Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Finally into the Boonies - trip 1

     Yeah, he was pumped. And better than me at guiding us down the rapids. Maybe just to make me feel good he said I'd be a fine partner in the number three rapids (Winiboujou?) on the Bois Brule River over in Wisconsin. Not that I was much experienced in fast water, either bow or stern. But I did know enough to look for submerged rocks, call 'em out and poke our nose off when necessary. I like water a lot just not in my shorts. Kinda like the dog that can walk on water 'cause he can't swim.
     All fine and dandy but Gary wasn't there for the canoe trip, though that was a little part of it. 
     The portage had me worried. Gary's leg wasn't all that nimble and the trail into East Pike sprouted a lot of root and rock. To say the Boundary Water's portages weren't on the level would be a gross understatement. They lean right or left, rise and drop. Whenever they're level, they gather water. But outside of his leg and a few too many desserts, he was as much of a hoss as my brother. He took the one steep descent on his backside, partly by accident, partly by realizing that once he was down and sliding he couldn't fall again. Not a complaint was heard. Guess he figured it was all part of the game he'd come to play. And it was. His butt was bruised but not his attitude.
     My lack of imagination drove us to the only spot I'd ever camped on East Pike. Close to the best fishing on the lake and open to the breezes. Also with the feeling of intimacy I crave. Over the decades that site was the standard I judged all campsites by. Makes me want to go back there. Writing and being ain't the same. But, at the moment, writing's all I have.
     We had good weather for each of the four days and nights. The fishing, on the other hand, was hit and miss. The first day and a half was the hit part. And we certainly did hammer them. 
     Don't remember if it was Roland Martin or Jimmie Houston. One of their Saturday morning segments was shot in the Boundary Waters. The subject was smallmouth bass. Yeah, those southern boys fish the smallies too. Even seem to prefer them for their fight. On the twenty-three minute show in question, the two good ol' boys in the Alumacraft might have landed eight or ten bass. Not all that many but a fair number. 
     Near the end of the show, Roland or Jimmie said something like, "One thing you should know folks is that what your seeing is bein' shot in real time. No editing. The fishing here is just that good." 
     And that's how it is up there. Right day, right conditions and forty bass to the boat is just a good morning's fishing.
     Gary had this shad-rap he'd gotten from some gas station promotion. Exxon in the north woods. A blue and orange with the company's logo on it. One of those things you get, throw in your tackle box right next to the two inch Camel-rap (yup, he had one of those), and leave it there to gather dust and rust 'til a grandson pulls it out someday and says, "Coool." Outside of the logo it was a genuine shad-rap.
     But Gary's not one to waste a good deal. To him, a lure's a lure. And if it's a little out of the pale, so much more the challenge. We weren't but minutes into the first afternoon's fishing before he tied it on with a chuckle and a "there's no way I'll catch anything with this but...." and preceded to out catch me two to one. And I'm in the front of the boat where all the action is supposed to be.
     We'd work a small section of shore then move on. Rather than go through the work of retrieving his last cast, Gary would troll to the next spot. Which inevitably would take a while because of his "Hang on a second, I've got another one on." And pull that stunt two or three times before we'd reach the next spot. Just no fun at all. He caught dinks and lunkers. Bronze ones and beige ones. Fighters and slugs. Didn't matter to him, he caught 'em all.
     And that's how it went until 1:27 the second afternoon. Then it stopped. Dead. Must have been baby time the way it shut down like that. But we didn't give it up 'til the next day, all the while working what should be good water and waiting for the bass to do their part.
     That first night we had a meal of bass. I grew up thinking bass, both small and largemouth were for throwing back. About the same as Minnesota's perch wisdom. But it seems Wisconsinites will eat anything that swims. The bass we breaded and ate were almost as good as the perch.
     Oh yeah, we forgot to take any pictures of the fish we caught. Heat of the moment I guess. We realized that about the time the first filets were going in the pan. Ever resourceful, there's a photo somewhere of Gary alongside the stove holding up a translucent, filleted smallie. It's one of those sick 'in' jokes. We find it uproarious. Most wouldn't notice. Every picture has a story, some more than others.
     Creature of habit, more 'cause I liked where we were and where we could go from there than lack of imagination. Like Castaneda or maybe Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, I'd found my spot. Some excuse, eh? So on the third morning we headed west from there to the ugly portage. This time to fish a new lake or two and suffer on the way.
     Pine Lake, one of 2,173 by that name in Minnesota, was noted for its walleyes and lake trout. Reason enough to fish it even if there wasn't also a good number of bass. I think Gary had been sucked in by the propagandist's in Minnesota's tourism department and felt the need to catch a few walleyes. Foolish man.
     On the portage into East Pike the footing had raised a concern for Gary. On the up and over we were on this morning my thoughts were leaning towards heart attack or stroke. Maybe both. But he survived. And admitted after catching his breath, the uphill seemed like it would go on forever.
     From there it was a short paddle across McFarland and another fifty yards upstream into seven mile long Pine. The upstream had a swift current but this morning its force amazed me. We, both experienced and good paddlers, literally inched our way up, sometimes even losing a foot here or there. Finally sitting and puffing on the lake I asked Gary if he'd ever had to work that hard going up such a short stretch. He seemed confused and asked, "What upstream?" It was then I noticed he had his glasses off. While I was workin' it, Gary was enjoying the warmth of the day. Looking around at the birches and red pines. Seems he thought we were heading downstream and figured I wasn't paddling at all 'cause we were moving so slow.
     Pine Lake had a half dozen campsites but only one truly fine one. A gradually rising slab of basalt that commanded what looked like a prime fishing bay. A short paddle out from the bay a reef stretched for several hundred yards. All the ducks were lined up. Thoughts of wall-hanger walleyes and lunker lakers danced through my head.
     Two days of casting gave our site its name, disappointment bay. As I recall, we caught only one fish. That it was my biggest pike to that point didn't alter the name a bit.
     Two trout lakes lie on the south side of Pine Lake. Both have the aura of mountain lakes for they sit several hundred feet above the main lake and are both nestled in steep walled, tree lined valleys. The one Gary and I chose sat directly across from our campsite. Not sure the reason, maybe a wet Spring, but the portage was interrupted by a flooded wood. Everything about the pond's flora said it wasn't a swamp. And it didn't slog like one. None of that rotting plant, methane and sulfur dioxide smell arose as we waded through. The upside was not having to carry the canoe or the gear inside 'til we hit high ground. Like walking an obedient dog.
     When we finally reached it through the maze of trees, the high ground seemed to want to get out of the water as fast as it could. She climbed like the upside of a Bell Curve. Steeper, steeper, steeper, then a short level out at the lake.
     It was there, launching the canoe, that Gary initiated his own personal Boundary Waters tradition. Most every time I've ever launched a canoe onto a lake, I've been in the stern. The gear is loaded. Then the bow man. I manually jockey the boat to a boardable position then carefully climb in. Not elegant but it works.
     This time with Gary as stern man, the boarding method reversed. Not sure why. So there he sat briefly, two hundred-fifty pounds in the butt wide, narrow rear seat, bow of the canoe pointed twenty degrees to the blue, blue sky. With any sense I would have had my camera in hand to catch him in mid-splash. Another eight by ten glossy portrait lost to poor planning. He took it well. Laughed it off. Thank God the little lake was beautiful for we caught nary a trout.
     Four days in the BWCA and we never saw another body. A wonderful illusion of wilderness. It seemed Gary liked that feel as much as I. We were planning next year's trip before we even left Pine Lake.

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