Saturday, July 15, 2017

First Night - 2003

     This File and Burntwood River trip was different than any other. The Boundary Waters of Minnesota required parties to camp in designated spots. Grass River Park didn't feel as stringent though all but one time we did set up in sites with the big, blaze orange diamond. Not so this trip. We could set up anywhere Mother Nature saw fit. Two years earlier on Brunne Lake we were forced to wing it and began to learn the basics of finding a campsite. Actually there was only one; if you can't land the boat, move on. At the moment we wanted to put a few miles between us and the four men in the tubs. Last year we'd shared Elbow Lake with the boys from Flin Flon which was fine with us. After all, we were in a park and people use parks. In fact, hooray for the Provincial Park System. We would never had come to Manitoba without it. But this year we were outside the boundaries and were seeking the solitude of something close to true wilderness. We paddled on.
     Then there was Allan's empty, bottomless pit of a stomach. I began to worry should the wind pick up he'd blow away and I'd be stranded. In fact I was already considering different ways to keep the canoe balanced without him up front. Around three miles past Fairwind we began our search and quickly, as if anything that comes about as the result of paddling a canoe happens quickly, discovered that from a distance even four foot high, rock shelves look like a beach.
     Before flying off Larry Gogal had said we'd come on a trapper's cabin once we'd paddled through the narrows on Limestone Point Lake and the clearing might prove a good place to camp. At the time a cabin site had seemed way too civilized, even a little immoral for two fine voyageurs like us. But now, nine miles into the day and solidly mid-afternoon, it didn't sound too bad at all. Sounded good enough till we saw what it was. Apparently there'd once been some form of elaborate log dock system along the open beach. What remained was randomly strewn and rotting logs bristling with thirty and forty penny spikes. And if that wasn't forbidding enough the entire clearing surrounding the collapsing building was a thicket of four foot high thistles. Had no one ever set foot here before, this would have been a wonderful spot. Now it was a ghetto in the bush. We carefully landed, looked around, pulled a couple of snack bars, and smoked a butt while talking it over. Both of us were in complete agreement this site sucked to holy hell. We hadn't come this far to spend our first night in such a depressing spot. We eased our way back through the spikes and continued our search.
     Island to island, zigzagging our way through and around with no luck. Late afternoon found us passing a large open meadow with a building to the rear and a large sign up front. As I recall the sign said we were passing a meeting hall of sorts. Damn. Sure wasn't expecting that. If people were living in the area they must be hiding behind the trees. Can't say I remember the exact wording but do remember it said something about it being a First Nation site. Up here in Canada they call the original inhabitants - also probably the current inhabitants - First Nation.Though the grounds appeared empty at the moment we figured it best to move on. A ticket for trespassing would put a damper on the trip.  
      Two miles east where the lake ended and the File River swung back north we spied another beach in the distance alongside a narrow peninsula. Having been fooled a dozen times since Dow Lake, this time we played it cool figuring it was like driving on the highway and constantly seeing pools of water on the pavement ahead. Once you know it's a mirage, a fake, you stop paying attention. But this time it truly was a beach, a real one with sand, the first we'd seen in twelve years of paddling the north land. Up an eight foot, root-grabbing sand and dirt cliff that called for me hoisting and passing the packs from below to Al above, at the far end of the point, we set up our site. It was barely big enough for our stove, tent, and chairs but was open to the breezes and had a view. Not bad at all.
     Though I'd yet to wet a line, dinner was first priority. It sure is tough keeping to a schedule on a canoe trip, particularly a trip like this one where all possibilities are open ended and our ignorance of the area is immense. We had maps so at least we knew where we were and where we were going but that's about it. Even the maps had been a challenge. By the time I'd talked with Larry Gogal there wasn't enough time to order the ones we need from Winnipeg. I had a single map showing most of our planned trip but its scale was 1/250,000, about one step up from a road map and definitely not what a sane person would use to head off into unknown territory. When we left on Friday morning our immediate goal was to walk in the door of the map store in Winnipeg before they closed at 4:30 (might have been 5:00). I knew we could make it but it'd be close.
     All went well till we hit the south end of town a couple of minutes after four with the address in hand and rush hour traffic on the city streets. Like our small scale navigation maps we were forced to use a sketchy Manitoba road map inset of Winnipeg to guide us. You know the kind, ten streets and four historic sights for a city of a half million. I was riding shotgun with the map in hand, yelling instructions as Allan weaved his way through traffic. I recall it being 4:29 when we miraculously screeched to a stop in front of the office only to find the door locked. What the hell? Being a FedEx courier I knew how to knock to catch someone's attention and hammered away till the building shook on its foundation. Thought for a moment I heard someone inside yell, "Earthquake!" Just then a gentle voice from behind asked, "S'pose you're in need of a map, eh?" Seemed the man had been sitting in the pickup truck next to our jeep, waiting on his wife who worked inside. It wasn't but ten minutes later we had what we wanted, even a new prototype made of the Burntwood Lake area the clerk had been nice enough to print in black and white. Now all we needed was fast food, gas, and to put another four hundred, thirty miles behind us.
     That evening we began a fishing pattern that lasted the entire trip. We searched bays and points, islands and trickling stream mouths for hours on end with little on the line. However, when we did find the fish, mostly walleyes, it was Katy bar the door. In the narrows where the File River entered the next lake, in no more than eight feet of water, we hit a school of pickerel. None were large but we boated them like a blue whale sucking down plankton. Al was throwing a jig and twister tail; me, a plain old in-line spinner. Didn't matter at all to the fish what was on the end of the line though working the spinner like a jig seemed to excite them. Of course this was right as the sun dropped below the tree line. After boating a couple of dozen we chickened out and paddled the two miles in deepening twilight.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Return to Elbow Lake - 2017

     One week to go. The fishing gear is cleaned, oiled, reels wound with fresh line, also a full spool for each, and a backup five hundred yards of braided line. Clothes are loaded in a backpack. All is ready but the food. She's a forty mile boat-in trip to the Elbow Lake Lodge run by Steve Japps. We've spoken a few times on the phone and he seems like the man you'd want to rent a cabin from and learn the ins and outs of a big lake.
     My son Allan and I - yeah, he's the guy I'm going with - first paddled Elbow in 1998. He was fresh out of high school and I was eleven years from retirement. Yup, a long time ago. We passed through on our way to and from Claw Lake in 2002 and found Elbow to hold some big pike and walleyes. Just goes to show you don't need to fly in to have good fishing. It's all about the lake. Also the weather. And maybe a little area knowledge. And skill, with a little luck to season the broth. No canoe this time. Guess I'll have to learn how to fish from a boat with a motor.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Float Plane - 2003

     First order of business in the morning was finding Gogal Air Service. Seeing as how Snow Lake wasn't but seven hundred and thirty souls we figured that to be no problem. Also figuring a float plane needed water to float upon we headed downhill toward the lake. Two blocks rolled us into the parking lot. Inside we found Mr. Gogal and another man. We chatted briefly, he said he'd be ready in a little bit, answered a call, I bought a hat (still have it), read the article on the wall, and the three of us strolled downhill to the plane. Damnation, no breakfast.
     Gogal's Norseman was the biggest one engine float plane I'd ever seen - also the only one I'd seen this close. Though it was built in the early '50s the plane looked as though it'd just rolled off the assembly line. I recall Larry dressed in shades of pale green, almost military in appearance. Call him about five-ten, medium build, spectacles free, and well-tanned. Seemed to know what he was doing, which was good seeing as how he had our lives in his hands. He even suggested I drive down to the dock area rather than lug a Jeep-ful of crap a needless hundred yards. Good idea, eh?
     First off we loaded the supplies he was bringing to one of his outpost cabins and the lodge. After our packs and gear were stowed all that remained was the canoe. Years before I'd read fly-in horror stories where the bush pilot asked such questions as, "You guys have any idea how to tie a canoe on a float plane?" And, "You wouldn't happen to have any rope would you?" Though it would have made a more interesting story had Gogal asked us something along those lines, he didn't. Instead he had me help him lean the canoe against the float struts, paused a moment to give the situation a look-see, grabbed a couple of dozen feet of seriously heavy duty rope, and in thirty seconds wrapped and finally tied the boat off with a simple trucker's hitch. Not once in our twenty minute flight did the canoe as much as twitch. Impressive and comforting to know we were in safe hands.
     Years earlier I'd written about my Army days, that the smaller the aircraft the worse the destination. Helicopters more often than not meant fewer men were riding back than flew out. Gogal's broke the mold. His was the smallest plane I'd been on and the loudest but had a pretty good destination as far as I was concerned. As for this ride, let's just say it gave me an appreciation of air currents. Also gave me a feel for the terrain we were passing over, how the water in the rivers and lakes was nothing more than a drainage system. What we were seeing was Mother Earth trying to dry off the land that'd once been beneath the glaciers and was taking her own sweet time getting it done. Inside, Larry's Norseman seemed to run off some kind of computerized GPS. He punched in his coordinates then simply kept the little plane silhouette right atop the line on the computer screen. Slick. Somehow I had the feeling he knew where he was at any given moment by simply by looking out the window and had no need for any stinkin' silhouettes.
     A brief discussion at the dock in Snow Lake had decided us on being dropped off at Gogal's outpost cabin on Dow Lake. This was a little farther down the File River than my winter daydreams had left us off but to me that didn't matter a whole lot. From this point on we were definitely in the bush with not a soul we were aware of between us and the Burntwood Lake Lodge eighty miles away. Had the mood struck us Allan and I could've paddled the distance in three days but that wasn't the way our mood worked. We had no idea how many pike and walleyes swam between us and the lodge and our intention was to find out.
     Ten minutes of cabin cleanup by Larry turned up a small cache of Pop-Tarts and ripe bananas. Al was having nothing to do with such crap but to me calories were calories and I crammed some down. We had miles to go and every one would come in handy. Exactly how many miles would be determined by finding a canoe landing and campsite. Before flying off Larry said we'd find fish wherever we found moving water. Then added water levels were way down and the entering streams were nothing more than trickles. Oh well. Then he was off and we were as alone as we'd ever been.
     We quickly loaded under the dense blue sky, paddled north to the egress, and headed downstream to meet the File River. What struck me was the stream and its intimate, tree bowered flow. Reminded me of floating the Minnehaha Creek in South Minneapolis. Yup, outside of being surrounded by three million people and five million cars it was identical. Allan threw a few listless casts along the way. We knew dead water when we saw it but, what the hell, we were in God's country and figured He might throw a few bones our way. He didn't.
     No sooner did we leave the river and enter Fairwind Lake than we spooked a nesting pair of sandhill cranes on a small island. Not having seen sandhill's before it took a moment to peg them. 'Course they had us pegged from the get-go as a couple of ignorant yahoos from the south land and flew off. A hundred yards later we spooked a moose grazing in the shallows. He/she took one look and set off across the lake in a panic, swam the depths, trundled ashore dragging up a waterfall of lake water, and busted her/his way through the brush. Damnation, this was sure a fine way to enter the bush. Too bad we had to scare the daylights out of everything in our path.
     Now that we were on proper water Allan began to explore the west shore with a spinner while I slowly paddled us toward the river's egress. Each likely looking point and rock pile gave up a walleye. Enough pickerel to give us a thought to calling it a day and set up camp. Why not? Fairwind was a pretty lake, we were as far into the bush as we'd ever been, and the fishing seemed good. Plus we had a dozen days to cover the remaining seventy-five miles; in short, no need to hurry.
     About the time we began to scope the shoreline for a landing we saw the first boat peek its way from the narrows at the north end of the lake. Damnation. Then a second and a third. All were aluminum fishing boats sunk near the gunwales with gear and plus-sized fishermen. Looked like the lake would be a little to crowded for Allan and I.
     To this day I have no idea how six men and three power boats could have reached Fairwind Lake. I've scoped the map many times and there is indeed a road on the map close to twenty miles long and goes from nowhere and ends in a different nowhere. Of course I could be wrong and no doubt am. Anyhow, we waved, they waved back and we paddled on through the canyon-like narrows and into Limestone Point Lake. We were now on the File River system and Al was beginning to get hungry.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Fly In - 2003

     Back in '98 I'd sent a letter to a flying service up near the Land of Little Sticks to see how much it'd cost to fly Allan and I to a point upstream on the river where their lodge sat. I'd had a vision of what a true wilderness trip should look like since the days I used to sit in Ole's Barber Shop reading outdoor magazines to pass the time while waiting for my monthly scalping. Though what we'd done to this point was close it still was short of the picture in my head. Yet, a part of me remained between those long ago pages and off on an adventure to Great Slave Lake where the water was ice free for only a few weeks a year. Of course my vision only included the forty pound lake trout and not the two pound mosquitoes that were more likely to bite. Since then both Allan and I had grown familiar with the roar in the woods and came to know those skeeters as both large and slow but had yet to catch a lake trout, or grayling, or arctic char for that matter.
     Physical mail was something I did back then, it was charming, effective, and slow as molasses, particularly when crossing international borders and approaching the arctic circle. Eventually I did receive a response; short, sweet, friendly, and somewhere over three grand as I recall. African safari money to a man who was paid by the hour. Drive and paddle was more our speed. Still is. However, the idea of a fly in with all our gear never left my thoughts.
     By 2003 my letter days were over and the much faster means of e-mail had taken its place. By now both Allan and I had become attached to northwest Manitoba as a destination. More likely, it was a mostly me destination, since we always went in my car, we always went where I wanted to go. Call it a combination of habit and satisfaction with our days in Grass River Park. We'd come to learn a little about where to go in the park and what to expect. Also, to this point we'd paddled no more than a third of Grass River's waters leaving us much left to see.
     However, the lakes and rivers north of the park always drew my eye. In 2002 we'd tried to reach them by foot and paddle but had been stopped by frozen Reed Lake. Oddly enough the idea of a second shot at the Four Mile Portage never entered my mind. Why, I don't know. What did was an Internet search of flying services in the Cranberry Portage area and over in nearby Snow Lake (if fifty miles away can be considered near) where I found Gogal Air. Also, saw that someone with the last name of Gogal owned the Burntwood Lake Lodge thirty miles to the north of town. I both e-mailed Gogal and spoke with the lodge about possibilities and rates but received no answer from Mr. Gogal.
     On the upside, there remained two unseen lakes of size in the western half of the park, B.C. and Barb (of the walleye a cast per Bob with the black lab). Both offered a challenge concerning access. B.C. was two lake crossings and three portages away into the bush after a five mile long drive on a backwoods sand track. That became the plan. We had four wheel drive for the track but also bought a hundred feet of heavy duty rope just in case. Barb on the other hand, was a simpler shot, six miles of lake followed by two miles of stream and portage. The plan evolved into a week on each with a twenty-five mile car ride between. Not the trip we were hoping for but we'd have a lot of new, near wilderness water to ourselves and no doubt catch a few fish along the way. What more could we want?
     About a week before the trip I came home from work and was told a man from Canada had called. Yes indeed it was Larry Gogal and yes indeed he'd be willing to give us a lift into the bush. We politely chatted for a bit then I asked him the three thousand dollar question. Mr. Gogal was quiet for a few seconds then quoted a price that was so reasonable I accepted immediately. As to a place to stay on the night before he suggested the Blue Nose B and B in Snow Lake. Turned out their price, with the favorable exchange rate, would've been peanuts had I thought the plant would survive in the rocky, frozen soil. Oh boy was I excited. Now all I had to do was find Snow Lake on the map.
     One thing is for certain on a nine hundred mile drive, no matter the weather when you climb into the car, it'll change somewhere along the line, then change again. Mostly it was smooth sailing outside of two hundred miles of wind, rain, and lightening between central Minnesota and the Canadian border. Wind and rain stretches rope and we had to pull off the interstate a couple of times to re-rig.
     The directions we had for the Blue Nose once we reached Snow Lake were at best sketchy. Probably the lady at the B and B gave me a photographically accurate description of where she was but the sketch artist in my brain works with a dull pencil on the back of a soiled napkin. However, after a tour of the midnight dark town we did find the place right where she said it would be. Odd how that works out. Seemed the owners were off partying but their son gave us the lowdown on the building and the local dirt about the railroad grade all the Snow Lake folks used to drive to a couple of remote fly-in lakes. Anyhow, the place was ours alone, even the free Fruit Loops and toast breakfast.
     Snow Lake is a mining town and also does a fair amount of hunting and fishing business. Enough anyway to warrant a cafe in town and that's where we figured to set our sights on come morning. We went outside, smoked a last butt, watched a faint display of northern lights, and went to bed.