Complete cessation of wind. No hissing or popping, the fire has died to ashes. Water so calm its not lapping against the shore. I think everything outdoors is tired and I know I am. All of this northern most Minnesota nature is shutting down.
It’s been a day. We paddled hard against gusting wind. The white caps no matter how well you pack demand you pay attention with each stroke. Hanging the blade in the water is drag and digging deep means you can move forward.
The brilliant fall sun was magnificent. My face, the skin, its dry. Definitely wind burned with the mid thirty degree temps. Birch crowns etched in black, denuded of leaves rise up from pine trees angling down. Long gone the robust colors of fall. I saw it today, all day; I can still see the lack of it tonight.
No crows meandering, the seagulls, no where to be seen. Loon’s melodic calls were not heard last night. The small abundant juncos so many days ago flitting have been replaced by snow buntings not purely white yet. My nose ran all day, my eyes watered constantly and as a group we don’t care because are shirt sleeves work just fine.
It’s a landscape we call the grandscape. It’s pretty much been reduced to rocks, water and very cool air. One tree, then another lone birch tattered of its bark, single trees, and a lone stand of balsam. The cleanest cedars of the year. Moose are up in the timber. Ducks blew out south weeks ago. The v’d geese wedges and neck craning wild goose calls, just memories and echo’s.
All summer we jumped out of the canoes sloshing in the warmest water to tackle a portage trail. Heavy boots with cold leaden legs mean Slow; purposeful steps replacing recklessness of abandoning layered warmth. Wool pants, wool hats, wool shirts while out of fashion, fit and feel good. They may change the gear were supposed to wear but we don’t buy or fit into it.
Wool pockets hold all kinds of stuff soundlessly. We all look good. It’s the only time of year we don’t look like ragged people dirty from sweat. Perspiration stains don’t happen in early November. Collars stay up and hats get cramped down tight. Red cheeks, broken by red noses glowed by noon.
The wind ripped clouds across the sky all day when I dared to look up. Lancing shadows swept across the water. That same wind said if we want out and off the water we would burn to earn it. My shoulders were hot. Dinner plates steamed tonight and were licked clean. Walleyes were an experience in taste and nobody had a problem taking the last piece of fish.
We didn’t see anyone coming in on our way out. Its neat thinking we may be the ones who close the boreal door on this set of lakes for the season. No breakfast tomorrow, just coffee and paddle. Warm lung air makes everybody’s mouth smoke when they talk; but there isn’t much chatter.
We settled are final camp tonight. We quit for the day, and amen, the wind quit for the night. The stars are dripping silent silver just a finger tip away. It’s all so peaceful now. I feel bad about wasting one second of it and falling asleep.
The trout whisperer
I think during these upcoming days some of you could help me solve a northern Minnesota boreal forest mystery. I want to prove once and for all that (1) Bigfoot really exists.
Ever notice how some very large pine trees one day are doin' fine all stood up straight and tall, then the very next day wham, all I see is a giant black root ball. Must be something mighty strong to be able to pull a tree over all by itself and rumor has it the olden days loggers were very scared of the (3) agropelter. I think it’s a clue to be followed.
Ever been out real late at night and you hear a wolf howl. Then it goes real quiet outside. You have to wonder what told that big ole bad wolf to shut up and the long tailed bugger listened. Could be a track to follow.
I get my hole drilled and I’m just sitting all by myself on any regular lake. Then all of a sudden the lake ice cracks. I don’t weigh enough to make that HAPPEN. Water starts moving in the hole so I know something is walking around outside my ice house but I don’t like looking when I’m shaking from a fish on the end of my line.
How many times have you been out cross country skiing or snowshoeing and somebody goes tearing by you on a snowmobile at maybe seventy miles per hour? You don’t think something way back up that trail crossed in front of them and scared them into drivin that fast. Just about every sled stops at the nearest waterin hole for a little nerve tightener then fer sure.
I say we tennis shoe rendezvous about the third row into Britton’s café right off Chapman Street in downtown Ely. If we gave that place enough notice we could all get our bellies and thermos’s filled for what could turn out to be one hairy day. Maybe get some cookies for take out, just incase Bigfoot’s in a social mood.
Just so none of the rookies that show up get a moose confused with what we woodland experts already know (2) Sasquatch looks like, we could put up two posters. I’ll stand there with the pointer for who ever asks and I will just mention the thing here with the big nose and possible horns aint what were looking fur, I mean fer.
This may turn out to be a Superior National Forest scavenger hunt that truly goes down in history. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness where wildness is found and duly documented.
I say we hit the Echo trail right off the bat. If that don’t pan out why we footfall the Fernberg road and just keep at it until no stone on the Kek is left unkicked. So grab your cameras and some hiking clothes, we should meet at about seven a:m and if I’m not there don’t wait, you just go ahead and start without me.
The trout whisperer
On my computer, at work, is a photo of me holding a very nice stringer of walleyes. In the photo I'm wearing sunglasses and a green earth tone raincoat on a walleye wind chopped lake. The scenery in the background is typical boreal forest with a rock atop rock accented shoreline.
The sun will set in this photo in about one hour so it gives a luminescent yellow tinge to any of the foreground. The walleyes are white bellied with golden sides and black backed. With the sunlight on the fish scales the fish actually shimmer, even in the photo.
The entire scene is back dropped with very large storm clouds scudding off into the distant eastern horizon, hence the rain coat and windy lake surface.
Now at the ripe old age of midlife, this photo answers it for me. I got a limit of walleye. They're fat, healthy fish. I kept nothing under fourteen and none over seventeen inches. The fish are uniformly perfect to my eyes.
The weather captured in the photo speaks volumes if you knew or know what to look for. We fished a front. As it passed through the walleye bite couldn’t have been more aggressive.
The photo also show’s things that are missing. No other boats, cabins or lodges. We had the lake entirely to ourselves and selfishly enough that was satisfying and tranquil.
If you look close enough you can catch the reflected image in my sunglasses of my fishing partner, taking my bragging rights image. While hard to see, he is there. Both of us oddly in the same photo and I can’t tell you how great that is. We fish a lot together and I have had some fantastic trips with him so you won’t be able to see or feel that but the photo recalls it quietly, for me.
I'm a small lakes kinda fisherman so my boat in all its fourteen foot glory makes the lake seem immense, the shoreline so distant and portrays me as a great North American walleye fisherman encapsulated in mysterious water. So if I never told anyone, it’s but a hundred acre lake tucked off a gravel graded road. But once again the photo is silent.
My beard stubble reminds me I was there over three glorious days. The red face is not sunburn, but wind burn. It was the Minnesota opener and we do not do much sunbathing in northern Minnesota on the opener. The photo has no small date on the printed image or time. Another well kept secret if I do not want to let that cat out of the bag.
So the picture reminds me not only of a stringer of fish you may happen by and see, it also shows the friendship, weather and water. Its really one of an insignificant number of the millions of photos developed, but its mine, about me.
So as I said earlier this photo answers it for me. For me life is not a question. Life is an answer, and you just need to be opened minded with the questions that come your way. The photo says all kinds of things to me and possibly nothing to you. But if you show up at my desk, sure as shooting I’m going to hold it up and see what it says to you. If it doesn’t answer I will just fill in some details for you if that’s all right.
The trout whisperer
My daughter has in her hands a nine foot five weight fly rod for the first time ever. She is twelve. We're on the Iron River in northern Wisconsin trout fishing. I'm offering many pertinent points on how to fly fish. “Dad I got it”. She does not want any more pointers from me for the rest of today. So I just coach like I’m talking to myself about keeping the back cast up, don’t forget the ten and two o’clock position. “YEAH Dad”!
As her fly hits the water she casts a glance at me and then back at the rivers surface. I say, "it’s a good idea to watch the strike indicator instead of me", so she will not miss quick hitting fish. “Watch for the fish to hit, okay? “Concentrate on the casting and the fishing okay? “Dad if you stop talking I could”. So in my fatherly head I think, “I hope a fish hits” that will teach her.
The rod silences me as it snaps taught. Even Gods on her side. The arc is telling and she responds by raising the rod. Now she is playing the fish by just holding on. Talk about a burst of upstream questions. I reel up and drop my rod on shore as I come in behind her. She asks “what do I do”? Feather the line through your fingers as the fish lunges”. “Honey back away to the shore for more solid footing but keep the line tight”.
This is not a moment of just my little girl. The fish has its own ideas and me as well. The fish rips upstream and goes deep. The rod almost lays parallel to the water. I bark to quickly, "lift the tip", she responds slower than I’d like but she gets the angle back on the fish.
“Dad will I get this fish”? “Should I stay right here”? “Where’s the net”?
“Honey hold on now”. “The fish will start to run, when it does you need to slip line back through the guides fast and keep the tension on”. “Use your fingers to pinch the line with your reel hand against the rod grip if you have to, ok”? “When the fish comes at you, just let the slack loops fall but don’t trip on it okay”? “The trout’s running again, move up shore, watch your step, and keep the tip up honey”. She does not argue, she reacts.
The fish about butts and it’s off on a downstream run. The rod swings in a three plane twist and she is being rod run led by the unseen. “Stay with the fish Kass, just shuffle down stream and keep it tight, keep it tight honey”. The reel drag speaks and she looks at me and I go full dad on her. “Watch the fish honey, watch the fish”.
Half way to the trout it reverses direction again, now its running back upstream. “Kass strip in line fast”. “Lift the rod way back over your head”. My little girl looks like she’s whipping a rodeo whip that’s stuck on a fence post spike, but she’s into her fish solid. Too much rod, to short a daughter, so I grab line and get the rod back under her control. The fish has the river for leverage, Kass has me.
The rod pumps, little rips and then she gains line. She’s winning. I take my net off my back and move in to the river from her downstream side. “Don’t tow the fish Kass, just keep it snug honey”. We both see the brown trout at the same time. The tail comes into the net and I scoop with a forward thrust.
Dotted spotted and the color of butter is her summer brown trout. “Dad I want to let it go”. “Can I congratulate you first”?
See this is where I know her mother, who died when Kass was almost four years old still has something to do with her parenting. Me that’s meat. I’m into catch and release to the skillet. But from my own mouth comes “sure honey, it’s your fish”. “Thanks dad”. Well today both the girls, one here next to me, and one above, have gotten the last word once again.
Case in point!
When you can scan the flat page (topo map) and project yourself walking up a contoured slope of 20 percent, while maintaining you’re bearing of north- northeast for over thirteen hundred feet of horizontal distance and 80 ft vertical gain in elevation, then arrive at the fingered draw you pre-selected for a possible glassing area on an elk hunt, you have taken a one dimensional drawing, mentally converted to three-d and opened the chest.
This analogy is not unlike looking through a window pane in contrast with reaching into a stream for a dropped lure. Both views are clear at the onset, but one is distorted when you move to act within the water’s surface. That’s the conscious act of using a map instead of looking at a map.
Maps are flat for a variety of reasons. They fold. They copy well. Often, very inexpensive. Reusable with proper folding technique and waterproofing. But they are drawn to offer pieces of the puzzle if you will. You very seldom use the entire map all at once. You break it down in bits and pieces just to get to one lake, out of a page of lakes as an example.
Some basic map terms are helpful. At the top of list, with a topo map in my opinion is the word relief.
Then in my descending order:
Some notes with respect to maps.
Topo maps without a compass are like a gun without the bullet. Topo Maps are in most cases drawn with a north seeking arrow. It helps a bunch to know where north is. When you get the north map arrow pointing as the compass needle you have the ground under your feet aligned with page. (Orientating the map)
One map legend may sketch out an inch to the mile, (map scale) or any other increment you can imagine. Read the legend.
I have only seen maps made by humans, with one exception. The physical stars never lie. Humans make mistakes.
When I went to the survey academy in the United States Army I had one of those eyes wide open experiences. My survey section had a night drop, if you will. No maps, no compass and get yourself back to assembly area. Thank God for stars.
Handheld GPS units are as good as the batteries and I own several. LEARN TO USE A COMPASS, AND YOU WILL LEARN TO TRUST A COMPASS.
Practice with a map in a familiar area in daylight and darkness. Get out on lake. The boat over water really changes your concept of distance with respect to time. Foot travel or navigating with all terrain vehicles will tune your ability to see the forest for the trees. Walking your going to see each tree if you want. By increasing the speed at which you cross terrain you learn to watch for more significant features like a stream crossing for example. Practice with someone.
I have never been lost.
I have always been somewhere on the planet earth. This is reassuring to me when everything around me is suddenly unfamiliar. I had a smart aleck deer take me on a wild goose chase that ended with me turned inside out and almost upside down. No wisdom or woods lore saved me. No saintly vision intervened. The moss was green on all sides of the trees. I walked for a long time catching the faintest growling of a distant chainsaw. That guy allowed me the privilege of loading his trailer with firewood. He then gave me a ride atop his tractor towed load and finally shuttled me via his pick-up truck back to my blazer. I was really close to three miles from my starting point. Deer adrenaline completely dosed me and I lost all track of my position. It happened slowly.
I had a great map and compass that I simply stopped paying attention to. You can’t use a map part of the time. You have to use the map and compass in harmony.
Learning to use a map is different than owning a map or looking at a map. Learning to use a map is apples. When you put the map and compass together it's apple pie.
'Til Next Time,
The Trout Whisperer