her to the top. Paused now and then to bask in the beauty of what might have been. We missed a lot simply though bad timing.
     In the late afternoon we heard the buzz of an outboard. Sittin' in camp, trudging through Eternity. As good as invisible up in the bush. A black haired man, possibly a member of the First Nation, alone in the stern, off to some unknown destiny. We kept our silence. Moved not a hair. Seemed to me like a reversal of roles. Aboriginal - give me a break here. We're in Canada for the Pete's sake. Can't be callin' the man a Native American. Way too United States-like. Sometimes we think we're the only country on this continent. Seemed from the maps that the Cree in this neck of the woods were members of the First Nation, were called Aboriginals and lived on Indian Reservations. Never did figure it out. The guy was probably a member of the Cree Nation. Would have been so much simpler had I known his name - moving passed using Twentieth Century technology. Us sittin' in the woods wearin' hand-me-downs and traveling by canoe. Made me want to throw some rocks or fire off a couple of arrows to let him know we were there. But he probably had a fire stick and wouldn't understand we only wanted to talk. Best we kept quiet. He was our only fellow human in eight days. Unless passenger jet contrails count.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Learning Curve '03 - Second Site

     Seemed the walleyes thought they were trout. Holding in the fast water and waiting for mayflies that looked like #5 spinners. Half an hour of hardly-even-trying fun. Coulda caught more but now we had a campsite to find. Seeing as how the plan was to take it as it came and since it just came, we'd pull ashore at the next opportunity. Return after lunch and do some serious headhunting. In truth we weren't so much looking for numbers as we were looking for size. Master angler size. Wall of certificates and patches to sew on the outfit I'd be buried in. Sticker on the coffin reading 'A Bad Day's Fishing Beats a Good Day Being Dead.' Never been dead before but I figured it wasn't as hot as it was cracked up to be, even in heaven. Matter of opinion so don't get all huffed up about it.
     Below the rapids shot a quarter mile chute of a canyon. Half a paddle blade deep in the low water conditions. Looked like it'd been carved and polished by centuries of glacial runoff. Maybe started as a crack in a cliff and then eroded away. Spooky spot. Probably spookier in high water when that little stretch passed water like a toilet flushing and canoes were disposed of like... well, you get the image.
Perhaps Eight Feet from the Fall Spot
     Less than a mile later we found a perfect camp. Peninsula. Flat slab landing, filtered sunlight, moss-bedded tent site. Learned right off that cameras don't float. And if you don't find them right away, they don't work anymore. Here we also learned to crawl the moss before setting up the tent. Feel around for rocks and branches. Even the finest of self-inflating air mattresses does little to soften granite. Take my word for that.
     Lunch and a paddle back to the rapids. Guess who we ran into on the way? Rub-a-dub-dub. Setting up for a shore lunch. The spot they chose sucked. Guess we'd taken their intended lunchroom. Such is life. Nearing the fast water, we watched the third boat packing up, "Think we gottem all. Let's eat'em down stream and crap'em out tonight on Fairwind. S'what it's all about. Katchin', killin', kookin', krappin, and alliteratin'. Glad we brought the second keg of beer." Oops, there I go again, being an arrogant and ungrateful foreigner.
     Our turn now. Pulled onto the little island ready to catch any stragglers they'd missed. There's a photo of the Wenonah balanced atop several knife edged rocks I've considered sending to the manufacturer. Call it 'Things to Never Do with a Canoe #1'. We pointlessly fan cast the water ' til we were convinced the boogers had indeed caught every pickerel and were chowing down on them at that very moment. Reminded me of a story - Leiningen Versus the Ants - and movie - The Naked Jungle - about an army of ants in South American eating everything in their path. I don't think they got Charlton Heston, thank God. Also the only things naked in the movie were the ants. A serious disappointment to a young man.
     While doing dishes that evening I came one step closer to answering that age old question, 'How much water is required to make continental bedrock slick enough for a 56 year old man to slip and fall?' And it's corollary, 'Which elbow is best to break the resultant fall?' A cup and left. The thought of going horizontal on slick granite has always kept me from swimming in the boonies. A dab of water now and then in the right places seems to be more than enough to ward off bacteria. Never been sick in the northwoods. Also never cracked my skull. In my mind they go hand in glove.
     Fished up and down river on the second day. Nice scenery. In the evening, after having the water to ourselves all day, we hit the rapids one last time. For a change we paddled through and fished from above. Cast down. Snags be damned. Deal with them when and if. Took a lot of boat control. But the method worked just fine. Mostly I sculled and Allan caught. Seemed every walleye on the File was about sixteen inches long. Doubled once so we weren't catching the same one over and over.
     Mostly to work a  line loop off the lip of the spool, I threw a long cast back into the lake. Son of a gun. Big pike. Not a trophy but solidly over ten pounds. Seemed like Larry Gogal was right. Moving water. Who'd have thought a man who spent a lifetime outdoors in that country would have it figured out? Kinda takes the fun out of it in my opinion. Ignorance is happiness. Somehow that doesn't sound right but I'll stick with it for the moment. Earlier he'd added that July was the best time to fish this country. 'Yeah, most of the Master Angler Awards are caught in June. Because that's when most of the fishing is done. Winter's are long up here. Fishermen get an itchy casting finger and get on the water as soon as possible.'
Lucky Catch
     We fished into the dark. caught several more big pike and a fistful of walleyes. By any measure it was a fine evening. But I'd been spoiled and wanted nothing short of phenomenal. Seemed to again be missing the point that the best can only happen once. But I keep hoping it's still up the road waiting for me.
     Aha! We had a pattern. Bottlenecks in the river. It sure seemed like whenever the File narrowed down, the walleyes had a hangout. Checked the map. Found just such a spot another two hours down river. Packed and moved in the morning. Looking back from the wisdom of the future, it's easy to say we shoulda stayed put. Good walleyes both ends of that little lake. Big pike. Maybe there were other treasures. Said it before, at the crossroads you can only go one way. The other remains a mystery.
     Along the way we checked out all the feeder streams. Not feedin'. Dust bowl in the far north. Topping it off, the river had that lime green look of a sand bottom that's always felt like no fish here to me. Didn't see that coming when I'd looked at the maps. Heck the rivers there were blue. Or when I read those 'Monster Pike of the File River' articles back at Ole's Barber Shop and Small Engine Repair in 1959 Minneapolis. It's just possible there was some shuckin' and jivin' coming off those outdoorsman's typewriters. Can't make much money getting skunked. So they never did. Cripes, I was only twelve years old. How was I to know that pipe-smokin', plaid-shirted, bamboo-roddin' dude was blowing more smoke than he was inhaling? Or that Presidents had a hard time keeping their zippers up? Or that the jerk-offs run the world and we fall for their lines like sunfish sluggin' down grasshoppers. Well, sucks to them all. And, for that matter, where's my big walleye? Need that patch.