Tuesday, September 30, 2014


     Brian set his phone alarm for six o'clock.  Never thought of it before but I guess a cell phone does have its place in the Boundary Waters.  No matter the nature of the trip inevitably time plays a role and a cell phone is smaller than an alarm clock.  In keeping with the spirit of where we were our phones could have been left in the car.  Also in keeping with where we were, they could have been stolen, though I find that hard to believe.  Never heard of forestry road gangs unless that's what they call the crews who keep the trails clear of deadfall.
     Around five-forty the alarm went off.  Odd.  Brian reset the time and we quietly laid there hoping some of the night would start to give up the ghost.  At six it was still pitch black.  Also odd.  Fortunately Brian had brought a pair of headband lights that came in mighty handy over the next forty-five minutes as we gobbled down calories and broke camp.  By the time we pushed off there was more than enough daylight to see where the lake ended and the trees began.
     And boy did we cruise.  Borderline canoe men.  Our line was die straight and the light headwind had no effect on our progress.  Less than half an hour later we'd landed and said goodbye to West Pike.  Even the portage went faster now that we'd eaten twenty pounds and dumped what remained of the cooler ice.  By the time we hit Clearwater the idea of a return next year was appealing.  We even began to discuss a trip to East Pike and catch bass 'til our arms hurt.
     Clearwater smoked by until we hit the big bend in the lake with three miles to go.  That's right, I'd almost forgotten about saying something three days earlier about headwind in and headwind out.  And our dead west headwind was a good one with rollers, whitecaps and an army of playful zephyrs to whack us in the face every half minute.  Only one thing to do, suck it up, duck our heads and dig hard.
     Looking back on the paddle it seems we couldn't have taken more than an hour to finish the lake.  In truth it was closer to two hours for the three miles.  Oddly I never felt we were in jeopardy though there were times when the canoe was moving sideways more than forward.  But once we'd committed ourselves, the over-riding thought was nose to the wind.  And that it'd eventually be over.
     Finally we found a break from the wind with a quarter mile to go.  There I began to laugh hysterically.  Tears down the face.  There was this picture in my head concerning the way I felt and just had to let Brian in on it.  Wasn't all that funny but it sure tickled my fancy.
     While we sat bobbing in the shallows I started in, "I'm so tired and numb at the moment that a pit bull could run up and sink its teeth into my testicles as we off-loaded our gear.  Wouldn't bat an eyelash.  Hell, I could drive all the way into the Grand Marais hospital with him still holding on.  Walk in the door and ask if there was a doctor available to surgically remove the dog.  While sewing me up the doctor would no doubt faint from all the blood oozing out.  Leaving the doc laid out on the floor I'd walk into the lobby, naked from the waist down with the needle and thread still hanging and call out, 'is there a seamstress in the house?' "
     Brian kind of stared and chuckled a bit, maybe even laughed.  Can't say for sure since the tears were messing up my vision and my laughter drowned out any outside noise.  Guess you would have to have been there.  Me too.  What seemed hysterical at the time now just seems odd.
     Turned out we'd arrived at eleven o'clock like we'd hoped even though the headwind had added an hour to the trip.  It seemed Brian's phone had somehow given us an hour and we'd gotten up at five instead of six.  They don't call them smart phones for nothing.
     We stopped in Grand Marais for coffee and phone calls.  Let those who cared know we were okay and to charge up on needed caffein.  The five hour drive to the cities was actually fun.  Sure beat having to put nine hundred miles behind us like in the Manitoba days.  Among other things we talked of a possible return.  By then the pain of the portages was just a memory and I was already getting fired up about a possible next year.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Return to East Pike Lake

     It'd been forty-eight years since I first saw the lake.  Brian, my middle aged nephew up there in the front of the canoe, was just out of diapers when Rod Middlested and I first fished its waters.  Not that that means a whole lot to anyone but me.  But there was a part of me wanting to be where we were heading on Friday morning much the same as that day in '92 when I chose East Pike as Allan's introduction to the Boundary Waters.  For me the lake was, and is, the be all, end all.
     Brian had fished East Pike in '94 during our first (of three) annual, family style BWCA fishing trip and had a fair amount of luck.  He caught more than his share of smallies including a four plus pounder.  Don't know if he was more pumped than me to be returning but it wouldn't have surprised me.
     As far as I was concerned the only drawback to our day was having to approach the lake from the west instead of the east.  We wouldn't paddle the rapids into John Lake, do the up and over portage into East Pike and most of all, wouldn't stand on the basalt slab at the end of the portage.  You wouldn't think that last part could carry much meaning but it sure does.  Was standing there when I caught my first smallmouth, did a selfie back there with twelve year old Allan and I've dreamt of that rock several times.  Simply put, it's one of my happy places.
     Back when Lois was pregnant with Allan we took birthing classes.  One part of them was learning a kind of self hypnosis technique in which we'd lose ourselves in a happy place of our own choosing.  Mine was the basalt slab on East Pike.  Hadn't realized the connection for Allan and and I until now.  Sometimes there's more going on than meets the eye.  I have no idea what makes the world go round but for me that slab is an important place.  Guess I'll have to find a way to return next year.  Spend some time on the basalt, maybe even take a nap.
     Once again, not wanting to stumble around in the dark, we slept in.  After a hot and gobble it down before it gets cold breakfast, we pushed off on another splendid day to be alive.  Originally the plan had been for a day on a trout lake by the name of Gogebic.  In my mind's eye getting there was a simple slog of no more than a hundred rods straight up a steep slope.  Brian would carry the canoe, I'd carry the rods and paddles (unless I could convince him to carry it all and maybe also piggy back me).  Tough but we were tough guys ready to take on any challenge.  When me and my mind's eye took the time to actually scope out the trail I realized my folly. The portage wasn't but a few rods long.  Then it turned into the Border Trail and meandered here and there before passing by the lake.  The hundred rods turned into something over two hundred.  The portage into East Pike on the other hand was listed as a hundred-seventeen rods.  Us tough guys quickly turned into us reasonable guys.
     Seeing as how the carry was flat and short we left the portage yoke back in camp.  I could say I forgot it and was too lazy to turn around after a quarter mile but I won't.  What the heck, a couple of reasonable guys like me and Brian could each hoist an end and carry the canoe from West Pike all the way to Duluth without breaking a sweat.  Sure didn't work out that way.  We not only broke a sweat but had to set the Wenonah down a half dozen times.  Why a canoe being carried by two men should seem to weigh more to each than one thrown on the shoulders of a single man is more than I can figure out.  But it does.  Could be carrying a boat, open side up, bears the weight of all the atmosphere from there to the edge of outer space whereas all that air slips off an upside-down canoe and falls to the ground.  Best e-mail Stephen Hawking for his opinion on that.
     Flat in the real world isn't flat.  Instead it's a constant up and down punctuated by rock, root and mud.  Anyhow, that's my excuse for setting the canoe down as much as we did.  It also seemed like someone had moved the lake.  We didn't come on East Pike until the seventh around the next corner.  Allan and I had done the same carry seventeen years earlier and I'd recalled it as being more rods than the number on the map.  But memory is fickle 'specially when the brain involved is pushing seventy.  Later in the day I learned my twenty year old map was off by sixty rods.  Cartographic typo?
     I'd also recalled the put-in as being a jumble of pointy rocks.  It was.  Chalk one up for memory even though I'd rather have been wrong.  We could easily see the most used avenue of attack by all the aluminum streaks on the rocks.  Made my teeth cringe.  A minute of scouting found a better way and we were off.
     The first mile of East Pike looks more like a river than a lake.  She's nothing but deadfall for the bass and cabbage beds for pike.  In fact our first fish was a pike - can't I was happy about that - pushing thirty inches.  Brian released it for me.  He's a man in his prime who does stuff with skill and aplomb and I'm smart enough to let him show off his talent.  Also cuts down on pike punctures.  Brian grabbed the fish behind the gills just like he knew what he was doing.  A minute later, after I promised to catch no more pike - not easy when one of your nicknames is the Snake Charmer - we moved on in pursuit of bass.
     East Pike is noted for its smallmouth bass.  One of the best lakes around.  But we were nearly an hour into the paddle before we started to find a pattern.  At least we thought it was a pattern since our luck never grew to hot and heavy proportions.  Mostly Brian did the catching.  That was okay with me.  Boat control was as much a part of the experience as landing fish.  I was happy simply being where I was and watching Brian tie into some bass.
     We'd caught a good drift along the north shore only requiring a sculling stroke now and then to correct our course.  Over the next hour while casting spinners parallel to shore we landed perhaps ten fish.  None was bigger than two pounds but all fought hard and never gave up 'til pulled from the water.  Smallies are respected for their fighting ability, no doubt due to their dislike of having holes popped through their faces.  Might also have something to do with their fear of hot frying pans.  I have to agree with them.  Can't say I've ever wanted to have the meat sliced from my bones, dipped in batter and fried in a half inch of boiling oil.
     We took a break on a basalt slab point that had seen a lot of traffic over the years (centuries?).  Why not, it was a perfect site.  The landing was level and wide.  Plenty of places to pitch a tent or build a fire for a shore lunch.  All told it was the best camp site on the lake but it wasn't designated as such by the Forestry Service.  While there I did the usual kicking around in hope of finding something cool, maybe from the Voyageur days.  Instead I found artifacts from the previous century, old bottle caps, removable beer can pull tabs and a sheet of rusted steel.  Guess I found the cool stuff a couple of hundred years early.  I left it all there to age.
     The carry back into West Pike was no easier.  Same length, same routine and I was a few hours older.  On the way we ran into the high-tech twins direct from REI Sporting Goods.  Their gear looked to weigh about the same as the stack of hundreds they forked over to pay their bill.  Brian recognized their stuff for what it was.  All I could think of was, "This canoe keeps getting heavier by the second."
     Dinner was home made spaghetti and a bunch of other edibles we wolfed down hoping to reduced the morning's load on the way out.  Needing an early start so Brian could get ready for work on Monday morning, we crawled into the bags around nine.

Monday, September 22, 2014


     Every so often when in the boonies I get the feeling Armageddon has happened and I've missed it.  The whole world gone.  Pfft.  None left but us paddlers out beyond cell phone range and no one left to call even if we could hook up.  Anyhow, that's what I was feeling when I awoke.  That, a stiff back and a right arm that hadn't as yet rejoined the living.
     Light level is my alarm clock.  It's hard to stay in bed past 6am in the summer and hard to roll out of the sack before 7am in the dreariness of winter.  Several times during the night I'd awakened to eyeball the tent ceiling looking for signs of morning.  For an hour after my mid-night stumble into the woods to urinate, it got a little brighter, then got darker again like the earth had gotten tired of spinning west to east and reversed itself.  Not sure what was going on I did the only logical thing, hit the snooze alarm in hope morning would eventually arrive.  Finally both of us gave up the ghost and arose under an intense overcast.  Layers on layers of clouds shielding us from from the evil, melanoma raising rays.  But it wasn't raining and no rain was in the forecast.  We had food, a stove and a lake full of fish to catch right outside our door.  Out of the tent we found no frost on the ground but we could see our breath in the air.  Our morning prayer of thanksgiving was for the person who came up with long johns (rumor has it they were named after John L. Sullivan.  Must have been cold when he was in the ring.  Could have been his bare chest and knuckles that brought on the chill).  Life was good.
     As far as the fishing went on Friday I'd best talk about how well we ate and all the firewood Brian gathered.  Yeah, it was slow.  The cause could have been the massive cold front that'd passed through on Wednesday.  Could have been the angle of the sun during the few moments it'd peeked through the clouds.  Could have been our lure selection, where we fished, the color of my boots or even what I'd eaten for breakfast on my last day of school back in eighth grade at St. Austin's.  Best skip the last one or I'll start blaming it all on the nuns once again (truth be known I'm leaning on having done something terribly wrong in my previous life as a flatworm in Ireland.  Karma is a powerful thing.).
     Sausages, eggs and Texas fried potato patties?  Could be that's what we had.  If we didn't, that's what we should have had.  A few days earlier while packing I distinctly remembered thinking, "Spatula?  Spatula?  We don't need no stinking spatula!"  On Thursday while flipping the grilled cheese I realized my mistake.  Fingers and a fork worked okay but a spatula would have been way better.  Looking at six eggs in the morning's pan that little voice in my head laid another of those nasty 'I told you so's' on me.  Nasty little voice.  Only one thing to do, grab the fork once more, cut and scramble the whole mess up and call it breakfast.  It ate good.
     It's not like we spent all our time in camp working out the day's menu.  In fact we pushed off and covered most of the east third of West Pike.  Hours and hours of fishing.  And we weren't skunked.  We worked bays, points, protected spots and wave beaten shores.  Jigged them, spun them and threw plugs both big and small.  The bass, they were a tight lipped pack on Friday, no fun at all.  That's why we finally pulled ashore for Brian to gather deadfall and drift wood.  All bone dry and bark free.  There we also learned birch trees are next on a beaver's pecking order after aspen.  Got me wondering if it's the taste of aspen or its relative softness Bucky finds attractive.  While I pondered that earth shaking problem, Brian scampered along the shore gathering this and sawing that, then throwing armfuls of wood into the canoe.  Yup, he was pilin' himself up quite a load.  Good thing we were in the middle of a lake in the middle of rain drenched forest.  Our chances of being hunted down as the perpetrators of the Great West Pike Fire of 2014 were slim.
     Dinner was a whole different story than the fishing.  Sometimes it's not so much what you're doing but how you're doing it.  Dinner was high on both.  Steak, taters and a lot of carrots.  In years past I'd brought along a bag of little carrots as grinders with digestion in mind.  There's a lot of soft food consumed in the backwoods.  Seems soft food has a way of sticking to your ribs as the old folks used to say.  Not only sticks to your ribs but has a way of moseying through one's digestive system in no hurry what-so-ever to again see the light of day.  Call the carrots an inducement.
     Before firing up the stove Brian broke open a wedge of French cheese he'd brought along to go with the box of wine he'd also packed.  So there we sat, or stood, cup of dry wine in one hand, bits of cheese in the other, men in the woods.  Yarrgg!
     We'll start with the potatoes.  They were store bought hash brown patties.  Had the seasonings and some kind of oil already infused.  Outside of the potato chunks there was little in them that smacked of homemade.  But they were tasty, kind of like having fast food in the forest.  The carrots were fried en masse in a puddle of foaming butter and seasonings till they were caramelized and nicely browned.  Decadent indeed and all Brian's idea.  The strip steaks were fried much the same, seared to a black crispness on the outside then warmed through over a much reduced heat.  Dessert was granola bars and honey crisp apples.  Damnation it was fine!
     One of the pleasures of camping is taking the time to prepare a good meal.  I didn't know that in the early days.  Back then my idea was packing a dozen envelopes of freeze dried meals, to save weight of course, adding water and heating the meal to a tolerable warmth.  The stuff wasn't nauseating and if we were hungry enough, which was pretty much every meal, it went hot and fast.  At least until the last few bites from the pouch when the stuff had cooled and my tastes buds were in shock.
     Regardless of the passage of time freeze dried was no real improvement over the c-rations and LRRP rations we had in Vietnam.  Yeah, they also went down easily at first.  Hunger can overcome bad tasting food for a while but only for a while.  Finally, after a month in the field, my menu was reduced to crackers, peanut butter, fruit, desserts and candy.  Meals be damned. Travel light and eat what you can stomach on a daily basis was a grunt's motto.
     Back in Allan and my Canada days we began to drag along a cooler with fresh food.  All told our food weight doubled but our meal appreciation went off the chart.  Maybe that's an exaggeration but you get the idea.  With fresh food, cooking turned into preparing, took longer but became part of the experience, the fun.
     Long story not so long, Brian and I ate well and took some of the edge off the mediocre fishing.  After the sun went down Brian kindled his bonfire.  He fired up a big bright blaze with occasional billows of smoke to make up for our lack of tobacco.  These days I seem to enjoy a fire more when someone else does the tending.  The weather was supposed to hold for another day and in the morning we were off to East Pike Lake.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


     Can't say I slept well.  The anticipation of what was to come wouldn't leave me alone.  Somewhere in the middle of the night I conked out for a few hours.  Brian had his alarm set for 6am but I'd already been lying there for a while in the growing light.  Years earlier I learned there was rest value simply by remaining in bed.  So there I laid keeping company with visions of whatever might come to be.  When the alarm fired I was up and at 'em like a sprinter (more or less).
     Before falling asleep I'd become convinced our bottle of stove gas was back in the garage in Minneapolis.  After showering the first order of business was a trip out to the truck to rummage through the food pack where the bottle would be if it had been packed.  No bottle.  Second order of business, buy a quart of fuel.  Doing so turned out to be a new storage bottle and a gallon of Coleman gas.  The joke was on me, I'd actually packed the fuel in the food pack but didn't dig deep enough.
     Breakfast - to include blueberry pancakes  - was at the Bluewater Cafe then up the Gunflint Trail toward Clearwater Lake.  The Gunflint was once indeed a trail, maybe even started as a caribou track, now it's a paved road.  Brian wondered if the name should be changed and figured it to be much more charming being called a trail.  Yes it is a charming road.  Two lanes passing through tight, towering forest, swamp, river and lake.  The Arrowhead region which it cleaves still has its share of moose, wolf and bear.  No caribou anymore, they all moved north back when the region was clear cut but, what the heck, it's about as close to a wilderness as us Yankee Doodlers have these days.
     After the prerequisite missed turn - not our fault, the number on the sign was different than the one on the map - we headed up the gravel side road to our put-in on Clearwater.  A handful of empty canoe rack topped cars greeted us.  We parked beneath a sign saying 'No Parking - Snow Plow Turnaround'.  A portent of what was to come?  The forecast was for highs in the fifties and frost in the morning, but snow?  Hoped not.
     Clearwater and all the other lakes of the area are the gifts of glaciers which passed through the region over the last couple of million years.  The Arrowhead itself is home to the Sawtooth Mountains, an ancient range formed by a rift in the earth through which bubbled up molten rock.  Must have been a lot of magma to make mountains.  These aren't anything like the Rockies or even the Appalachians but are much older.  From Lake Superior to the top of Eagle Mountain the rise is only sixteen hundred feet.  In another couple of billion years even the Rockies will be worn to hills.  Stay tuned to see what happens.
     Our brief paddle would pass along a series of bluffs rising three or four hundred feet above the lakes.  They even have scree along their steep slopes just like the real deal.  Undeniably beautiful but a little off the beaten path.
     The canoe loading took fifteen minutes including the 'selfie'.  We didn't really want to shoot the photo but laws are laws.  Besides, we suspected the 'selfie' police might be lurking in the hazel brush.
     Though it was still chilly the winds were down, way down from Wednesday, an important thing on the lakes we'd be traveling.  All in this area are west-east oriented, hill lined and notorious wind tunnels for for building rollers and whitecaps.  Usually the wind is out of the west, a tailwind for us this morning.  Thankfully we were looking at a northeaster which Clearwater was nicely bending into a perfect but mild, headwind.  I recall saying something to Brian as we pushed off along the line of, "Headwind out and for sure, a headwind in."  Yup, a prophesy and a certainty.
     Turned out the paddle was a pleasure.  My j-stroking was up to snuff and Brian a workhorse up front.  Since learning how to properly control a canoe from the stern seat my flailing has gone way down.  There are times I never switch sides from one end of a lake to the other.  Almost makes me think I know what I'm doing but don't want to say that out loud for fear of irritating the lake gods.  Those little guys and girls are there alright lurking below the waves and sunning themselves on the rocks.  One wrong, overconfident word from me and the canoe's going down baby.  Sink like a stone.  So I'll simply say, Brian and I enjoyed our paddle from the access to the Clearwater-West Pike portage.
     Our portage reminded me of my age.  But first it offered a reward.  Hanging from a cedar's branch was a dark green, in apparent good shape and reeking of campfire smoke, rain jacket.  We'd paddled past another canoe about a half mile back and figured it to be theirs.  Reason and honor told us to complete our first carry.  If the jacket remained unclaimed on our return, it was mine (all mine).  In one sense an overlooked hundred dollar jacket is not something I'd pick up.  Hell, it's not mine and the owner might return in the morning.  But this was the BWCA, if they weren't back in the next half hour they weren't coming back.  Also, the jacket was as much litter as campsite trash.  It was our civic duty to carry it out with us.  Yes, washed and aired out, the jacket now hangs in the front hall closet.  I'm considering having it mounted by a taxidermist to be hung on a wall at the cabin.  Fair game is close enough to wild game for me (for those of you in Europe that's a play on words).
     Back to the bear of a portage.  Allan and I had done this carry back in the mid-90s.  I recalled it as long and flat but no big deal.  The hundred foot hill in the middle seemed to have been lost in translation and the two hundred, seventeen rods of carry had definitely stretched.  Wet brush, roots, rocks, mud and our three layers of clothes made it a minor misery.  Might as well have been raining since I sweat through each and every garment on my upper body.  Foolish, old man in the woods.  And it hurt.  Not after a half mile as it had a decade earlier but right from the get go.  Top that off with me puffing along like a steam cog train engine (that's what it sounded like to me as I trudged along).
     Boy was it quiet.  The four loudest sounds in those thick woods were my heart, labored breathing, creaking leather boot strike and finally, a small stream off to the right.  When the wind's not up the far north is a land of silence on the far edge of a continent of noise.  Can't say I mind hearing my body when out of doors.  Lets me know I'm alive and kicking.
     BWCA.com is a useful tool when preparing for a Boundary Waters trip.  In it you'll find discussions on gear, fishing, campsites and essays on trips taken.  Reading it removes a little of the joy of personal discovery but also reduces a lot of the mistakes all of us make.  Figuring we'd camp on West Pike I'd read the discussions on campsites.  There I'd learned the location of the two best, both of which sat on the north shore.  Also learned the island campsite had little to recommend it.  Small tent sites and open to the ever present west winds.
     I explained this to Brian as we paddled along.  A mile into the lake he simply said, "Let's go for the island."  Truth is I'd wanted to camp on the island since passing through West Pike twenty years earlier.  A small site would fit the two of us perfectly and since the wind was down the openness would give us a view.  Turned out to be perfect for us.
     No rain in the offing, the first order of business was food.  In the past I'd pooh-poohed the amount of calories burned while paddling and portaging.  I mean, how much exercise is in a leisurely paddle and a few short walks?  Then I remembered the weight loss and exhaustion of all the previous trips.  We fired up the stove.  A smoking panful of grilled cheese sandwiches slathered in butter washed down with a quart of filtered water.  Can't say I recall them on many healthy eating lists but it was all I could do to keep from swallowing then whole.  Damnation they were fine.  Dessert followed once the coffee was brewed.
     Our fire grate was perched upon a basalt altar.  Looked like a lot of big boys had themselves a fine time hoisting and setting the hundred pound plus blocks.  Alongside the altar sat what could only be called a multi-tiered, basalt table for our stove and kitchen gear.  How nice indeed.  Our campsite mouse had a home within the boulders.  He/she seemed to enjoy a warming fire in the evening and feasted upon the crumbs of our droppings.
     The tent site sat a dozen yards inland from the kitchen.  It could have been a foot wider but posed no problem for our four man Eureka!  None for us either so long as we remembered to place our heads on the north side.  A half hour after eating all the gear was up or stored, we were home.  Dinner was eggs, sausages and Texas toast.  No shortage of cholesterol for us.  Conversation, as usual was a babble on inanities.  Witty, borderline profane - of course I stepped over the line now and then into the realm of disgusting -  and of no long term consequence.  In short, usual boonies banter.
     All well and good but we were there for the fishing.  Over the years I've learned fishing in the Boundary Waters is no better than it is around the cabin.  Odd but true.  Could be thirty years of experience fishing the waters of Cass County has something to do with it; home field advantage.  On the other hand BWCA fishing is no slouch and the smallmouth bass fishing is as good as it gets.  West Pike is noted for its lake trout but we had no expectations along that line.  Mostly we just wanted to bring some fish to the boat.
     As usual, what can you say about fishing?  For the first fifteen minutes it was a bass every other cast.  Then it stopped cold.  Brian picked up a couple an hour later to break the spell.  The last half hour was a trolling search for lakers in deep water of near summer warmth.  On the upside we weren't expecting much and weren't disappointed.
     I no longer listen for outside noises when laying in a tent.  About all I ever hear is the serenade of the loons.  Even that's only background noise.  Whether it's there or not it doesn't matter.  Don't know when my obliviousness began but one day, years ago, it did.  Regardless, I didn't sleep well that night.  Even brought two self inflating mattresses to put three inches between me and the rocky ground.  Such is life. Five hours of deep sleep will get me through most any day and that's about what I got.
     Must apologize at this point.  I want to get the details of this trip written but am not getting much joy from the attempt.  It'd be more fun to start making stuff up; add a little weirdness.  Or if strange, magical or tragic things had actually happened to us.  But they didn't.  Guess the problem is most of our mundane lives are filled with mundane happenings, even in places like the Boundary Waters.
     Maybe this is more to the point:  On this year's trip with Brian we passed a dozen canoes and heard voices from other campsites.  It was nice to see people but we were never more than a mile or two from others.  Simply put, I never felt alone in the wilderness.
     Five years earlier in northwest Manitoba with my son Allan we briefly attempted a mile and a half bushwhack to an unnamed lake.  A hundred yards into those woods I began to feel we were standing on the edge of the world.  When Allan disappeared for a couple of minutes looking for a way around a swamp I was borderline terrified.  Like he'd been swallowed up by the unknown.  If anything had happen to him or me we'd have been totally screwed.  We were off the map and no one knew where we were.  Sure, we'd probably have figured something out, probably.
      Simply put, the Boundary Waters isn't like that at all.  It's kind of like a civilized wilderness.  Sure, bad things can happen but it's also possible to be shot in your back yard by total strangers.  Can't say I'm right about my feelings but they are my feelings and I'm stuck with them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Aching Bones

     Day two : Yes, my bones do hurt.  J-stroke-itis in my upper left arm, rib cartilage on the lower left side (remnant of broken ribs from the '80s), stiff back and a case of boot toes.  I'm not complaining, that's just the way it is.  The price for the fun and it was fun.  There's still a few things to put away and then it's back to the projects of normalcy.
     Brian showed up an hour early last Wednesday.  Turned out to be a good thing as we killed the hour joining his gear to mine.  As usual, preparation is close to never-ending and doesn't stop till the tires leave the driveway.  About an hour later begins the panicked recollection of what was surely forgotten.  Finally in camp, us modern day voyageurs - this old one in particular - discover everything has been packed and I was only suffering from memory loss, not gear loss.
     The road is the road.  I know that doesn't mean anything but I like the thought.  Streets take you to work, grocery shopping and the dentist.  But the road - ahh, the road - takes you to where the line meets the water.  Solid carbon footprint, fast food, coffee and hours of excited conversation about nothing.  A front was blowing through, gusts were topping thirty, temperatures plummeting from the seventies to the thirties and it was sprinkling a bit.  Atop the truck our canoe vibrated but never caused a moment's worry.  We were wired, stoked and near to giggling.
     Two hundred, seventy miles stood between driveway and our date with the Gunflint Ranger Station before its doors locked for the evening. There was a backup permit site across the road at Bearskin Outfitters but it was the ranger station I wanted.  Good memories lived within and this was a trip based on memories.
     We made it by the 4:30 close even after sitting motionless at a roadblock for fifteen minutes.  Have to thank Brian for showing up nearly an hour early or we'd have been banging on the station's door at 8:00 the next morning.  Oddly enough that found hour stayed with us all the way to the end of the trip.
     The ranger was pleasant and more than willing to give us a brief rundown of Boundary Waters etiquette after the video program refused to work.  Nothing much new to learn.  Camp in a campsite, leave it cleaner than you found it and no loud parties after 9:00pm.  Odd they never suggest you stay alive.  A dead, rotting carcass would be both a nuisance to other campers, a fly breeder and a sure fire bear attractor.
     Next we were off to find our room for the night and  there discuss the ins and outs of thomsonite.  The lodge sat upon a bay noted for its supply of the semiprecious stone.  Think of an agate on LSD and you've a fair idea of what thomsonite looks like.  Another thing on my list of stuff to find, put in a drawer and forget about.
     After dinner in Grand Marais (bangers and mash washed down with ale) we wandered down to the roaring lakefront.  The wind was still up and the waves whipping the shore were surfable.  Six to eight footers in hypothermic water.  Yes, surfing is done on Lake Superior, in wet suits of course.  Must be an imported sport as I can't recall any paintings of Ojibway hanging ten on the big lake.  Hmm, birch bark surf boards, something to think about.  That night as I lay in bed the roar of waves on rock sounded like the north shore of Oahu, not Minnesota.  

Monday, September 15, 2014


     In the Army, fatigue is the time of day for cleaning, making sure everything is in working order and doing repairs if something isn't.  As to camping equipment, that's the job for today.  It'd be a lot easier if I wasn't so fatigued myself.  The old bones feel a little older than they did six days ago, my brain is numb, bitchy is my middle name and my muscles are sore.  Ten hours sleep last night was a step in the right direction but only a step.  All is about what I expected when the Boundary Waters trip was planned and that's good.  I'm not dead, only tired ( and not very creative).
     Seriously, the cleanup is every bit as important as the preparation.  Takes nearly as long and is nowhere near as much fun.  The trip's over and the next one, if there is one, is months away.  At the moment most everything is clean and packed away.  The deflation I used to experience after the big trips from a decade ago isn't there this time.  Maybe it's maturity?  Could be it was an unexpected stolen few days from normalcy?  Or that I'm simply too tired.  What did I expect?  I'm sixty-seven.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Tick - Tick - Tick (no bugs this time)

     An hour and forty one to go.  Crap!  Best get packing.  Stuff all over the basement floor.  Oh well, stuff it in, stomp it down and hope for the best.  Wait a minute, gotta do my nails first.  Thank God the wind is up and the rain has slowed to a gentle, misted downpour.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


     We leave in 24 hours.  Tent pack, food pack, rod tubes, paddles and stove are in the car.  Just the gear pack remains and it'll be a honker.  Maybe a few small helium balloons tied to the straps would make it lighter.  As it is the pack will go 55 pounds.  Back in the Canada days that was normal.  Somehow or other we'll get 'er over the portage.
     I've been over the list a half dozen times for fear I'll forget something, like maybe the canoe.  So much stuff for a three day camping trip.  You'd think we were heading to the tundra for a month's expedition.  Since it's a fishing trip we have about 25 pounds of tackle.  My God, 25 pounds of tackle!  Makes me feel like Al Lindner getting ready to film a new episode.  Oh well, with a little luck we'll only have the one 217 rod portage, at worst two and the second is half as long.
     It would be simpler if I didn't get so worked up over something I've done dozens of times in the past.  But that's the way it is.  As for what's waiting for us on the water, I have a few small hopes.  Wouldn't mind catching a laker.  A few smallies would also be nice.  Mostly I'd like for my nephew Brian to have a good time and boat dozens of fish.  And, of course, keep the lake on the outside of the boat.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Washing Dishes

     They were washed before I put them away but I figured it wouldn't hurt to clean the camping pots, pans and silverware before we dragged them out in the woods to re-dirty them.  Never ending cycle.  What the heck, how dirty can something get just sitting in the attic for five years?
     Top that off with it all being second hand crap.  Sixty year old fry pans, cheap thin-walled aluminum pots, plastic throw away bowls saved from recycling twenty years ago, coffee pot with a mismatched lid and silverware made with handle material that was declared toxic when Reagan was president.  Gotta admit I'm attached to each and every piece.  Washed each with tender, loving care.

Monday, September 1, 2014


     Up in the northland it's bluegills, pumpkinseeds, greens and hybrids.  Yeah, those little panfish interbreed.  I'm not sure but I like to believe the hybrids are accidents of nature rather than perverted sexuality.  Milt drifts on the wrong eggs and presto, freaks of nature.  They look like sunnies but the color's a little off.  On the other hand the idea of sexually uninhibited panfish is kind of exciting.
     They're tropical fish pretty and fun to catch.  Been a while since I've purposefully killed any but I recall them as being tasty.  Fillet 'em, bread 'em and fry 'em up crisp.  Must be dinner time, my mouth is watering from the thought.
     Last week Lois and I spent a few days up north.  Needing a paddle and portage yoke was excuse enough for the three days.  The peace of the woods was merely a bonus.  As was the art crawl that passed within a few hundred yards of our driveway.  That's where I bought the sunfish painting in a handmade wood and birchbark frame.  The sunnie was a hybrid if you haven't guessed.  Now it goes on the wall.  Best hang it in a place where I'll be sure to see the print.  Stuff on the wall has a tendency to never be noticed.
     Made a reservation last night for a campsite on the night before we head into the Boundary Waters.  I've been sorting through the gear and, as always, am astounded by the amount of crap.  Also, how many needful things have to yet be found.