Thursday, January 2, 2014

A continuing Story in Serial Format: OLD TACKLE PORTAGE

Old Tackle Portage (continued -- a story of the Boundary Waters in Serial format you can skip down to today's date separation if you've already read the first segments.)

There's a portage that I found in the Boundary Waters that leads to one of the best fishing spots I've ever dropped a line on. It is exceptionally long and leads to a secluded lake without a secondary exit. That's all I'm going to say about that.

The way in isn't particularly difficult, it is just a very long walk. I remember the first time that I went I just carried my fishing pole and a water bottle, a pack of peanut butter/chedder crackers and couple of Mepps spinners. The tree roots grabbing at my sandals were minimal, but the bugs were horrific on a day that didn't boast much of a breeze at all. Under the canopy of lush green, early July was doing its best after a couple of days of rain, to strangle the breath out of me.

I was glad to be without the weight of the canoe on my shoulders, though about halfway through, navigating on fairly flat terrain, I began to think poorly of myself for that decision. I also remembered that I left my empty stringer tied to the thwart of my canoe.

There's a spot on every portage where you catch a glimpse of blue with diamonds sparkling from the sun on the surface up ahead, and you think to yourself, "there it is" and "I can make it" at the same time. Just before that point on this walk, I stopped for a drink and sat down on a chunk of granite to eat my crackers.

Looking around I noticed that I was surrounded by moss. Thick and green, it covered every downed tree, rock, and bump on the ground around me in all directions. I had noticed the slight decline of the path in the last five minutes or so, but it had been so gradual that it didn't register with me that I had followed the meandering portage into a cooler and more moist area.

Intermingled with the luscious green carpet were Pink Lady's Slippers that some call moccasin flowers. This brought to mind one of my favorite flowers from Illinois, the Jack-in-the-Pulpit that I used to find near Lady's Slippers and so I slipped off my sandals and took my bare feet out onto the mossy coated forest floor in search of a childhood memory.

Looking up from my search I saw that sapphire glint through the trees and overcame the urge to lie down with my head on a reindeer moss covered log and take a nap. I remember thinking at that point that I hadn't heard the buzz from a single mosquito, let alone those hoards that accompanied me after leaving the canoe, in quite some time.

Slipping on my sandals I returned to the decent, picking my way around rocks and making sure the tip of my pole didn't catch on the overhanging branches.

© Timothy Stouffer, December 30, 2013
All Rights Reserved

(a serial work of fiction -- tune in for more of the story and find out why they named it Old Tackle Portage.)

Once you've seen that twinkle of blue on a portage, especially a long one, spirits are lifted. I felt lighter and more refreshed instantly. It could have had something to do with the short respite I suppose. I have always found that rushing through portages is a waste. There is beauty all around and walking forest paths is something nearly all of us enjoy. Why not take some time to enjoy it. Frequently I'll put my canoe down out of the way in case someone else comes by, slip off my pack and stretch my back out.

Some of my favorite parts of canoe trips and indeed, life itself, have come to pass when I stopped to take a breath and took time to acknowledge my surroundings. This little day trip was turning out to be one of those times.

I had followed a tip from an old friend that was really nothing more than a few words dropped here and there in a trip journal that he let me borrow nearly a decade ago. It mentioned a nearly hidden portage that he had stumbled upon when he was looking for his route at dusk. He'd incorrectly taken the path that seemed right at the time, but went on and on, robbing him of precious daylight in exchange for the promise of an empty campsite on the next lake that would be home for the night. His notes indicate that he never actually made it to the lake that night. Dark descended and clouds rolled in covering up the stars. Dead batteries in his headlamp and no moon to speak of conspired to made it extremely dark in the woods and not wanting to roll an ankle or worse, he slept on what his notes referred to as a thick green carpet at the crest of a sharp decent. I can only imagine he spent the night where I'd just seen the moccasin flowers.

I could no longer see the lake up ahead through the trees and the path still led downward but it was beginning to level off again and I began to watch the path more closely, picking my way around encroaching tree roots and rocks.

The path itself had been closing in around me for some time. It was not at all what I would call well travelled or frequented. In fact, it seemed to thicken behind me, erasing my passage if that were possible. As I paused to take another pull at my water bottle, I remembered the scribbled note in the margin of my friend's journal that had drawn me to this spot in the first place.

Lightly scrawled as if it was an afterthought, he'd penciled in, "Old Tackle Portage" and drawn three stick fish <t))))))><. I'd noticed that throughout his journal he had referenced particularly good fishing spots with a stick fish symbol and a few notes about species or bait. This portage, wherever it led, had three fish. No mention of anything else.

When I looked up at Bricky (the only name I'd ever known him by) he just put his finger up to the side of his age-spotted, sun-tanned nose, pointed at me and winked an eye. Bricky was a friend of my father's, dating back to the Vietnam War and I knew just enough to know that the way he pulled his hat down over his eyes and put his feet up on the coffee table meant "that was all he was going to say about that." He was a loner, and with the exception of an occasional short evening paddle to catch some fish with my dad or even less occasionally myself, he only did solo trips. I'd never seen him wink at anyone.

Honestly I was surprised that he offered to even let me look at the tattered trip journal and so I simply raised an eyebrow and made a mental note.

A mental note that I'd forgotten about until my first trip of the summer found me on this route and near enough to try and satisfy my curiosity when I realized where I was.

Looking back there wasn't anything accidental about it.

© Timothy Stouffer, January 1, 2014
All Rights Reserved

(a serial work of fiction -- tune in for more of the story and find out why they named it Old Tackle Portage.)

A few years ago about dusk one night, a pickup truck pulled up in front of my house. My Jack Russell went berserk as is usual for him, but then he began that low whine that was so familiar to an appearance of my Dad. The whine had been replaced with a rapid wag of his cropped tail and back end. Going to the door, I saw the pickup belonged to Bricky and my Dad in one of his patented flat caps was hanging out the passenger window.

"Grab your pole, say hi to the dog," was all he said.

I did and hopped in the bed of the truck, laying down with my head on a pack. Bricky stopped for gas at the Lucky Seven, filled up his thermos with coffee, and we hit the road. I didn't ask any questions, just stayed in the back watching the night sky leak in overhead and the first stars turn on. I could hear voices through the sliding glass and window screen. They were muffled by the radio, but they were talking about a gun show they had been to, nothing special.

The wind hummed past the straps tying the kevlar canoe to the racks overhead and that, combined with the breeze put me to sleep. When I awoke it was to the engine winding down and the sound of my Dad's voice, "you can open your eyes, now." As was usual with him, there was another meaning there... "Not for public consumption."

I grabbed the canoe and walked down to the water that I could see ahead. Bricky grunted, "Just set er down, the current will hold er steady."

Dad came over with 3 poles, a handful of small jigs and a styro of night crawlers. He never used leeches. Bricky lit a cigarette and climbed in the bow. The canoe was holding its own against the bank and appeared to be sitting in about 2 feet of water, not drifting despite the breeze. Dad climbed in the stern nodding towards the wider middle he handed me the night crawlers. I grabbed a paddle and swung into place, trying not to rock them.

Soundlessly their paddles dipped into the dark water and out again, pulling us away from the shore. That night there was a sliver moon and it was hard to separate air from liquid, but I dug my paddle into the tannin stained waters, tried not to bang the side of the canoe and heaved to. The ember from the cigarette dangling from Brick's mouth was soon my only point of reference, a tiny orange headlight leading us out toward the center of the lake. To what I didn't know.

I turned carefully to look at my Dad, but his face was hidden and he was quiet.

The lake was like glass and our canoe cut through it like we were running through tall grass. The "V" behind us disappeared as the darkness thickened. While I could no longer see the shore, I could vaguely see the outline of a small island up ahead.

As we glided closer, Bricky lifted his paddle and slipped it in the canoe. I took that as my cue and did the same. He pulled out a package of Backwoods cigars and lit one. The pungent tobacco smell wafted back over my head and suddenly I was hungry, remembering I'd left home without joining my family for dinner.

Dad stopped us at what looked like twenty or so feet from the island's fallen trees and indicated for me to put the anchor bag over. It was the standard mesh bag filled with rocks from the shore and I counted off three feet, six, nine, twelve, fifteen and eighteen before it touched down. It hit rock, not sand, I could feel that much from the vibration that followed up the rope.

Dad and Bricky both extended hands for crawlers and by the time I'd fished my own out and gotten a jig tied on, both of their poles were bent. I reached for the net and watched them both bring seventeen inch walleyes up to the surface like dark logs with white spots flashing on their tails. I landed one and then the other, watching their glowing eyes rise up to the surface, reflecting off the stars above. I dished out more crawlers and gave thought to lowering my own bait, but in a matter of seconds, they had two more on and I realized my role in the canoe. It was just one of those nights. One of those lakes. Something to be shared and never duplicated.

When I'd strung up twelve, Bricky put his pole down, lit another Backwoods, turned halfway round in his seat and took the net from me. He nodded his head towards the right side of the canoe and said his second words to me of the night. "All the way down."

About 15 minutes later, I'd missed two and brought up the last of my own limit when I felt something brush my face. Or nearly touch me that is. It had gotten darker and my eyes were used to the inky blackness so I didn't have much trouble picking out the bats that had joined us. They were dipping up and down, all around us, picking skeeters and no-see-ums out of the air. They must have come from the trees on the island, in force; there were at least a couple of hundred of them -- it was hard to count. The ones closest to us flew around us with ease, hovering above the surface and rising past our heads.

It was a moment I could never have expected and wouldn't experience again and what I remember most is that although it caught me by surprise it seemed to play out in slow motion. Words couldn't really describe it well, and as I fail with them now, I understand more deeply the importance of silence. I respect the lack of conversation that my two paddling partners displayed that evening. Sitting in silence as the tiny flying wolves hunted around us. The intermittent squeaks they made, our only other companions.

© Timothy Stouffer, January 2, 2014
All Rights Reserved

(a serial work of fiction -- tune in for more of the story and find out why they named it Old Tackle Portage.)

Pulling up the anchor a few minutes later and then the heavy stringer of eaters I stretched my legs out and closed my eyes.  I could feel Dad pull several strong strokes behind and was just about to reach for my paddle.  I heard his settle in the canoe behind.  Opening my eyes I could see the hunched and shadowed form of Bricky in front of me.  His paddle lay across his knees and he was lighting another Backwoods cigar.

Free of our anchor and propelled by those first few paddle strokes we drifted silently towards the far unseen shore.  The same current that had held the canoe against the bank while we loaded up was drawing us back home.  Bricky held his hand back, stretching out to me a cigar and an old zippo.  I remember he just kept his hand outstretched as I lit mine and the pungent tobacco smoke enveloped my face.  Giving the zippo back I watched the bats dance around us.

There weren't as many of them then and the further we got from the island, the fewer remained.  They escorted our canoe across the lake.  At my feet the walleyes jumped and kicked giving up their last breath.  Once I turned to smile at my Dad and he smiled back his teeth flashing in the low light.  He reached up with one finger and touched the side of his nose.  Bricky began to hum the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  The last bat glided over the gunwales of the canoe and above my knees and after dipping down almost to the waters surface it rose sharply up and headed back to the island that had disappeared from view.

It had cooled off a little by the time we had the canoe strapped on the truck and I squeezed in the cab.  Rocking back and forth on the gravel road it didn't take long before I was snoring quietly.  That night ended with Bricky announcing gruffly that he'd "clean em all," and that "you only turn forty once."  I thanked him, pulled myself out of the seat, grabbed my pole, gave my Dad a hug and headed into the house.  I hadn't thought about my birthday, since I'd woken that morning.  Once indeed.

Walking down the Old Tackle Portage now I remember the way my Dad had touched the side of his nose like Bricky had.  Or was it the other way around?  I'd never seen him do that before had I?  Counting back years in my head I reached forty-four first, ten years ago.  Could it be ten years since I'd stopped over at Bricky's deer shack and he'd shown me his trip journal.  I guess it would be this November.  That would make my 40th birthday and those walleye and the bats fourteen years ago.  The year that my Dad got cancer in his Christmas stocking.  Seems like yesterday.

I remember the taste of those filets like it was yesterday.  Dad had swung by the next morning --it was a Saturday -- picked me up and we met Bricky out in the woods at his hunting shack.  Northwoods breakfast a la the Brick.  The walleyes were encrusted with a cornmeal batter and fried in an old pan to perfection.  I've never been able to duplicate that golden color.  He served them up over thick slices of bacon and slid a couple of over medium eggs on top.  The other side of the plate held hash browns with a pool of gravy in the middle and a square of cornbread.

I remember the way that Dad smiled as he ate.  Afterwards we drank hobo coffee, made in a pan by boiling the grounds right in the water and then pouring through a strainer over the cup.  The sun came out late and filtered through the hodgepodge window panes.  They talked, I listened.  Wolves, knives, sharpening techniques, engines, tractors, 6 volt to 12 volt conversions, and one more pan of coffee.  I got up and cleared the dishes and they spread out a roll of faded Boundary Waters maps and held the corners down with our coffee cups and a pocket knife.

As I heated water up on the stove and scraped the crumbs off the chipped granite wear plates into the dog's food dish they talked about a route, about the fish, about time.  I poured boiling water over the dishes in the old galvanized tin tub and as the steam rose I pictured the two of them in the Jungle forty some years before.  Perhaps looking over a map.  Discussing a route and the time it would take, but not the fishing.  Never the fishing.

© Timothy Stouffer, January 4, 2014
All Rights Reserved

(a serial work of fiction -- tune in  for more of the story and find out why they named it Old Tackle Portage.)

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