Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ramblin' with and without Emil

     Ramblin' fits what's gonna come like a good pair of socks, the kind I can't afford. If I ever won the lottery - okay, first I'd have to buy a ticket - high priced socks would be The major change in my life. Flat seamed and sixteen bucks a pop. Lap of luxury. As for this entry, I have no idea where it'll will go. The intention was a some form of bitch session in which I'd figure it all out and set the world straight.  Gave it a try in ink and didn't much get anywhere. But I wrote a lot of words and Sister Eleanor Marie ground it into my brain a long time ago that it's a sin to waste words. Don't think she meant it in the same way I learned it. But I wrote 'em and don't intend to waste 'em all. By the way, if you'd like to read something written by a guy who writes like I wish I could, give Michael Perry a try. That's the Michael Perry from the boondocks in Wisconsin.

     Emil tells me there's a time for everything. Maybe he stole that idea from the Old Testament but most of my ideas have come from books. So why not Emil? What he was driving at when he first brought it up during my early post-Vietnam years, brought a smile to my face. Believe me, it wasn't a smile of agreement. You see, he was driving on one road and I was hearing on another. Another communication problem back in the age of the Generation Gap. Pondering that conversation, I suspect he was saying something simple and profound. But that's not what I was picking up on. You see, I was a hot shot with long hair, a college degree, a tour in Vietnam and a protest cat to boot. New generation, new way of seeing life. All gonna be better when we take over. Most of all I had this thing about Lifers. Picked it up in the Army where FTA was a big deal to us Draftees. We tended to look upon any soldier who'd re-upped as a Lifer. A short haired, flag wavin' SOB who'd no doubt shed a tear at the end of the movie Patton and then re-upped for the cheap booze at the NCO Club.
     After I got out I felt a moral need to protest the War, mostly 'cause I was pissed about having been in the Army in the first place. That's when I got to meet some of the movers and shakers of the anti-war movement in Minnesota. In their own way they were as big a bunch of assholes as the Lifers in the Army. Seemed to have a pecking order as to who was against the War for the longest. They gave me the feeling they were still fighting the revolution with the Red Army in 1917 or manning the barricades of Paris in 1848. In truth they hadn't been anywhere or done anything as far as I could see. They were against the war and abhorred the fact that the American Army was fighting its war with way too many Blacks and poor people. At the same time they fought like hell to keep their deferments. So who did they think was going to get drafted? Wars are always fought by the poor.
     So, back to Emil. He was a WWII veteran. I sure knew where they were coming from. Short hair, the straight line, my way or the highway, love it or leave it with a flag decal in the rear window of the station wagon. But if I'd taken the time to give Emil's Nomad a closer look I'd of seen there wasn't a sticker on it anywhere. Maybe Emil hadn't landed on the beaches but he'd been blown out of the water and dog paddled with the dead. He knew life was a gift not to be wasted. And that we lived in a time and place that was blessed. He didn't ever talk about the war, was glad he went and wouldn't go again even if his life depended on it. He had his shit together and I couldn't see it.
     What was it he was saying? While my mind wandered, Emil had moved on. I think the angle was still  about a time for everything. As I drift back in he's pontificatin', " Seems like everyone has their own idea of what constitutes the best buzz. Changes as you get older I guess. The wine sippers have their bouquet, the beer guzzlers their hoppiness. There's pot heads, coke sniffers, what-have-you. Hard to keep up with all the bad habits these days. Now if you want my two cents, absolutely nothin' beats a good cup of coffee, a long road and someone you like to talk with ridin' shotgun." 
     When I first heard that spiel I wrote him off as over the hill and then some. That was a long time ago. Times change. Nowadays I've come to see his point. Might have something to do with being about as old as he was back then. I suppose part of me knew it all along. Used to be a toast dunker when I was a kid. Best time of the day in the Delta - didn't take much to be a best time of day in The Nam - was just before sunset. We'd be set up a short hump from our night position. Finishing off our supper break. Roll the pant legs up, shoot the breeze. 'Bout the time the sun was on the tree line tops, I'd fire up the cappuccino. Yeah, we carried an espresso maker with us. The big brass kind that weighed about three hundred pounds. We'd make the newest grunt in town hump the beast just so's a couple of us caffein aficionados could have the pleasure of a fine brew. Sorry about that, sometimes my fingers get carried away. Reality was instant coffee, creamer, sugar, cocoa and water heated up over a small chunk of match-lit C-4 in a c-ration can stove. All provided free of charge by the U.S. taxpayers. I'd sit back, sip the brew, savor a last smoke and watch the sun go down on another day in paradise. Night sucked but that cup of coffee and cigarette made it almost worthwhile.
     I guess what I'm trying to say's that Emil wasn't so dumb. Maybe the simple pleasures of life are the best. Like being up at the cabin for another three day stretch of lonesome. Bein' by myself lasts for as long as it takes to make a pot of coffee. When the first drop hits the pot, Emil will usually show up with his old Pure Oil cup in his hand. The one with the dark stains on the inside from either ten thousand cups of coffee or one too many lube jobs. Even though he's not really there I'll pore him a cup. Always too hot to drink. But that don't stop Emil. He'll blow across the cup three or four times. Slurp a little off the top, set the cup down and say, "Thasss good."
     Uncle Emil's not the type to pop up when others are around. He likes the 'tween times as he calls 'em. Could be he's selfish with my time. Could be that he doesn't talk loudly and no longer hears as good as he used to. Quiet times are the best for him. The cabin, on the road, in the canoe on little out-of-the-way lakes. Or stomping his way through my dreams. Lordy, Lordy do he mess with my dreams now and then. The hard part is gettin' him to come out the inky end of my pen. Then he gets all shy and hidey. He's the smartest man I ever met. Can see through me and the BS of the world like he's lookin' out a window after Spring cleaning. But he's not all that easy to understand. Can be downright cryptic at times.
     So it's a Sunday night. Am up here to fit and hang fourteen home made cabinet doors in the kitchen. The kitchen's not really a kitchen, just an area in the great room. The great room ain't really a great room either. Sixteen by twenty-two with a lofted ceiling. The doors are made from six boxes of prefinished, birch flooring that just happened to be sittin' on the sidewalk during a local small town celebration. I tried to walk on by. Almost did. But they called me back with the Siren Song of "Hello sailor. We're cheap, shiny, tongue and grooved - get it? - and will do anything you want for eighty cents a board-foot." How could I resist? Yup, no one wanted them as much as me. Took a lot of work changing those trollops into something I could bring home and feel comfortable with. Didn't turn out perfect but Emil says they look exactly like something I'd do. Not sure what he meant by that but I'll take it as a compliment. All the prep work is done. Tomorrow the hanging.
     Ah yes, there is a plan for tomorrow. Work in the morning, eat lunch and be on the water by 2 p.m. Stay there 'til 5:30. Once I'm out the door and hit the highway there's a choice to be made. Left's an out-of-the-way carry-in lake just bustin' a gut with small bass. Right's toward a small, not quite a thousand acre, muskie lake. I've had this thing stuck in my craw, wherever and whatever the hell a craw is, to someday be a fly rod and solo canoe muskie fisherman. I intimidate myself with the thought. So much so that I ain't done it yet. Actual muskie anglers tell me I'd end up in the water with the fish. Even with the best of luck, what would I do with a thirty-five pound fish when it got tired of towing around a forty pound boat? Probably laugh a lot, then cut the line. Whichever way I go, Emil says he's coming along. Bass or muskie? Emil says so long as I keep the lake under the canoe, it doesn't matter which way we go. As for me, I'm thinkin' boat-towers.
     It happens most every time I get up here by myself. Monday morning dawns and the plan is in flux. Breakfast done, forty-five degrees out, fire in the stove and more I want to do than will fit in twelve hours of daylight. I could go at it like a banshee. Done that many times in my younger years. A lot gets done at the expense of enjoyment. I'm retired. Time to get stuff done at a fartin' around pace. A lot still gets done but I get a feeling of greater depth out of it. If I don't fish, no problem. And I'm actually looking forward to hanging the doors. I'm where I want to be, doing what I want to do.
     Life's a lot like homemade cabinets. Need I say more? I took my time building the new doors. They're not perfect but had I been shooting for perfect, they'd have gone on the floor like they were intended in the first place. The intention is to pull the old, warped doors off and just pop the new ones in. But I don't trust myself and my measurements. Whenever I usually do things involving wood and tools there's a near infinite amount of running back and forth checking and double checking involved. This time there was no running at all. Measured the door openings at the cabin and built the doors at home. I know the measurements are right but at the same time, know they're wrong.
     The doors themselves are like miniature, rectangular floors in a frame that is joined together with a biscuit joiner. The joiner was state of the art when I bought it. But when I bought it Ronnie Reagan was still in his first term and the joiner is now an antique. As I wade into the job it turns out some of the problems of the old set had to do with the cabinets themselves. And what was wrong with them thirty years ago ain't gotten any better over time. So I'm faced with the choice of scrapping the boxes and starting from scratch. Or continuing to live with them as they are. Not much of a choice really. The boxes are structurally sound. Plus now they'll have a whole new bank of pretty doors to distract the eye. I opt for the face lift.
     Emil tells me that every so often we have to take a look at our lives much the same as I was lookin' at those cabinets. Dump the useless stuff that'll constantly need fixin' until it finally tears you down. Keep the stuff that works. And repair the things you'll need for the rest of your life. Life's full of choices. Most of them small. Once in a while a big one comes along. The big ones tend to lean toward dumping habits that're way too heavy in the fun factor. Maybe it's a Minnesota thing but it sure seems like too much fun's a direct line to too much trouble. Also seems like my biggest decisions called for me to do something I didn't really want to do. Thirty years ago Emil pointed out my big time shortcomings. But didn't tell me what to do. That was up to me to figure out. He doesn't give personal advice. Says if you want that, go and write Dear Abby. Oh he's got his opinions alright. Also knows everyone has the key to their own truth and he doesn't say any more than "figure it out boy."
     By the way, maybe he can tell me where he was when I was out on the water today. Lookin' back on it, the only things going through my head were boat control, where to throw the next cast, the location of the mini-channel into Mann lake and the growing beauty of the Fall around me. No Emil anywhere. Water was cold. Couple of turtle heads on the water. One a honkin' snapper. Ugly. Scary. Doesn't matter that I know what they look like, snapper's still scare me. Like they're sizing me up to dump the boat and then eat me.
     I guess it was okay that he left me alone. The wind was up. Wasn't supposed to be but it was. Didn't need an old geezer jabberin' away and not helping with the paddling. Baby's not a big lake in the Canadian sense. Doesn't make a mile and a half paddle into borderline white caps any easier. I'd come to fish for muskies and by gar I was gonna do it the right way. Thus the paddle to the far upwind end of the lake. Tried my best to J-stroke a straight line with little success. Regardless, forty minutes later I found myself in the calm with the lake to myself. Putzed briefly with the fly rod then reached for the heavy iron. A bit of a melodramatic description but what the hell, I was puttin' on my muskie face (believe that calls for heavy metal in the background. Never liked heavy metal. Guess I've got a problem).
     Don't like bait casting reels. Learned to cast with one. Also learned to dislike them at the same time. To me they're mostly bird nests with an occasional good cast thrown in once in a while just to tempt me. So I'm using a fair sized spinning reel spooled with thirty pound Suffix braided line. Don't like leaders either. A heavy duty ball bearing snap swivel suits me fine. If I hook a muskie I'll probably lose it. Don't mind that one bit. If someday it becomes a problem, I'll make my own leader. The rod on the other hand, is the real deal. Seven foot graphite heavy, suited for big fish. Am throwing, what else?, a homemade, big-assed spinner with a gaudy, jumbo bucktail. Bright days, bright lures. And, oh Lordy, do it go a long way when I flang it. Throw it so hard the canoe bounces. There's two hundred yards of line on the spool and it's half gone when the spinner hits the water. So much fun watchin' the spinner disappear over the horizon I don't much care if the muskies ignore it.
     On the way up the lake I was looking for the connecting channel into Mann. Didn't find it. Passed a couple of rubble rock bars that looked like smallmouth territory. Definitely prop busters. One of the beauties of my solo is being able to float it so long as there's two inches of water beneath. No problem. The bars gave me at least four over the biggest boulders.  On the way back I switched to my smaller rod. But no bass for me. On the upside I did find the channel. Just like it was described. Six inches of water and a bridge to pass under with about the same clearance as a large culvert. A ranger bass boat'd plug it up like Homer Simpson crawling through an open window.
     I'd headed into Mann for the bass. Had read Mann was smallmouth heaven. Where I thought they'd be was another land of impossibility for the solo. There the wind'd had the length of the lake to build up a head of steam. Five minutes of boat control per cast seemed awful low on the fun scale. So I diddled along a partially protected shore where I kept company with the yellowing birches and a few largemouth and pike. Boring story but kinda fun in the doing. My way of saying, "You had to be there."
      Emil finally showed his face on the drive home. Didn't take but a minute and we were off on one of our piss and moan sessions. Those gum beaters can be about most anything. In particular it's our way of lettin' off steam so's our heads don't blow off. Don't want that to happen seein' as how gray matter's particular hard to clean off the upholstery. The smart, upside of us doin' all our complaining when we're alone is keepin' other people out of the conversation. They'd fixate on the holes and miss the sense completely. Says his life's a contradiction from the get-go and naturally his opinions follow in line. Emil says he's never met anyone who's completely right about anything. If they think they are, the odds are they're close to totally wrong. Balance will out. So if what we say ain't completely kosher, don't worry about it. We sure as heck don't.
     Lately we've brought up the Draft. In my book Draft is always capitalized. If you'd been Drafted and ended up in Vietnam, you'd capitalize it also. Emil, he volunteered for the Navy back in WWII. I can understand that. Might have done the same thing myself. His war made a lot more sense than mine. Back in the '60s the Draft had grown to be a dirty word. Both in civilian life and in the military. Us Draftees didn't like what'd happened to us and had no problem sharing our attitude with the Army. Nobody liked it anymore so the Draft was dumped. Good riddance said we.
     The years passed. Talkin' with a good friend of mine the Draft reared its ugly head once again. My friend had a Conscientious Objector deferment during Vietnam and wasn't drafted. But he'd served two years in the Peace Corps as alternate service. I admired that. Funny what forty years can do to a person's perspective. Both of us agin the Draft in the past. Now both of us for it. But not the Draft of the old days. A new Draft in which everyone has to serve. By everyone we mean everyone. Right out of high school. Only it wouldn't be just a military draft. Each person would have a choice from a variety of public services. A hint of the CCC's back during the Depression. No free ride. Each and every man and woman jack puttin' in two years serving their fellow man for a pittance of pay. Even Uncle Emil thought that was a good idea. Two years doin' some form of grunt work'd give a person a different outlook on life. 'Specially if that two years didn't put a bullet in you.
     Talk of a Draft got Emil off on a teamwork tangent. And of course that brought up WWII, the big one:
     "Seems like the only time we can rise above all our senseless bickering over nothing - like a couple of caged parakeets peckin' each other in the head for no better reason than someone happens to be passin' by - is when we're gettin' the bejeezus pounded out of us like in The War. That whole situation was scary. Real scary. Made you forget who was a Republican and who was a Democrat. So bad yet it pulled us out of the Depression. But even during the war years there were idiots gettin' ready for the after-war rush.
     Jesus, Markie boy I wish I could figure it all out. Been a couple of million years since we climbed down from the tree and we ain't got a clue how to make it work so's everyone gets their fair share. You'd think somewhere along the line a group of people'd get together and come up with a system. But I sure ain't seen it. And if I did, I sure didn't recognize it."
     I had to interrupt as we pulled in the driveway. A thought had come to me. A memory of something I'd read a couple of days earlier. The idea that some mystics believe we are doomed to relive our lives, ad infinitum. Reading it sent a shiver up my spine. Having to live it all over again was fine with me. Like I'd written earlier, us baby-boomers have lived golden lives in a golden time. Vietnam sucked but I'd survived. No problem. The good outweighed the bad in my life about a hundred to one. The thrill of falling in love again, all of it. Do it over in a heartbeat.
     Emil cut in as the canoe was being unloaded. "How's about we do some real fishin' tomorrow? Shoulda listened to me today. And not paddled off like you knew what the hell you were doing with a muskie rod in the first place. By the way, did you brew a fresh pot this morning?" It was all I could do to give him the evil eye. On the other hand tomorrow sounded like a fine time to me.
     Next day, got in a bike ride, finished the cabinets and had an early supper. Daylight was beginning to wind down for the year. The long evenings of Summer were in the past and my time on the water missed them a lot. No six o'clock dinners for me if I wanted two hours of fishin'. The lake I was heading to was in the backside of fly-over country in fly-over country. Been there many a time and only shared the water once. The drive in's always worth the price of admission. Four miles of pavement. Three of gravel. Another of pavement. Finally sand winding down to two track, unimproved, travel at your own risk. The kind of forestry trail that makes you think about your tires. The ups and downs are a jumble of rocks. Peeking over the hood at a walking pace avoiding the sidewall slicers. It's a continual zig-zag on a woods lined track.  Don't want to have to throw on the spare back in there. When she levels out, the sand is oil pan deep. Gun it through the last stretch. Takes as long to cover the final mile and a half as it does the first nine. Deer, raccoons, hawks, fox and one crazy yellow lab own this last stretch. And maybe a single silver back gorilla. Not absolutely sure of the last one but my old Jeep had a chip in the plastic grill from a slung bunch of bananas. And I know for sure it wasn't me that slung them bananas. You be the judge.
     The road ends at a line of boulders. Not huge but at least five hundred pounds per. My best guess was the gorilla put 'em there. Way too big for even the local, corn fed tree choppers. Those boulders definitely keep the Ranger boat riff-raff out. From the line to the water's about a city block. Or about forty rods for us plastic canoe totin' fellers. One trip down with the gear. A second with the canoe. You'd be amazed at the number of times I've been out for fishin' and found myself staring out at the water knowing something was wrong. Then snap my fingers and go back for the boat. Definite signs of ATV travel and thickets of fall wildflowers. One a cluster of what look like four foot tall purple asters. The wonder of the World Wide Web tells me they were probably New England Asters. New England? Must be lost. Never seen 'em before. Woulda taken a photo but my camera batteries were dead. Be mostly prepared is my motto.
     The lake. She's a tiny one. The Minnesota DNR Lake Survey only hit here once. And that was back in the '60s. Said there wasn't but bullheads suckin' snot off the bottom and when you see the lake, that's about how it looks. Like an overstuffed farm pond. Somewhere, somehow that all changed. There's a single cabin on the north end hidden back in the trees so's you can't see it from the water. Had it been my cabin, I'd have thrown in some bass and panfish. Seems as though they were of a like mind. A fine little fishin' hole. Most of the bass are small. Once in a while you'll hook up with a four pounder. The sunnies are of fair size, some around a pound. Throw in a few perch and the occasional pike. For a small lure thrower in a puddle jumpin' canoe it's always worth the drive.
     Shaped more or less like a bow tie. The south bay's knee deep shallow, the north drops to eighteen feet. Good cabbage beds scattered throughout. There just doesn't seem to be enough room for all the fish, so there's always a lot of bass and sunnies in places no self-respecting game fish would ever occupy. Six inches deep with zip for cover and structure. But they're there and if you move at Mother Nature's pace so as not to scare 'em, they'll take small spinners, dry flies and, believe it or not, a tiny plastic tipped jig suspended three inches below a bobber. Almost the innocence of virgin water. Even I can catch fish like a master here.
     On a typical day you'll see deer come down to the shore to drink, ears perked up like antennae. Bald eagles, osprey, kingfishers darting along the shore. And the beaver who always snaps my head around when he whacks the water to let every living thing in Christendom know the Great White Fisherman is stalking the area. Today there are twenty-two swans in the south bay. I know because I'm a counting fool. Can't help it, I was born that way. I talk quietly to them. Keep my distance. Don't they understand I'm no threat? But they get a runnin' and honkin' start and are soon airborne. Off to some other small slew. Maybe even Deadman.
     To this point Emil's kept his tongue. Too much to see I guess. He never knew this county during his outdoor days. But he likes it. Tells me it's all in the smell. "The right spot'll always bring me back. This here little puddle puts me in those places I fished without the stink of a motor. The blue cloud and rainbow water of gas and two-cycle oil drowned out the cedars and pines. When it's quiet enough to hear the ripple of bitty waves at a half mile, I like to be able to smell the water and trees also. Made me feel more alive back then. Almost makes me feel alive now."
     Emil had his plan of attack. I had mine. His was tried and true. Mine was a vision given to me by the Spirit of the Highly Improbable. But since it was me who had the paddle in hand, I outvoted the old fart one-zip. Paddled to the far northeast corner of the lake where glass was on the water. And as I snuck up on the shore, the bass treated me like a Duty Officer lookin' for volunteers. Rather than attack gifts falling from the sky, they ran from my descending spinner like it was an anti-piscatorial bomb. Those bass were chickens for sure. Give up? Not me. I worked tight to shore, out from shore and followed the weed line where it dropped off into deeper water. Nada. Could of been an embarrassment but I've screwed up enough in my 64 years to realize my level of imperfection in many fields. 'Specially in front of an uncle who isn't really there. So I sucked it up and went with Emil's idea.
     Of course it worked. Tucked the shaded west shore and let the tiniest of zephyrs carry me to bass after bass. All in a few inches of water. So shallow you'd think their backs'd be stickin' above the surface. Oh yeah, one pike, pushin' thirty inches. I know there's a big one in here somewhere. Been bit off by a heavy, slow moving weight when fishin' monofilament. The pike in the lake spook me. Lotta baitfish to chow down on. And northerns are an amorous lot. Numbers go up, other fish go down. Someday it's all pike. Seen it happen before.
     Emil's nice enough to not 'told ya so' me. Pullin' into shore all he said was, "That was my idea of fun. Great night. Did enough catchin' to say we got some."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Emil and the Long Rod (in progress for maybe a long time)

     My Uncle Emil has a way of paddling though my mind when I'm out on the water. 'Specially on a day like today out on the Nason Lakes. No way that's their real name. Can't be lettin' on to that. And the real one doesn't mean diddly to me. Nason does. Turned me on to them. Doubt he knew what he was brewing when he brought them up. An unexpected gift from my point of view. They turned out to be a treasure. The small kind that makes a life worth living. Like finding a stand of wild asparagus in a ditch, just right for the pickin'. Or the Perseid Meteor Shower. First time we saw that was in Northern Wisconsin the night before the Paavo Nuurmi Marathon, "Did you see that? Wow! There's another." And so on 'til the mosquitoes drove us into the tent. But the Nasons keep on giving. They're there waiting whenever I want to head on up and pay 'em a visit. Have to share them with strangers, usually locals, once in a while but mostly they're mine all by my lonesome. I'd take you there but we'd have to share blood. Or at least be respected in-laws. Even then I blind fold them when we leave the cabin.
     Most anyone would drive right by those pot holes in a swamp. Unexpectedly deep ones. Don't know whether they're sinkholes or the result of glacial chips - actually big-assed chunks - that fell off during the retreat, smacked a dent in the planet, then quietly melted (got that image from a fellow pall bearer at Greg's funeral). Then sat there patiently for a few thousand years and waited for some good ol' Bohunk Minnesotans to throw in a handful of pike, bass and panfish. And to my eternal gratitude, that came to pass.
     Couldn't think of a better place to spend the tenth anniversary of 9-11. Had my share of needless, violent death in Vietnam. When it comes to crap like that and the World Trade Center I don't have to be told to remember. Problem is I can't forget. Better to be out on the Nasons up in the Northland. Mid 80's and near glass on the water. A maple here and there starting to put on fall colors, the sumac already blaze red.
     I'm in the puddle-jumper, a fourteen and a half foot solo. Fun, fun boat. A challenge to move in a straight line but you can spin 'er like a top. Only canoe I've sat in that actually does float like a leaf on water. Doesn't so much move on the surface as she slips.  Takes no more than a puff of breeze and you're headin' down lake. Not so much a problem as it's an asset that I intend to make use of today. Appears I've got a plan in my pocket sayin' how me and the Nasons are gonna play today. Nobody along to come up with anything different. Not that I'm knocking fishin' with others but once in a while it's nice to screw up on my own.
     Once in a while I do the smart thing. I'm itchin' to fish but I know the best tactic in a canoe is to paddle to the far end and fish my way back. In a general sense. No doubt there'll be variations on that theme. It's about fifteen minutes to the end of the deepest pool. Plenty of time to watch the world go by and let my mind travel about. Most of my life my mind and body have been in different places. Most of the movies I've seen were for my eyes only. I see the never was and talk to the dead all the time. Guess that makes me normal. So whether I let it or not, my mind is gonna drift.
     Emil used to preach balance in his later years when I came to know him best. On a day like this one he'd often grow a subtle corner mouth smile. That was the signal telling the world his mind was churning something over. Wasn't any hurrying him through the process. Emil wouldn't speak his piece 'til the last word was put in order. Might not be poetry in the offing but whatever came out, it'd have to pass his test of worthiness. If she didn't work out right he'd toss it on the compost heap where it'd most likely provide fertile soil for new stuff to grow.
     Took me a while and a lot of stupid 'something on your mind old man?' interruptions when his lips were curled, for me to finally learn to shut the hell up. Once in a rare while the curl would arrive hand-in-hand with a short, violent snot blast. Knew I was shortly in for a treat coupled with a quiet prayer, 'Lord, give me the power to see what he's seeing behind his eyes.' I knew for a fact it was downright disgusting, sexist and completely incorrect in any sense. The kind of thing that'd get him fired in modern society. But for sure it would be funny as all get-out. At least to him. With a little luck and no coaxing he'd let me in on what he saw. Most always, lacking his mental vision, it was hit or miss as to how funny it'd strike me.
     Anyhow, midway down the second pool, Emil comes out of nowhere, enters my thoughts and recalls a fishing conversation we had years ago, " Seems I spent most of my youngest years wishin' I was older. And a fair amount of my older years wishin' I was younger. In the middle, wantin' to be somewhere else most of the time. Somewhere along the line there must have been a balance point. Coulda been a Wednesday in '40, about 2:37 in the morning. Snapped awake with a big old grin on my face. For about a half minute everything seemed just right. Woke up the next morning thinking my best years were behind me and I'd pissed 'em away. The 'someday I'm gonna' turned into 'if I had to do it over again' in about ten minutes and I'd nearly slept through the best part. 'Course I'm makin' most of that up. Well, not all of it. Then I met your mother, the war came along and I had to go like the blazes just to keep up. There's a point in there somewhere. Beats me just what it is. Guess it takes more than one lifetime to figure things out."
     Back on the Nasons I picked up the fly rod. It's a putzy way to fish. On flat water a spinning rod covers a whole lot more water and catches more fish. But fooling them with a homemade popper's a lot more fun. Wasn't much foolin' them today. Obviously the fault of the fish. Lately I've been in to dickin' around with a six and a half foot glass rod by Wright and McGill. Twenty three bucks of noodleness. The cheap end of the cheap end. What I'd originally been looking for was an affordable and serviceable bamboo rod. Guffaw! Affordable and bamboo are oxymoronic. Had the money for a Heddon Black Beauty, a work horse of the '40s and '50s, but my form of putz didn't justify a piece of storied history. The W and G has been built since the '50s. Likewise the Pflueger Medalist reel holding the line. The initial idea was to have a fly rod for use in the back of the canoe that was short enough to both cast and, at the same time, avoid ripping an ear off the unsuspecting innocent up front. The six and a half footer fit the bill nicely.
     For some unknown reason, holding the rod with my index finger pointing up the pole, ala Lee Wulff, works like a charm. At least as far as the casting goes. The fish don't seem to agree. The popper's a small bass size. Easy to throw with a nine foot rod. Not so with the short one in my hand. When I do get it out there all I'm hearin' is the constant 'chuk' of a bunch of too-little sunnies trying to suck down a bug bigger than their mouths. It's a neat sound but not what I'm hopin' for. What exactly am I hopin' for? Beyond what I've already got that is. There's food on the table, roof overhead, a family to love, sun above and I'm on my favorite lake. What I seem to be missing is a seven pound bass at the end of the little yellow noodle in my hand.
     In shame and embarrassment I reach behind and switch rods. Maybe that bass is looking for a medium sized, homemade spinner. I've chickened out on the fly rod but am at least sticking with my plan of attack. Paddle tight to the calm side. Work it 'til the breeze finally takes me across the small bay and then work that. One of the pleasures of a thousand hours in a canoe is knowing there's nothing to worry about so long as the boat is right side up. So I keep fishing 'til there's no more lake. When I bump the shore it's time to paddle back across.
      There I finally find a tight pocket of fish. The first fights like a small pike and I catch myself calling for it to surface like a bass. Yup, pike. Sucked it down. Spreaders out and it's quickly released. Then it's bam, bam, bam. A fistful of bass under two pounds.  Nice to feel life tormenting on the end of the line.
     Spent most of my time in the far pool. The fishing's not up to par but the sound of the sunnies chuking away makes it a good time. I like being able to hear the sound of fish sipping. Tells me up front that this is an out of the way corner of the world. One of Minnesota's graces is that such places still exist. Being able to hear a four inch fish try to eat a one inch popper is a gift plain and simple. Think about it. Nearly all of us live in a noisy, crowded world. Another story out here on the Nasons. Just me, the soft breeze, grasses and cattails.
     The long rod came to me by way of Uncle Emil. Out in the boat he went with the standard rod and reel. But when his feet were on the shore or wading in the lake he always worked a fly rod. Saw him fool a dinner plate bluegill with a group of admiring fishermen standing close by. Not a one of them could do what he was doing and they knew it. In my mind the fly rod separated him from the crowd.
     He nudged me in that direction when I was about twelve. Set me up with a casting bobber, beetle-bug and trout sized pork rind. We'd work the shoreline together. Most of the time he'd let me have the sweet spots. Seemed to get a big kick out of watching me fish. Maybe that was because he didn't have a son to do guy stuff with. Like peeing standing up. And doing something useless like fishing. It's a putzy, kid kind of activity that doesn't sit well with the way the world works. Not justifiable. Unless your sharing your time with a kid. Especially one with no father. Great excuse to be on the water.
     Don't know how long he'd been fly fishing. Don't know why he started. Didn't know why he kept at it. To my way of not thinking, he just did it. And I thought it was an unquestionably beautiful act. In the early beetle-bug days I never thought to ask Emil if I could give it a try. Didn't think I'd take it up some day. Didn't think I wouldn't. But the seed was planted.
     Bought my first fly rod at an Army-Navy surplus store. Eight feet of olive drab fiberglass complete with reel and genuine, weight forward floating line. Didn't take any lessons. Who took lessons for anything besides music back in '64? Besides, I was seventeen and already knew most of everything. Thankfully, my hours with Uncle Emil had put a wrinkle in my brain. So I knew enough to hold the rod by the fat end. And then just started buggy-whippin' it. Always had a good throwing arm and a natural instinct for using my body in the process. A few hundred casts moved me from dropping the fly on my head to feeling the rod load. When that revelation came about I started humming that puppy like there was no tomorrow. No ten to one old school casting for me! Load the rod and smoke it. Catching fish wasn't the point. Learning to lay the entire line out on the water was. No finesse at all. Big time line speed. It sure was fun.
     The rod was stuffed away in my mom's garage when I went in the Army. Didn't pick one up again 'til the cabin was being built. We were near water and it seemed a necessity to resurrect the long rod. My daughter Annie and I spent three days together at the cabin when she was six. Outside of a woodtick that burrowed itself in her ear, we had a pretty good time. I'd say great time but Annie may remember differently. After a day of driving nails, for a six year old she was a demon with a framing hammer, the two of us would head to a nearby lake where we'd trespass on lakefront property for sale and there shore fish. That we were surrounded by blooming pink Ladyslippers was a nice touch. Off a small point we found a thicket of spawning bluegills. I'd flip an Adams to them with my fly rod. When one would impale itself, Annie would take over and reel in our dinner. Yup, Old Catch and Release turned into Catch and Kill right in front of his innocent little girl. Didn't know how she'd take it. In an effort to temper the process I said it was okay to kill the fish only if we ate them. A matter of respect. Probably I was making a bigger deal out of dinner than was necessary. We ate 'em all.
     Most every winter I make a vow to get better at casting a fly. Brings to mind something Jimmy Carter said about wanting to become a better fly fisherman after leaving the presidency. Well, for me it ain't happened yet. I've lost the habit of wanting to be a good caster and get too hung up on catching fish. Ah, but the fishing season ain't over yet. There's still hope. Slim though that may be.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

White Pine

     Another blog entry that doesn't seem to fit with canoe fishing. And eastern white pines don't seem to do much more than provide two by fours and background on the horizon when you're out on a Minnesota lake. They sure are easy to spot. Tall with a spreading crown. This is another entry I started a while ago then got caught up in the Learning Curve madness. Consider it another form of Spring cleaning.
     How a white pine would fit in a fishing blog hadn't entered my head when I picked up the pen. Yup, I still pick up the pen. Sketch out the entry before hunting, pecking and filling it out with the keyboard. But somehow I figured it would. My brain doesn't work on its own but seems a conduit for words and ideas from somewhere else. Exactly where else, I don't know. Back when still working I'd walk into dozens of businesses each day. Most anything could be running through my head as I entered. Having no mature filtering mechanism at the time, the words would come tumbling out unmolested. Like I was a spectator. So there I'd be, saying something stupid and praying inside other words would follow to bail me out. Inevitably something appropriate would pop out and change the stupid to something merely idiotic. Almost like that was the intention from the start. No lawsuit for me.
     So, white pine. That's what's on my mind today. On the west edge of our land soar, in a midwestern sense soar, two mature whites. Fifty inches in diameter at chest height. No idea how tall. The biggest one in Minnesota, over in Itasca State Park, is a hundred fifteen feet tall. Some are known to grow higher. Call ours at least a foot more than real tall. The larger is ramrod straight. Root structure starting above ground and digging into the sandy soil like a hand. They look like the real deal as far as big trees go in Minnesota.
     The other is a micro smaller, with a huge side branch two stories up. Four years ago the branch cracked at the trunk and its tip sagged to the ground. The remaining joint was a splintered mess. A half dozen times I visited and pondered what to do. In my mind's eye I could clearly see myself atop an extension ladder chainsawing the limb off slick as a whistle. The pine'd pat me on the back and tell me what a swell feller I was.
     Inevitably reality would pay a visit as I stood there pondering and the immense size of the limb would hit home. Three, three and half feet in diameter. No matter how much I shortened it from the tip inward she'd still be a half ton when the time came to cut 'er loose. Your guess is as good as mine as to which way it'd fall. Mine usually had me planted on the under side. Ignorance may be bliss for most people but I'd always walk away knowing the tree was on its own.
     Sometime last winter the limb fell. The resulting damage was no worse than had I hacked away. Procrastination is the mother of the inevitable. Still there remains this immense, ragged tear in the side of a centuries old tree. What happens next is probably not for the best. Having seen other living things go through such a change tells me it's downhill all the way. Everything that happened was normal, natural and as organic as all get out. But it still sucks.
     Those two pines are the highlight of our land. They were the reason for the first path Lois cleared through the hazel brush. You come pay me a visit and I'll no doubt take you over to look at them. To me they're always a thrill. In the early days my nephew Brian and I visited them several times to stand and stare at the three branched fork five feet above the first split. Spent a lot of time talking about a future tree house or platform. And think of climbing to the top to sway in the wind.
     In a January, 1984 dream one of them was blown over and crushed the cabin. Big, nasty winds seem wreak havoc in dreams. Usually means there's a big change coming. And there was. But the dream also gave me the feeling that it'd all be okay if I dumped the useless crap in my life. In my case, part of growing up seemed to be an accumulation of self destructive things. Stuff that'd do me in eventually. Or maybe next Tuesday. What comes first, life or dreams? Or for that matter, the chicken or the egg? Got an answer for the second 'cause I've laid a lot of eggs in my time. Which brings it around to my dreams once again.
     The trees, the water, the out-of-the-wayness, the nothing-specialness of the land we're on. That's its appeal for me. A little bit of a temporary home we share with the bats living under the steel roof. The four or five generations of Eastern Phoebes that have nested on the side of the cabin. The grey fox, deer, skunks, frogs, beavers. The swans passing through in spring and fall, takin' a break on Deadman. Love 'em all. But not like the white pines.
     Two years ago my sister gave me a woodcut print of a white pine. No deer or mallards added to keep the eternal-entertainment-needers from becoming bored. The print, short and sweet. A single tree. Soon as I saw it there was no doubt as to how it had to be framed. Give me a moment and I'll work my way around to it.
     The cabin was built in two phases. The first entirely of store bought lumber. A stick house. When I got going on the addition my friend Greg kept putting bees in my bonnet to do all the finish work with homemade hardwood. Originally he'd pushed for a portable sawmill. Build the place from the ground up with my own trees. Drop 'em, mill 'em, dry 'em and dimension 'em. Oof dah! Had the skill and the money. But time? Never had enough of that. Greg, he was that kind of man and had the scars to prove it. One of his many sidelines was as a tree cutter. Always had logs and lumber around by the thousands of board feet. Pine, oak, walnut, maple and the occasional exotic.
     So we met halfway. He cut someone else's trees down. I bought a bunch of ash and oak logs from him. He hauled them to Lester-up-at-the-sawmill and we hauled them away. In time I planed, tongued and grooved them and used the boards to cover the walls and floors. Showing rare foresight, I kept a few of the natural edge boards. And after twenty-five years a couple remained. They became the picture frame. Damn nice frame and print. Hangs on the cabin wall facing the white pines as it should. In the very spot the dream pine would have crashed its way through.
     In the fifty years we knew each other, Greg'd talk about his grandpa every so often. The one story that stuck with me was how they'd head over to these small, swampy looking lakes a few miles south of Leech Lake. There they'd catch sunnies by the bucket full. Always sounded great to me. His Grandpa was now long gone and had no clue who I was in the first place. That being so I figured he wouldn't mind if me and Al gave them a shot. They were more or less canoe lakes but if you were skillful with a trailer you could dump a small boat in off the gravel road and down the embankment. Even then there was no guarantee that you could get out of the opening bay. You see, a lot of the shoreline is floating bog. Sometimes the first connecting channel is there, sometimes it ain't.
     Our first glance told us it was nothing but bullheads and sunnies. Just like the ones the border guard would have sent us back to had we stunk up Canadian lakes a second year running. Long story short, those holes in the swamp turned out to be our favorite lakes. Al says he'd fish 'em anytime.
     Only went there once with Greg. Glad we made it. High sun, blue cloudless sky, cold front. Didn't catch much but that didn't matter. Being with him, floating on a piece of his past was a pleasure pure and simple. Over the years he'd shared a bunch of treasures with me. The wood, the lakes, his take on life, a hand now and then. But mostly his unquestioned friendship. Greg passed on this Spring.
     Wasn't my intention to end up on that note. But that's how she went. Even had a mention of fishing on the way.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Dead Flies

      I'm in the process of unscrewing up the screwups in Learning Curve (I do not like that title - There's a perfect one out there somewhere and I'm hoping it'll eventually find the time to pay me a visit). It may not look it but that's the sixth draft on those pages  Not perfect. So what is? On the other hand, some of it doesn't read bad at all. Of course I'm partial to me and my sense of humor. Have a fine time being by myself. Don't know if that's a good thing or not. First there's Jed Clampett about Hollywood stars, "I've heard tell some of them are so stuck on theyselves they can walk hand in hand off into the sunset all alone." Then there's Ron Dawes, an Olympic marathoner back in '68, about training, "Anyone who can't stand doing a three hour run on their own is keeping mighty poor company." So there I am, alone and poor company. Point of view thing I suppose.
     So I'm stuck needing a topic that fits the occasion. Wilderness Canoe Fishing in Canada and Minnesota was chosen as a title 'cause it covered a lot of topics in seven words per some sage advice. Mostly I've been writing this thing to be writing. And to put together a coherent summary of the trips Allan and I took to Canada. Eventually add the pictures. Then blow a few bucks having a couple of copies printed for the two of us. What it all boils down to is that we spent a lot of time in the boonies together. Time that doesn't mean a whole lot to anyone but us. But that's enough. As Uncle Emil said, "Some things in life are worth doing simply because they are." 
     I began what follows last Spring. Not sure it'll ever be done. It's something like life. No climaxes, no punch lines. It doesn't stop like a novel or a movie. Just keeps going on. Evolving.

                                                          Dead Flies

     Not one of them buggers was buzzing around the cabin last November when we locked it up and drove home. Where the dead ones on the window sills and floors came from is beyond me. First they weren't there. Then I find them dead. Somewhere there's a big, missing in-between.
     It's that time of year. Early Spring in the Northland. Light snow on and off all day long. Not all that bad either, seeing as how I'm up here for Spring cleaning. Most every other year Lois'd be along and do the bulk of it herself. But not this year. As for the weather, so long as I keep a small fire in the wood stove, what's going on outside the door doesn't mean a lot. Snow is my friend. Cuts down on the temptation to play hooky. Take a peak at the loons on Deadman. There's work to be done inside. The kind that needs doing. And goes faster and more enjoyably with the blinders on.
     The cabin radio is a lot like me. A little slow about entering the digital age. Lois found it at a close out of a close out around three decades ago. Only a couple of years from state of the art back then. Now it's nearly an antique. A tribute to the good old days when crap wasn't quite as crappy as it is now. Old crap is most always better than new crap I guess. Only curmudgeonliness remains as good as ever. With a practiced hand you can get a clear signal for at least an hour. But she's gonna fade sooner or later. When the smush and background buzz finally gets my Germanic dander up it's time to do the tweak and dance. Or find a new station.
     Finding a new station is not as easy as it seems. Rock and Roll doesn't much cut it for me anymore. Not that I dislike the idea of a driving beat. But, my God, how many times can you listen to "Brown Eyed Girl?" Fourteen Country Western stations. Say no more. Don't feel the need to be saved, at least by radio. NPR is the last thing to squeeze out of the sieve and I stick with it from beginning of day to end of day. Not that I'm exactly in love with classical music. Don't hate it either. Drop a Mozart piano concerto on me or something by Papa Hayden once in a while and I've been known to tap my toes. In truth most of it simply passes below my radar. I can tune out a string quartet as well as anyone. Much easier to do than some hot shot making a stratacaster sound like a sow in heat.
     I realize that it's all in my head but there's this image frozen there of the person behind the mike. Locked in a windowless cell, surrounded by walls of flat black, spray painted egg cartons and a couple of thousand CD's. All bought at estate sales of people who died of boredom and too much Scrabble. No cigarette burns or spilt beer on those babies. All but four still in their plastic wrappers. Maybe a drop or two of cabernet on the open ones. But otherwise pristine. Gimme a break here. When you're cleaning bug snot offa windows the mind has a tendency to drift off.
     The guy who's running the show is obviously out of touch with reality. Keeps saying cool and cloudy for the weather. Stick your head out the door man! Look up and taste the snowflakes goober.
     Just about from the day it was buttoned it up I've spent a lot of time figuring out how the cabin could've been done differently. Even entered my dreams. Yeah, it's hard to hide from a life symbol. The latest phase, one I know'll never happen, is erecting a second wrap-around addition that would tie the building together. Like it'd always meant to be that way. Drive a deep well. Have indoor plumbing just like the rich folks over on the big lake. Then I remember. The cabin was never meant to be more than a fancy tent. Something to keep the rain off the sleeping bags. Toward that purpose it's a small work of art. Way more than it needs be. Our only hope was for the building to last as long as Lois and I did. Looks like it's gonna make it.
     But now, in the middle of Spring cleaning, I wish it was smaller. Like the ideal house my mom used to describe, "Stand in the middle and hit all four corners with a dust mop." Get used to it Mark. It is what it is, too big and too small at the same time. Or I could get a new take on it. Flip the big and the small. Then it'd always be the right size.
     Early Spring and late Fall. Flurries but no accumulation. The best times of the year to be up here. In the Fall the poinging of forming lake ice off in the distance as I stand in the dark looking at the Milky Way or emptying my bladder. One of my cousins told me you've got enough land if you can take a leak in the yard and not be seen by anyone. The wisdom of the agrarian man. Didn't hear but two cars pass down the road today. Probably the same person going and coming.
     In the Spring it's the smell of the Earth coming alive. Rich, live funk. The leaf buds are there. Catkins forming. A soft green outline to the woods. The birds can't hide yet. Don't move your eyes. Open 'em wide. Bird flight and feeding will give them away. A couple hundred yards away a pileated woodpecker tries to hammer down a jackpine. No way that guy can hide.
     All the ice around the cabin is gone, even on the big lake. It's almost a temptation to head out and float the canoe. Though no real point to it yet. Water's too cold to roll the boat and the fish are still asleep. And I'm not the hot to trot fisherman I used to be. The appeal is still there. Just not overpowering enough to get the boat loaded. Warmer days will come. As I've grown older it's almost enough to be on the water with only the paddle. Almost. The fishin' pole gets me to slow down, pay closer attention. Putz along. Get that tingle of life on the line. On the dark side, it's becoming an inconvenience to release so many fish. The inevitable burden of being a master. At least so far as those couple of canoe lakes where the fish have suicidal tendencies. Experience hasn't made me a better fisherman but it has shown me the location of lakes that give me an edge.
     The cabin done I move on to the outhouse. As far as shithouses go, it's a biggun. But it does qualify for my mom's idea of convenience. Spic and span in fifteen minutes.
     Keep it clean and maintained. Stay on top of the repairs and it'll last forever. Or 'til Lois and I move on. One of my nephews who'd helped during the initial stages of building recently said, "You know, it doesn't look thirty years old." Thanks David.