By Jerry Dennis
AMONG THE FEW THINGS I KNOW FOR CERTAIN ARE that wet wool has less insulating value than the experts claim, that Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is one food—perhaps the only food—that tastes worse cooked over an open fire, and that forty million bumper stickers can’t be wrong when they say a bad day of fishing is better than a good day of working.
The wisdom of those bumper stickers was proved true recently during a visit to a friend’s cabin near the end of the Keweenaw Peninsula, where Upper Michigan pokes its finger into the belly of Lake Superior. It’s a place so far removed from Detroit—both in miles and spirit—that they might as well be on separate continents. Though I live about halfway between those two extremes, my sympathies definitely lean north.
I drove there on a day that had begun bright and promising, but once I got past L’Anse the sky clouded over and a light drizzle began to fall. By the time I reached Jim’s cabin near the northern point of the Keweenaw, the rain was coming down in a steady downpour. It didn’t stop for two days.
Jim, Ron, and I hadn’t seen each other in nearly a year, so there was plenty to talk about. We built a fire in the stove, threw together a memorable meal, and caught up on things. The weather was dismal—cold wind and relentless rain, the kind that turns gravel roads to oatmeal and two-tracks to twin rivers. It was a weekend better suited to cribbage and thick novels than to outdoor pursuits.
We were patient that first day, but after twenty-four hours Ron and I couldn’t sit around any longer. Jim is a conservation officer and a native of the Upper Peninsula—a Yooper—who’s been stomping around in the Keweenaw and the rest of the UP all of his life. He wasn’t keen on going out in the rain, but he told us about a good lake nearby and plotted a course for us on a topo map. Ron and I put on our rain gear and went outside to load Jim’s canoe on the truck.
I was a little disappointed in the canoe. It was short and squat, made of dented aluminum, and painted army green. Strips of foam had been glued to the inside of the gunwales for flotation, and an outboard-motor mount was bolted to the stem. One seat was broken and had to be propped up with a chunk of two-by-four. But we were in no position to be choosy. We threw it on and tied it down. Jim waved from the door as we spun up the driveway.
The lake sat at the end of seven miles of overflowing two-tracks, in a valley between hills of hardwoods and pines. It wasn’t pretty: one hundred acres of whitecaps and weed beds with drowned cedars ringing the shores. Gray clouds scudded past overhead, shredded by powerful winds off Lake Superior. A couple of miles away the shore of Superior was being battered by enormous waves. The ground shuddered faintly. Even in the woods you could sense the immensity out there.
The little lake was supposed to be full of big northern pike so vicious they would charge our lures like Dobermans. A friend from Marquette had said he caught dozens there the previous year, many in the six-to-eight-pound class. We couldn’t wait. We had been working too hard of late and needed this as therapy. It took maybe five minutes to run the canoe to the shore, toss in our gear, and push off.
The canoe caught the wind and sailed. Even with rain slanting into our faces and wind yanking the rain hoods from our heads, our guts clenched in anticipation. We cast our lures with the conviction that discomfort is
sometimes rewarded. We cast into shallow water and we cast into deep water, over weed beds and over rocks and into godawful tangles of driftwood and stumps. We tried deerhair poppers and outrageously gaudy streamers and Daredevls and Mepps Spinners and Rapalas and Bombers and a muskie lure twice as big as most of the brook trout living in Upper Michigan. But we caught nothing. Not a thing. In three hours and maybe three-hundred casts we did not have a single strike.
At some point we realized that our efforts were futile. We had theories: low-pressure system. Wind from the east, fish bite the least. Too much rain, and the fish get sated with drowned creatures.
We also realized, to our surprise, that we liked the little canoe. It was fat and ugly, it was broken, it may have been designed by a military engineer whose previous experience had been with portable pontoon bridges, yet it was responsive and deft and stable in the waves. In spite of our paddles—inexpensive wooden beavertails, the varnish long vaporized, one with a blade split lengthwise and so warped that it looked like a lobster claw on a stick—we made good progress against the wind. We found ourselves laughing and singing as we paddled. We wished the lake were bigger and linked by channels with others we could explore. On this bad day of fishing there was no place we would have rather been.
At noon we pulled up on the shore of an island and found one of the world’s finest pine-sheltered campsites. The ground was spongy with a couple of centuries’ worth of needle drop, and you could look beyond the trees in three directions and see water. We sat on old, mossy stumps with the rain falling around us and ate a lunch of French bread, cheese, liverwurst, and crisp McIntoshes. Ragged flocks of ducks rocketed over the lake, then wheeled and set their wings and came in hard against the wind and the whitecaps. Ron and I looked at each other and grinned. Jim was back in the cabin alone, probably reading a novel by the stove, warm and dry.
We couldn’t wait to rub it in.
(From the book, From a Wooden Canoe: Reflections on Canoeing, Camping, and Classic Equipment, by Jerry Dennis. Used by permission of the author.)
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