I haven't forgotten my intention to walk all sixty-eight miles of the North Country Trail lying within the Chippewa National Forest. Doing so may take the better part of a decade. If it does then so be it. Seeing as how I'm day tripping the attempt, each mile gets walked twice, out and back. So, the sixty-eight turns into a hundred and thirty-six. Figuring eight or nine miles per day and one or two days a year (I'd walk more days but my attack of Lyme Disease and fear of a recurrence put the Summer months off limits) moves me well into my seventies. The clock's ticking, not gettin' any younger and, the truth be known, whether or not I do it is of little consequence.
On Tuesday evening I pulled out the trail map to figure out my Wednesday hike. I was drawn to a four mile stretch touted as having a fine stand of old growth red pines. I like trees. It also passed several small lakes. I like lakes. One of them was a stocked trout lake. I like trout lakes. So that was the plan. Unless I changed my mind.
But I didn't. Turned out to be easy, too easy. The weather was ideal. Cool enough to need two layers on top. Hardly broke a sweat. My top layer was a blaze orange windbreaker. No sense taking any chances even though gun season for deer won't start for a week or two. However, bow season or black powder was in progress. Ever since I'd had a bead drawn on me twenty-five years earlier while running a gravel road I've been gun-shy when Fall rolls around.
Deer opener brings more armed people to the woods of Minnesota than there were grunts in Vietnam. The major difference between the groups has to do with training. Before we hit the paddies and mountains in Asia each of us had logged five months of instruction and practice. About all a deer hunter has in his/her background is a permit and a rifle. So I wear blaze orange in hope the color will pierce the consciousness of even a bad hangover.
As it was I spooked a few grouses and they in turn spooked the hell out of me. How anyone could get a shot off before those birds were long gone is beyond me. 'Spose it'd take some getting used to the rush of flight in the silence of the woods to get the gun up and working as opposed to simply wetting my drawers. And meandering down the trail and paying close attention to the whirr of the grouse would take some of the fun out of a good walk. My mind likes to wander even farther afield than my feet.
When I started this entry I didn't realize how appropriate the title was going to be. Since I wrote last, late Fall has turned into early Winter, deer hunting has made the woods a dangerous place to wander and I've simply run out of writing gumption. There's only so much to be said about what it's like being outside. If you've been there you know how it looks, sounds, feels and smells. Writing and reading about being there just ain't the same. Lord, do I know that.
Since those walks I've kept myself busy building a deer-proof, raised garden bed for my son and daughter-in-law. Sounds relatively simple 'til you know what the garden will look like when it's done. It's a twelve foot by twelve foot, cedar affair built on a slope. The upper wall is two and a half feet tall and the lower, a tad over four feet. The entryway has a three foot by six foot, arts and crafts garden gate leading to a six by six, raised, inner court yard with a decked floor. All the walls will be topped with four foot high screening. Yup, she's an elaborate affair. The garden's not done yet. Call it ninety percent.
What I miss about working for a living is the creativity needed to figure out and do each day's tasks. Thinking is good. Blog writing fills some of the gap but takes a back seat when I get involved with a project like the garden. Anyway, that's my excuse for the near month-long gap.
Like I said, the eight miler went by fast. Fast enough a part of me wanted a return in the morning but there was that need to go fishing standing in the way. After all, the reason I was up north was to hammer the trout lakes and maybe even catch a few. So, before the sun set I loaded up the truck and lashed the solo canoe atop with the idea of an early start in the morning.
I woke to a mild breeze and overcast. Near perfect trout conditions. Can't say I was enthusiastic about my chances but that's one of the beauties of fishing, you just never know when your best day will come.
Hazel Lake was easy to find. Even the half mile sand access road was no problem. My history says it's always possible to make a wrong turn even if the road I'm on is the only one around. But I did okay. Crossing the North Country Trail got me to slow, look both ways and wish I was afoot. But there were trout to catch so I moved on.
As usual I scanned the sand road for tire tracks. One fresh set had me worried but it turned out the grassy access was deserted. Good. I'd brought two rods. A couple of weeks earlier at a church thrift shop, Lois had talked me into an old, two buck, seven foot, fiberglass Shakespeare Wonderod. It cleaned up to near new and it was already strung with reel and four pound mono tipped with, what else, a little homemade spinner. The other rod I had yet to assemble was a ten foot fly rod. Went with a home-tied Clouser Minnow on the business end. 'Spose you could call it a fly but the Clouser is more or less a jig. Call it what you will, for me homemade takes some of the bite out of being skunked and adds to the good feeling should I catch 'em by the bucketful.
The access sits on a little bay that looked like it needed something out of the ordinary to perk up its day. Like maybe a balding, gray haired man flinging a lure into its water with a fifty-eight year old spinning rod. Yup, I was up to the task. Gotta say I liked the slow motion feel of the rod. Like a catapult. After having lived with decades of graphite the old whip in my hand took some getting used to. A timing problem solved with a half dozen casts. It sure could lob an eighth of an ounce a long way.
Earlier I'd looked up the model number on the internet. What I had in my hand was supposed to be an ultralight but was stamped a medium. Coulda fooled me, it sure acted like an ultralight. If you're not familiar with the old Shakespeares, they're usually, and this one was, white shafted. Throw in red and gold windings and a cork handle. The reel mount was a green metal affair which could be slid up and down the handle. Maybe that was Shakespeare's way of allowing the rod to balance out with different sizes of reels. Yup, I liked the rod alright, so much so I almost left the fly rod in the truck.
I'd like to ramble on about all the fish I tied into or the number of hits I had or even all the bald eagles I saw. But I won't. Except for the bald eagle whose luck was about the same as mine. The upside was all the casting practice. Tried this, tried that. Learning to snap my wrist downward just before I released the line pulled it all together. It was a lot like a baseball pitcher throwing a sinker. The wrist snap kept the rod accelerating to the very end of the cast. Would have been nice to have at least one hit as I worked the entire shoreline. In desperation I trolled the lake's length with the fly rod. Finished that off with flinging the Clouser Minnow a few dozen times along the north shore.
In retrospect I could've gone elsewhere for bass and pike. Would've been fine for a fish or two, then left me with a deflated feeling saying, "You should have gone for the trout old man." I gave some thought to another trout lake. However, the sun was peeking through the clouds and threatening to take over the entire sky. When it did I figured any chance of hooking any trout would be slim at best. On the upside, the North Country Trail was only a couple of hundred yards away. And, sun or cloud, it'd be there for the walking.
Ten minutes after loading I found myself in the turnout for the trail. Same one as yesterday. I was in the process of resigning myself to the eleven miles waiting for me in the woods. Been a while since I'd covered that many miles on foot. The five and a half miles out would fill in the gap between the four miles I'd covered the previous day and a four and a half I'd walked two years earlier. The inward five and a half would get me back to the truck. Yeah, I was a little spooked by the distance. As usual, my preparation was minimal. Just old running shoes on my feet, a dark chocolate bar, a half bottle of water I slugged before setting off and the fishing clothes on my back. Hell, this wasn't an expedition, just a stroll in the woods.
The goal for the day was a vaguely remembered spot somewhere near the shore of North Stocking Lake. I figured I'd recognize it by the map in my mind and, as it turned out, the sign posted to the side of the trail.
It was another near perfect day for a walk, cool and sunny. The opening mile was a pleasure.
Wasn't long before I entered the forest primeval. Thickly treed, dense undergrowth, filtered light. There I came upon the bear's bathroom, a short stretch where they came to mark their territory or simply got into some bad grub. Whatever the reason there were several piles of scat.
The first two miles flew by. So easily I figured the eleven would be no problem or, at worst, nothing more than fatiguing. What I hadn't figured was the return miles growing in length. Reaching the turnaround at North Stocking I was already starting to fatigue. Oh well, what the hell, suck it up and move on. That's what I did. My only breaks involved photographs.
Yeah, I slogged those last three miles. Began to look for the crossing of the Woodtick Trail close to a mile before I reached it. "Should be around the next turn in the trail" passed through my mind a dozen times before it actually was. What lightened those last two miles was a large stand of red pines. Some I figured to be three feet wide at the stump. Big, big trees for Minnesota.
Turned out I was right. In retrospect the eleven miles was no more than fatiguing. By the morning I could have done it again but it was time to pack it up and head home. Hopefully we'll make it up north one more time before sub-zero temperatures come to roost. There's a canoe laying alongside the house that should be in the shed. Hopefully that'll be excuse enough.