An impractical dream, yes, but how far could we go in a day?
One morning, we decided to find out. With only a little money and a cooler full of Cokes, Baggies of bologna sandwiches and Oreos, we buzzed across Little Bemidji and paddled and poled through long shallow stretches of reedy Johnny Cake, the next lake down.
With the aid of our hydrological map, we located an outlet creek and putt-putted downstream until we reached a small dam. Only by removing the engine and gas tank were we able to lift the heavy craft out of the water and carry it around the obstruction.
By noon we had reached distant and pristine Many Point Lake, two lakes closer to the Gulf of Mexico. We felt the brief exhilaration that must have swept over 18th-century explorers when they happened upon a particularly beautiful sylvan lake deep in the great unmapped north country.
Then we spotted our mom and dad speeding by. With little effort or sense of adventure, they had hauled their boat over to Many Point on a trailer to try their luck in the sunfish holes near the big Boy Scout camp on the lake. The sight jerked us back into the 20th century. We munched our sandwiches and headed back to Little Bemidji.
An Indiana boy from Cabin 8 was waiting for us when we pulled up to the dock a few hours later. "What'd ya catch? What'd ya catch?" he shouted, bristling with curiosity. He was about 10 years old, already an expert in landing homely, bottom-feeding bullheads by the dozen.
I shut off the engine and began unfastening my life vest. "We didn't fish," I said. "Just sploring. We got all the way to Many Point." Our fish basket lay dry and empty in the bottom of the boat.
He was truly mystified. "You were gone all day in a boat, and you didn't go fishin'?"
My brothers and I looked at each other and smiled. The Indiana boy would never grasp our love of sploring, and we'd never grasp his love of bullheads.
Bullheads aside, fishing has always been an important part of going to the lake. Dad taught us how to bait hooks and unhook fish before we could read or ride a bike.
With up to four kids in a boat, he had to keep it simple. Until we reached our teens, we used bamboo poles, 6 feet long, with 12 feet of heavy-duty line, a red-and-white bobber, a split-shot lead weight, a small barbed hook and nightcrawlers for bait.
Our prey, the willing and tasty sunfish, was equally modest. Also known as pumpkinseeds and bluegill, sunnies are small, round, iridescent brown-gray-yellow-blue-green fish that congregate on weed beds and bite with enough frequency to keep small children entertained.
On good days, our bobbers bobbed almost continuously, and we'd catch the scores of sunnies needed for a meal. Cleaning them was a chore, but Dad simplified that for us, as well. Instead of filleting the small fish, a skill beyond that of most 8-year-olds, we learned to scale them with a spoon, the first stage in this daily disassembly line. With his sharp knife and special chain-mail half-glove, Dad handled the rest.
The fishing was slow during our week at Round Lake north of Park Rapids in the early 1970s. The older kids, approaching or entering their surly years, hung out in the cabin much of the time, reading Mad magazine and Franz Kafka while Mom and Dad found peace on the lake.
One hot day, my 17-year-old brother, Vincent, decided he needed a beer. He persuaded my sister and me, age 12 and 11, to attempt to buy a six-pack of Hamm's at the Liar's Den, the lakeside lodge 200 feet downhill from our cabin. Inside the lodge, Paula and I nervously approached the counter. Paula said to the owner: "My dad wants a six-pack of Hamm's. Please charge it to Cabin 3." He looked down at us sternly. "Your dad needs to come down here for that," the owner said.
"He's . . . he's not feeling well today," Paula said, looking at the floor through her blue cat-eye glasses.
"Fine. Just go down and tell him to wave at me, and I'll give it to you." As he stood outside the lodge, we hiked up the hill to our cabin, silently pondering our next move.