Saturday, August 29, 2015

Notes From the Field -- A Spring Truly Sprung, Part 2

What's past is prologue...

I was a prairie kid.

My first prairies were 'empty' lots scattered about the edges of my city neighborhood, which wasn't far from where the streetcar line once came to an abrupt end because back then, so too did city.

The elderly gent next door to us lived in his house since there wasn't anything like a streetcar line and not much of a city, either. The old man's land was overgrown with "weeds" taller than me but if you knew just where to dig and dared to, you'd find sea shells where even kids knew there was never any kind of a sea in all of human existence. During summer, Nighthawks soared to cicada evensong.

Across the cinder alley from us, an equally old lady secured her garbage cans on broken gravestones of indeterminate origin. When the city dug out the cinders but before they could lay down pavement, a big rain came and dozens of garter snakes swam in our alley. There went the gravestones too.

But there were still bits of underdeveloped landscape around, for children with an inclination to explore the mysteries of a real world to do it.

The Milwaukee Road Railroad grade bisected our block. The old frame family house rumbled and shook at odd hours of the day or night but it was only the train, always and ever hauling the stuff of industry & commerce from here to there and back. The house was used to it. It'd survived a long time under the circumstances and over time, so would we. As the fencing along the gone to seed grade stood in disrepair, I enjoyed ready access to one of the true wonders of my earliest natural world.

Heather on those same tracks.
Because this past week we enjoyed our 32nd wedding anniversary.

Wandering the tracks wasn't without risk, but I wasn't stupid about trains and the biggest actual danger came when my parents caught me up there. Then it'd be holy Hell to pay since everyone knew a train could leave a kid a cripple for life or maybe just lop off his fool head, which it was said actually happened to a kid one neighborhood over and true or not, that story was all any parent ever needed for to exert maximum punishment for the transgression.

Just the same, that old Milwaukee Road grade remains the only place I've ever seen a Green Snake in the wild. Fossils we found amidst the rock rubble that made the grade were a bonus.

My family also enjoyed regular access to a genuine log cabin; wood and oil heat. The cabin was one county northwest in what used to be called the country because up there the landscape'd only been subsumed by fields of corn and what remained untilled was still mostly oak savanna and grassland as yet sparsely populated by weekend refugees fleeing the concrete canyons of the city where the rat race was and still is a daily affair.

In the neighborhood around the cabin I saw tadpoles turn to bullfrogs. Met Soft-shelled and endangered Blanding's turtles. Shrill Red-winged Blackbirds and clusters of iridescent Barn Swallows that rode cool air  beneath bridges over muddy creeks in which hungry bullhead swam. Rolling grasses and Oak Trees that tossed the occasional acorn at you when on a sweltering summer's day in the comfort of their shade a young boy took a break from hot day's work. That work often included the climbing of said oaks, which grow sturdy, tall and sport a thick gnarled skin like a dinosaur's.

In time things changed as things tend to do. The northwoods of my maternal ancestry embraced me while despite its many gifts, on the prairie I always stood alone. Then the creeks meandering in oxbows through grassland dotted with oak islands became like the young love you think of fondly and with genuine affection, but the magic that fired youthful romance is a long time gone.

Anyway, all of this is by way of explaining how things took the turn they did during my visit to Bobcat Lake on a hope driven morning in May...


When before dawn I put the canoe onto Bobcat that morning, air temperature stood at 24°F. The exact temperature of the water was damned cold. The good news was no bugs pestered me for my trouble.

It didn't take but a few yards paddling to confirm what shallow water readily hinted at. The much anticipated emergent weeds that play so critical a role in spring lake fishing remained a couple weeks away. For all the good I was likely to do on or about opening day it may as well have been February. That's a hard discovery for to begin a fishing season. Still, old friends were in residence and Bobcat Lake itself is an old, dear friend, so I sallied forth.

The first Trumpeter Swans I ever saw at Bobcat were both banded. The following spring only one of a pair was. None have been since. Though I'm happy to see them on my lake they're aggressively cranky birds, loud as blazes in a temple of whispers and when trying to knock you from a canoe, they most resemble a small airplane.

Signs at Forest Service boat ramps remind one and all that when a Loon displays like that, you're too close. I'm sure that's often true and it's always best to leave loons in peace. But that morning this bird and I fished most of Bobcat together and if anything, that bird followed me. Probably entertained by the occasional dumb dink bass I managed to land, even as it scored a hearty breakfast from the same frigid water.

In high morning sun, with no real luck and little prospect of any, I put in. Mosquitoes and flies buzzed me at the boat launch but didn't bite. With warming, stable weather forecast, that wouldn't last long.

I knew damned well that on the prairie, Sandhill Cranes were even then gathered near pothole lakes in which Largemouth Bass were busy fattening up. I prefer the occasional squawk of Sandhills over the constant bragging of Trumpeters and this spring, rather than taking the northwoods as they'd come, I preferred to catch some fish. By late morning, I'd decided to pack it in and go visit the prairie, where winter hadn't hung on so hard as it did on the Gogebic.

I returned to the river that evening. A few hours determined work in a mist of highly motivated mosquitoes brought one more fine walleye and that was that. Come next morning I called it a day and with confidence headed south in order to more fully pursue a spring that in the northwoods proved recalcitrant.

A couple days later I was on my sentimental favorite prairie lake, chasing big bass. Sandhills croaked. Frogs sang. Weeds were definitely emergent. Under a light wind regime, white clouds scudding through a broken sky found perfect reflection in the water. One spring while fishing a shallow bay I attracted the rapt attention of a coyote pup who proceeded to yip and dance and play hide & seek with me for a good ten minutes or so from behind the reeds that line the boggy shore.

It was that kind of day, the kind that holds a promise of magic...

Yet I worked 70% of the lake's circumference with everything I know how and was on the verge of being skunked. Flat water can be a real mystery. Except maybe 20 years ago I'd once dragged a lure I didn't much like through a nondescript stretch of open water and two of the largest bass I'd ever seen followed the lure right to the edge of the boat like twin submarines. It's true I didn't catch either fish, but I'd seen them.

Setting anchor thirty yards or so offshore at the edge of that stretch of lake, I tied on a new lure I'd been anxious to try and on the first cast with it caught my second good bass of the year, this one just under four pounds. She was thick, brilliantly colored and feisty as all get out. I'd divined the pattern. Magic could ensue.

By its lip I lifted the bass from the water. Had a kind word for her as I held the fish over my lap to easily remove the point of attack from her outer jaw. Gave the bass a quick grin and placed her back into the lake. She made such a splash toward safe haven that water sprinkled my face.

Then in the next instant time expanded and with a single, unified motion the world turned. I'll likely remember it until the day I die.

The canoe tipped ever so slightly in the direction of the bass. I instinctively corrected by leaning the other way. The canoe kept right on going anyway and went over. The next thing I knew I was in the lake up to my eyes and when I didn't touch bottom as expected a voice in my head said, It's deeper than I thought.

The canoe was filled with water. Nearly all my gear was gone, including a brand new St. Croix rod attached to my best reel and when I went over, my right leg'd entangled with the anchor rope, so I was stuck looking out over the water-filled canoe at the lake while trying to keep my one remaining rod and reel from being claimed by it and at the same time figuring this wasn't my day to drown.

I lacked the buoyancy to free my leg and at long last found use for my inflatable pfd, which has its own freighted history. I weighed anchor and slowly swam the canoe to the muddy shore, where I emptied the thing of water and climbed back aboard.

I'd not turned out of a canoe in better than thirty years and even then, it wasn't my fault.

The good news was that everything -- including me -- worked precisely as intended, exactly when needed. The bad news was that with all my best fishing gear now at the bottom of the lake, my spring was over just as it'd begun. I returned a few days later to drag weeds for my stuff but that was a truly miserable affair and to no avail.

When I left the U.P. I thought I wasn't chasing anything but instead chased spring over three states before it rose up and smote me for the impertinence.


Later in September when the air is crisp and the light perfect, I'll take a working trip along the south shore of Superior to try and wrap up a few things still left undone from the fieldwork. Turns out I'll also simply have to steal a not insignificant portion of quiet time for myself along the way, in order to learn yet again how to allow the northwoods to embrace me in a manner I've not let it since setting off on the Odyssey in September, 2011.

What's true is what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

What's true is that I weary of the chase.

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