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.