Sunday, September 27, 2015

Best Days on the Water

     Three letters into the title I almost wiped it out.  Best days on the water?  Hell, they're all best days aren't they?  Nah.  But there's good points to even the worst days.  The tough times move a man to appreciate the ordinary.  Nothing like an empty stomach to make a slice of bread taste wonderful.
     The opening day of our third Canada trip would've been a good one to sit out on the shore.  In the bay it didn't seem all that bad.  Swirling winds and a little chop on the water.  Maybe our close call with a float plane should have been a sign.  The weather report of strong winds and storms should have been another.  Even the swaying trees and flying branches on our drive up to the access seemed to be warning us.  But no, we were the golden boys from the south and there was no doubt in my mind the weather would mellow out for six hours and we'd paddle beneath rainbows every inch of the way to our first portage sixteen water miles down lake and river.
     But I was wrong.  No more than a mile into the paddle we pulled into the lee of a tiny island and called it a day.  Water over the gunwales was the clincher.  We sat, read, shore fished, then set up camp.  In the evening the lake calmed enough to get in an hour's fishing.  Through storm and stupidity it turned out to be a wonderful day to be alive.

     Lois and I'd gone out to dinner up in Walker, Minnesota.  Call it twenty years ago, maybe more.  Walker's the county seat of Cass County.  A small town on one of the best fishing lakes in the lower forty-eight.  Because of the walleyes and muskies in Leech lake Walker is a destination and has more restaurants than a town of a thousand has a need.
     There were two ways we could return to cabin, both of them thirty plus miles of pavement.  Being a nice evening in late spring I decided to take a side trip down a sand and gravel forest road I'd never driven.  Lois didn't say no.  The turn onto the trail is well marked if you know exactly where to look for the little, four inch by eighteen inch sign.  Blink wrong and you'll miss it.  That's what I did but caught the words as I flew by and was determined enough to turn around.
     The Woodtick Trail may be my favorite road.  Years earlier it'd been a railroad grade moving timber to the main line.  Now it's sand and gravel, wide enough for two pickups to pass each other so long as both drivers pay attention to the road edge.  Embankments, swamp and trees.  Take your pick.  Should you leave the road it's gonna cost you and your car.  Drive it slow, no more than thirty.  Twenty, twenty-five's even better.  It's a beauty of a thirteen mile drive.  No need to hurry.  That evening we came upon the rare sight of a pair of pink lady slippers, the Minnesota State flower.  A few minutes later we passed a small, narrow lake.  Lily pads tight to the shore, open water for most of its width, a slice in the forest surrounded by hillsides of birch, white pine and oak.  Had to hold fish.  Everything about the lake felt right.  I knew I'd be back.  And not alone.
     Early in September on a cool, cloudy day Allan and I did return.  He was about fifteen.  I was still in my late forties.  Yup, a long time ago.  Don't know what Al was thinking but I was convinced we were paddling onto a hidden gem.  Well, maybe not so hidden as there was a cleared turnoff across the road with room enough for two cars.
     Even during the first fishless hour we were surrounded by enough beauty to have a good time.  Our lines were tipped with small spinners, number two Vibrax as I recall.  Then a crappie.  A bit later a jumbo pumpkinseed.  Over the next hour the fishing was good.  Not hot and heavy good but we were catching, and releasing, our share.  Four pike averaging close to five pounds and half dozen chunky panfish.  About what you'd expect for a perfect day.
     That's the thing about gems, they're not prolific.  They're rare and share their treasures one at a time to those with the patience to enjoy each.

     First days on new water are like that.  Filled with anticipation.  Reality hasn't hit home yet.  Yeah, I'm drawn to home water but new water sure is exciting.  Like the time up at the cabin, coffee in hand and scoping out the maps of the area.  Done that many times looking for signs.  Like staring into a crystal ball.  My old county maps are stained, curled and starting to wear thin.  Yup, they've been used a lot.
     Been over them so many times there's no way I could have missed a thing.  Could draw them from memory with my eyes shut on a moonless night.  But sure enough, there it was, no more than two miles by crow from the cabin.  So close and obvious I almost didn't see it.  Small lake with a carry-down icon.  Carry-down usually meant the lake wasn't easy to get to and there was no boat launch.  Might even mean a portage.  Most of all the icon meant there were fish in the lake.  Small lake, no motors and fish.  My kind of lake.
     Lois said she'd be willing to go with me to check out the water.  Not something she'd normally do  but it was eighty-five above and sunny.  She likes warm and sunny.  I promised no more than a half hour on the water.  Loaded the canoe and we were off.
     Two miles as the crow flies rarely means two miles by road.  For us it was a U shaped drive of over ten miles.  Half on pavement, a third on gravel, the remainder over eroded, rock strewn, two track.  Those last two miles were posted as minimum maintenance.  In the following fifteen years I've learned minimum means never.  Last time in she's grown to be a possible tire shredder.
     That first drive in was no great problem.  A little slow, a few puddles and a swerve or two around boulders or deep ruts.  Turned out the possible boat access had been blocked off a couple of hundred yards from the water by a row rocks, each at least a ton.  Carry in for sure.  At the water we found three local kids shore fishing.  Their stringer of bass and bluegills caught my eye.
     We paddled out onto a very shallow, silt bottomed bay surrounded by swirls and retreating Vs on the glassed out water.  Not a weed in sight.  No reason for there being any fish, yet they were there by the hundreds.  Mongol horde of panfish.
     We paddled on.  The farther we glided, the deeper the water.  Finally, in the north half of the lake the bottom dropped from sight.  But there were cabbage beds everywhere.  In the cabbage, more bluegills and bass.  An aquarium of freshwater life.  I returned in the evening with Lois' cousin Gary.  Great evening of bass fishing but it was the afternoon with my wife that set it apart.
     At the moment Lois is going through chemotherapy for cancer.  The cancer is curable and the chemo is a preventative measure.  Still it's a misery for a normally active person like Lois.  Don't know if she has any memory of that afternoon on Little Sand Lake but I sure do.  Savor the moments.

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