Gary's idea for trip two had flexibility at its core. And required a paddle of less than a mile to our campsite. His logic was that everybody passed through John Lake on their way to somewhere else but no one ever stopped to smell all the fine walleyes and bass in John itself. Who was I to disagree? An hour west and we were on East Pike. An hour north and we were on the border lakes of North and South Fowl. Throw in the merry jaunt down the Royal River and we'd have ourselves a trip to remember. Seeing as how I'm remembering it now, I'd guess you could say we were right.
There was no way to know it at the time but '98 was a watershed in my life. I'd turned 51 and was ripe for what's known as the Mid-life crisis. Only problem was mine had come fifteen years earlier. Don't know where that crap about the middle of life happening around age fifty comes from. Near as I can see it us men don't commonly live to a hundred. Mid-life is the time when you're throwing off the idiotic shackles of youth. Resolving your immature screw-ups. Dumping what makes no more sense and saving what does. It ain't easy and takes a while. But if you haven't figured it out by age 50, you've got yourself some serious problems. Eternal boyhood and all that happy shit.
For me, turning 50 was the beginning of a stretch of golden years. Can't say they've ended yet. '98 was the first year of the Canada trips with Allan. Trips that made little sense to most people but were some of the best days of my life. Bought the Jeep that year, more as an anticipation of what was to come than as a toy. In that first year it went to the BWCA with Gary, northwest Manitoba with Al and above the tree line on scree covered trails in the Colorado Rockies with Lois.
Even Gary found our upcoming Manitoba trip to be out of the pale. Guess the picture in his head of what that would look like wasn't the same as mine. But as for the Boundary Waters he was more than willing to make the drive from Milwaukee, help me load the canoe atop the Jeep and ride shotgun, all with the idea of putting a little icing on the previous year's trip.
There's no doubt in my mind I'd never make it in the real world of survive by the seat of your pants. A man as habit driven as I would be easy pickin's for the fauna by the third day. That and the fine perch fishing on Northern Light Lake was how we found ourselves in the little house for one more night.
Picking up your permit at the Ranger Station in Grand Marais is another exercise in habit. Tell the ranger who you are. Hand over your papers. Watch the video. Admire the walleye filleting on the paddle. That one wowed both me and Gary. We even asked to see it again. Then answer the questions. All to make sure you have no biodegradable containers with you and so you don't crap just anywhere in the woods. 'Spose that's not the intent but if we all did like the old-timers, fill the cans with rocks and sink them in the lake, there'd be dozens of tin and steel reefs up there by now. Catching lakers during spawning time would be called Campbelling. Thank God for plastic. Sorry, didn't ever intend to write that.
No doubt at all they've got to do that in hopes a few of the trashers might have second thoughts. By and large I've found the campsites pretty clean. Trampled all the hell for sure but definitely not buried in garbage. Once in a while the occasional dump of spaghetti noodles in a lake, aluminum foil in the fire ring and the inevitable twenty yards of monofilament fishing line with a jig attached. But, like plastic in the rivers and oceans, it all adds up. So the video is to be expected and accepted. Besides, it makes the oral quiz you've gotta take to get your permit that much easier.
Our plan was kind of embarrassing. The three quarter mile paddle we had in mind wasn't exactly manly. Being that close to the entry point had me thinking there'd be a never ending parade of canoeists passing by. But there wasn't. Call that the beauty of the quota system. The John Lake access only allowed one permit per day and we were it. Whether we were there or three lakes seemed to make little difference. Couple of canoes a day. That's it.
Our site was unique. At least for me. Never before camped on grass. It almost seemed like we were in someone's backyard. Should have brought the mower. The site was huge. Big enough for the maximum party size of nine. And next to the deepest hole on the lake.
As a change of pace and against everything I hold holy, Gary had a portable fish finder with him. Over the days it didn't once put us onto fish, mostly 'cause we couldn't figure it out, or there were way too many fish in the lake and as a result the screen was nothing but a jumble of little squiggly lines, but it did give me an understanding of the bottoms of both John and East Pike. And on East Pike it made sense of why we caught fish where we did. It seemed like cheating but sometimes you've gotta dance with the devil (whatever the hell that means and seeing as how my skills on the dance floor are limited, the devil would have to lead).
That afternoon we worked John for all it was worth. Which turned out to be about a buck ninety-three. Casted, trolled and might even have used bleach had we the foresight to pack a few gallons. Yup, we were stuck in nada land. Except for a couple of glorious shore fishing moments.
Look in the Boundary Waters fishing guides and you'll see John Lake is twenty some feet deep. On our tour of the shoreline the scope told us it was shallow water from one end to the other. Couldn't find a hole anywhere. 'Til we did some fishing from shore. There, at the entrance to the Royal River, right off our campsite, was a spot that sucked down a quarter ounce jig like it was on its way to the Indian Ocean (as we all know, that's where the hole would come out if you dug straight down from Pontoria, Minnesota). And at the bottom of that hole lived at least two walleyes.
Had I any sense we'd have worked the fast water along the river. I recall the idea crossing my mind but never acted on it. A sin worse than ignorance. You see, smallies like fast water almost as much as trout. Simple logic would say if they ain't in the lake, and the DNR says they're supposed to be, maybe, just maybe, they're in the river.
Come dinner time we performed the Great Experiment to Dispel the Myth that Walleyes are the Be-All, End-All Eatin' Fish in the Lakes of Minnesota. We'd saved a few perch filets from Northern Light Lake to go with the walleyes. Breaded them all in Babe Winkleman's shore lunch special, you know, the one with the Babe himself on the label striking a pose that said he'd missed few shore lunches over the years, and did the almost fair, not quite blind, taste test. No contest. Perch by a mile. To be sure, walleyes are a solid okay. But they ain't perch, not even day old perch.
The trip down the Royal River is always a treat. I'd done it the first time back in '66 with Rod Middlestedt (no matter how many ways I try spelling his name it always looks wrong. Sorry Rod). A couple of times were with Al. Now Gary. Each time was on a different river. Time of day, season, plus things change in general. I can't tell you which trip was the best. For sure, none was the worst.
Fast water and thickets of boulders make two portages necessary. Neither all that tough. Mostly level. One a bit over a hundred rods, the other a bit under. The longer of the two varies with water level. Oddly enough, as I remember it, when the water's up, the portage is drier 'cause it's all high ground and more of the river is navigable. When the water's down the added forty rods is on the boggy side.
With Gary we got the long trek. Seemed the stream had been dammed and backed up beavers. She was a fine dam a full stream's width. And there was no way around it. Neither of us had pulled a canoe over a beaver dam before but we had the idea that it was done carefully. Very carefully. Getting wet wasn't much of a consideration as we were already soaked to the knees. However, most every stick in and around the dam had a natural end and a beaver gnawed, pointy end. Falling on a pointy end appealed to neither of us. Nor did losing our fishing gear.
We did good. Arriving in the mini-delta at the opening of North Fowl we began to fish and were rewarded with classic Minnesota hammer handle pike that jumped like largemouth bass. But that's not why we were there.
The previous summer on a trip with Allan the two of us had stopped in the Subway sandwich shop in Grand Marais for lunch and struck up a conversation with one of the guys behind the counter. A guy who was hip to the joys of perch. I waxed on the glories of the jumbos Gary and I had caught on Northern Light. He agreed with me. Said there were some nice jumbos in there. But if we were in the market for some really big jumbos, big as walleyes perch, then North Fowl was the lake. Fourteen, fifteen inchers by the dozens. Sink the canoe there were so many. Big enough to swallow midget Jonah's. And that got me thinking. And those thoughts included Gary. The only thing my thoughts didn't include was the thousand acres of North Fowl. That's a lot of water to check out.
Finding them was the key. But that didn't bother Gray in the least. The prospect of pound plus perch was something he'd only dreamt of. And even in his dreams they weren't as big as the fish I was talking up.
So here we go into another shaggy dog story. The wind was up. Not a gale but close to stiff. Enough to keep the canoe bobbing sideways to the waves like a rocking horse ninety degrees off kilter. Enough to draw your attention away from bobber or jig and tighten up the life jacket. I won't say it was no fun just that it was lousy fishing. We pulled ashore on an island and had lunch. Alone. On the Canadian border with a view down two miles of blue surrounded by a sea of green. Not bad at all.
What I recall was having the foresight to load the gorp with dried cherries and sunflower seeds while packing for the trip. Odd a person should recall something like that. And the sound of the breeze above us backed by the cloudless sky while we sat on shaded driftwood. We'd both spent enough time on the water to know this was a part of the game. Maybe the better part of it.
For a while in the early afternoon while the fish slept we worked the lee of the island and the Royal River delta. Mostly it was a shallow and level bottom. Except for the one hole that produced a few pike and a walleye. We released everything.
As background we had the bald eagle and seagull follies. The eagle was desperately trying to rustle up a lunch. Seemed he knew where the larder was and kept trying to get an angle on it. But the gulls also knew where the easy pickin's were and were having nothing to do with losing their turf to some big assed, albino-headed trouble maker. Every time the eagle would stage up, a small gang of the gulls would drive him off. You could almost hear the trash talk up above the tree tops. Yeah, the majestic symbol of the good old U.S.A. went hungry, all because of a few sky rats. Reminded me of my days in Vietnam.
Almost forgot: Once again, there we were, launching the canoe, Gary in first as usual. I blinked and missed the roll. Didn't have the camera ready anyhow. There he stood again, waist deep with a 'seems familiar' look on his face.
We did do a trip into East Pike, more for the scenery than the fishing. At least that's what I told myself. We did catch a few. Not enough to mention so I won't. In the scheme of things that's pretty normal. Most of life's about breathing and keeping upright. You get up, do stuff and go to bed. Doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, outside of the truffles versus dumpster fare dilemma, that's about it. Some days you hammer them, most days you don't. Once in a while you roll the canoe.
Of note, in the not quite on a par with Allan catching a shiner minnow with a number five, red and white Mepps but close sense, I did catch a six inch perch on a five inch, perch colored shad rap. Gets one to thinking about what the little guy had in mind and the misplaced ambition that lies within all of God's creatures.