Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Pan Bread and an Extra Day - 2003

     Making it to the Burntwood Lake Lodge on Thursday was the plan from the beginning. I figured we'd fly in and leave Snow Lake by ten o'clock to begin our sixteen hour drive and spend the night in Winnipeg. Yeah it'd be nice to have two days. As always there was a job with a six o'clock starting time waiting on Monday. Having a whole weekend at home to clean gear and rest up would make life a lot easier.
     Yes we did make pan bread though calling it bannock would've been an insult to the old timers. What we had was a couple of bags of premix I bought on line from up north in Minnesota. Would've been nice had it gone as slick as advertised. My first attempt was German as all get-out. Why not? After all, I'm half German and have a compulsive need to follow directions. Usually that's a good way to go. What the heck, the same people who the stuff together must've actually checked to see if it'd pan bake like they claimed it would by following what they wrote on the bag. Well, my first shot sure did stick to the pan, almost like the pan was supposed to be part of the bread. However, it did eat good in a kind of torn, chunked out, slightly burned on the bottom way. Second time around Allan gave the bread a shot. The difference in his method had to do with butter, lots and lots of butter. Man oh man, he floated the dough on a sea of yellow. As a result it didn't stick to the pan and there was no need to add anything to the bread but our greasy lips and teeth. Lord was it good.
     Come Thursday morning we dug into the dirty clothes bag, chose our relatively best with the idea we not stink too badly, and set off under a calm overcast with intentions of paddling into the lodge by eight a.m. Once in sight of the buildings we straightened it up to set a strong rhythm and as straight a line as I could muster. Yup, should anyone be watching the idea was to fool 'em good. Seemed to be a party going on as we approached. The dock where the big Norseman float plane was moored was crowded with sports surrounding Larry. Hoping to show off and show the world we knew what we were doing, our landing was nothing short of spectacular. We smoked straight at the poled shore like true north woods maniacs. Just before we'd have smacked head on into the wood I buried a paddle, spun us a full ninety degrees, and we gently touched ashore. As it was we were the only ones to see it. Seems the crowd was more interested in what Larry had to say. I could understand that as it appeared no one was leaving for a while. The Canadian Aviation officials had temporarily shut Gogal Air down till all Larry's paperwork was checked. He assured us he'd be back in the early afternoon to cart all his customers to Snow Lake. Not knowing what else to do we pulled our canoe and gear onto the lawn and headed uphill to the main building with high hopes there was some food left in the kitchen.
     Turned out there was, a full breakfast with eggs, toast, fried potatoes, ham, and juice. Yeah there was enough on each plate for two people. Oddly, as I sat wiping the dregs up with my toast I was still hungry. Made me think we burned a lot of calories in the canoe. Might even explain why our pants always fit looser at the end of a two week paddle. When I asked for the bill we were told Larry had said everything was on the house till he returned, even a boat and motor should we want. Looked like our plans were thrown off kilter but what the heck, the lodge was just short of spectacular and the food wonderful. Not bad at all.
     Come lunch they fed us again. We passed time by checking out the photo albums and came to learn the Gogals had hauled all their thousands of board feet of building material by air. I guess strapping our canoe to a pontoon when leaving Snow Lake was nothing at all. Two o'clock rolled around with the news Larry wasn't returning today. Can't say I was disappointed. We were given beers during cocktail hour, showers 'cause we were well past ripe, dinner, and a room, all on the house. Tomorrow would be a misery of driving but there was nothing we could do about it but take it easy and enjoy the hospitality.
     Mostly we spent a lot of time talking with the guides. Each of them took turns hoisting our kevlar canoe like they'd never seen one before. Could be they hadn't. All thought it was light as a feather and I began to fear they'd play catch with it. Come evening we were again offered a boat and motor but instead walked down to the dock to spend our hours waiting for the sun to go down. When push came to shove that's what we did best. Fishing was great but we'd had enough of that. Instead we talked of next year's trip, that is if there'd be one. Allan was done with school and on the job as a graphic designer. As far as trips went, this might be the end. As it turned out it wasn't but we didn't know that at the time. Al's future was wide open and coming up on him fast as could be, mine was growing shorter as I slowly moved toward retirement.
     Larry did show up early the next morning saying something about not having crossed his T's and dotted his I's. Come the wee hours of Saturday morning we rolled into the garage, another trip of a lifetime in our past.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Burntwood Lake II - 2003

     Logic dictated our next move and proved beyond any doubt that logic is not always right, at least if it's spawned from my brain. Back at the Gogal Air office in Snow Lake we'd been given a sketchy map of Burntwood Lake showing where the shore lunch sites were. To me that meant there was a walleye hot spot nearby. That'd been the case on last year's Claw Lake trip and from what I'd heard from a few old timers, was a pretty common practice. Made sense. The fillets don't get much fresher than if they were swimming in water ten minutes before they were swimming in lard. Adding icing to our cake was the river that entered no more than a couple hundred yards to the east. How could we go wrong?
     The paddle down the big lake drew my attention. To that point we'd not seen a whitecap. In fact we'd been spoiled to the point of feeling set up for the inevitable hammer blow. I'm from Minnesota and we know for certain everything balances out over time. Even though Burntwood was broken up by many points and islands, should the wind kick it up from the east or west there was enough open water to prove a danger. Though we were again under bluebird skies with a gentle breeze to our tail I continually scanned the shores in case we had to bail out. Call that wisdom or cowardice, I didn't much care either way. We were still completely on our own though the lodge was less than a dozen miles away. Should something happen it'd be a long, long time before anyone found our raven-picked bones.
     The river emptied into a long bay protected by a reef. Had there been any lake trout in the lake this would have proved fertile ground. The water was still cold enough to keep them in the shallows where even buffoons could catch them. Midway down we passed a small cabin in a freshly mowed meadow. Looked clean as a whistle and well maintained. Ten years later I placed the building on an island in Wedge Lake in a chapter called The Man Who Isn't There. A quarter mile farther we came on a smooth shelf landing, slid ashore, and were home for the last two nights of our trip. Odd thing was I hoped we weren't trespassing. For all I knew the owner of the little cabin owned the slab we camped on and might call the Mounties on us.
     We had us a campsite god, a protector of sorts. Someone had been here before and had placed a pike skull on a lower tree branch, for what reason I don't know. But she was an impressive skull all right. I don't know about you but I have a hard time estimating a fish's size with nothing but a bone as a guide. Since I have no idea I'll say it was a thirty pounder for sure. Killer of a fish. Would've been nice had we caught anything approaching that size though we did boat a ten pounder.
     Let's just say the fishing in the bay was slow. Had we been fishing for food we'd have done okay and would've even thrown a few back. No complaints, it was a fine spot. On the second day we even had visitors in the form of a brace of boats with guides and sports aboard. A few passing words told us our fishing luck had been about the same as their's, a few walleyes here and a couple of pike there but in nowhere near the numbers they'd come to expect. Though we offered to point out where Allan and I'd hammered them two days earlier the guides showed little interest in motoring another eight miles up lake. We wished them luck and said we'd come visit in another day.
     Like I said, we did explore and did fish. About the only moment of consequence was a confused pike. More from boredom than anything else I'd rigged a jig and twister tail and suspended the pair six feet below a slip bobber. Twenty minutes of casting and bobber bouncing passed with no action. Could be the pike I riled up was as bored as me and slammed the bobber like a floating piece of candy. Had that happen a number of times with bass but then bass'll try to swallow anything they can wrap their mouths around. I did get a few seconds fight out of her, yeah the pike was big enough to be a female and dumb enough to be a male, before she spit the bobber. That was fun in an odd kind of way but it caught me by surprise when she slammed the bobber again on the next cast. Figuring the third time's the charm I shortened the knot till the jig was tight to the bobber, kind of made it into a bob-areno, or a hula-bobber. Long story short I hooked up and got a short fight before the jig hook straightened. Sorry, that's not much of a fishing story but that's all I've got from those two days.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Burntwood Lake - 2003

     Our map, the prototype we were given back at the Winnipeg map store, told us exactly where to go. But having been wrong many times before I knew it was only a guess. To this point we'd found no major steams entering the File. The few side creeks we had come upon had dried into boulder channels and probably wouldn't have been much to begin with. However, the one rolling in from big Guthrie Lake to the west appeared to be a honker and was drawn in as more than a squiggly, black line. With a little luck there'd be a current flow and a dredged drop off where it entered Burntwood Lake.
     Burntwood is a body of serious size and at the same time keeps its personal nature. It meanders every which way for forty or fifty miles and holds hundreds of islands. She's so broken up it appeared as dozens of small lakes hooked together. One look at the map and you knew it had to have fish holding water most everywhere or if you want to look at it from a different angle, anywhere. And anywhere might be hard to find on a lake of over fifty thousand acres. The old saw is ten percent of a lake holds ninety percent of the fish. Don't know if that's true but from my experience, it's close.
     Another blue-skied day and island weave led us to a campsite no more than a quarter of a mile across from the river mouth. Wasn't much of a river as I recall but was wide and deep enough to just sneak past creek status. The site was something else. Our tent was pitched on a die level patch of duff beneath a small jack pine with an open view covering three miles of lake, forest, and swamp. The rock we stood upon was immense, six feet above lake level, and afforded fifty yards of open walking space. Across the bay near the swamp paddled an ever-present flotilla of white pelicans so white they were pale blue. As I recall there were an even dozen of them, usually in a line. Small moments sometimes stick with a person for quite a while and this lineup of pelicans returned to me as I wrote the novel. The white of the birds reflected the blue of the sky as it bounced off the lake. Wrote it with a touch more poesy in the book. Can't say this was the best camp we ever had but it was right up there.
     Then there was the fishing; what it lacked in size it more than made up in numbers. Two, three hundred fish in our day and a half? Possibly. And all but a handful were in the walleye family. Walleyes by the bucketful, jumbo perch now and then, and surprise, surprise, saugers. I'd heard of saugers before, seen pictures of them, knew they looked like a walleye's little faded-brown cousins, but had never seen a one till our hours on Burntwood. As it turned out nary a fish was found directly in the river mouth but once we paddled past, the numbers on the line were as close to a fish a cast as we'd ever had.
     Call it the second night when we hit it right. Whether in a fishing boat or a canoe the drift is critical. Check the wind, position the boat, and let the breeze do the work to carry you over good water. That evening the slightest of breezes carried us along a shore for better than an hour with only a couple of adjusting strokes. Not a one of the walleyes we boated was over twenty inches and the saugers topped out at sixteen. But the numbers were immense. Outside of how many casts in a row produced fish we didn't count. Allan once hit eighteen and had the gall to laugh at my paltry dozen. Our method was simple, we tipped our jigs with three-inch, yellow twister tails, flipped them out a little ways then let them sink till they rested on the bottom. After five seconds of pause we'd take up the line slack and gently lift the rod tip. Should we feel any weight we'd give it a three count before slamming home the set. Simple and effective. Also became a little repetitious after the first hundred. Yeah, I have no idea how many fish we boated and a hundred might be an exaggeration. Also might be a tad short. Could have added to our interest had there been a few lunkers mixed in. Sure is hard to believe such a marginal walleye fisherman as me would dare be audacious enough to say such a thing. Might bring on the curse and I'd never boat another.
     We remained for two nights. On the first we were serenaded by a constant croaking kind of howling across the water. That might not nail down the sound but then no words ever duplicate a sound. Natural noises speak their own language and haven't as yet found the need to come up with an alphabet. Maybe it'd be best if I simply said the sounds we heard were other-worldly, or just weird as hell. Whatever, both of us heard the sounds so they must have happened.
     As night drew toward morning it began to rain. Not a downpour, more of an oversized drizzle. Each time my ears rose to life during the false dawn, a soft scampering on the tent said we were looking at a wet day ahead. Finally, a bit after what I figured to be sunrise my bladder said it was time to rise and greet the morning. Since my nighttime needs are thirty years older than Allan's, I sleep near the door so as not to awaken him when crawling out. Kind of funny actually, my son sleeps like the dead. Anyhow, I unzipped the screen and the fly, slid my shoes on, stood, and was engulfed in a world of white. A glance across the rock told me the limit of vision was maybe fifteen feet. Even my stream started to fade before it hit the ground. 'Course I had to wake my son. Call it two minutes of bitching before he finally crawled out. Though he found the fog impressive, Al had his doubts whether or not it was worth losing sleep over. A check of the heavily dewed jack pine limbs above the tent told me where what I took to be soft rain had come from. Wasn't but fifteen minutes till the fog burned off and we stood beneath another intense blue, far north sky.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Alone - 2003

     We weren't truly alone, there were the four fishermen we passed on the first and third days. We saw them briefly and they saw us, that was about it. Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere on day eight a dark-haired man motored past our camp. Of course we were sitting on our folding chairs thirty yards up and off the river and were unseen. That's it. If something happened to one of us we were screwed, plain and simple. Had we the slightest shred of sanity we'd have stayed home or gone to Minnesota's Boundary Waters where the wilderness was a little more civilized. As it was, the only person who had any idea of where we were was Larry Gogal and his idea was simply 'somewhere on the river - maybe.' In the years since I've given a lot of thought to side trips we might have taken, a half-mile bushwhack to five hundred acres of unnamed water and ten miles up a side river to a lake of serious size. Might have been the best fishing of a lifetime. But for sure not a soul on the planet would've had any idea where we were. Can't say I looked at it that way back then. Nope, that would've been way too wise. Instead we stuck to the plan, more out of fear of more unknown than I was up for and the possible misery it would no doubt require than anything else. Call it the guiding hands of cowardice and sloth. Sometimes character faults are an asset.
     Don't know what provoked me in the first place to running off toward the Canadian bush with my son in tow. Don't get me wrong when I write of the backwoods. The backwoods Allan and I traveled weren't that far back. Nothing at all like running the fast water of a river dumping into the Arctic Ocean or Hudson Bay. Not once did we truly stick our necks in the wringer. We tried back in '09 but a shortage of marking ribbon put a quick end to that foolishness. Better that I daydreamed that bushwhack to an unnamed lake in the novel I wrote. But on the trip of '03 we were as alone as we'd ever been, though it sure didn't feel that way.
     Our next campsite had it all, two side bays of size and structure galore. Would've even been better had we found any fish. Our landing told us to the inch how far the water level was down. Call the boulder strewn shelf a sitting man's belly button above the river. Again we had to pitch the tent back in the mossy woods but our kitchen and sitting area gave us a fine view of the sterile water below. Best part was we did dishes over duff and I didn't fall once. The fishing told us to spend only one night. A couple of hours paddle in the morning would bring us to huge Burntwood Lake and a rebirth of hope we'd find good fishing.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Elbow Lake - 2017 (corrected version with photos)

     A series of blunders compounded by ignorance led to a botched job of jumping between Microsoft Word and this blog. Hopefully this reads and looks a little better.                        

           Elbow Lake – 2017

The Plan and the Man

     Planning a fishing trip is a crapshoot at best. If you're lucky you know the water or hopefully will figure it out over the days, how to get there, and what to pack. Even packing can be hit or miss. Do it right and you won't starve or walk around naked any more than necessary. Weather, ice out, finicky fish or even broken ribs can change the plan any number of ways. And that doesn't begin to dip into the nether region of being seventy years old. I like being my age. After all, what choice do I have? Acceptance might be a better word than 'like' but either way neither my brain nor hands work like they used to. Beyond that it's pretty hit or miss.
     Can't say I recall how the Elbow Lake Lodge came to mind. Both Allan and I knew it existed; discovered that back on our 2002 canoe trip in a wind bound conversation with the Kansas party we shared Claw Lake with for a couple of days. Each day they’d head in from the lodge, motor through a pair of lakes, and hump the two ugly portages. Then spend six hours dredging for lunker walleyes. Back then staying at a lodge and using their stashed boats and motors to float wilderness lakes seemed like cheating to me. Where were the hours of sweat, misery and packing of heavy loads over flooded portages, and a hundred miles of paddling into the teeth of the wind that made the effort feel noble? Don't know about Allan but to me it sure felt like the easy way out.
     But like I’ve said way too many times, I'm seventy. Wrinkled, shrinking, suffering bouts of occasional tom-foolishness, and generally not as strong as I used to be. So, on a lark my arthritic fingers pecked out an Internet search and discovered the Elbow Lake Lodge to be affordable seven-day trip. Keep in mind I'm a retired hourly worker and by affordable I'm not talking three hundred bucks a day per man. Still a lodge didn't seem a moral choice till I mentioned it to my son. He simply said, "let's do it,” and my back immediately breathed a sigh of relief. Guess we both liked the idea of a bed with a shingled roof above.
     So let's start with me tripping over the doorstep of the land of my senior years. Had I stepped lightly over that threshold Allan and I might have paddled down the Grass River and survived on bark and bullheads just like true woodsmen. After all, that was the original plan. Al had thrown the idea of a real fishing trip my way a couple of months earlier; our cabin, Boundary Waters, or even back to Grass River Provincial Park and do it right. At the base of the trip was fishing. My son likes to fish so long as he's throwing lures and boating big fish. The man has no use for bobber watching or jigging over the side of a boat for walleyes. And if he's going to pitch lures they best be in-line spinners, the blade better be a number five red and white, and if there's no buck tail dressed treble hook trailing behind he might just pack up his rod and go home. In a pinch Al will fish with store bought but seems to have a fondness for homemade.
     Once our goal was clear I fired off an email to the few years old website listed on the first page of my Internet search hoping for current information. I figured the rates must have gone up since the posting, just how much was the question. An hour later I was emailed in return that the lodge’s web page no longer existed. That sucked. Three entries down I found another email address but again had it thrown back in my face. Finally, on the next page for the Elbow Lake Lodge I struck gold and received a response from Steve Japp along with the current rates. Yup, the price had indeed risen but not enough to change our minds.
     From that point on Steve and I began a two month game of phone and e-mail tag, an understandable problem. As far as I knew the lodge was off the grid and he had to go elsewhere – that would be a forty-mile by boat elsewhere - for a connection. Throw in the fishing season and I figured the man was up to his skivvies in customers, maintenance, and hopefully, pickerel and pike.  Also, outside of his satellite phone he had no other means of communication. Over the weeks one thing became certain, Allan and I were going to be standing on the government dock in Cranberry Portage on the morning of July 22, 2017 and Steve would be there to pick us up. From our first conversation on, I got the feeling he was going through an electronic change in his life. Not sure what the change was but it did affect how we'd pay the man. Finally, a week before we were to hit the road, all was resolved.
     Over the next weeks I filled our gaps in gear, Allan opened up ten days in his design business, I made a reservation at the Viking Lodge in Cranberry Portage for Friday the 21st, we coordinated food, and with the grace of Al's wife Maria and a pair of grandmothers, we were set. Once again we’d managed to do all the usual crap it takes to get ready for a fishing trip.
     Five a.m. Friday morning we left my son's house, the back of his RAV4 filled to the gills with more stuff than any village in the third world would need to move into the second. For sure we were more than ready. Also absolutely sure I'd forgotten something important. Forgetting the important is a skill I've honed over the decades. Sleeping bag, tent poles, stove fuel, clothes, yes sir, I've left them all behind. As it turned out, this time it was only butter.
     Nine hundred and twenty-five miles sounds like a lot of time on pavement but the truth is the hours flew by. Well, at least till we hung a left a couple of hundred miles north of Winnipeg onto Highway 60. Dear Lord, two hundred and fifty miles of ditch, brush and forest sure does stretch out the minutes. But, as usual, crossing the border had been a snap, "Off to do some fishing? You boys have yourselves a good time, eh." Have love the Canadians, they sure are a friendly lot.
     We ate on the fly, sandwiches and snacks in the car and only stopped to put fuel in the car or get fluid out of us. Once past St. Martin Junction there's a three and a half hour stretch lacking any form of public john. When the urge strikes, you do what most everyone else does, pull over and stare meaningfully at the woods till the coast is clear. Being a man comes in handy now and then, especially when there's a horse fly hatch of epic proportions like in '06. Yes sir, that was a terror all right.
     For the first time in our nine trips north we stopped in The Pas only long enough to gas up then were off to spend the night an hour north in Cranberry Portage. Seems the town used to be the site of a noted portage and in season, sprouted quite a crop of cranberries. Hey, I don't make this stuff up. On the south side of town we turned right toward the big lake and the cabin waiting on us at the Viking Lodge.
It was 8:30. Long drive. Pooped and excited was what we were. Cabin twelve turned out to be a step or two below the Waldorf but was more than enough to satisfy our needs.
     We made breakfast in the morning, wandered down to the office to buy fishing licenses then putzed away the minutes awaiting Steve the mystery man. You know how that goes. Three phone calls gives you a picture of a person that covers the gamut from Godzilla to Brad Pitt. I was hoping for someone in between though I'd have taken the big lizard over Pitt most any day of the week.
     I saw Steve first. Oddly enough he looked like his slightly gruff voice. Taller than average, solidly built, ball cap, wrap around sunglasses perched on his deeply tanned face, short sleeved shirt and long pants but most of all, the man was sporting a red life jacket. The jacket said a lot to me, he knew his priorities. Good fishing doesn't mean squat if you fall out of the boat.
     Of course me being me, I had to start our conversation after the obligatory handshake and greeting with something both inappropriate and inconsiderate, "What happened to your eye?" You see, Steve was missing his right eye just like my fictitious Uncle Emil.
     Steve parried with, "We'll talk about that later." Truth was, he took my callousness well. Me, I figured it was like a first date, get the uncomfortable parts over with right off the bat and move on from there.
     Allan was warmly greeted and quickly shagged off to get the car. Normally we'd have loaded at the government dock but the dock was no more. Ice out had arrived two weeks late and was immediately followed by a June full of cold rain.
The entire chain of lakes rose three feet and did a job to both the main dock and the fishing. Those who'd shown up for the usual hot June fishing had been greeted by constant downpours, cold weather, and pickerel in hiding. Over the week we discovered this had been the worst spring fishing in over forty years. No one knew where the walleyes were and the big pike had fled to parts unknown.
     Turned out Steve's boat was an eighteen, wide-bodied, rear tiller Lund powered by a sixty-horse Yamaha, high-tech and old school at the same time. Have to love that. Things were looking good.

The Lodge

     Truly, I didn't think we'd brought that much stuff but Steve's boat was filled to the gunwales. A double check of the gear, Allan parked his truck, we untied, and were off in bright sunshine. Most everything in the bay appeared the same as it had on all our trips, even down to the Cranberry Air floatplane that’d nearly run us over in 2000 but at the same time the bay looked and felt completely different. Maybe I'd been in this picture enough times to make an exotic, north woods, jumping off point feel near ordinary. Those things happen to most everything in life. Of course I wasn't thinking that at the time, instead was simply engrossed in looking and remembering.
     Thirty seconds of puttering brought us to the lake proper and Steve opened the throttle. Moment's later we were skimming past the little chain of islands Allan and I had struggled along in the storm of ‘00. That was about as close as we ever came to floundering. Hard to believe our hour-long struggle had ended less than a mile from shore. From this point on I was deep into bouncing between the passing scene and memory.
     First Cranberry Lake looked as I recalled but sure was flying by, hard to take it all in as we had from a zigzagging canoe. Didn't take long before my eye caught how Steve was directing the Lund. In a canoe, waves are a big deal, as they grew each required attention to angle. Throw sixty horses and a wide boat into the mix and waves don't matter a lot. However, when we came on the first set of swells thrown by a passing boat he quartered them like a true sailor. I relaxed knowing we were in good hands. Sometimes it's the little things that tell the tale of another person.
     A dozen minutes took us to the connecting channel marking the end of the lake. Immediately I scoured the shorelines in search of the shorter trees that would mark where a lodge once stood. At least I think it did. Whether fact or fiction, that's where Emil guided his Lund in my novel. It was there he and his nephew Archie left the motored Lund behind and paddled off into their ten days of unknown at the unnamed lake. This time Steve was at the helm not Emil and carrying us toward his lodge; I sat up front in the swivel seat and was passing through twenty years of personal history and writing.
     Five years earlier a forest fire had devastated the area, so large and intense Cranberry Portage was evacuated but fortunately not touched. The scorched west shore of Second Cranberry we were now passing still smelled of smoke. Thousands upon thousands of charred sticks and bare rock spoke of the spruce and pines that had been.
The slightest beginning of soft green underbrush said they'd return to their glory in a century or so. Regardless, it hurt to lose a part of my past. The shaded portage into Bear Lake was now a passage over naked rock without a foot of shade, the same for the path Emil and Archie had trudged into Wedge Lake.
     Third Cranberry was no different. However, the bald eagles were easy to spot. Over our week we saw dozens - maybe. To me they all look the same. White head and tail, you've seen one you've seen 'em all. Maybe if I spent a few months or years in the park it'd be different? Nah, I'm not made that way. One moment I'm bustin' a gut and paying attention to the damn birds, a moment later I drift off into how good breakfast will taste in the morning.
     Once on the river flowing north from Third Cranberry, we left the fire of ’12 behind and the forest returned. This is the first section of true-river and its green waving bed gives the Grass its name. The crow line distance between the Cranberries and Elbow Lake is three miles; the travel line is closer to a dozen. In '88 the area from the river north had been burned to bedrock and most of the remnant black trunks still stood surrounded by head high aspens when we’d paddled by ten years later. Al had said the area reminded him of the land of Skeletor from the Saturday morning cartoon show. What we were now seeing was Mother Nature in action. What had been six-foot poplars were now pushing twenty and the scorched trunks were down and returning to soil. Not breathtaking but sure as heck was pleasant. A good sign for what would happen on the lakes behind over the next decades.
     Steve carved the tight river turns like a surgeon. What could have been terrifying - and if you knew me and my fear of a painful, tearing death on a carnival ride - was actually almost fun. I'm not trying to paint the man as more than he was but to this point he was solidly okay.
     As the river widened and opened to the lake, the surrounding hills rose. They're not majestic, snow covered mountains, nope; they’re not even the bluffs of the Boundary Waters back home but they are hills and add a wavering stripe of green to the horizon. For the next fifteen minutes we weaved through a maze of islands, Elbow has around three hundred of them, nearly all are spruce thickets and give them the look of ships at sea. Finally, near the north end of the park we approached Webb Island and the little bay that held the lodge.
What first struck Allan and I as we entered, were the three solar panels atop the main building, another sign of high-tech in the wilderness. Several green-roofed, brown log-sided cabins flanked the main building on the freshly mowed lawn. Lawn? A closer look said the grass was much like what grew at our cabin in Minnesota. What looked green and lush from the distance was a whole lot more natural up close. No chemicals had touched this clearing. Probably bloomed wild flowers in the spring and a variety of what us city dwellers call weeds and grass for the rest of the year. Still, an occasional mowing added a touch of order to the bush. We tied up to the dock and began the offload.

The Lake

     First order of business was stowing our gear and clothes, making supper, and stringing rods. At the moment Allan and I didn't as yet understand the whirlwind that we’d climbed aboard back in his Eagan, MN driveway and carried us non-stop to the land of Steve Japp. Also didn't as yet realize how much a part of our trip Steve and his one-man operation would become. But for the moment we were into eating steaks and spuds. We'd kept the menu simple, fairly healthy but heavily weighted in protein. Yes sir, every day we chowed down on man fare though we did throw down enough roughage to aid gravity in pulling food through our systems.
     When we'd left the Viking Lodge Allan and I had high hopes our Elbow Lake cabin would be a step up but also feared it wouldn't. It wasn't so much the Viking didn't have all the basics, it was more it lacked any form of charm. We needn't have worried. Our one bedroom cabin wasn't large, call it no more than four hundred square feet, but had atmosphere in spades. North woods blankets on the beds, knotty pine walls with the patina of five decades, a little barrel stove, shower, and a bump out, screen porch kitchen with a new stove, sink, table, and refrigerator. Steve called his operation 'your grandfather's lodge' and it was - only now I was a grandfather. To me it was a blast from the past.
     By mid-afternoon we were ready, poles, tackle boxes, life jackets, and most of all, I was sporting a straw fedora to keep my ear tips from crisping. Almost natty you might say. Steve took one look and said, "My God Mark, you look like an old Panamanian in that hat." Can't say I'd ever heard that before. Guess the mood was set; we hopped aboard the whirlwind and were off to see what we'd see.
     Steve had owned the lodge for seventeen years, fished the area for a decade or two beyond that, and come to know Elbow Lake well. And for darned sure had an interest in big pike. In one of our earlier phone conversations I'd brought up walleye fishing, not so much that I'd wanted to target pickerel but thought a master angler award would go nicely with the ones for pike Allan and I already had. Can't say I was actually a master but I'd thrown enough lures and had gotten lucky a couple of times. Watch Al for a minute and you knew which one of us had the touch.
     My mention of walleyes might have crossed wires between Minneapolis and Manitoba. Allan was up for pike, big pike, and the bigger the better. Me, all I wanted was time in the boat in a land I found beautiful and a chance to relive a few memories. Once we arrived it still took a couple of trips on the water before all the smoke cleared and the three of us were in agreement as to what the goal was.
     Steve had his list of usual culprits that most always held big fish, a double handful of possibles, a dozen plus maybes, and even a few spots he'd always passed but was interested in fishing. Elbow's a bigger lake on the water than on the map take my word for that. Manitoba's DNR puts the lake's total shoreline at thirteen hundred miles. As I'd written earlier, that mileage has more to do with all the points, islands, and bays than water acres. She's a complex, maze-like lake with dozens, maybe hundreds of good-looking fishing spots. From our experience over the next week, no doubt every one of them held fish.
     Ten minutes of travel brought us to an open water location with no indication whatsoever this would be where we'd fish. No way would I have ever cut the motor and said we were there. There? Steve simply said, "Ten to twelve feet and beautiful weeds. Cast any direction gentlemen." And that was the pattern for our six and a half days on the water. Yes, the lake had obvious structure most everywhere you looked but that's not what Steve saw. He knew the bottom and what was growing there. When we cruised to a stop you could be assured we were on a cabbage bed though Steve called it hydrilla. Either way it was a classic pike weed and as it turned out, was often mixed with coon tail. Slowly I came to realize why he said late July and August were the best times of the year for big pike. Yes sir, it was all about the weeds that were now in bloom.
     As it turned out Steve was right and the big pike were definitely in hiding. Though every spot we drifted produced a mixture of pike and walleyes, the forty-inch plus fish he wanted to put us on were nowhere to be found. And believe me we searched hard and threw lures constantly. The late ice out and eternal flooding of June had thrown the biological calendar out of whack. For Al and I the answer was simple, put in the hours and pitch the spinners. We'd come to fish and that's what we did. Call our boat time sixty hours and thousands of casts.
Slowly, oh so slowly, we began to find some wide-backed, line-stripping pike. Not a master angler one in the bunch but they were all big gutted and healthy looking.

Confusion and Resolution

     When we'd spoken on the phone in the weeks leading up to our trip I'd asked Steve if Allan and I could hire a guide to get the lowdown on the lake. At the time I was clueless as to how his lodge ran. In an earlier website, no doubt from the previous owners, guides were available for a hundred bucks a throw. I'm not a fan of guides but, then again, I've never used one. But one thing I knew for sure, Elbow is a complex lake. Our trips in '98 and '02 told us little more than this year's trip would be a hit or miss proposition at best. Since we might be cramming a lifetime's worth of time on the lake in six and a half days, hiring a guide made sense. Steve simply said, "Tell you what, I'll take you out once or twice to give you the lay of the lake. Maybe even feed you a shore lunch." Wow, what a deal.
     As we found, Mr. Japp runs a one-man operation with occasional help from the other lodges in the area. Seems they've formed a corporation with the idea of balancing the load. I'll let you figure out what that means. At Steve's lodge he is owner, cabin cleaner, chief cook and bottle washer, guide, and most of all, an interesting man to spend a week with.
Steve with his Painting Shorts On (sorry Steve)
Not that he's a saint, believe me the man has his quirks like we all do but it's the oddities that add a splash of color to the picture. As the days quickly passed, the three of us meshed, even let down our guards a bit to let the warts show. I'd say more but that's Steve's story to tell.
     It turned out we only spent a single evening on the water without him in the boat. Seemed we fed off each other's energy. Steve wanted to show off his lake in the best possible way but the weird spring had thrown the fishing off kilter. Of course there was nothing he could do about that but assured us we'd simply hit it wrong. And there was nothing we could do about it but keep hammering the water in the hope it'd pick up and over the days it did.
     Each morning, well past the crack of dawn, I'd trot around to the woods side of the cabin in search of what Steve called 'the best outhouse in Canada'. Up the slight hill to my left Steve would usually be sitting on the lodge's porch having a cup of coffee. We'd exchange a good morning and he'd assure me we'd find the lunkers today in such an upbeat voice I had no doubt we would. Looked to me like the man figured he could improve the fishing by attitude and a smile.
     A time or two on the water told Steve both Allan and I had already thrown a few lures in the park. Also told him Al was one fishing-son-of-a-gun and I wasn't likely to fall out of the boat. Hey, every fishing circus needs a clown. He once briefly mentioned he liked our work ethic and that being on the water with the two of us was like Disneyland. Not sure what he meant by that but I took it as a compliment not that he thought I was Goofy.
     As to Allan up front, he threw red and white spinners. That's it, nothing else. He lost two right off the bat due to poor knot tying. Finally, Steve re-rigged him and Al was good for the rest of the week. In total my son fished with a pair of my homemade spinners.
They were tied as small musky lures with three and a half inch, colorful buck tails. He fished the first till it shredded to bare hook then switched to his second and last. So call it six days, forty hours plus hours of throwing lures, hundreds of fish, and two lures. Also, as usual, no leader. We’d stopped using leaders in '99 and haven't been bit off more than a handful of times. Steve loaned me one after our single bite off. I briefly used it but felt like a sinner. That evening the leader found its rightful place as a bookmark souvenir. As to my lure choice, yup, spinners. It's what I do. Make 'em, beat 'em to hell on fish, save the parts, and make more. The plan next year, if we should go, is two small, pocket-sized tackle boxes, a dozen red and whites in each, and a dozen snap swivels, maybe some backup line.
     The pike fishing wasn't great by Elbow Lake standards but was damn good compared to most anywhere else. Throw in a couple of dozen walleyes to sweeten the pot, a few in the five to six pound range and we were definitely catching our share - whatever the heck that means. When Allan or I would boat another good-sized pickerel, Steve would shake his head and say, "This is nuts. It sure as heck's not like this most years." Usual for him while drifting the huge cabbage beds at Woody's on the south end or in the channel across from Chinaman Island would have been a half dozen or more pike of thirty plus inches, and a fatty or two officially verified on Steve's Master Angler Board. Yeah, we were tying into some of those usual fish but in nowhere near the numbers expected. Such is life.
     What struck me was the strength of a pike when it reached the thirties. The ladies go to straight down and make you dredge them up. No head wiggling, just a log on the bottom. All the while you've got the rod's tip pointed to the sky with your arm tension set on high. The only way to gain line is to reel in the lowering tip without any line slack then hoist the rod back to eleven o'clock. Makes a man feel more like a power crane than an angler. Can't say I was fully aware of that method before climbing on the boat with Mr. Japp. No sir, Steve coached me through the proper way to handle a big fish. He said, "Knowing how to land a big pike is what puts the Master in Master Angler."
     Over the decades Steve had put in the hours, paid attention to the old timers, and grown to be a master of his craft. The funny part was that pike fishing wasn't his craft, only his passion. Since his days on the water as a seven-year-old fishing with his dad and grandfather, being a fishing guide had been his dream. As is usual in life, putting food on the table and change in his pockets got in the way. From the moment he left home on the day after high school graduation, Steve had lived the life of an entrepreneur, built and sold several businesses but always in the back of his mind the dream of guiding bimbos like me lived on. Seventeen years ago he bought the lodge and lives there three months out of the year, fishes till bear hunting season then organizes a few hunts. His remaining nine months are spent in Panama with his family. The details are Steve's to fill in.
     Though we caught a few pike of memory, such as the ugliest pike I'd ever seen which had something of a Michael Jackson complexion, only one truly stands out. We were drifting Chinaman's on a blustery evening; rollers big enough to tell me if Allan and I had been on a canoe trip we'd have spent the evening in camp. Yes sir, a sixteen-foot Lund sure does build a man's confidence when the whitecaps are running. Simply put, this was a pike hooked up on the end of a long cast. The hammer of a hit told me it was a fish of size but its run also told me it had no interest in diving. Instead, the fish began a ten second display with a porpoise-like leap that started me laughing. Don't know why that is, causing panic and pain in another animal is no reason for laughter but laugh is what I did. Another two seconds beneath the waves and she came straight up, fully out of the water pretty much like a tarpon and did a full back flip. Would've looked good as a piece of hardware store calendar art from 1953. Even Steve said he'd never seen the likes of that before. Of course the leap upped my laugh to a roar and I lost the pike. Only fitting for such an acrobat of a fish.
     Over the years I'd heard when a mayfly hatch was on walleyes won't eat anything else. Also read in a trusted fishing magazine that just wasn't true. What Elbow Lake taught me made a lot more sense than the conjecture of experts. Near as I can figure we went through two hatches for sure and maybe three. At least that's what the screens on our bump-out kitchen told me. I've become nosier as I've grown older. I see a mayfly on a screen and I'll go nose to bug body to check it out. The reason I'm not sure whether there were two or three hatches has more to do with my fading memory and simple chance than actuality. For all I know there might have been ten or maybe it was simply a case of no two mayflies looking alike.
     As it was, Allan and I turned pickerel most everywhere we found pike, sometimes mixed within, more often on the edges of the big cabbage patches.
Can't say we saw any mayflies in the weed beds so that might be the reason they were still on the bite. However, we did pull into a few protected, weed free bays where millions of spent mayfly bodies floated. There we'd also find walleyes hammering a new hatch like schools of bass. Never saw that before. Dozens of boils surrounded us but not a one was interested in our spinners. Made me wish I had my fly rod and room enough in the boat to not impale anyone. Lesson learned: when you see pickerel chowing down on mayflies you best check out the big weed beds if you're looking for a shore lunch.

End of Days

     Besides guiding us for six days Steve kept his word about a shore lunch. Over the years client input told him the best spot for that was back at the lodge where there were fewer bugs and better seating. Truth is the bugs weren't all that bad though I was bitten by three kinds of flies, one of which went through a tennis shoe and a sock to find the meat. Tough monkey.
     The main building wasn't huge, probably was the size of a 1960s suburban rambler. The kitchen was a snapshot of 1961 when the lodge was built; red Formica counters banded in nickel, varnished plywood cabinets, stove, ice maker, and a refurbished slab wood table big enough to seat a dozen in the middle. It was there we ate plates of walleye fillets, home fries, and corn. On the second go-around the fillets were simply seasoned with salt and pepper and fried in butter. Should you get the chance, that's the way to eat Minnesota's state fish.
     While we were there the main room was unused. When Steve has a group on the American plan it becomes the dining room. For now it was simply his makeshift office surrounded by knotty pine walls covered with large mounted pike, elk antlers, a variety of other critters, and a bearskin large enough to cover a king-sized bed. Oddly, though we were forty miles from the nearest road the lodge has an Internet connection. Go figure.
     Allow me a side-track; if you've read my other blogs or are among the dozen who've read my novel, you know about my fictional Uncle Emil and the adventure he and his nephew Archie went on in ’61, the same year the Elbow Lake Lodge was built. Emil was missing his right eye, as was Steve. Both owned a rear tiller Lund fishing boat, were about the same age, build, and Emil was nearly as hairless as Steve, all no doubt a coincidence but interesting nonetheless.
     Call our seven days a hoot in a fishing tornado. Our hour-long afternoon siestas were a necessity and proved just enough rest to revive the three of us for an evenings worth of pike. We had the full gamut of weather as expected, light on the rain end and heavy on heat. Two days with ninety degree highs weren't in our plans but made me thankful for my straw hat, that and looking natty as all get out when I’d strut out to the boat.
     Didn’t snap a photo and sure didn’t get enough viewing time, not that would have made any difference. The eagle’s nest was perched atop the tallest spruce on a midsized island probably a dozen feet down where the first cluster of branches was strong enough to support its enormous weight. Steve said the Manitoba DNR estimated another that’d sat in a toppled spruce at a few tons. This one wasn’t yet in that class but would grow to be over the years. Seems eagles are into maintenance. We saw a lot in our week but that few seconds view will stick.

     Come Friday Allan and I loaded our memories and tired butts on the Lund and were off at seven-thirty, on the road by nine, and home a bit after midnight, a tad over ten degrees of latitude south. Hell-of-a day. Would I do it again? - in a heartbeat.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Continued Confusion - 2003

     A glance at the map showed a narrowing of the File around eight miles downstream. Looked about  the same on paper as what we'd just fished. We broke camp on the fifth morning and were off. Maps are useful tools but sure not the same as being there and just as sure weren't this time. What we hoped to be pickerel holding, fast water proved to be nothing more than a long cast of lazy stream wide and smooth bottomed to boot. However, we were in the middle of a learning experiment, didn't know better, figured 'what the hell, and looked for a landing. A quarter mile beyond we found another smooth slab with a niche perfect for sliding the boat up.
     Took a bit of searching till we turned up a tent site a short hike back in the woods but she was die-level and thick with caribou moss. Moss adds comfort but calls for a hands and knees search of the ground to find all the hiding rocks and roots. We quickly convened a meeting and by a vote of one to one, with me as senior member casting the deciding vote, Allan was selected to do the hand work. Though it didn't seem momentous at the moment - and for sure was not earth shaking - there was no doubt we were the first feet to tread this stretch of ground. After all we were on a minor side river and the landing was not something any right thinking woodsmen would look at twice.
     Over the next three days - would've been two but a dose of wind told us to sit around and read for a day - we searched upriver, downriver, immediately around-river and turned up nary a fish. Wasn't so much virgin water as it was sterile. However, immediately to our right was a ten acre, swamp-like bay that did prove productive. Fair-sized pike, a bucket or two of pickerel, and even a few jumbo perch, not a one in great numbers but enough to hold our interest till they got hip to our game. That and a mama bear doing her best to keep her three cubs in line as they passed on the far side of the bay. Don't know if they didn't see us - for sure they could smell us - but they paid us no mind.
     Reaching our tent called for a hike up and off the rock, through the bushes and back into the woods. For one reason or another Allan and I walked the new path enough times to start wearing a groove in the duff and soil. Over our three days it'd definitely become a trail. I have no idea how long such a trail would last, maybe no more than a week or till the next heavy rain, maybe for years. Once again I did an elbow first flop onto our slab. This time it was no more than two seconds after Al said, "Don't step there Dad, I just spilled some water." Damnation, there was no doubt in my mind this stone slab had been waiting hundreds of million years for the stars to line up, a little water to be dropped, and a bozo like me to come traipsing along. I could almost hear its laughter.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

2003 - I'm Kind of Lost

     Our return to Elbow Lake threw me out of whack, stopped my brain, and I don't know where to go from here. The idea behind a recap of Allan and my Canada trips was a walk down memory lane.  Also put those years into a concise form and maybe incorporate them into a book or two of fishing memories. But, like I said, for the moment I'm stumped.

Back to 2003

     We spent two days at every campsite. Could've paddled the distance to the Gogal's fly-in lodge in three days but with thirteen, we were in no hurry. Al and I weren't explorers or out to recreate the journeys of the Voyageurs. We were there to fish remote waters and have a few open-ended hours in camp. Eighty miles of remote was plenty enough for us.  What we found was the crapshoot of planning a trip months in advance with no idea what the conditions would be like. Call that usual for a working man.
     Larry Gogal had said to look for moving water and that's what we did. Four miles of paddling brought us to our first and as it turned out, only stretch of rapids. By the time Allan said we should fish this little stretch I was already pulling tight to the bank. Seemed the walleyes thought they were trout and were stacked up behind every rock of size. We held tight in the eddy and hammered pickerel for twenty minutes. Released them all. We were still at the plenty of food stage of the trip and had no need for fresh from the water, free range. organic, best eatin' in the north woods, fish. Also, after finding pockets of walleyes on both ends of this lake figured there were plenty more where they came from.
     Below the rapids we paddled through a mini-canyon over a quarter mile stretch of river scoured rock. Had the water been up this would've been one hell of a chute. Any lower and we'd have been portaging. A mile later we came on a narrow peninsula with a perfect landing and a level tent site atop a six-inch deep, bed of moose moss. We hadn't traveled but a half-dozen miles but were near proven fishing and felt no need to move on.
     It was there I first conducted an experiment to test how slippery slab rock could become with the slightest splashing of dishwater. Simply put, damn slippery. Thank God I had sense enough to use my elbow to beak the fall.
     Once again we began our search for fish. Two entering streams in the lake to our north proved desert dry. We whipped the shores pointlessly in hope the pickerel would be there simply from habit. But it seemed fish are smarter than people. Like that was news. If there's one consistent streak in my life it's never foregoing doing something dumb-assed in favor of the intelligent. Truth was if we were in the bush solely to catch fish we'd have been a whole lot smarter to have stayed in Minnesota near proven home water. No way would Al and I have caught twenty pound pike but over two weeks would have worn out wall hanger bass and a few darned nice northerns. Oh well, we always had the rapids and its never ending stream of pickerel.
     Leaving camp with walleyes on our minds we quickly came upon the interlopers from Fairwind Lake. They were tucked into a marginal beach backed by a cliff and fixing to chow down on a stringer of chunky pickerel. No doubt our pickerel from our rapids. Damnation, didn't they know we'd found them first? Oh well, seemed to me we were camped on their shore lunch grounds. Could be this party had been fishing these waters for decades, had their routines set in stone, and us Johnny-come-latelies had upset the plan. Sometimes six people in five thousand square miles of forest, lake, and river is a few too many.
     Allan and I returned to the fast water about the time the sun came to a rest on the treetops. After bucking the current to the slick of dark water in the lake above, Al cast down into tiny stretches of pocket water below and hauled in fish after fish while I held the boat. I'd read about such moments while sitting in Ole's Barber Shop while awaiting my monthly butch cut. Master anglers firing slingshot casts beneath overhanging limbs to a tiny niche in a shoreline where a monster of a fish lay waiting for a perfectly placed lure. This time the master was my son who was throwing his red and white spinner into bucket-sized slicks behind boulders in a Canadian rapid. Yes sir, this beat Field and Stream all to pieces.
     Finally I picked up the rod and pointlessly, more out of wanting something to do than with a purpose or maybe feeling a little left out, threw a spinner off to my left. Oddly enough I tied into the first of four good-sized pike. For twenty minutes ours was a dance of balance between an unwanted tumble into the rocks below and the joy of tormenting ten pound pike in the growing dark. Finally we had to pack it in knowing a dash through a boulder field under starlight wasn't a game we wanted to play. Ain't that the way she goes sometimes? Four pike might've been all there was, also might've been stacked up like cordwood. On the upside we'd found a couple of good spots and figured there were more up ahead. All we had to do was check the map, locate where the river narrowed to a cast wide with access to deep water, paddle our way down, and find a campsite nearby. Yup, we had ourselves a plan.