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.

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