2016 With Brian
Communication's a big part of trip planning. Like to say I'm good at it but I'm not. Seems like every boonies trip I plan arrives with its own screw-ups, usually mine. This is my second trip with my nephew Brian. You'd think on the second go around we'd have it figured out. Could be he did. First off, none of our problems were earth shaking. Brought too much food once again, way too much fishing tackle and half as many sleeping bags as we needed. Mea culpa. Not sure whose fault the bag shortage was but I suspect it was mine. He said, "Pack an extra sleeping bag." I heard, "pack an extra sleeping pad." So I packed two Therma-rest self-inflaters. No problem. I'd remembered his pad as being close to five pounds heavier than mine, so it kinda came as a surprise on Monday morning when Brian brought along his two and a half pound pad. A perceptive man would have said something besides, "geez, your pad is much lighter than I remembered." Also would have figured if we had one too many things for sleeping on, we were probably short something else. Not me, I simply pulled the Therma-rest from the pack and stuffed in Brian's. Over the previous week I'd done a serious amount of food shopping. No way we'd starve if we were weather bound for an extra day. Or two. Or three. Brian knows food so I asked him to pick up a few things he liked to snack on. And he did. And it was all good. And gave us a couple of extra days of munchables. Good wine, cheese, gorp, dessert snacks, dried apples, cranberries and blueberries. In addition to what I packed, we might have had an edible forty-five pounds, enough for five campers with healthy appetites. Yeah, we ate well. In addition to Brian's extras we had steaks, pork chops, apples, New French Bakery bread, iced tea, coffee, two meals of homemade spaghetti, carrots, tomatoes, candy and a variety of bars, two dozen eggs, turkey bacon, twenty potato patties, three sticks of butter, swiss cheese for grilled cheese sandwiches, more gorp, and I even considered bringing along a live hog and goat but figured they might rile the canoe. What the hell was I thinking of? Throw in enough ice to keep the perishables fresh and we had one serious food load. Loading the gear on Monday morning was no problem. Racking the canoe took a little more time. Brian'd never loaded a boat atop his SUV before but had the racks, straps and stops. Once we figured it out, the Wenonah was rock solid. All in all our putzing took close to an hour. The drive was a simple affair in good weather. Couple of stops along the way for food and making water (Read that phrase in a book of age. Sure sounds better than urinating or pissing). Had a room reserved for the night so our only consideration once we made Grand Marais was hitting the Ranger Station for our permit. Of course they were closed. Seems like they close earlier with each passing year. I recall Allan and I squeaking in as the clock struck six back in the nineties. These days it's four-thirty. Ah well, tomorrow at eight it would be. Don't recall the exact moment when we realized Brian had no sleeping bag. Do remember going slack-jawed. Good thing we realized the oversight when we did. Being the considerate man I am, I'd have felt terrible snuggling into my bag and would've tossed and turned for a minute or two before dropping off. Mostly I feared Brian's shivering would’ve kept me awake. Now eight o'clock at the Ranger Station would be followed by nine o'clock at an outfitter, or maybe the world's best stocked Ben Franklin. Yup, the B. F. in Grand Marais carries a wide range of quality camping gear. Truth is I felt embarrassed, guilty and downright bad that Brian would have to shell out cash for something I had sitting at home. We ate at Sven and Ole's pizza in town. Yup, that's the one on all the bumper stickers and they do make pretty good pizza. Their pies taste like they came right out of the sixties or maybe Lake Wobegon. No twenty-first century organic, gluten free, with a smattering of some kinda rare Italian cheeses and herbs, individual-sized, diet-conscious, almond milk based, frou-frou meals for us. Nope, their pizza's a slab that goes down good, sticks to your ribs and explodes out in the morning. Leaves a camper with a full feeling in the evening and a flat-stomached, emptied pleasure as he/she paddles out in the morning. They even have beer on tap. I recall we might have had a couple. Didn't meet either Sven or Ole. Made me wonder if the names were made up. Back at the Thomsonite Beach Resort we found an envelope taped to the door. Inside was a note and a key. Seems the proprietors had gone out para-sailing on the big lake. While riding the waves a gust of wind had carried one of them into an eagle's aerie where he was devoured by the young’uns. Those things happen in the Arrowhead more frequently than you'd imagine. 'Course, that it happened once is more than any sane person would imagine. Anyhow, it turned out an eagle feather was imbedded in the man's remains and the cadaver was arrested. Yeah, the State of Minnesota takes its eagle feather laws seriously. At the moment, the widow was trying to raise bail money so she could free her husband and give what was left of him, less the feather, a proper burial. In short, we saw neither of the owners while we were there. Did talk to a guy standing beneath a spruce tree that drizzly evening. He and Brian hit it off since they both knew the ins and outs of esoteric photography. Don't recall exactly what or how he was shooting from his tripod with a high buck digital camera but it involved a whole bunch of pictures. Maybe thousands for all I know. We slept well that night knowing the weather was going to improve.
Since I retired, the sun has become my friend and alarm clock. A tad before Sol breaks the horizon my internal light sensor tells me it's time to get up. Usually my unconscious hits the snooze button for an additional ten minutes but this morning we had places to go, things to do, odds and ends to dread and water to make (yup, there it is again), so I rose to face the day. A few minutes later Brian began to stir. We figured the rangers were still sawing wood, no need for us to hurry. Breakfast was first on our list right after coffee at the Mocha Moose. Grand Marais is not your average small town. In fact, one of the travel services rated it as the coolest small town in the galaxy. Not sure what they meant by coolest since the average summer temperature along the big lake is about the same as the average winter temperature anywhere else in the country. Regardless, the town boasts a dozen or so restaurants, upscale lodging, a micro-brewery, gourmet coffee shop, couple of bakeries, gift shops galore and a harbor chuck filled with fancy boats. In other words, it puts a civilized spin on the end of the earth. Don't know why but the idea of a lumberjack breakfast held no appeal for either of us. Oatmeal with a side of bacon at the Bluewater Cafe did the job just fine. After the damage of last night's pizza, a soothed bowel was at the top of our list of things to do today (right after coffee of course). Having time to kill we headed to the Ranger Station where we gave the front door the stink eye with hopes our combined mojo could spring the lock. No luck. Instead we sat in Brian's truck honing our patience. Slowly the parking lot came alive. Through the windshield we watched several trays of food pass in the arms of non-uniformed women. Down below the hill, to the rear of the station, we could see green clad, official looking people sneaking in the back door. Why not the front door? Struck me as suspicious. A sign of the times? Could be motherly types bearing hot dishes gave the government office a warm spin. Made you want to say, "Gosh, I was wrong. The government is all soft and cuddly. Reminds me of my mom. Darn, I think I'll give her a call. Tell her that I miss and love her and to be sure to pay her taxes on time." Or maybe the reason was the large building out back from which the rangers seemed to be emerging. The video was as exciting as it's ever been. Could be longer as far as I'm concerned. And could have dialog. Or maybe a little slapstick humor. Bears in clown makeup rolling over the portages on tiny bicycles. The follow-up quiz was simple enough. Boiled down to camping in designated places and not making a mess. The Boundary Waters is a wilderness and at the same time, it's not. A quarter million people pass over the portages in less than five months. The one heading into East Pike has worn a couple of inches into the earth. That's a lot of boots. Guess it pays to be neat and remind everyone to mind their manners no matter how repetitious and mundane the video. Fifteen minutes later we escaped but still had plenty of time to kill. Though there were plenty of sleeping bags to be had in town not a one was legally available before nine. We roamed the streets in search of inspiration and came upon an outfitter we hadn't known existed. Brian pulled to a stop in their parking lot. The place was wood and glass new and looked hi-tech modern. Don't know why we waited but it worked. Could be our need conjured up the clerks. Not only were they early but they also let us in. Brian found the perfect bag, pulled out the plastic and we were finally on the road (after spending ten minutes discussing the merits of locally made, freeze dried food). Now nothing stood between us and the access at Little John Lake. Passed a pair of Road Work Ahead signs and came to a stop behind a MNDOT tractor-trailer blocking the right lane for no obvious reason. Appeared abandoned. After a brief discussion of what to do, Brian crossed the double yellow line and passed. 'Bout then, a gremlin in the guise of a yellow-clad road guard popped out from behind the truck, screamed us to a stop and began to spit fury. Seems we'd violated four traffic laws including not stopping for an unseen road guard. Damnation. We just couldn't catch a break this morning. Immediately we put on our best please and thank you manners. It’s easier to swallow the ego then spend the night in the hoosegow. Hovland's one of those towns that's larger on the map than it is in person. Good thing they've got a sign or you wouldn’t know it’s there. However, for me it's big in memories. A mile before town the Brule River rumbles its way into Lake Superior. Once in town, the smaller Flute Reed River does the same but with a more poetic name. Decades earlier the outdoorsman Calvin Rutstrom owned property on the Flute Reed. Immediately past the bridge, the Arrowhead Trail turns inland and climbs the Sawtooth Mountains. Gotta forgive us Minnesotans, if you can't see the top of a hill from the bottom, we call it a mountain. Brian almost shifted into a lower gear for the climb and no doubt would’ve had we been in a brand new, 1,100,000,015 BC Toyota 4-Runner (they sure don't make 'em like they used to). About twelve miles up road in 1965, my fictitious Uncle Emil built a cabin alongside a trout stream. Might even have met Calvin Rutstrom (hadn't thought of that till now). If he had, Emil wouldn't have known Rutstrom from Adam. 'Course, unlike Rutstrom, Emil wouldn't have thought of himself as an outdoorsman. If asked he'd have stroked his chin and said something like, "Well, I do like being outdoors and I am a man. But an outdoorsman? No, I don't think so." My fears rose with the climb. Wasn't so much that I was scared, more that I was extraordinarily apprehensive. I knew for certain what the portage would be like, knew it well. Also knew we'd survive it. Also knew loading a canoe with two hundred pounds of gear and paddling off in the opposite direction of the nearest hospital was no longer the mindless thrill it'd once been. Nope, unexpected stuff can happen faster than you can snap a bone. This wasn't northwest Manitoba but it sure wasn't Lake Nokomis back in south Minneapolis. Also, 'bout a half mile down the cedar lined shore of Little John a stretch of rapids runs that'd once turned me backwards as I exited. Then there was the portage. A hundred eighty rods up and over a fair sized hill paved with rock, root, mud and huffing, puffing, wheezing pain every labored step of the way. Back in the nineties this little carry had been no more than forty-five minutes of sweat. Not so anymore. And then there was what awaited us at the end of the portage. Would there be any open campsites on East Pike Lake or would we have to push on? Plod and paddle till we ran out of daylight and were forced rollup in a tarp, bodies coated with leeches, on a hummock in the middle of some God-forsaken swamp. And if we did find a campsite, would we be greeted by clouds of back flies and mosquitoes? I'm not making this stuff up; those thoughts were up there dancing in my head where the visions of sugarplums should have been. So, why in the hell was I on this trip? Good question. Last winter a trip to the Boundary Waters sounded like fun. Also might have to do with my failing memory, which blanks out the bad till it's too late and finds us tooling up the Arrowhead Trail on our way to adventure or, more likely, self-inflicted torture. First stop was Portage Brook. Called it Aspen Brook in "Emil's Cabin." Spent a lot of time last winter looking at the stream from the satellite and she looked to be a friendly valley with a meandering stream that'd easily lend itself to building a forestry road, two track driveway and a cabin. One look from the Trail told another story. As did the cloud of black flies we drew (see comments above and why my fears now rose to a boil). The brook was a beauty as it tumbled over and about a boulder field twenty feet beneath our boots. Weeks earlier, in my mind's eye, Brian and I were going to ease ourselves down a gentle descent, amble along the inevitable trout fisherman's streamside path and shoot a few photos. Give me a picture to describe in the Cabin story. Well, if there was a path, I couldn't see it. And if there had been, it'd be one we'd have to slide down on our butts. And if there was a streamside path, it'd be an up and down, over boulder and around bush or tree, acrobat act along the steep sided bank. Not happening today Roy. I made do by firing off a few from where we stood.
Those few minutes won't leave me alone. Could be they're trying to tell me something. I wrote "Emil's Cabin" driven by ease. Liked the general gist of it but realized it lacked any kind of spark. No life in it. The Portage Brook Brian and I saw was definitely alive and had been since the last ice age. It was scary alive. Raw and real. Time for a rewrite.
A pair of men paddled into the access while we unloaded our canoe and gear. They'd been camping and fishing on John Lake. They gave us a thumb's up as to their luck and confirmed what the ranger back in Grand Marais had said, "Yup, there were bugs." However, they made no fuss over the numbers and my hopes were raised a little. 'Course they may have been ex-Marines who found clouds of black flies as nothing more than seasoning on their morning's bacon and eggs. We continued our off-load. Brian pulled his truck into the little parking area while I stood beside the empty canoe scratching my head. I knew for a fact the gear had to go in the canoe. Exactly how that would happen was a mystery I hoped would solve itself as we threw in the packs. My mind's not as sharp as it once was. All the necessities of decision-making are still there but float around in a cloud. Willy-nilly. I don't envision like I once did. The picture in my head needs a helping hand from reality. However, once step one was solved all the fuzzy corners crisped up. Stove under front seat, food pack next, cooler, big packs in tandem, tight to the rear thwart, rod tubes and spare paddle jammed between and Brian's waist pack behind the stern seat. Trim, tied off and balanced. We paddled onto Little John. We floated in my amber colored Wenonah Spirit II. The Spirit was Wenonah's first design and okay in every respect, compromised to the point of being able to do everything in an adequate manner. She's neither as fast as a flat-water canoe nor as maneuverable as a riverboat. But she's deep and good on big water with a heavy load. Never shipped a drop and I hoped it'd stay that way. Turn the Spirit over and the history of every Canadian Shield rock I'd ripped her on is written like glacial carvings in greenstone. Put those scratches together and you'd have the story of each trip she's floated. Could Kevlar be translated into English, I'd have sent the boat in for publication. All afterthought of course. At the moment I was happy the floor was dry and we were moving easily.
I came to the j-stroke late in life, the real j-stroke that is. At first I tried to learn it through written instruction. What I ended up doing was an example of a failure to communicate. A forty-five second you-tube set both me and the canoe straight. Turned out the j-stroke wasn't really j-shaped. Sure came as a surprise to me. These days should you ask me if I can track a canoe in a straight line I'd say yes but not while on the water. You never know what ironic forces lurk beneath the surface. Two weeks earlier I'd taken my heavy, homemade, ash paddle and thinned its laminated blade with plane and sandpaper. Knocked a few ounces off. My intention was to use it throughout the trip. At the moment it was in my hands and was used solely for the first two days. Then my right triceps told me it was time for a change. Worked well enough so I'll carve three lighter paddles, two small ones for grandchildren and another for me. Before heading down the fast water we paused looking for an obvious path. In the old days the stern paddler would stand to get a better view. Not this old dog. Thirty seconds later we were in the Boundary Waters and passing inches over a field of car-sized boulders. Our sunlit paddle down John was almost easy. Just enough work to warm the muscles. I'd seen no need to pull out the map case for our entry. Been down this way a half dozen times. At the far end it came as no surprise that seventeen years had skewed my memory a hundred yards north and as a small surprise that the landing looked pretty much as I'd remembered, even down to the large shore boulder guarding the trail. We putzed our way through the offload. I pulled old man rank and stabilized the canoe while Brian did the heavy lifting. All was placed on dry ground to the side of the trail to allow easy passage should anyone come down the portage. Call that Boundary Waters etiquette. Moments later a group of four arrived as we were saddling up. Brian threw on a big pack, grabbed the rod tubes, stove and trotted off. I dropped my common sense, slid on the other big pack and hoisted the cooler by its handle. At close to eighty pounds the load was more than I could carry but knew me and cooler would part ways somewhere up the portage. Call my trot more of a stagger. Started by setting the cooler down and switching hands every twenty rods. Then fifteen. Ten. Finally five. I deserted the beast atop a steep downhill about forty rods from East Pike. The descent would've been dangerous. I was pooped and my legs gimpy. The remaining rods were easy. Thank you Brian. Rested on our empty-handed return. There, Brian threw the canoe on his shoulders. Carrying the food pack and paddles was a puffer for me but didn't require a rest stop. Figured, in the future I'd have no problem with fifty pounds, maybe a little more. Unfortunately, we averaged close to sixty-five. I know, I know, the voyageurs humped a minimum of one-eighty but they died of hernias and heart attacks before they were thirty-five. Had they been fifty-two or sixty-eight they'd have been hard pressed to carry their egos and silly little red hats at the same time. Simply put, we had too much stuff. However, on that carry the seed was planted for another trip, maybe even a travel trip, with a little more forethought. On the carry Brian'd squeezed a little information out of the four young men (odd, I didn't consider myself a young man when I was twenty-seven). Turned out the campsite we were hoping for was taken. Like that came as a surprise. Oh well, the portage over, we slid the canoe along the basalt slab where I'd caught my first smallmouth bass back in '66 and loaded. Don't know what prompted him but Brian said we should check out the site anyhow. Why not? It wasn't but a hundred yards out of our way. As we approached, it sure looked occupied even though we could identify nothing specific. No canoes at the landing so we slid closer. Finally we beached the nose, Brian climbed out and a minute later we were unloading. Got me contemplating what'd happened that morning. Showed up early at the Ranger Station and we stink-eyed it open. Did the same at the outfitter. I figure something similar happened at the campsite. We were told it was occupied. Sure looked occupied. No doubt it was occupied. Could be our combined aura, desire and connections with the spiritual forces underlying existence just wiped those campers out. One second they're wondering what kind of beer goes best with s'mores, next second they're in their canoes, orbiting Oberon out by Saturn and wondering what the hell just happened. Then their heads explode. Sorry guys. Next time camp elsewhere.
Three campsites on East Pike; the one a half-mile down lake sits behind a huge, even by Boundary Waters standards, nearly level 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 are two, one sucks and the other's worse. About 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 the 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. This wasn’t a level site. From lake to tent pad, the ground gained twenty feet. Simply moseying around camp was a workout and a good 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, zigzag 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. I 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 and 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 style, diced tomatoes along with hash browns, five kids between us, seventy plus years of marriage and almost half a head of hair split two ways. 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 couple of good meals along the way. Best you can do is having 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. I suppose 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 at random. This year Brian brought a concoction made of walnuts, cashews, dried apples and peaches, all coated with cinnamon syrup. Went down so well we took turns licking the bag. However, I 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-tech but sure am slo-tech. 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. I’ve heard 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 find no need to move on. We had that. Not in spades, call it clubs. Good enough to fill in the hours between chowing down. 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.