Column: Catching fish and catching up in the canoe country
Our friendship was forged over bulging Duluth packs and bins of trail food in the summer of 1976. Mike had come to the Ely outfitting business as a fishing guide and all-around handyman. Phyllis and I were green as sphagnum moss, a couple of Kansas transplants who had landed jobs with the same Moose Lake outfitter.
We were all young then, in our 20s, but Mike had already spent a summer guiding anglers on nearby Snowbank Lake. He was bright and funny and competent in a lot of disciplines. And he knew how to catch fish.
Mike was on the trail a lot that summer, guiding our outfitting clients. We'd pack his party up, and Mike would leave the dock with them, often toting a flat of 500 night crawlers. In those days, a party could fly into a few designated Boundary Waters Canoe Area lakes, and that's usually how Mike and his parties would get to those lakes full of walleyes and smallmouth bass.
Our paths would diverge after that summer. Mike wound up in California, working for an outfit that placed acoustic listening devices beneath the Arctic sea ice. He's been to the North Pole several times, often for extended stints.
But when he passed through Minnesota, he'd get in touch. We'd share a meal and get caught up on life and jobs and kids. We talked about getting together at his place on the Baja or paddling an Alaskan river, but somehow that hasn't happened yet. This summer, though, he asked me to join him and several friends on a canoe-country fishing trip in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park.
We spent a week up there coaxing lake trout and walleyes from the depths with his friends from age 21 to 70. I fished with Mike a couple of days, and our conversations ranged both wide and deep.
Back in camp, I'd ask Mike to tell some stories I remembered from that bicentennial summer. Like the one where he got a little lost while guiding on Lac La Croix, a sprawling Canadian border lake in canoe country. The east end of that lake is dappled with lots of islands, and navigating can be a challenge. Mike was guiding a couple and realized he had no idea where he was. Then he saw a guide from the Lac La Croix First Nation band on the lake cleaning fish for shore lunch on a nearby island.
"I want to run up and talk to that guy for a second," Mike explained to his clients.
He furtively tucked his map under his shirt and trotted up to visit the guide. Turning away from the canoe, he slipped his map out from under the shirt and said to the guide, "Where the hell am I?"
Without uttering a word, the guide took his fillet knife and jabbed its tip through the map at the island where they were standing.
"It left a piece of fish liver on the spot," Mike said. "I thanked him and headed back to my canoe."
He told another story about a day guiding on Snowbank. He was following another guide across the lake and hit a barely submerged reef. It was a solid contact: The small outboard motor was jarred off the boat's transom and ended up in the middle of the boat. It was writhing about, its propeller whirring — the gas line was still connected.
"I chased it around that boat and finally dived on it and put it in a headlock," Mike said.
There were many more stories where those had come from. For seven days around evening fires, walleyes or lake trout cooking over the coals, we told as many as we could remember. And rekindled a 40-year friendship.
Sam Cook is a freelance columnist for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCook.