Thursday, July 23, 2015

Notes From the Field – A Spring Truly Sprung, Part 1

Yeah, it's high summer and I'm late. Hell, as we're now well past the solstice it's only a matter of time before the first snow flies. So best to get that whole dancing naked around the fire thing in while you still can.

My spring went like lickidy split. Then summer brought a for hire gig continuing into August and you'll understand that took precedence over my telling stories to you. After all, we're ad free 'round here and at this point always will be yet the piper lurking behind the scenes must ever be paid and such is life, eh?

Before getting back to business (such as it's been), I'd very much like to thank the far flung Annala clan for their continued interest. Seriously, you folk ought pool your collective knowledge then arrange to gather in Ironwood for a family bash and share the Annala story. People in the region  will be interested. Back when the place was more or less abandoned, locals kept a proprietary eye on things. Mathew's barn is a continuing source of provincial pride and that too, is part of your familial heritage.

Also, a tip of the hat to Allison Mills, for inviting me to provide just the slightest assist in making her Keweenaw and La Roche Verte article in EARTH Magazine so well achieved.


Speaking of snow...

To judge from folk's enthusiasm for their camera phones you mightn't think so, but viewing real life too much through a device ends up being problematic. I long ago realised that when I approached wilderness primarily by trying to capture it, I leached the wildness right out of me. There's only so much room in a life. Or time to relax during brief sojourns to the wilds of the Superior Basin too, for that matter.

All around Superior, I found amazing things the like of which most people never saw or ever will see firsthand. I'm born with the temperament and practice provided the skillset necessary for me to share Superior's particular sort of amazing with the world at large. In time it was as if with the inclination, knowledge and skillset came responsibility and in a sense, it had.

'Planet of the Apes', from 'Wasteland: The Wolverine Mohawk'

Meanwhile, old St. Sebastian's burnt down and the floors of the new St. Sebastian's don't creek in memory of miner's prayers. The wonderful dairy, the miserable old Bessemer Cafe and even the grocery were gone from Bessemer. Scotty's near Ironwood and Red's in Wakefield too. As were trains from across the region. With that last, it was no longer possible to lie awake in the deep woods at night with the rumble of rolling commerce to serve as reminder that you'd not in fact abandoned civilization entirely and neither had civilization entirely abandoned you.

Eventually, work became my primary reason for visiting the wilderness. Other, richer reasons were made subservient and with that, I was diminished. For what does it profit a man to capture the world and forfeit his living spirit?

Once damaged, I got better at things. Learned to separate out time for work and time to fish and time to just lollygag around, which is maybe the best reason for anyone to visit wild woods and waters.  Then during our fourteen month, 26,000 mile Odyssey around one of the most magnificent landscapes on earth, I allowed myself only three full days off and a few scattered hours here or there to kick back and suck in the magic that fairly drips from the place.

I was on a mission it's true, but by the end was again diminished and seriously so. Turns out, I'm getting too old for to easily recover from the like of that.

'Silent Owl', also from 'Wasteland: The Wolverine Mohawk'

Which is why my annual trip to the U.P. in May must be about fishing, visiting with dear friends and being idle in the woods, with work relegated to afterthought and/or crime of opportunity. Quietude is the whisperer of wild. When you don't practice listening, you forget how to hear it and eventually the wild stops whispering to you.

Spring in the U.P. is a crapshoot, though if you want your best chance to count coup with outsized, fierce fish that don't get that way by being stupid, you pays your money and takes your chances with May. It's no coincidence that every one of my 30"+ walleye came during May in the Northwoods. And many of my big bass, too.

Man makes plans and God laughs, or so I'm told. Anyway, here's how this last spring went. I can tell 'ya, someone got a good laugh.

Long about the time dogwood blooms you might catch the end of walleye spawn in the rivers and the beginning of spring bass fishing on the lakes though of course, one can never tell. Last year I waited into June on seriously crappy weather and missed everything. This year I was determined not to.

I arrived on the Gogebic Range to breezy, 45 degrees and wet. Clouds obscured the tops of the Bessemer bluffs, which essentially means the sky's come down to bless the ground. As I carried my initial load of stuff into the motel room, something fell into my arms. On first glance I thought leaf. On second glance I thought That's a really big moth. Upon further review and having already entered my room I said aloud, Holy shit a bat, then reflexively backpedaled outside.

Unsure of the bat's condition and what with me being a guy and all, I jostled it a bit just to see. The thing barred its fangs and positively snarled at me, which was mighty cute. It'd no obvious sign of White-nose Syndrome, a virulent invader killing bats far and wide. Content the poor critter had simply sought refuge from the cold and wet beneath the eaves of the motel and that I'd disturbed it far more than it'd disturbed me, I carried the bat on my raincoat off to a sheltered place beneath thick, low hung evergreen and gently laid it there. When I checked the next morning the bat was gone. Godspeed little bat and all your kind, in these troubled times.

Undeterred and with a few hours of good light left, I headed off to a favorite spot where a few years before in water so high and hard as to be all but unfishable I caught and released a 35" walleye, which was about the length of the better than 60 year old Michigan state record walleye. I'd show you the picture but someone might recognise the spot and word might get out and then I'd be the worst sort of fisherman there is – the kind that receives a once in a lifetime kiss then indiscriminately tells.

That evening a few hours of cold, wet work yielded yet another 30" walleye. The last member of my immediate family to be born and raised on the Range, the guy who first taught me how to fish and who was about as fine a fisherman as I've known, my Uncle Ray never caught a walleye of 30". Each time I do I think "Uncle Ray, this is what you should've been doing all along". But where, when and how I fish wasn't his style. Uncle Ray used to say the fishing'd gone to hell after the CCC built the campgrounds during the '30s and he remembered times when if fishing luck ran thin, guys might use dynamite for to even the odds. Times change.

Encouraged by the quality walleye, I knew the next day would dawn cold as dripping snot in January, so looking forward to quality time with friends and even a bit of work, I slept well. There's never anyplace quite like home for a good night's sleep.

Now, a better man would've grabbed the Nikon and gone out to do some serious damage. Being on a fishing trip and all, I went fishing instead and got skunked. That was a bad sign if you believe in omens, portents and signs but the cold wasn't so bad next to the big lake, which is a perversity of the season because Superior can have you digging for winter jackets in July. Caught up in the moment, I fished on until the time came to visit with my friend Wil.

You might remember Wil. During the Odyssey the two of us spent Super Bowl Sunday night stuck in the trashed, frozen parking lot at the Presque Isle, wondering at least for a while whether a bit of water and three curiously strong Altoids™ would last two grown men 'til morning. Three nights later I returned determined and enjoyed one of the better working nights of my life, never give up.

Wil and I headed out to Houghton Falls north of Washburn on the Bayfield Peninsula. It's the sort of place too many travelers miss because the abject glory of the region tends to fill people's eyes with wonder, which then blinds them to tender magic that also abounds. 

Houghton Falls is on a seasonal creek, which means most times there're no falls at all. Spring or after a few days heavy rain is the time to go. There's a splendid horseshoe falls when running, but it's tough to capture because the light is often impossible. Wil likes to go when it's foggy and of course, that'd turn the trick. As we drove through the chill morning the sky burnt off and the sun shone bright, which was O.K. by me because what I wanted most was to push at the limits of digital capture where film had already failed. And for the first time, maybe I found those limits.

Or maybe just the current limits of my dexterity with it, I can't yet say. At any rate, though I captured a far greater range of available light with the Nikon than ever I managed on film, this is dull as dishwater and to my eyes looks distinctly digital, which isn't a compliment:

I'm not easily still without there's also purpose to it. Sitting in a lawn chair doesn't cut it. I find purpose in fishing. At its best, fishing makes all other concerns fade, which purges the routine background noise that besets most all of us nearly every hour of our days even when there's no cell signal to intrude. Fishing allows me to plug directly into the real world and I become as one with the wild while doing it. It's a lot like tactile, cogent dreaming.

So in the evening of that first full day I again invited walleye to dance. None were forthcoming. While the fact that I worked as hard and smartly as I know how for no few hours yet failed to raise a single fish of any kind or size was disconcerting, at least the chill kept the bugs down. The water was in fine seasonal shape and the evening on it with Superior just beyond was ideal. With dark, I walked out. The next morning I'd take the canoe onto Bobcat to chase big bass and maybe toothy pike, then visit at leisure with another dear friend.

Being very much in need of intimate contact with the real world, of course I remained determined. That I'd soon make a pivot upon which my season would turn wasn't yet part of the bargain...

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