Sam Cook column: Good things happen when you’re in harmony with the land
The sun hasn’t been up long. Only one other person is stirring in camp.
I slip a canoe into water, grab my paddle and push away from shore. The lake, all arms and islands, is perfectly calm, something we’ve seen almost none of three days into this trip.
Six of us are camped here, more than 20 miles into the interior of Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. The annual walleye trip.
Sitting amidships so the canoe rides well in the water, I paddle close to shore, looking at the way the early-morning sun throws its buttery light on the red pines, the mosses, the rock outcrops.
The only sounds are ovenbirds and song sparrows and red-breasted nuthatches, and the droplets of water that fall back to the lake after each paddle stroke. Solitude like this is hard to come by in our world. But out here, it comes easy.
We’ll travel more than 50 miles in eight days on this trip. Across big lakes, over gnarly portages, down winding creeks. Our camp is a tiny speck in this million-acre wilderness, and there’s another million acres just south across the border, in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. For four of the eight days we travel here, we will not see another human.
I ease along the shore, peering into the clear water at boulders and downed logs and emerging water lilies. Above the water line, June is bursting with moccasin flowers and ferns and bunchberry.
I try to imagine this island, this lake, locked in the grip of winter. All of it lies in repose for nearly half of each year. The snow probably was 3 feet deep on our camp this winter. Northwest winds pruned the old pines. Under the ice, walleyes and bass and northern pike put in their time, awaiting spring.
We will find some of those fish, though we’ll work harder for them this year with unsettled weather and east winds. Walleyes to 28 inches. Bass to 20. Northern pike more than 40. The kind of fishing I used to drool over while reading Field & Stream stories and waiting for a haircut. Now we catch them almost every year. It never gets old.
You don’t have to go to the wilderness to catch fish like this, of course. You can go to the St. Louis River or Lac Seul or Saganaga. Fish from a boat. Use your electronics. Sleep in a bed at night. Nothing wrong with that.
But if you want true solitude, if you want to wake up and feel like you’re the only people on the planet, then you’ll want to forge a few miles into the bush and pitch your tent. Yes, you’ll hurt carrying your gear over mile-long portages. You’ll curse at the mosquitoes. Your feet will not always be dry.
What happens, starting about day three, is that you fall into a sweet harmony with this amazing chunk of country. You don’t mind the work. You can deal with the bugs. You cannot wait to see what’s around the tip of that island.
Late in the day, you get hungry. You string some walleyes. You throw the fillets in a skillet. As the sun drops and the loons crank up and the mama gull on the rock island calls her fluffball young to her side, you cannot think of a place you’d rather be.
My morning paddle is almost over now. I’ve completed a circuit around the island where we’re camped. As I round the final point, I see my paddling partner standing on a rock about 30 feet from our tent, playing a fish. I paddle up to watch.
The fish is a northern pike of immense proportions, hooked just right with a jig in the corner of its jaw. His back looks wide enough to saddle. The pike makes several powerful runs but cannot escape. After several minutes, my friend lands it and removes his jig. A quick measurement shows the fish to be 42 inches long, probably 20 or 21 pounds.
We want to get a photo, but nobody has a camera handy. My buddy wants to release the fish quickly. We forgo the photo. He slips the northern back into the water. One flick of its tail, and it disappears into a story.
Time to build a fire, have some breakfast.
Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samcookoutdoors or on Facebook at “Sam Cook Outdoors.”