Saturday, November 2, 2013

What we drink...

Coffee. Oh yeah; java, Joe, latte, mocha, espresso. Gotta have it. My mornings aren’t the same without it, and I find myself drinking it through the day, nowadays. I’m a coffee drinker, true, but I’m certainly no caffeine elitist. I savor good coffee, yes, but I drink a lot of gas station stuff ‘cause for one thing it’s usually easy to come by – only in big cities have I seen premium coffee shops at every other traffic light – and another thing is the early morn gal at my usual gas stop doesn’t charge the regulars for coffee. I like that.

 Years ago I bought a travel cup from a gas chain that advertised free refills with that cup. I had the cup long enough for them to quit honoring that agreement and when I reminded unknowing attendants I came off sounding like a whiner, so I kept quiet and paid for my refill. There’s another gas/convenient store that I stopped at every morning for a week while I was working in the area. When the owner was there he'd say “get outta here” when I pulled my wallet out. The following mornings I paid various young gals at the register 30 cents, 50 cents, 70 cents, and $1.06. Each morning there was a group of folks sitting at two tables – you know, the local coffee club – who refilled their cups at will. I suppose they had to raise the price as the week went on to pay for the gang helping themselves to freebies. When you pay a buck or more to refill your own cup that had better be some good coffee.

When I’m in a good coffee shop I know I’ll pay more and I know the reasons why, so I’ll leave a tip. There are a bunch of franchises you all know so I won’t try to name them because I actually only know a few of them. There are other private, local, homegrown shops that not only sell and serve specialty coffees, but usually some good eats, too. I’ve been to a number of them in various towns and have always appreciated friendly service and delicious goods, and I admire the folks trying to bring something special and classy to their community. I wish them well ‘cause I’ll want to stop by next time through.

I live with the belief that coffee was invented to make river water taste better. That’s kind of outdated thinking considering today’s java has to come from beans grown on the right mountain or jungle, by the right people who bring it in on the backs of the right donkeys, to be brewed with only the right spring water. Well then, ok, like I said: I drink plenty of coffee that’s fast, convenient, and cheap. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite.

Coffee is something of a staple for the outdoorsman. It wakes us in the morning and keeps us awake on those long night-time drives we often find ourselves taking. We drink it during the day to quench whatever that unexplainable urge is to have something tasty in our mouths. The smell alone conjures up memories of duck blinds, deer camps, trout streams and all manner of countless happy experiences. And sometimes you just have to brew a pot of coffee to relax and take time for a break. I keep a sealed strongbox in my truck that contains a pot, some coffee grounds, and a camp stove and I can’t tell you the times that fresh brewed coffee has brightened and fortified the day.

There’s a fly shop motto that proclaims “Fight big fish and drink good beer!” I won’t argue with that but my beer drinking tends to parallel my coffee drinking. I like good beer, that’s a fact, but I often open a brew that’s known to be easily affordable, if you catch my drift. And as far as fitting drinkables for the outdoorsman is concerned I’ll admit that a good bourbon is one of life’s finest and most welcome pleasures. Now wait! I know, I know, some folks favor blended whiskey… think “Crown,” which I’ve been known to partake in, or perhaps a little of the Irish when in the right company. Though while I’ve been known to produce a small flask to celebrate a particularly fine fish that’s been landed and a streamside beer can certainly wash down a hearty sandwich, we’ll keep those libations reserved for end of the day compliments when hunting.

Tony and I partook in some of those evening beverages at an early season grouse camp a month ago and sat around the fire discussing, among other things, good coffee. Tony has access to many of the best known coffee shops and has his favorites ranked in order. I mentioned how I liked our new local shop with their awesome coffees, baristas, d├ęcor, and menu but added I really didn’t think I was the kind of guy to hang around a cool coffee shop, no matter how much I like to. Besides, I seldom have the time. Tony agreed that I probably didn’t have time, but he reckoned that I am the kind of guy to hang out there. I took it as a compliment.

Monday, October 21, 2013


Paul and I called the dogs in and stopped for a break on a hill in one of the prettiest grouse covers you’d hope to see. It was almost a perfect autumn day, the kind you read about in old stories written by the likes of William Foster, Burt Spiller, or Gene Hill. You know the kind, with the sun glowing on crimson maples, gold aspens, and emerald balsams. The kind where a biddable brace of setters cast obligingly ahead, the cheerful bells sounding their whereabouts in the thick cover, falling silent only when one, or the other, or both stop short at the scent of their quarry. How they’d break open their fowling piece to inhale the burnt powder before accepting the tender retrieve and smooth feathers before slipping the dead bird into the game bag. I say “almost perfect” because in those old tales they always seemed to find a fresh-water spring to refresh themselves and canines. We knew our day would warm to the mid-70s so we lugged water jugs in our vests. And those old timers never mentioned picking a dozen deer ticks off themselves and their dogs, like we found every time we stopped to look. Still, that’s the kind of day we were having.

Jack and Scarlett hunted well together and seemed to be finding that quarry around every bend in the trail and at each edge and thicket they came to. We’d elected to run the setters as a brace because we knew the cover was extensive and we’d likely spend the better part of the day in it, which we did. We started in the morning and hours later emerged worn and tired and smiling at a fine day of grouse and woodcock hunting. I myself had used up a pocket full of shells and had one left as we neared the truck when Jack cast right and pointed yet again. I found him solid with a grouse perched on a blowdown three feet off the ground. Bold with over-confidence I stepped to flush and missed cleanly behind as the grouse winged nearly straight away! Paul chuckled at my exclamation of having missed my final shot on what should have been an easy kill. Ok, it was his turn, but we’d each had chances to poke fun at the other’s poor shooting.

A coupla hapless bum shots blasting holes in the sky? Maybe, but back at the truck we each had conspicuous bulges in our game bags – enough for the promise of some fine eating ahead. Easy shots are rare, of course. It’s just that some are easier than others. Even the woodcock are adopting some grouse tactics and hot-footing it under a balsam to flush low and fast from the other side. Waiting for open shots will only bring frustration so you shoot when you get the chance.  It’s great to see the bird fall, and sometimes surprising, but often enough your dog finds the bird you didn’t know was hit. After a fun day of the best kind of sport it can’t get much better.

The mornings are frosty, the Hunter’s Moon is bright, and those finest few colorful weeks are upon us. It’s time for hunting, all right, and the next day I hunted some new cover with Jack and Molly. When it works it makes for some interesting sport – hunting a flushing dog with a pointing dog. Somewhere, or somehow along the way Molly the spaniel learned to honor a pointing dog. I used to heel her into to the point and then “hup” her while I did the flushing. She caught on quickly and now she reliably sits when she spots one of the setters on point. It’s neat. And when we’re hunting a trail and Jack is casting ahead, she doesn’t neglect anything along the course and often produces birds we would’ve passed. We dog folks often say we wouldn’t hunt without a dog, and as much as I enjoy carrying and using a good shotgun it couldn’t be the same without a dog. I’d probably stay home and rake leaves or caulk windows or something. Nah!

We’re getting our first snow of the year today. It’s wet and cold. We found grouse, yes, taking cover under the balsams where it’s nearing impossible to get a shot. Another gunner could have helped, but who wants to hunt in this weather? It didn’t take long before I was soaked and chilled to the bone. We didn’t hunt long, just enough to get Jack’s brush-beaten tail bloody, again. The dogs seemed happy to get back into the truck and so was I – shivered most of the way home. Hung wet clothes in the basement, lit the woodstove and boiled coffee while I oiled my gun. Yep.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Monday, October 7, 2013

Fall fishing

I was sitting on a rock out in the middle of the river doing nothing really, just pondering the surroundings I was in and savoring the clean air I was breathing. I suppose I initially sat down on the smooth round rock to take a little break and maybe tie on a new tippet or something. I really don’t remember, but I know I ended up just taking it in and feeling perhaps just a bit guilty or culpable about it, wondering what I did to deserve such pleasure. Even in the midst of the moving water, now and then I could hear the tiniest “snap” and see a leaf fall into the river. Nice. Later in the day I would explore more of the river and run into a few other anglers, but for the morning I had the water to myself.

Driven by tales of arm-long brown trout and steelhead running up the river from Lake Superior, I took a day during the week and headed for the “president’s river.” Grouse season is open and I had plans for some camping and gunning up north on the weekend, but the prospect of a beautiful fall day on a trout stream was too much to pass up. I did have that non-resident fishing license, after all, and it didn’t seem to be getting nearly enough use.

I fished a section of the river that I’m at least a little familiar with, one that I’ve had success in earlier this year. I plied the deepest holes and runs with small (but not tiny) buggers and nymphs hoping to hook one of those trophy size trout. It seems every fishing story I see is highlighted with a photo of an angler holding a huge, beautiful brown or rainbow and I’d kinda like to be that guy one time. Or maybe a couple of times. Of course I’m never disappointed to catch fish and it’s nice to catch some pretty little trout than none at all… and, as I’ve often said, I’m lucky to get the chance.

I’ve made a few fall fishing trips in the past, usually in canoe country for walleyes but for the most part I’ve spent my autumns carrying a shotgun and following a bird dog around in the woods. Jack and Molly are crazy for the hunt and they’ve provided me some decent shooting the times we’ve been out this fall, enough for a couple of good meals, but I can’t get the fishing out of my head. And I’ve been pursuing it with the fervor of not being able to get enough of a good thing and knowing it’s coming to the end for another year.

Last week I paddled into a Boundary Waters lake to try for some walleyes as I had a hankering for an old time fish fry. You know the kind: where you dredge nice thick fillets in some type of batter and fry ‘em quick and delicious and gobble them down alongside some spuds and maybe a fresh garden salad so you can have at least something healthy with the meal! I didn’t use the fly rod. This trip I fished deep, with hard baits and jigs and it felt good to be in a canoe in great country once again. The walleyes weren’t biting, however, but the northern pike were active and I landed a bunch.


Two days later it was back with Scotty in his Fishcat floating a new river (at least to me) fly-casting large deer hair divers for pike and musky. I’ve caught a couple of muskies before but never on a fly rod and this was the first time I’ve targeted them. I had tied a few flies that I hoped would work and are the largest flies with the most material I’ve ever tied, but they were still on the small side compared to the creations Scott knotted to his wire leader! The muskellunge is the fish of 10,000 casts, so I wasn’t all too sure how this was going to go as far as hooking a fish would be. We did have a short discussion about that, wondering if false casts should be included in the total – because there is plenty of false casting trying to launch a ball of fur and feathers into a stiff wind. And that brings up another similarity I’ve noticed with drift boats and canoes: no matter which way you’re going, it seems you’re always going into the wind.

Well, Scott had checked out another part of this river before and had actually caught a couple of muskies. I don’t know how many casts it took, but presumably somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty thousand, if legend holds. Anyway, while the fishing may have been a little slow, and the wind a little strong, we did beat the predicted storm and had a great day on a gorgeous autumn river. We caught northern pike, and yeah, we caught muskies on the fly! Put a price on that!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

autumn's about here...

Scotty and I floated the river for bass on Sunday, the day after I’d spent a pretty uneventful grouse opener following Jack and then Molly through the still lush, summertime foliage of a couple of close covers. We did find some birds but I never fired a shot. I guess I had one chance but suffered one of those early season lapses when a grouse flushed from a tree and I had enough of a look to see which way it was going but never raised the gun. I wondered a moment later why I didn’t, and had to accept the notion that I’m just not as quick on the draw as I used to be. I recall the time when I would have easily emptied both barrels at such a bird. Well, it happens and it won’t be the last time. But I’ll admit I’m having some difficulty swallowing the idea that I might as well get used to it.

Scott, who spends more time river fishing than I do, reported that the summer bass fishing had been kind of slow. It’s true that a couple of our floats were a lot more about the fishing than the catching, but the smallmouths were turning on during the last few trips we made. Maybe the Red Gods were smiling, or perhaps I’d finally put on enough miles; missed enough work; and rowed and cast enough to have paid my river dues, but at any rate I hooked and landed some mighty fine bass. Add to that a good number of northern pike (man, one broke me off Sunday that I wished I’d had a better look at!) and it all makes for some fun sport. Brent even landed a musky a few weeks ago and since then Scott has taken to tying and casting flies that you would swerve to miss if you saw one lying on the road.

So even though it seems I should be all geared and focused on bird hunting, in the last week I’ve caught bass on the river casting big deer-hair divers and frog poppers; brook trout from a beaver pond with a favored bead-head wooly bugger tied with purple hackle on a 12 hook; and brown trout on a # 14 pheasant tail nymph from a well-known trout river. Who can grumble? And though I still haven’t landed that 21 inch bass, I don’t see carrying my quest into next year as a bad thing.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have considered fishing when I could have been carrying a shotgun instead, but that day is obviously gone. Not long gone, but gone. So far, I’ve enjoyed a pretty darn good year of fly rodding and each time out only serves as inspiration for the next one. In the last month alone I have been witness to the birth of at least a half-dozen new bass fly patterns. Of course, if you consider that the fly fishing season is coming to a close and the season for gunning is only just beginning, it’s understandable to try for that one last fishing trip all the while knowing that the hunting is going to get better and better as the days pass. Still, I can’t help feeling a little bleak at the prospect of zipping the rod tubes closed for the year – even though the comfortable heft of gunstock is always timely and welcome.

There have been some tough times around the country, part of it seems to be burning up and another part flooding. Many of you know that one of our favorite trout-fishing writers lives next to Colorado’s flooding St. Vrain river, and as kindred spirits we have to wonder how he is faring. If you're not in the midst of it count yourself lucky – or blessed, as I do.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Year of the fish.

I was standing on the beaver dam casting a bead-head soft hackle into the pond while dragonflies – large black and white allied fighters – occasionally brushed my ear and neck with their wingtips as they buzzed close snapping the mosquitoes swarming my head. High above they hovered like a waiting squadron until prey was sighted and singly each would bank and dive and do their best to eliminate the bloodthirsty mosquito enemy. I was glad they were there, but alas, badly outnumbered – I had to resort to a second line of defense that included long sleeves and bug dope. Now and then a trout would come up and slurp something off the surface out in the middle but it was hard to reach. I was casting well, double hauling for all I was worth and hearing line zing through the guides for what seemed like a mile, but the pond is just too large. Of course, the lowland spruce trees behind me forced a conscious effort to toss a high back cast and it’s hard to achieve your best, be it casting, shooting, or… just about anything when you have to think about it, right? If the fish started rising with any regularity, as I expected, I was ready with dry flies. Just before dark and still only the infrequent surface bite, I tied on a small blue wing olive left over from our Montana trip and hoped for some action. I moved around the edge to where I could see flooded timber under the surface and shot several casts out there. When a beaver swam out hungry for supper I turned to watch and that’s when the strike came. I missed it. The only strike of the evening. A couple of evenings before I’d landed a pretty 10 inch brook trout on the same fly minutes after I got there before a nasty summer storm chased me off the pond.

I know a man who survived a lightning strike. The jolt hit a tall pine tree he was hiking past and travelled down and through shallow roots to hit him, his partner, and their guide as they were returning to the truck after a day fishing a western river. All three lived, there was a story about it in one of the big outdoor magazines, but the guide never walked again and though Gary still fishes, he continues to suffer some permanent nerve damage.  With that on my mind I wasn’t ready to stand out in the open under a storm and wave a long graphite rod around… well, maybe if there’d been a lot of fish rising.

It’s been summer hot for the last few days and yesterday my truck thermometer read 91 degrees when I drove into town, but like they say, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” Well Ok, we had the humidity, too. But we’re having no wildfires or floods or deadly storms. Yet. So I’m not complaining. This morning I woke to cloudy skies with the promise of rain. It was a little cooler and breezy also, but not enough to discourage many mosquitoes from seeking me out while I played with the dogs before breakfast. After eating I sipped coffee and watched our resident Ruby-throated hummingbird try to worry two goldfinches and an Evening Grosbeak from the platform feeder that is mounted a foot from the hummingbird feeder. Then it was time to do something.

This was the year for berry picking if ever there was one. I even heard something on the radio about this being a banner year. I’m mostly a grazing type of picker, I suppose. I do my blueberry picking when out doing something else, say, running the dogs or riding my mountain bike. With the berries as thick as this year I’d have a handful in seconds and down them for a delicious treat without ceremony. I’m happy for those who pick with a pail and a purpose like P.J., who kept us supplied with dozens of muffins. And then came the raspberries. I can still walk the edge of my yard and gulp raspberries by the fistful. The green plants filled with red fruit give a Christmas sort of look to the yard, though when X-mas surely does arrive those same plants will be buried under feet of snow. For now it’s enjoy it while you can and I’m filling up on wild berries like a sea-bound sailor trying to avoid the scurvy.

There is a small trout stream not far from here that has a population of native brook trout. I haven’t kept up with the management (if there is any) but I have seen contracted beaver trappers working it in the spring. There were brown trout planted at one time, but I haven’t caught one there in many years. It’s a brushy little river that’s tough to fly fish in, but not impossible. You wade into the middle and work to a run or pool, roll casting ahead. The concentration is hard to sustain and I’ve lost many a fly and leader to the overhanging foliage. The fish are small, too, and many is the time I’ve been frustrated to the point of wondering why I fish it at all. But a rainy day like today seemed the time to try. With only my face and hands exposed and doused with bug dope, I tossed my line ahead in short little casts as light rain dimpled the water. There was no breeze down in the brushy river bottom and the cool water felt good through my waders. I have a favorite dry fly I like to use and the brookies are seldom selective. If they’ll take a bug off the surface it doesn’t seem to matter what it is and because there is almost as much submerged brush in this stream as overhead, a dry isn’t quite as easy to lose. When it started raining hard enough that I couldn’t see the fly, I switched to a nymph and indicator and caught two trout right away. That was it for today. I’m not saying how many times I was snagged above and below water, but I sure miss the more classic trout streams I grew up around.

Every year late in the winter or early spring, about the time when we’re all tired of the snow and bored because there just isn’t much doing in March and we start receiving all those cool fishing rags and catalogs in the mail I typically announce “This is the year of the fish!” When all I have on my mind and when a new angling year’s inspiration comes over me, I can’t think of a thing that will keep me from fishing. Oh sure, I know I have to work some, but I envision leaving work and being on the water minutes later and I can’t think of a reason I won’t camp every weekend with boat or canoe or on the banks of a trout stream.

Well, it turns out I can’t go fishing every day, or go camping every weekend either. Sometimes it’s the weather to blame, sometimes it’s one of the other countless tasks or chores we always forget about when we all we can seem to think about is fishing. Still, that doesn’t mean it can’t be the year of the fish. So far I can’t complain as I’m ahead of most years as far as the trout fishing is concerned. I’ve likely caught more bass, too, and though I haven’t caught as many walleyes, I’ve taken enough for some mighty tasty meals. I’ve even been on a couple of popular lakes with my boat and trolling motor, catching numbers of bass with my fly rod while pontoon boatloads of yakking people and kids on jet-skis cruised behind me, and I really have to be enjoying myself to put up with that! My boat is out of commission right now. Last week I was trying for walleyes in yet another rain storm, and was returning to the dock when I hit the only rock in the lake I could have hit and broke the lower unit of my motor. Bad luck for sure on a familiar piece of water, but I should have it up and running in a few days.

Of course I’m lookin’ to get next door to Wisconsin some more and down to southern Minnesota’s trout streams again. And I’ve recently received a line on some Canadian trout streams that are an easy drive away. Yep, this just might be the year of the fish!

Monday, June 17, 2013

campin' for bass...

I’d slept later than I expected I would. I could see through the nylon walls of my tent that it was well past sunrise. It’s not that I cared about sleeping in or was in any kind of hurry, though, I just didn’t expect to sleep well enough on the ground to sleep late. Of course, I wasn’t exactly on the ground, there was a therma-rest pad under my sleeping bag, and I can’t begin to tell you the number of nights I’ve slept on that pad. Nonetheless, that pad seems to get thinner each year and after the better part of a day paddling and portaging to set up camp – then paddling and casting until dark – I didn’t just spring out of the sack, and when I finally managed to clamber up and outside it took a while longer to stretch the kinks out than it used to.

Based on a hot tip, I had made an overnight paddle reservation into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness intent on fly fishing for that 21 inch smallmouth bass I’d set my sights for. I canceled that trip shortly after I received Brent’s “let’s go to Montana” e-mail and re-scheduled to paddle in a few days after we returned from the west. I expected this situation to be good fate because I thought the bass would be spawning later than usual, anyway. Of course, any invitation to Montana is good fate on its own, so it seemed like a win-win deal to me.

At dawn I parked my truck off the road and portaged my gear to the first lake a little better than half a mile away. I was on a solo trip (I’d hung an open invitation out there – no takers) and I had to double portage to get my packs and canoe across, which required three trips over each portage. But enthusiasm was on my side and I was eager to try out the new bass poppers I’d tied over the winter, so I headed out in high spirits. Five hours later I made my last 90-rod portage over a little used trail into my destination lake with plenty of time to pitch camp and fish out the day.

The tip I’d gotten was from a believable source who described the lake as off the beaten path (true enough), easy to get to in a day (again, true), full of large bass (for me to find out). Now, describing large bass can be a pretty subjective topic. If you’re fishing Texas largemouth then you’re gonna need something in the neighborhood of ten pounds to be considered a nice fish. If you’re at little Jammer Lake off the highway a few miles from here you’ll consider showing off anything 12 inches long, though if you tell them you caught it fly-fishing they’ll tell you you’d be better off dropping a crawler on the bottom. And why are you fishing for bass, anyhow? Between here and Texas you’ll run into lots of differing criteria to what constitutes a big bass.

All in all, I was of the notion that this might be the place to take that trophy.

After I set up a comfortable camp on the north shore and gobbled a quick lunch I stood looking and the lake and pondering which way to try first. There was a moderate breeze coming in and it turned out to be the first of four days of east to southeast winds. Wind from the east, fish bite the least… I threw my Crazy Creek chair onto the canoe seat to ease my lower back and pushed off. The first smallmouth took one of my new poppers when I was a hundred yards from camp, along the north shore of the lake, but it was tough trying to cast and control the canoe in the wind. Sometimes I would drop a rock anchor over the side and shoot a number of casts to likely looking cover, but I soon found my way to the east and south shores where the water was calm. Near a beaver lodge I could peer into the clear water and see schools of suckers alongside what looked like largemouth bass. It was soon confirmed as I started catching largemouths that would jump clear of the water in imitation of the rainbow trout we caught the week before. The clear water was deceiving and what looked like a depth of two or three feet was more like six or eight. It didn’t take long to realize the bonzebacks were not on their nests, yet. I caught only a couple that were way up in the shallows, and most of the fish came at the edge of the drop, twenty or so feet from shoreline. When the poppers and hair bugs worked it was exciting with some of the bass rushing up and clearing the water when they hit. But nothing seemed to work for long and I caught some casting a huge rubber-legged wooly bugger sort of thing and a small Klouser tied with brown marabou and X-legs that looked, to me, like a passable crawfish hopping along the rocky bottom. I have to say that maybe the most effective fly was a waterlogged deer hair diver that I’d let sink a few inches before stripping it in and leaving a wake on the surface. I lost it when a nice bass wrapped up in an underwater tree limb.

The lake looks like bass heaven to me and I saw many more fish than I caught. Except for a few areas of fine gravel the bottom is covered with the rocky rumble that stirs us bass anglers, with plenty of downed and sunken trees along the edges. I landed about as many largemouth as smallies with the latter running a bit larger.

The first evening I set my routine of returning to camp to cook a good supper on my camp stove and set up a campfire of dry beaver wood that would start with one match when I returned at dark from more fishing. There's nothing much better than pondering a crackling fire on a remote lake, listening to the loons singing their wild songs, and a sip from the flask to ease sore muscles before crawling into the tent for the night. It was cool enough to frost overnight so the insects that are so often thick this time of year were not an issue. The first night I woke in the dark to hear wolves howling in the woods to the north, a sound that makes me happy to burrow deeper into my sleeping bag, but it was water lapping the shoreline yards from my tent that put me away each night.

One morning I looked at the overcast eastern sky wondering if it would rain. I tied my rain jacket to a thwart and as soon as I got across the lake the rain came. It was no passing shower and my rain pants were back in camp. After a morning of fishing in the rain I paddled to camp and sat under the tarp drying out and drinking coffee. It cleared in the late afternoon to a beauty of an evening that brought still more paddling, casting, and bass.

A few days of fly casting and paddling a canoe reminded me that I’m no youngster, anymore, but I’m mighty happy to have the chances and places to keep at it. I once guided an old friend, the man who started me fly tying, on a BWCA winter ski in trip. We were huddled against a rock face cooking a lunch of polish sausage over a small fire and I asked how he was doing. He answered, “It’s better to wear out than to rust.” He’s long retired, now, and bouncing grandkids off his knees, but he still makes the long trip up here to paddle and portage in canoe country every year, or so. I like that.

I caught bass with a certain slow regularity, but it wasn’t the fast and furious I was quietly hoping for. Fishing is like that and although I’ve enjoyed some pretty fruitful outings with my fly rod, if success was measured only by the weight or numbers, I would have given up a failure long, long ago. Casting a fly rod is fun – when it’s going well, that is, and when it’s not going well you figure it out and improve – and I like the activity and anticipation of it all, though I’m happy to jig or troll some bait when the walleyes are biting and I’m looking for a fish fry. After a couple of days on the water I become comfortable controlling the canoe and rod at once and fall into a method of stroke, lay the paddle across my lap, grab the rod and cast several times. Sure, the line sometimes gets tangled around my feet, or under the paddle or hooked on the seat, but I’m sort of used to that. Can anyone tell me anything that tangles as easily as fly line and leaders? I was pleased with the action of some of my new poppers and will use them anywhere, but I also learned the failings of some of the others, so I’m glad I didn’t tie dozens of them.

I had some pike leaders along just in case I had the chance, but this lake seemed to hold nothing but bass and schools of suckers working the bottom. Timing is important when targeting these early season bass and I believe I was too early for the best of it. I suppose I should be there right now, but, much as I’d like, I just can’t spent all my time recreating. Dang. And my quest for the 21 continues.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


I’ve often said that if I’d gone to Montana when I was eighteen I would have never came back. That may not be entirely true, but it might be. However, I was well into adulthood when I made my first trip there, long past teenage years and getting pretty well settled into the woods of Minnesota. I wasn’t in a bad place at all – a pretty good place, actually… but, still…

I’ve been to Montana hunting birds – prairie grouse and doves – with my dogs, my friends, and my friend’s dogs on the grasslands of the northeastern part of the state and had nothing but fun doing it: setters casting well ahead and locking on sharptails, Dutch oven dinners in an open prairie camp, and crawling into the sleeping bag while coyotes yipped the evening serenade. And I’ve backpacked in the high and rugged mountains where I was told grizzly bear live. I didn’t see any bears, but I was lookin’. I’ve been treated to seeing a fair sampling of game there, mule and whitetail deer, antelope, and elk but I’ve never hunted big game out west. Perhaps one day. I’ve also had the good fortune to have fished on half a dozen rivers, some a couple of different times. I’ve slept in big tents and small, motels and cabins, and on the ground under that legendary Big Sky full of stars.

When I tell the stories I tend to make it sound like I know more about that country than I really do, as if I’ve been there a lot. I haven’t been there a lot, though, not nearly as much as I’d like to. I still believe I could have stayed out there years ago and pounded out as good a living as I have here at home, wandering around the streams and mountains with rod and gun when I could and just plain becoming familiar with it all. Sort of, I guess, like I have here. Nowadays I go west as a tourist, a sooner, a hopeful yo looking to catch some big trout, stare at the scenery, enjoy some good evening whiskey with good friends, and make some great memories doing it.

With drift boat in tow we traveled all night and most of the day, Brent, Scott, John, and I, but we were on the water before dark casting to trout rising to tiny midges and blue wing olives. And we caught some. The fishing proved far more technical than I’d ever experienced. When I see fish rising all over the place, their heads and dorsels popping out of the water all around me, my Midwestern meat and potatoes mindset can’t help thinking “this is gonna be a slaughter!” Far from it, but thanks to some shared advice from the fly shop guides and my more experienced companions I was able to hook a trout here and there when I wasn’t untangling wind knots, or trying to slip an invisible tippet through the eye of a hook that an amoeba couldn’t squeeze through, or watching my buddies land yet another one. We toasted our luck each night in our comfortable rented cabin with a convenient fly shop within spittin’ distance of our door. Man-sized breakfasts, days on the river, and heaping delicious suppers guaranteed sound sleep and before I knew it we were packing for home.

Yes, we caught trout, enjoyed the views, sipped some fine bourbon, and brought back good memories. And I never even rowed the boat, but I tried to!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Fish pics for dummies

Yesterday I was in town to see my dentist and then visit the cool new coffee shop just opened by a musician friend of mine and her significant other. It’s a short walk from my dentist’s office to the coffee shop with a sporting goods store in between so I first stopped to see what was happening in there. I immediately ran into a fellow I know who, while checking out wool shirts, pointed out there are only five weeks left before the days start getting shorter. Thanks, man.

The coffee shop is run by neat folks that I’ve known for a couple of years now, but I didn’t realize their combined talents and visions in this coffee shop idea. They got hold of an old downtown clothing store situated perfectly on the corner of Chestnut & 3rd, remodeled and restored and exposed some of the finer architectural features like uncovering some of the original brick walls. Then built a massive stone and steel wood-fired oven in which they bake all manner of delicious pastries, breads, and pizzas with the help of a friendly and welcoming staff. With walls full of art and good music in the background I enjoyed a cup of real good coffee and a warm, mouthwatering blackberry muffin. If you pass through Virginia, Minnesota it’s easy to find and worth seeking out.

It took a while but spring finally did arrive and it’s been an interesting one at that. I couldn’t wait for the rivers to open so I crossed the border, nonresident license in one hand, fly rod in the other, and hiked through snowy woods to fish the fabled Brule before the spring melt turned it into a raging torrent. I dealt with numb hands and iced rod guides until the sun finally warmed the air some, but a beauty of a river through a snowy landscape and biting brown trout made for a memorable day.

I’m new to steelhead fishing and this spring I decided to learn. A good visit to a friendly Duluth fly shop set me on track and I left with a few recommended fly patterns and an idea of what to tie on my own. I was also temped by the newest in rods and reels, of course, but it turned out my rod works just fine. John, the owner, shared some tips and technics and made the bold statement, “I’ll guarantee you’ll catch a steelhead!” Brave words for a man who’s never seen me wield a fly rod – those that have wonder how I ever catch anything. Amazingly though, he was right. I tried to keep an eye on the North Shore stream reports, but my first attempt was a little too early with high, fast water that made for some tricky wading, if not downright dangerous. I did hook a couple of steelhead, however, from the pool I stood in while getting showered by spray from the rapids above. A DNR creel census guy saw my truck on the road and came in to find me, mentioning I was the only one on the river and reminded me there was no one around to help if I had troubles, so I ought be careful.

Walleye opener saw frozen lakes and high winds with snow squalls. There were white-out conditions at my place that I watched comfortably peering out the window with a cup of hot coffee in my hand. A few days later I paddled my canoe up a local river to try for some eaters below the rapids. It took forty-five minutes of paddling to get there flushing ducks, geese and swans along the way and listening to drumming grouse in the woods. At the hole I hoped would be full of walleyes, I caught one. No more. There are all kinds of ways to cook walleyes, but fried for breakfast is hard to beat when there’s only one.

Back on the Shore a couple of days ago. Same river, lower water. Better conditions and other anglers. Gorgeous day. On Minnesota’s North Shore all steelhead must be released. Now, I catch heck from some of my catch-and-eat friends wondering why I’d drive a couple of hours only to release fish, but I don’t generally care to try to explain my reasons for sport any more than I want to get into a gun control argument with, well… you know. But I do have a dilemma. I like photos and when I’m about to release a fish I’m always concerned about getting it back in the water healthy.

I recently read a fishing report that complained of anglers over playing and fighting steelhead to death, then kicking the fish onto the bank for a photo. That is wasteful and shameful, of course and I don’t get it, but it’s led me to re-examine my own methods of fish photography.  So far I believe I’m doing OK, because the trout I put back in the water take off under power. I managed to get a shot of one steelhead but it took some planning. I had hooked two from a pool I was fishing and believed I could get another so I had my camera out and set on a little pocket tripod, ready for action. That alone should have jinxed me but the Red Gods were smiling and I did indeed catch another. These steelhead are real fighters and I know why so many are attracted to the sport, and after the exciting battle I’d had him close enough to land by hand. It took one hand around the tail of the fish and one to press the camera button, then I lifted him out and tried to be in front of the camera when the shutter tripped. The fish nearly struggled out of my hands but I got the shot and lowered the fish to the river healthy and strong. I’ve actually used this shortcut before, having the camera out and waiting on the river bank. One day I’ll forget and leave it perched on a rock.

When I reviewed the photo later I see that I cut the fishes head from the photo, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve photographed the top of my hat, or my knees, or the trees, etc. trying to get a self-portrait ‘cause I’m usually alone when I try this stuff. I like photos of fish next to the bank alongside a net or reel for perspective, but this steelhead was too large for my trout net and would no way hold still for a photo in shallow water next to a reel. Sometimes it all works out and you have a photo where you didn’t cut your head off, it’s in focus, your eyes are open and you don’t look too dorky, and you can see at least most of the fish. That’s the kind you can look at years from now and recall the day fondly. That’s what it’s about. On the other hand you can save a lot of frustration by leaving the camera alone and purely enjoying the angling. Besides, a photo can ruin a good story, “Hey, that thing is nowhere near 30 inches!” and wreck your credibility for the whole year.

And while I’m on the subject of self-portraits this is my favorite story: I was sharing a deer camp with Tony and Rich some years ago and Rich killed a fine 10 pointer the first morning. He got it to his SUV but couldn’t get it on the tailgate until a couple of local guys came by and stopped to help him. They lifted the deer and held it while Rich tied it on with rope. Rich was returning to camp with his prize but decided to stop at a scenic clearing and take a photo of himself and his buck. He dropped the animal to the ground and posed himself in front of his camera. Satisfied with the shot he found himself once again in need of help loading the deer onto his tailgate. Of course the truck that stopped was manned by the same two guys who’d helped before, only this time they tied the buck on themselves.

In a week I’ll be heading for Montana rainbows and then a trip to canoe country looking for that big bass. Yep, spring is here.

Sat 18 May

Sunday, April 21, 2013


It was just getting light out when I woke this morning but I didn’t jump right out of bed, even though it was Saturday, because I knew the task of snow removal was ahead of me. The large bedroom window faces south and I woke to see a bright horizon that promised a welcome sunny day, something that has been sadly lacking of late.  If I stay in bed very long the sun will climb high enough to shine directly in my eyes and flood the room with light, a bright and bold reminder that OK, it’s really time to get up. But it would take a while for that to happen so I grabbed the book off the nightstand and read a good story about fly-fishing bass in Texas. Not a bad way to start a day.

It was a stark contrast from my fishing tale to the reality of fifteen degrees and the chore of clearing the latest storm’s dumping of snow from the yard and driveway. The fresh snow measured anywhere from 12 inches to nearly double that.  And here it is the 20th of April! I got right to it figuring breakfast and coffee would be more appreciated and relaxing with the work behind me. It was.

I hear we’re setting some kind of record with all this April snow. That may be, but I’ve yet to run into the first person who is happy about such a record. I know some folks who are still taking ATVs and snowmobiles on the lakes to ice-fish for crappies, which would seem to be an outstanding idea but the fishing reports are less successful than you would think. The official opening of walleye season is twenty-one days away and everyone is wondering if there will be open water to fish in.
There’s no telling how the grouse and woodcock are going to fare, but there certainly won’t be any early hatch. I’ve read theories and conjectures that explain the delicate timetable comparing the relationships of when the predator species are born to when the prey species are born – or more to our interest, hatched – and it doesn’t seem like good news. I’m assuming this late spring will have little effect on the breeding cycles of the four-legged furbearers, most of which find young grouse tasty, so I can’t help being concerned about my favored game birds. Still, there are many reasons for late hatches, so let’s remain hopeful.

Last Sunday morning the temperature read 5 degrees at six in the morning.  There was about two inches of soft snow over a frozen snowpack of about two feet. It was a sunny morning that would give way to clouds and more snow that evening, but the unusual conditions made for some great skiing and I enjoyed gliding through the woods without the need of a broken trail. The soft snow on top revealed all manner of fresh wildlife tracks and reminded me these woods are alive at night. By noon the day warmed and softened the snow too much for travel so I am glad I took the opportunity when I could. Neat stuff.
There’s also some neat stuff ahead, with a trout fishing trip out west in the works and a canoe country bass trip days after. And if this weather straightens out I can hear some steelhead calling my name.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Earth Day

Despite the foot of heavy wet snow that landed on us Saturday, and 3 more inches last night, and the forecast for six more tomorrow, it is April and spring weather is bound to happen any day. Right?  Any woodcock brave enough to get this far will find over two feet of snow on their singing grounds so I hope they hold off for awhile.

Still, we are all hopeful so I sent off a few early Happy Earth Day messages from my phone today while I was supposed to be working. I couldn’t send out to everyone but I enjoyed the replies. There were a couple of references to hippies, one hallelujah, and even one sort of bah-humbuggy. Well, I’m not usually a humbug sort of guy and there’s not many who would see me and say “look at that hippie!” but I can yell “hoorah!” with the best of them. It’s hard not to like Earth Day because most all of us appreciate the planet we live on. No one has found a better place, yet. It’s easy to take it for granted but as far as I can tell we’d all have a hell of a time if we had to leave tomorrow.

Here on the Range it can be kind of tricky to endorse any kind of support for clean air, pure water, and healthy soil lest we be labeled “environmentalists.” It is, I've heard, the environmentalists who would eliminate our jobs and kick us all out so this part of Minnesota could become a park for the rich. Or something like that.

Forty-five years ago there were rivers in this country that would and actually did catch on fire. That’s about when the green movement started, though it wasn’t such a catch-phrase until recently. If some kind of movement hadn’t started where would we be now?

I’m not an extremist but I do get along with Mother Nature. She’s a fine and beautiful lady and many of the best parts of my life have taken place close to her. I’ll bet your’s have, too. So I took some time today and smiled at the clear sky and enjoyed a couple of deep, clean breaths of unfiltered air. I’m happy to be able. The official Earth Day is still a couple of weeks away, and I hope you enjoy it. It’s an easy day to celebrate, after all – you don’t have to buy gifts, dress up, or have relatives over. I know not everyone believes in watching out for the environment, but c’mon, it’s about the only thing we really do need. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Twenty one. That was an important number when I was a teenager, for reasons that are a bit fuzzy now. It had something to do with the legalities of bellying up to a bar and ordering a beer like a natural born man. At least, that’s what I remember about it.

I’ve been on a long-time quest to catch a 21-inch smallmouth bass on my fly rod. It’s not something I’ve been obsessed with, or have pursued above all else, but I’m not getting any younger and I’d like to cross it off my list. Shouldn’t be all that hard to do – sounds absolutely simple, right?  But it’s eluded me, so far. I have caught some large bass that measured up, mostly while fishing for walleyes using jigs and bait or crankbaits. I caught one last spring on Lake Vermilion that was close, on a Rapala.  And I do also catch a good number of smallies each year fly-fishing, just haven’t gotten the 21.

I have marks on my canoe country maps where I’ve caught memorable fish. There were the lakers on the surface one June evening on Canadian Agnes… Couldn’t keep the walleyes off my fuzzy grubs on Crooked… Camped under the stars one night overlooking a shallow bay on Quetico Lake that I’d spent the final hours of daylight catching one after another 14-16 inch smallies gulping mayflies off the bronze surface… The Alworth Lake northern pike that grabbed my deer-hair popper and swam up to my canoe to give me the evil eye before diving and breaking me off effortlessly… Eating Shell Lake walleyes caught fly-casting a streamer pattern tied with locks of my daughter’s blonde hair. Now, where to try for the big bass?

I ran into an old friend and neighbor just this morning and I mentioned the quest to him. Now, Frank is a rough and tumble guy, part logger, part cowboy; truck driver and hog raiser. He’s an honest to goodness, tried and true Iron Ranger of Finnish descent. In his younger days he took off on his old panhead Harley to live in California for awhile so he could misbehave without his mother knowing about it. He tried to live the hippie lifestyle but kept getting into fights when he was drunk, so he wasn’t well accepted. He couldn’t quite embrace the “peace” part of it all. Anyway, his answer to me was, “Bass, eh? Whatcha do with ‘em, knock ‘em on the head and toss ‘em on the bank? That’s what I do.” Jeez. Around here there’s an old stigma against any gamefish other than walleye or lake trout.

I have another old neighbor six miles east of here that has a 42-pound Great Slave lake trout mounted on the wall of his living room. If you look through his big window when you drive by his house you can see it.  I don’t know him well, nor have I fished with him, but he is reputed to fish with a baseball bat in his boat to beat any northern pike off the hook before it gets in the boat. Those who know him claim he gets physically ill when he gets too close to a pike – can’t stand the smell, they say. This is perfectly reasonable thinking to many of the locals, but it does makes him the easy target of all sorts of practical jokes. It seems weird to me.

The trouble with being surrounded by weirdness is they all look at you as the weird one.

So I’ve been poring over my maps to plan my strategy for the 21-inch smallmouth. There is some criteria I’ve imposed: I must catch this fish in Minnesota. That rules out Chequamegon Bay and Canada, including Quetico. If someone will show me where the big fish live that’s fine, but no paid guides (nothing against guides, I just don’t wanna pay them.) I have to catch this fish using a fly rod with artificial flies. No bait, and of course I’ll try to take it on the surface, but clousers, buggers, and muddlers are OK, too. Northern MN would be nice – who wants to leave God’s Country? – but the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers are fair game (yes, there are a couple of WI rivers that temp me). I’m willing to camp – motels are iffy. Familiar Schtick: these are more guidelines than rules, subject to change at a moments notice. Right now I’m looking at some lakes in the Boundary Waters that I’ve either been to or heard about. I’m favoring a spot that might take two days to paddle to, if I go solo, which is likely but if anyone is interested in joining me I’ll sure consider it. Time-wise it should be late May – early June for the lakes. Rivers are less fussy.

So that’s what I’m thinking about on this cold, cold windy evening. I’ll keep you posted.


Groundhog Day came and went but I can’t recall the resulting prediction. It can’t matter too much ‘cause us northern Minnesota folks put no stock into what a pen-raised Pennsylvania woodchuck has to say, anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting down good old PA – I have some very good friends out there, I know there are some awesome bird dogs there and I’d love to fish some of those fabled trout streams. It’s just that I’m thinkin’ that brown fur ball with the unpronounceable name doesn’t have a clue how long my winter is gonna be. I sometimes wonder if the top-hatted mayor who hoists Punxstawney Phil into the air doesn’t maybe secret a pinch of fur into his pocket for later use at the fly vise. Wouldn’t blame him.

Then Valentine’s Day came. I think it was something like ten below zero that morning. No worries about melting chocolate hearts. That was days ago and winter lingers on. There are people steelhead fishing in Michigan. I’ve been reading about them and I envy them. It will be awhile before there’s open water around these parts so my outdoor gear has not been fly rods, but rather snowshoes and skis. That’s not bad, however, and I like to get out and survey the winter woods on those soft and quiet days.

This is also the time of year that I make a little firewood for next winter, so besides using the skis and snowshoes I also fire up the chainsaw. I was well into it, satisfied that I’d done some real work when I was overcome by the urge for a little recreation. A snowshoe hike seemed in order and a quiet patrol would be a welcome contrast to a buzzing chainsaw.

There are a couple of old abandoned homesteads within a half-hour hike from my place. Over the years I’ve watched the weather break them down further and further and the day is coming when there will be nothing left of them. I know only a bit of the history of them, but it’s obvious that turning out a hardscrabble living on rocky northern Minnesota farms was a tough proposition.

The buildings are broken and caved in, but springtime lilacs still bloom around what’s left of the house, and I put in the lilacs around my own yard and kennels from plantings I dug from the homestead over 20 years ago. I’ve trapped and hunted within sight of the old places and the overgrown fields have been important dog training grounds for me. Yesterday I was happy to find grouse roosts in the deep snow of what was once a front yard. I can still find the remnants of a log sauna and smokehouse with Finnish dovetailed corners that I’d bet hung as many deer as cattle and hogs.

These old homes are kind of mysterious, I suppose, and it’s hard to pass the impulse to explore them. You never know what there is to find; though anything of value had disappeared long before I ever set foot on the place. You hope you don’t stumble into an old well or startle some kind of critter from under fallen roof poles. If you’re in the mindset you may even wonder about any spirits still keeping tabs on their property. I’ve yet to run into any ghosts, but one of my trails goes through the woods right past the old house and I’ll admit it’s a little creepy at night.  Still, they’re compelling locales and I have to wonder what kind of faith and skills and toughness those men and women possessed who made their homes and lives there. Between the two places, on a wooded knoll surrounded by cut hayfields is a small little known private cemetery where some of the original homesteaders rest.

I hiked on home to a warm house and flipped on the basement light to hang my snowshoes to drip on the floor. It was a day to be outside so I grabbed the splitting maul to finish the tree I was working on. The fun part is dropping the trees. Blocking and splitting is… well, exercise. I wouldn’t freeze without firewood, however; my efficient propane furnace prevents that. But there are some trees around the place that need cutting, and every dollar worth of propane saved is a dollar’s worth of gas for a springtime fishing trip.  Or so I tell myself. Yep, it’s a good life.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

It's wintertime!

If you don’t own or have access to a variety of outdoor gear you stand the risk of becoming handy around the house. I’m not talking about having a mere variety of fishing rods, however. I mean variety as in “diverse” – you know, gear for every season. On the other hand, being handy is not all bad and there’s a bit of Red Green in a lot of us, though I know people who seem to thrive on such things. I know one fellow who keeps several photos of his shingled roof pinned up in his office. I have to agree that it looks like a mighty fine job but to my untrained eye it looks very much like every other shingled roof I’ve seen. And after all, the guy performs building maintenance for a living so the fact that he did it himself isn’t all that astonishing. He’s a steady talker too, and kind of a busy-body anyway, so I take comfort in knowing that I won’t run into him out in the field ‘cause he’ll be at home wiring a new ceiling fan, or something. I guess we all belong somewhere.

Even if you are a talented do-it-yourselfer with a pending project or two, it seems something of a shame to, say, spend a weekend installing flooring while so much expensive outdoor gear sits waiting and wasting in the basement and garage. OK, so it’s the middle of winter and we’re through hunting, the boat’s long put away, the camp tarp has been waterproofed and to a casual observer it might seem as if there’s nothing much left to do. If we were meant to be outside recreating someone would have invented cold weather equipment, right? Like goose-down parkas, ice augers, insulated boots, snow pattern camouflage coveralls, snowshoes, and skis. You get the picture – I rest my case.

I knew it was warmer the instant I stepped outside. Warmer than yesterday, anyway. There was no sub-zero temperature to grab my breath and water my eyes. My porch deck didn’t creak and pop when I put my weight on it. My boots didn’t crunch in the snow on my way to the dogs. No, it wasn’t that cold – looked like a fine winter day. The dogs were glad to get out of the kennel and raced around happy and excited. Yesterday morning Jack danced gingerly in the cold, but this morning he was off and running, eager to catch Molly. Together they sprinted the familiar trails around the perimeter of their territory, ready to chase off any intruders that happened to wander in during the night. Jack and Molly met me at the loft (I keep a small loft of pigeons for dog training, supposedly, but now for my own enjoyment as much as anything) and waited impatiently as I fed and watered the birds. Then they jumped and whined in front of me as I made my way back to the house. I could nearly hear their plea “C’mon! Let’s do something!” before I went in for a cup of piping coffee and to decide what that “something” should be.

A week ago I took the dogs up for a ski on the Rice River.  Most of the river is hardly wider than a canoe is long and I’ve hunted, fished, and trapped the river often, but seldom venture on its unreliable ice in the winter. No one does. Many years ago I broke through its ice on a December morning that read minus 10 degrees when I'd left my house on foot. I went in to my waist and when I climbed out I quickly stripped and wrung out my wool pants, long johns and socks. Still, it was a cold and potentially dangerous three-mile hike over rough country home. Two winters ago I was working on an old wooden bridge on the same river but miles downstream. Working on bridges  (my day job) off the ice can be advantageous, but this time I broke through near the center pier pilings and went in to my neck. I grabbed some bracing on the piling and quickly clamored out while my partner on top of the bridge rushed to find a rope. He ran back to the railing to see only the hole in the ice where I’d been. I was on shore by then but you should have seen the look on his face!

We’ve had some real cold spells and the stretch of river looked so smooth and inviting that I couldn’t resist trying it. I figured my skis would distribute my weight and that would help. I turned Jack and Molly loose and proceeded behind them laying a set of tracks on snow that had seen nothing but deer, fox, and wolves all winter. I was still in sight of my truck when Molly took an outside bend near an old beaver house and broke through the ice.  She was out of the water before I knew it and playfully rolled in the snow to dry off – a process that I know works; though I’m not sure how. However it works, I don’t believe it would be for me. Now, I outweigh Molly by a couple hundred pounds and my agility is dramatically un-spaniel like, but I took it in stride and decided she’d found a weak spot from current near the beaver lodge. It was a beauty of a day and I kept going, warily when need be. The ice in mid-stream seemed hard and strong when I poked at it with my pole, but at the many old beaver dams we crossed I could hear water trickling under the ice. It’s like a friend said, “It’s not the good ice you have to watch out for.”

The skiing was awesome and fun. I glided easily down the river while the dogs raced and chased ahead. Ravens flew overhead, as well as an eagle. A Pileated Woodpecker went by and Molly chased it into the woods. Here and there a small dam would have to be crossed cautiously and it started to get creepy when Molly put a paw through the ice right in front of me. We were about an hour out when we came to a three-foot beaver dam that Molly went over and promptly busted through again. Thankfully she was able to get out on her own but I had had enough. Stopped, I heard running water all along the dam and decided I had pushed my luck far enough. Jack hadn’t gotten wet at all and I have to think he isn’t quite as reckless as the spaniel, picking his routes more carefully, but then I don’t think anything is as reckless as Molly.  So I gave her a call and turned around to follow Jack back to the truck, disappointed my new ski course hadn’t been all I’d hoped for. At least I was still dry.

Yesterday it was nearly 11 a.m. before the temperature climbed above zero. I spent most of the morning inside stoking the stove, sipping coffee, and listening to Charlie Parr on the stereo. I could hear Jack and Molly tumbling about on the deck in a wrestling match while Ty lay snoring next to my chair. I had a broken snowblower that needed fixing so I finally went out and tipped the machine on its nose to find the trouble. I removed the belly pan to find and replace a broken shearpin. Then I spent an hour widening the drive and pathways around the place. I was happy to drive it into the shed and turn it off and was enjoying the silence outside when I noticed an aspen tree leaning precariously over the driveway and another threatening the canoe shed. So it was another hour or so with chainsaw and splitting maul converting the troublesome trees into firewood. That was yesterday, but today there was little work on my schedule.

This morn I was on the skis, again. This time I clipped in at my door and skied the upland trails and breezy fields, high and dry, across the road. Jack and Molly loved it, of course, and I pushed through unbroken snow that sometimes piled at my ankles. It was slow going for awhile and I broke into a sweat, bit it was welcomed exercise and felt good to be moving – under my own power and silently. I was surprised at the absence of animal sign. I found one grouse snow roost and a few deer tracks and several weasel prints were all to see. There are some nice backwoods trails winding up and downhill, along an old beaver pond and in through old growth balsam woods before going into young aspen stands that were logged off a few years ago. I used to drag a track-setter behind an old snowmobile to make a more polished trail but I quit that a few years ago. If the snow gets too deep and soft for skiing I will pound a trail on snowshoes. When I want the speed and ease of groomed trails, there is a great Forest Service trail system only a couple of miles away.

Cross-country skiing is a great way to some wintertime exercise, but it’s more than that. There’s nothing much better than easing through the beauty of a silent winter landscape. Crisp clean air is good for the body, good for the head and this is the time to do it. Breaking trail on skis is an easy way to get more than enough exercise for one day and I’ll likely feel it tomorrow, but I’ll remember it much longer. Relaxing now I can already feel the tenderness in the back of my thighs. Muscles well used – it’s not a bad feeling. And while I never seem to do it enough, I can’t wait to do it again.

27 Jan. 2013