Three campsites on East Pike. The one a half mile down lake sits behind a huge, even by Boundary Waters standards, stone slab. Should the bugs be up, this is the site you want. She's wide open to the breezes for a solid fifty yards. It's a site I've always considered but never set foot on. There's a reason for that and I'll get to it in a minute.
Down at the far end, just before the narrows, lays the site with the best access to good fishing. Outside of that there's no reason for this site except the canoe landing. Everything's back in the woods, no view and has to be a mosquito heaven. No more than a couple hundred yards away is an open, level peninsula with an excellent landing, best site on the lake, which no doubt over the decades was used by many. 'Course it's off limits. But Brian and I have landed and snacked there several times in the last year.
Then there's our site. Camped on East Pike four times and always pitched our tent here. A minute's paddle from the portage. No need to seek farther. We were on the lake we'd come to fish and I figured, take it immediately or lose it. Always figured if I bypassed it nothing else would be open and by the time I'd paddled back the first one would be either taken by campers or overrun by bears. Also didn't hurt, in year's past we'd had pretty good fishing right off the doorstep. That it's always been available is a mystery to me. Great tent pads, level cook area, a panoramic view down lake of wooded points, bays and hills and an inviting little, rock-shelf peninsula for sitting, conversation or fishing. Maybe the problem is the landing. There's two, one sucks and the other's worse. 'Bout all you can say is, they work and I've seen worse. Yup, that could be the drawback. We camped there four days and tattooed another dozen yards of history on the bottom of the Spirit.
Best of all, we found few mosquitoes and no black flies. Another case of wasted worry. Not much to be said for needless worry beside our lifelong friendship. Oh well, another year in which we didn't need the extra half ounce of head nets. Light breezes cooled the warm air. Brian and I walked around setting up camp with smiles on our faces.
Our section of forest was pure pine (mostly white) and cedar. The guardian of our site was a mature white pine clawed tight to the cracks in the rock slab between kitchen and point. I remembered the tree well from earlier trips and was happy to see it still standing. No doubt the tree didn't feel too bad about it either. Don't know if trees have feelings but since pines are steadfastly silent on the subject, I'll go along with the idea they do.
Our's was not a level site. From lake to tent pad, the ground gained twenty feet. Simply moseying around camp was a workout. Also a reason to pay attention to foot placement. The Boundary Waters and wilderness in general, is a stumbling place. Like the portages, camp was home to random rock and root. And the box of wine we brought didn't help.
The landings gave us a choice between scaling a short cliff and maneuvering between knife-edged rocks. We chose the rocks. Coming and going, Brian did most of the work. He'd climb out, zig-zag the boat so I could unbend my stiffened bones onto the last of a trail of rocks. I tried to not fall into the water. While launching, Brian reversed his maneuvering. I tried not to fall into the water.
I suppose we struck a balance of labor. Brian did the heavy work and was the motor in the front of the canoe. I manned the stove and guided the boat. I suspect he'd have done a travel trip had I not been along. But I was and Brian was willing to humor me, my age and inertia (as in 'an object at rest….').
Our history goes back to the day of Brian's birth in the spring of '63. At the time his dad was on the east coast, called away by business. His very pregnant mother (my sister), toddler sister and baby bother were staying at my mom's house for the week. While there, Brian was born. I was going through one of those little changes in life no outsider knows or cares about but I'll tell you anyhow. To that point I'd spent every spring since third grade playing baseball as a pitcher with a strong if erratic arm. Last time I wore a baseball uniform was the previous summer as a fifteen year old in the bullpen at Metropolitan Stadium. There, the Twins head scout had given me a look-see, liked what he saw and invited me back for the second day of the tryout camp. Didn't go. End of story. While Brian was being born, I was expected to be throwing for my high school team, racking up strikeouts and making headlines in the local paper. But I wasn't. Instead I was unconsciously bending the twig of my future, hanging out with my friends. Truth was, I felt like an outsider on the team and at ease with my friends. Or you could say I didn't have the drive to succeed. Or was simply floundering. Floundered my way through life for quite a while and grew to be damned good at it, maybe a master, fifth degree black belt. And like all flounderers, eventually faced the day when I either cleared up the mess of my life or went down the tubes.
So there we sat, fifty-two years later, eating our first camp meal of pork chops simmered in Italian, diced tomatoes along with hash browns, five kids between us, seventy plus years of marriage and almost half a head of hair in toto. Sure didn't see that coming back in '63. Truth is a man's glimpse of the future's no more than death at one end and a whole lot of blank between, maybe a good meal along the way. Best you can do is have a sense of balance or an unseen helping hand (some call it a guardian angel, I call mine Uncle Emil), to lend a wet rag when life throws a pie in your face. Like maybe tripping on a muddied root while carrying a seventy-five pound load and trying to say something clever at the same time. When misfortune like that happens, a man needs inspiration to pop up like a jack-in-the-box, and hop off down the trail, thankful he still had one good leg, even if it was the left (purely a random example).
As usual, we ate a lot. Why not? We were there for the eating and camaraderie, fishing be damned. Maybe that's an exaggeration. Our meals taught us sirloin eats better than pork chops though neither digests as quickly as spaghetti. 'Spose we should've applied for a research grant before we went grocery shopping. Might've entitled our experiment 'Steer vs. Hog' and made a few bucks on the side. Also learned a blended red wine goes with pretty much everything. As does white wine but since we didn't have any, we couldn't say with any scientific accuracy. Also learned too much wine seems to move points of reference to new locations.
This year Brian brought a concoction made of walnuts, cashews, dried apples and peaches, all coated with a cinnamon syrup. Went down so well we took turns licking the bag. However, I'd lost the flip and was stuck licking the outside. Not bad, though it tasted of dirt and pine needles.
On the drive home we gave some thought to the amount of food and gear we'd carried. Brian drove and I recorded our thoughts in pencil on napkin. Would've entered the particulars on my phone but we only had five hours. Ain't lo-tec but am slo-tec. Long story short, I figured we could've dropped the load by thirty pounds without sacrificing anything of need. That much less would've left a lot of wiggle room on the way out. You see, I lusted over a few deadfall cedar logs. Twenty or more growth rings per inch. I didn't want a lot of them, just enough to add a few trim boards to some homemade paddles. 'Spose that's illegal. Someday, should you see me with a canoe paddle made from tight grained cedar let's leave it at 'don't ask - don't tell.'
The intention underlying a fishing trip is fish on the line. Hopefully enough of them to have no need of moving on. We had that. Not in spades, call it clubs. Good enough to fill in the hours between eating. Started slow with a fair number of little bass but built in numbers and size each day. Just the way we'd have it if given the choice. Left us feeling we were leaving a day early and filled with thoughts of another good time waiting for us in the future.
Also taught me a lesson. Don't know about you but no matter my age, life keeps coming round to point out my shortcomings. On this trip I kept waiting for our fishing luck to return to the wonders of a half century earlier, back when the smallies were all huge and fought over our lures. A part of me knew it'd never been like that but another part of me wanted to remember otherwise. In numbers, this year's last night was better than than any day of the past though average size was a tad smaller. Maybe.
During the refinish work I'd scribed a simple ruler on my paddle. Nothing like the truth to take the wind out of a fisherman's sails. My hog eighteen incher measured out at sixteen and a half. Brian's twenty incher, a tad over eighteen. No doubt it was the same in '66. The truth hurts. And enlightens. Simply put, on our final evening we had damned fine fishing. Good enough to call it quits with light still on the water.
I could say more about the fishing but will leave it at Brian caught the most, biggest and for a middle aged man, sure got excited when he had a rod bender on the line. Though I caught a few, my joy was working the boat, silently drifting the breeze along the shore and watching the fun going on up there in the bow. And the inevitable pulling into shore so Brian could free his spinner from rocks, brush, trees and pine squirrels. Accommodation makes the world go round.
In camp we cooked, ate, putzed, talked incessantly and slept. Had three books between us but limited ourselves to one paragraph, read aloud. But she was a good paragraph, the opening passage of "A River Runs Through It." Might have read on but feared a let down. Besides, there was too much to discuss, though what we talked of escapes me at the moment. Most conversation is like that. Comes and goes, passes time and rarely is any matter of consequence settled. But it surely is entertaining. We didn't agree on everything and didn't come to blows over anything. Let's say we again reached a state of balance along the line of, Brian didn't say anything bad about my cooking and I said little about the terrible gas it gave him, though doing so pained both of us.
A man I once worked with was a canoe man. Did dozens of trips into the Boundary Waters and points north. His standard of trip perfection was the trifecta of good weather, no bugs and good fishing. That's pretty much what Brian and I had.
'Bout the only drawback was sleep. We both had quality pads and bags. As in year's past we used our clothes bags as pillows. Compared to the voyageurs we slept in the lap of luxury. Those old boys slept under the canoe. The wealthy ones could afford softer rocks to use as pillows. I shook my head in disbelief when I first read they rarely got more than four hours sleep when on the trail. Then I gave some thought to mosquitoes and having to sleep under a north canoe. Any more shuteye would have found them short on blood. Doubt they had ponchos to roll up in like we had in Vietnam. The bugs must have eaten those Frenchmen alive.
Sleeping on the ground got better with each night. But not our lack of pillows. Clothes may wear soft but folded they sleep hard. We'd both had packable camp pillows in the past and found them lacking. Could be we'll reconsider. In 'Nam, when I was twenty-two, I wore my helmet in sleep with my head nestled softly in the liner's webbing. Maybe it's not so much the pillow but the age of the resting head. Seemed like the more time we spent on the water, the better we slept. Fatigue induces sleep, just ask the voyageurs.
Our trip out was a comparative joy. We'd knocked down twenty pounds of food, dumped seven pounds of melted ice and burned four pounds of gas. Comparing that to the thirty we could drop the next trip and the future loaded bright. 'Course, next year we'd each be a year older. Two steps forward, one back.
I'd like to say it was mine or Brian's idea to make a list of the unnecessary as we revisited Highway 61 on our way home but that'd be a lie. It was Lois on my 'we're not dead yet, just smell like it' phone call who goaded me into being rational. The list now sits on my old desk back home.