Like I said, the forecast was for sun, warmth bordering on heat and light winds. Turned out Lonnie Johnson, our chauffeur to the edge of the wilderness, had no other plans than the two of us and we met up a half hour early. Extra half hours are good especially when I'm on the back end of the trip. I still plan like my body's forty-five but at seventy-two humping heavy loads over portages takes longer. Longer? That's funny. It takes lots longer. Roots, stones and mud call to my possible broken hip and whisper of weeks doing nursing home rehab. That's no way to end a wilderness canoe trip. The gear was thrown aboard, the canoe strapped at right angles to the pontoons, and we were off. The plan originally called for being dropped off at the north end of Lake Vermilion, paddling a short length of Trout Creek and portaging around the falls. We'd clear our nostrils on the shore, pitch the shit in the canoe and paddle off to adventure and rip-snortin' fishing. Real men enter the wilderness with sparkling eyes fixed on the horizon and over-stuffed packs on their backs. However, on the boat ride I asked Lonnie how much it would cost for a tow across the portage? "Thirty-five bucks." There was a time in my life when I'd never have asked that question. This time I never gave my answer a moment's thought, "Let's do it." My name is Mark and I'm a weak old man. At the dock on the north side of Vermilion we were met by Lonnie's daughter Tina sporting long sleeves, earrings and hip boots. Canoe country chic. We loaded the canoe on her trailer, packed the boat for travel and climbed aboard for the ATV haul. I'd never before done a portage while sitting in a canoe. Seemed almost immoral. There are many ways of being immoral in life and a few of those call for jail time or eternal punishment if you're bent along those lines. This time it was a combination of weird, cool and a little giggly. The bounce and jiggle four-minute drive done, Tina backed us onto Trout Lake, unhitched the boat and we were off in a flail of random paddling. I hadn't been on a wilderness trip for a couple of years, and it showed. Load balance can be critical in a canoe. You should ride level with the bow up just a tad and we were a little nose heavy. Makes steering more work than necessary. Up at the cabin I often canoe-fished with a partner who outweighed me by the size of a German Shepherd (the dog not Klaus Biedermeier). When I dug too deep, we'd spin like a top. On Trout Lake, being out of balance and practice we zigzagged a tad at first till the rust wore off. Compound that with the distraction of the surrounding beauty and it was all I could do to head in the right direction. Maps are good but at times I have a problem with scale. That micro dot on the map sure can't be the island over there. Hell, the real one's a hundred yards long not some lone rock. Honestly, where we were heading could've been solved by telling me the portage is in the back of the first mile-long bay on our right. Wasn't but a right-left-right course spread over two and a half miles. Three minutes with paddles in our hands and we were up to our usual four miles an hour and heading pretty much die straight. Brian and I weigh the same and that helps a lot. Our paddles are home made. Over the years I've gone overboard carving them. Who needs eighteen canoe paddles? No two of them look exactly the same—I'm not big on quality control—but this batch of three shared material—old growth redwood from a garage sale, walnut from a discarded FedEx wall plaque, leftover radiata pine from a previous project, aromatic cedar and a little birch I'd chainsawed and worked into few boards, years ago. Outside of the pine it all carries meaning in the form of story and a little blood. Over the years I've shed blood across a fair amount of the country and a little in Asia— none of it intentional unless I was in a doctor's office. As for the stories, you could fertilize the better part of a section of farmland with my words. It's what I do and best of all it's organic. Thirty-five minutes followed by a little back stretching and underwear peeling got us to the offload. It takes a few minutes to pull near two hundred pounds out of a canoe. Part of that has to do with easing your way into accepting what comes next. I'd read this portage wasn't a bear, just long—call it two hundred-seventy rods or a couple of hundred yards shy of a mile. Like most portages it went uphill for quite a while, rolled around for a bit, then stumbled downhill for a hell of a lot less than it went up even though the two lakes are at the same elevation. No doubt about it, maps lie. This trail was typical for the Boundary Waters—a myriad of foot trippers, bunch berries, hazel brush, a little alder, blueberries waiting on late July for fruit, neat little green mosses that called for a man to pause and snap an artsy photo but only a fool would stop to do some dumb-assed stunt like that, dappled sunlight broken by a canopy of pines (white, red and jack), aspen and birch. Moose maple everywhere waiting for fall to explode blaze red. Finally, the last thirty rods were a mild struggle through a thicket a woody brush that grabbed our legs and tried to drag us down like we were in some kind of ancient Greek saga. I know that's an exaggeration, but I was pooped, gimpy-legged and fog-headed by that point. Struck me so funny I laughed aloud. Misery makes me laugh, not sure why.
Brian carried the canoe, the cooler and the biggest pack. Thank you, Brian. Even with the lighter stuff it was still sixty pounds a trip—about the same as I carried in Vietnam. If I wasn't so damned cheap, we could cut the load another thirty pounds. Once on the water we found the first two sites occupied. No surprise there. Call it the rose smelling syndrome. Next stop was on a peninsula we named The Boot. The map told us where the site was, the lake said to look elsewhere. The fourth site was the charm, a narrow rock peninsula with an excellent landing and level tent pad open to the breezes—so perfect it seemed weird no one was there. An hour later the tent was up, rain tarp strung, and dinner sizzled in the pan under a hot sun. Brian called my scrambled mess bangers and mash, probably because he's half Irish and doesn't know any better. It's actually more of a fried glop that could be better called 'four of each,' potato patties, eggs and wienies (skin on). Whack it, dice it, scramble it and crisp it a little. Would've added a sprinkling of salt and pepper but I forgot them. Better that than the tent. Didn't matter how I slopped it together, we were hungry as stoners with a fresh bag of corn chips, and we crammed it down. On the way in, Lonnie Johnson said the party before us had hammered the walleyes, even kept count with a clicker. Now who the hell carries a clicker counter into the Boundary Waters? There's something wrong about that and goes against the metaphysical nature of fishing. It's much better to use my method, guess and exaggerate. My fictitious Uncle Emil would question any attempt at numbers when it comes to fishing, "You're either catching a few or you're not. It all works out right, you get enough for a meal or two." That's just my way of saying we always pack more than enough food. Anyhow, Pine Lake’s a tad over eight hundred acres, has a double handful of islands and a slew of bays and points. The DNR's lake finder said we were on prime fishing water, but as it turned out Mother Nature said we weren't. Lord knows I'm not a good fisherman. My skill involves doing the research and driving the miles with the hope of finding fish that are dumber than me. And it ain't easy. Us upright bipeds that wear hats think we're God's gift to the world and are smarter than anything else. We're not. I got my degree in Humanities and that sums us up as a species. We know more than any other living thing, but it's spread thin. When it becomes specific, like trying to fool an individual fish, they've got us beat by a nautical mile. So, you catch fifty walleyes in a day. Wow. How many simply spit on your yellow headed ball jig with a hand-tied, marabou and tinsel tail as you paddled by talking about Lord knows what gibberish that passes as canoe banter? A whole lot is the way I see it. In short, we didn't catch a lot. Brian did snag the only bluegill I've ever seen in the Boundary Waters, on a number two spinner no less, and it was better than a hand long. Made me think about the Republican Presidential debates of 2016. Would've been fun to see that sunny fly up on stage while the discussions on manhood were spewed back and forth. But a colorful, pan-sized bluegill deserved a better fate than up there with those idiots, so I'm glad it didn't happen. However, while I'm sitting here pecking away, I've got a smirk on my face. For the most part, the bugs weren't bad. No mosquitoes, black, deer or horse flies. We only saw a single no-see-um, but it might not have been one since we saw it. Then at sunset it all changed. Made a man appreciate biomass. For sure we weren't alone anymore. We had two types of spray and a Thermacell thingy. The Thermacell had proved effective on a previous trip but not this time. Our chemical efforts were a waste of technology. The first wave of mosquitoes sucked up the spray, the second licked our skin clean and the third came in for the kill. The ladies were out for our blood so they could procreate. Like every form of life, it's all about sex and survival. A cruder man would say we were totally f**ked, but I won't. We had no choice but to run for the tent.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday: Woke up to some fog on Thursday (actually it was Friday but I'm way too lazy to wipe out the photo on the left that’s no longer there. Guess I've moved into the realm of creative non-fiction). It wasn’t a total white out but close enough to do a little artsy-fartsy with the camera. Brian was relatively sleeping in mainly because I was up at 5:15. That's a little early for me but not for my bladder. Mine’s a fine bladder as bladder's go. Seeing as how it's the only one I have it was time to take the pressure off and keep the sleeping bag dry at the same time. These days that's my idea of a win-win. In the Boundary Waters video, they make you watch even though you've seen it a couple of dozen times, a big deal is made of leaving your scat in the latrine but says nothing about urine. So, I use it to mark my territory. Keeps the bears off knowing there's a large carnivore with a sick sense of humor roaming about. Bears are notorious for not liking puns, in particular plays on words. Not sure why since they lack any formal education. Could be its their sense of propriety, the dignity of being one of the lords of the forest and not wanting to have anything to do with scum from the Cities. Thursday's fog—the one not pictured above—was feathered wisps adrift on a near calm tarn (how's that for a nauseating image?). At the time I was way too tired to be that poetic. Mostly I was perched in my old Target folding chair bought for a canoe trip in the last century and hoping it wouldn't collapse when I nodded off. Our rain tarp was stretched over a humped slab and there was nary a place where all four legs could touch down at the same time. Brian's happy spot was about eight feet away. We said it was for comfort, but it may have had more to do with smell. Seems odd to me that most animals smell okay even though they don't bathe regularly, and humans generally stink. I recently read that when one of the Gemini capsules of the '60s was opened after fourteen days in space the rescuing crew vomited from the odor. I don't think ours was that bad. Our original intention was to take a couple of swims because of the hot weather but we didn't. Pine Lake isn't deep and has an intense bog stain. As for water purity, that's good, bogs filter. But even after filtering it's still amber in tone. Color aside, what kept us out of the water was life in action. Our four days was a fertile time. I'd seen mayfly hatches before and thought they were generally cute and cause for happy levity as in, "What do you mean not tonight?" When your lifespan is measured in hours, mood has no place when it comes to procreation. On Pine Lake we had three days of apocalyptic hatches. Clouds, myriads, flying examples of what a billion looks like. As the sun went down Brian, and I floated on the never-ending glass and were transfixed by fleets of them—hatching, fluttering up and off the water, swarming and copulating, joined together in pairs, triads and orgies. Yeah, we were surrounded by an orgy of Mother Nature. It said in no uncertain terms that when it came to life on Earth people weren't but a spit in a frying pan. In the mornings—not break of dawn early—we'd paddle out on a sea of death. Dead larvae and spent flies spread like chunky peanut butter on a slice of rye bread. It was the larvae that drew my eye. The mayflies in the air are generally cute little buggers but their larval stage digs deep into ugly. And on the water, now well into rotting, they're not something you want to bathe in. No sir, scooping one up for a closer look was about all I could handle. Could be evolution and metamorphosis are all about tempering ugly so maintaining the species seems like an appealing thing. On the left, in the photo that's not there, is Brian holding up one of the few fish we didn't eat. We'd have not eaten more but we didn't catch many. It wasn't for lack of trying. Nope, we worked the water hard, paddled every yard of shore, most of the islands and a couple of miles of the in-between. Pine's noted for its good fishing and the DNR's nettings say it's in the upper one percent of the Boundary Waters. We trolled and casted; threw spinners, plugs and jigs. I don't use live bait, seems like cheating. And these days not catching is no big deal for me. Simply perched in the aft seat, back throbbing, butt cheeks aflame where the tailbone hits the caning and arms aching from the never-ending paddling is enough for me. Could be I'm a sadist. Truth is, I like being on the water drowning in quiet. I love quiet. My hearing's not too sharp these days and easily loses conversation in background noise. In the Boundary Waters I can hear bird twitter and ripples tickling the shore rocks. The whirlpool made by Brian's paddle stroke as it passes the stern shushes in harmony with the creaking of the cane and ash seats. Most of each day found the lake glassed and the trees silent. Occasionally an assault by a gentle breeze would ripple the water, set us moaning in relief and the pines whispering thanks.
Brian and I always wear our life jackets knowing we're both capable of momentary stupidity. Couple that with our waning grace and a wish for a longer life, we're willing to sweat for safety and lordy did we sweat. At least I did. A mid-day paddle had my shirt dripping. We drank a lot of water, close to a gallon each, every day. Even then we dehydrated. I occasionally lusted for a washtub of beer on ice. I'd sit in the tub and pour down the first knowing the second would send me off to another world where I'd giggle about how fun it was to stumble on the uneven ground and fall in the water to join my dead mayfly buddies. Blue dusted with high, thin clouds capping the amber below, we'd paddle and fish for hours. Brian was constantly at it. The man has a God given work ethic when it comes to continued frustration. I tire of the game easily. These days I'm content to keep us slowly putzing along while Brian works the shoreline. Once in a while we'd catch a gentle drift, I'd scull to control our position and throw a few casts. The shorelines were a mixture of grey-black volcanic stones from basketball to Volkswagen-sized. All were white striped near the waterline. Changing high water marks was my guess. Occasionally we'd come on what passes for an escarpment in the western Boundary Waters; their thirty-foot high, jagged black faces were few and far between—nothing like the three hundred footers over by Superior. But the scene was pleasant, mesmerizing and always speaking to us in shades of green from hilltop to the waterline. Even when we weren't listening, nature carried on a conversation with our souls. Could be that's why a man's willing to put up with a few days of physical discomfort. There's always a lot going on even when you're busy doing the meaningless.
We rarely saw others. That was fine with me and no doubt with them also. Eagles riding thermals, a walleye exploding clear of the water for no apparent reason—never saw that before—an eagle diving to scoop a fish from a sunken island, alpenglow on the forest near sunset—the trees lit like neon, and all was coupled with never-ending conversation. Some meaningful, most bordering on idiotic (sorry Brian, sometimes I don't know when to shut up).
Sunday: The light show started around 2:30 in the morning. At times the flashes lit the tent like daylight and got me thinking about how close the big white pines were. The idea of being incinerated or crushed under a few tons of softwood held no appeal but I quickly fell back asleep. In my mind sleep trumps death. Brian told me we had a solid downpour for a couple of hours. Gully washer. Around 5:30 the roaring winds said it was time to wake up. The tent ballooned and snapped like a wet towel against an eleven-year-old's backside in a game of poolside high jinks but held its place and never shipped a drop. Thank you, Ryan Kruse. While it was rippin' and snortin' outside, we started stuffing gear away. We had a date at 11:00 with an ATV. This was no time to lallygag. Packing seems never ending. So much crap. A Conestoga wagon's worth to cram in three packs. By the time we crawled out to join the brightening gray the storm had all but passed. Brian made a fire and heated water for oatmeal. On Thursday my twenty-year-old Coleman stove had given up the ghost, blown the gasket under the main burner and made sounds like an arming hand grenade. That left us with a useless twenty pounds of metal box and gas, but we had matches and a forest full of wood as backup. Birch bark, bone-dry spruce twigs and a small stack of match-ready aspen from an abandoned beaver lodge provided all the fuel we needed for eight meals.
Leaving is hard but not as hard as it was when I had a job waiting for me in the morning. Besides, four days of pounding the water, carrying packs, the never-ending tasks around camp, constantly sweating through my clothes and sleeping on the ground had worn me down. At seventy-two I'm not yet an old man but I'm close. Finally, everything packed, we walked the site picking up micro bits of litter and the load began. It was the food pack that did me in. My back was twisted when I hoisted it. Ping! Not a major torque but enough to let Brian know he'd have to load me on the portage. We left camp a half hour early. Most likely I'll never paddle a loaded canoe again, but our exit will leave me remembering there was a time I could track a dead straight line. Sweet. We were trim and balanced, moving a solid four miles an hour and rarely switching sides. Paddling a canoe is a skill I wasn't born to. No one is. But after thousands of miles, it'd grown to be a simple joy. I dislike the idea of having to say, "I remember when...", but I think that time has come. The portage proved no more than work. Pick it up, shut your mind off, watch your step, work. We paddled our last two and a half miles to the portage and tow. Tina was waiting. We slid dead center on the trailer at 11:00 on the dot. Ever the FedEx courier.