Friday, September 25, 2015

Golf among the Idle

I think playing more golf when one quits working and getting better is a common fantasy.  More play can only improve your game right?  I know that was my fantasy.  I kept a golf ball and tees on my desk and thought of smacking it long and hard, especially during bad phone calls.  You know; complaints, descriptions of risky situations, predictions of calamity, calls about budget cuts, bureaucratic threat both veiled and actual, lost grants, and the like.  I would listen to the speaker phone and respond appropriately, alone in my office, saying what I needed to say while staring at the golf ball, imagining it disappearing down the middle of the fairway.  More golf, less stress, was my goal.

It didn’t happen.  After I retired, aside from golf outings to raise money, I found few chances to play.  I played in a weekly league for a short while until it felt like an obligation and I quit.  I also slowly realized (this may not come as a shock at all to my women readers) that guys suck when it comes to organizing things, especially when such organization requires planning and communication.  None of my friends who golf contacted me about playing.
My wife was baffled and alarmed at my lack of golf.  She believes golf is good for me.

“Why aren’t you golfing?  You’ve got time.”

“Nobody talks about golfing.”

“Uh huh.  And do you talk to anyone about golfing?”


“What makes you think your friends that golf are any different than you?  Nobody makes any plans.  Maybe you should try to organize something.”

Few meetings and little organization has been my mantra since I walked out of YSB for the last time.  Slowly that has eroded.  I have meetings.  I volunteer.  I have a calendar again.  But I was damned if I was going to organize anything.  It felt too much like work.

As a result I didn’t golf.  The clubs just sat there in the garage, getting older like their owner.  I pondered golf off and on all last winter.  I brought a golf ball to the shack.  Come spring I tentatively decided to do something proactive.  First I tested the waters with a few friends.

“Would you be interested in regular golf?”

“You mean like a league?”

“No, no, no.  Not a league.  Just an e mail.  No obligation.  Play or don’t play, nobody cares.  I’m thinking every Monday afternoon, different course, move around.”

“You talking serious golf?  Good golfers?”

“Hell no.  Duffers like us.  There’ll be rules against serious play.  Should I send you the e mail?  I’m thinking of e mailing eight guys, hoping to get four, no RSVP required.”

“Sure.”  After all, the people I was talking to were only committed to getting an e mail.  Guys live their entire lives being wary of commitment I think.

That phase went fairly positively.  I was close to getting eight guys.  There was one guy I know but don’t talk to often.  However, I serve on a local not for profit board of directors with his wife.

“Does (your husband) golf?”

“Yeah, sometimes, not often.”

“Think he’d like to be part of a loose, no obligation, once a week golf opportunity?”

“Yeah I do.”

“Give me his e mail address and I’ll include him.”

I thought that one over.  Before I included him blindly I sent him an e mail explaining the concept and asking if he wanted to be on the list.  He said OK.  I don’t like it when my wife volunteers me for something I know nothing about, so I decided to extend him the same courtesy.

I asked a guy at church.  I ran into a guy at an anniversary celebration.  So it went.  My criteria for choosing candidates was to be sure they were not serious about the game.  Sometimes I had to make reference checks with collaterals.
“You ever golf with Frank?” (Not his real name.)

“Yeah. Couple times.”

“How is he as a golfer?”

“Not that good. Bad actually.”

“Like us?”


“Good.  That’s just what I’m looking for.”
I assembled the group of eight and come the end of April I sent them this group e mail:


I’ve been wanting to do this for a while.  My idea is we set up a regular day and standing time to golf every week for a group of eight guys.  The theory is you never get everybody, so you send to eight in order to get a foursome.  No obligation to attend or RSVP.  If more than four show up they play too.  I’ll make two tee times just in case.

No betting or wagering, no throwing clubs, no buying beers if you get the high score, no bitching.  Just your standard low key golf for duffers.  Keeping score is optional.  Sign up for nine or eighteen as you wish or have time for.  Ride a cart or walk.  Each week we’ll go from course to course wherever we please as we choose.  Have a beer or food after golf or go home.  No requirements.  No banquet at the end of the season.  No bullshit of any kind.  I propose we start Monday May 4 at Pine Hills at 1:45 p.m..

Here’s the eight guys.  We can add or subtract as we go along if we need to, but you have to start somewhere.

As I listed the eight guys I flashed to an instance of failed organization at the nursing home in 1977. I had just gotten back from traveling in South America and needed a job quickly.  I took one as a nurse’s aide, the only male nurse’s aide at that time, and perhaps in the history of that now torn down very smelly old nursing home.  The head nurse immediately assigned me to work the men’s wing on the top floor.  They grouped all the guys together to keep them away from the women.  They were a motley lot, the guys in that nursing home in 1977.

Some were very old, victims of strokes, significantly physically compromised, assigned to wheel chairs, victims of dementia or otherwise obviously hard to care.  Yet others walked fine, were fairly young, and aside from appearing vacant and slightly off, looked and seemed OK to me.   The other nurse’s aides hadn’t a clue or a care as to why they were there.  Actually I must admit that despite fairly regularly complaining they seemed OK with their lot.  But the confinement, the boredom, the mind numbing sameness of their everyday life hanging out with nothing to do blew me away.  I’d been talking with the fellas and a lot of them knew how to play euchre.  I thought I could get two tables going, winners move. Couple of games at least.  Seven guys and me.  So I went to the activity director and asked if I could organize an afternoon card game for some of the higher functioning guys.  Give them something to do and look forward to for Christ’s sake.

“Of course,” she smiled. “I’ll give you anything you need.  Good luck with that.”

Having been given the go ahead I went first to talk with Tom.  Tom was the sharpest tool in the shed.

“Tom I’m going to have two tables of euchre going Monday, Wednesday, Friday in the lounge at the end of the floor.  You want to play?”

“You playing?”

“Yeah, I’m playing.”

“OK.  I could play.”

I went to Stan next.  Stan agreed right away, but added a caveat.

“Who else is playing?”

“Well so far you, Tom, and me.”

“Is that right?  Yeah, well I’ll play but not with Tom.  Me and Tom, we don’t get along.”

“That’s OK.  We’re going to have two tables.  You can play at the other table.”

And so it went. Buzz was immediately created and I had old guys coming up to me offering to play, but only if certain people were excluded from the game.  It got complicated.  Long story short, I ended up with three players and me, only after begging Tom and Stan to try playing at the same table JUST THIS ONCE with me and one other guy.  The game was not ten minutes old before Stan called Tom a downright terrible name and threw his cards in his face.  The third guy quietly stole away, I separated Tom and Stan, and that was the end of my card game organizing at the nursing home.

I’m happy to report no such problems organizing the golf group.  Congeniality rules.  For one thing we’re a lot younger and healthier than those guys in the nursing home in 1977 and have successfully avoided institutionalization.  I expect that to be the case until we all collectively check out.  I hope I’m right.

Ottawa is a small town.  The guys who golf on Monday afternoon knew each other, or knew of each other, or had at least heard about each other, so gaining a sense of camaraderie was fairly easy.  Creating an expectation that golf could be played with little competition was harder.

The first Monday however was iffy.  It rained like hell in the morning and participation was seriously affected.  I was the only one who showed up.

Undaunted, I reported to the group the next day in an e mail that play went on though there was a great deal of casual water on the course.  I attached a group photo of our first outing, a selfie of me on a Pine Hills  tee, and announced the location of next Monday’s outing.

The next Monday it promised to rain again.  Rain was heavily predicted but I went anyway as did one other member.  It was rumored that another of our group was actually in the parking lot at one point, saw dark clouds rolling in, and went home.  Amazingly the two of us were able to play through only occasional light showers and thunder, no lightning that we could see, and finish eighteen.  We again included a selfie, this time of two people, and the e mail report to the group demonstrated persistence if nothing else.  By the third week we hit our stride.  The sun came out.  The guys figured someone would always be there to play golf no matter what.  Numbers have been fairly good since, despite a horribly rainy June.
Like all true gentleman golfers we praise good shots and ignore bad ones.  All right, some shots are so horribly awful that we can’t help but bust out laughing but by and large we are amazingly uncritical of one another.  I report only group results.  The formula goes like this:

Number of pars (birdies count for two, have not yet had an eagle) divided by number of golfers x holes in the round.  So five guys collectively score the equivalent of 12 pars.  Divide that by the number of holes played (12 divided by 5 x 18 or 90) and you get 13%.  The Monday golf group has scored between something dismally low like under 10% (no doubt terrible conditions) to over 20% pars on our best day.  We don’t know individually who scored the lowest, the highest, who improved the most, made the most putts, had the longest drives, nothing.  We just know how we’re doing as a group of guys that enjoy playing golf together. And we do, very much, enjoy playing golf together.

Did we get better?  I think so.  One of us began the year hitting nothing bigger than a three wood off the tee and by the end of July acquired a big ass driver that he now hits well.  Some of us have figured out how to chip closer to the pin.  Some not.  I’m pretty sure all of us putt a little better than we did in May, with notable lapses, but I have no proof of that.  Monday afternoon golf as we play it is not what you would call data driven.

We’ve gotten better in the sense of remembering things the other guy say and think about things that matter.  As the summer went on we made better conversation.  We got over talking about just baseball, the news, and current events around town.  Slowly we began to talk about ourselves.  We got to know each other better.

I for one look forward to Mondays.  We are likely in slightly better shape due to our efforts, although we drive our carts very near the ball and probably closer to the greens than the grounds keeper would like. We don’t play a strenuous game. I know that I progressively napped for shorter periods of time immediately after getting home as the season wore on.  I feel energized by Mondays out there.  I might go so far as to say I felt loose, as long as I load up with enough ibuprofen.

Golf courses are big and green and expansive.  Even the worst course in the area is very pretty. It can be quiet out there, serene even, while at the same time hilarious.  Erratic and unorthodox golf swings create shots that defy physics. Golf balls take weird bounces.  Men on Monday afternoon have been known to laugh at themselves, their shots, their swings and each other.  Golf without pressure is damn fun.

One of our members, a big swinger who steps in the bucket like a pull hitter, tees his ball extremely high.  He carries those tees that look like pencils and has a driver with a head approximately the size of a campus refrigerator.  On one notable swing in mid season he inexplicably drove his tee a good ten feet while his ball simply feel to the ground where the tee had once been.  It was amazing.  A seemingly physical impossibility.  But he did it.  We gave him high fives all around.

We find the local golf courses underutilized on Monday afternoon and appreciative of our business.  I’m not sure all the courses we play this summer will survive, given the apparent decline of golfing.  Some say golf never recovered from the recession.  We saw few young golfers out there on Monday afternoons, but then with any luck most of them are working.  The lack of play on our local courses was OK with us. We were out there hacking away with little or no pressure from other golfers and enjoying ourselves.  Knock on wood, so far we have hit no one, amazingly, given some of the shots we’ve executed.  Maybe we’re blessed.

Golf with guys who enjoy not just the game but each other is a blessing in itself.  Fall brings dead leaves to the game and an increased risk of lost balls.  We’ll play till the weather shuts us down and season one will be over.  If we can keep a good group of guys like this together I’d like to play regular weekly summer golf for many years to come.  Many, many years.  

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Something Stinks

Something stinks in the ravine outside the shack.  It’s the smell of something dead, which is one of those distinctive bad smells instantly recognized, like skunk.  I smell it when I open the windows and the wind is right.  I don’t want to look for the source.  Besides, I’ve learned if you can stand it that dead smell fades fairly quickly, depending of course on the size of the carcass.
I don’t want to think it’s the ground hog.  We have a ground hog that lives in the ravine and at least a couple of times each summer comes up into the yard to eat white clover.  The ground hog is amazingly unruffled by our presence.  He leaves, finally, if you venture to within ten feet of him but seems almost oblivious to the dangers humans represent.  He’s a trusting groundhog.  I like to think he’s still alive down there.

It’s not the fox.  I saw a fox in July, a beauty, up by the oak tree that supports one end of the hammock.  The fox was smelling around and exploring, untroubled by the nearness of our house.  I think since our dog Ally died the yard may be less threatening, although the ground hog has been plopping his fat fur belly on the lawn each summer for years, long before Ally died.  I know it’s not the fox because the day after I got back from Ontario the fox was back, hanging out by the compost pile, but this time with a smaller young fox in tow, presumably her kit.  I love seeing those bright and alert foxes and knowing they live nearby.

I’d hate to think it was a deer causing that stink, although we’ve seen coyotes in the neighborhood and a deer could easily have fallen prey to a coyote.  Actually I wouldn’t mind if a coyote was reeking.  In contrast to foxes they’re fairly mangy looking, always reminding me of hyenas.  One early foggy morning last week I stooped over at the end of the driveway to pick up the Tribune and rose to find myself looking straight into the eyes of a doe standing in the side yard by my garden.  Her two fawns, not a lot smaller then her, were munching on my Brussels sprouts.  That explains the plants’ lack of height.  My garden was pretty much of a bust this year.  I’m going to have to fence it.
In any case the doe looked at me cautiously, stepping but slowly away. Boy she had big eyes.  To her fawns she made a huffing sound with her nose and when they joined their mother the three loped across Caton Road and through the neighbor’s yard.  It’s been a nice couple of weeks in the neighborhood, aside from that stink.  And already, as I type this with the window open, the smell is fading.

September is a transitional month.  School gets underway.  Things change.  Locally our homeless organization opens its shelters, both in Peru and Ottawa, in September.  They close in the warmth of May and reopen before cold weather.  I wish they could be open all year because the need for shelter knows no season but they cannot yet afford to do so.  I volunteered for the first time since spring closing and the place was pretty full.

A family of six was there; Mom, Dad and their four kids.  They had come from Rockford, first to Peru, and then to Ottawa which expanded to include family units.  I’m so glad.  Because of planning and taking a chance on expansion the shelter was able to afford private space in the same room to this family with kids ranging from elementary school to junior high.  I rolled in at 7:00 a.m. intent on making breakfast.  Our church serves a free lunch on the second Sunday of each month and that coincides with our church’s staffing of the shelter.  We start at the shelter at 4:30 Sunday afternoon and provide volunteers through 9:00 Monday morning.

Our church baked 100 potatoes and fed our community guests a Sunday noon lunch of salad and a baked potato bar complete with butter, sour cream, green onions, cheese and chili.  And of course desserts.  We do desserts really well.  We had potatoes left over and took them along with the fixings to the shelter that evening.  They fed some of the potatoes as a side dish for the evening meal but there were plenty left to fry that morning.  Chopped up baked potatoes and onions fry up quickly and nicely to go along with eggs.  As a bonus, the shelter had thick ham slices unused and donated from someone’s banquet.  I scraped off the pineapple and fake maraschino cherries and steamed them hot while I fried potatoes and scrambled eggs.

The Rockford kids were hungry and excited at the prospect of ham and eggs.  Because it was easier I walked out to the dining area to see who was ready for breakfast, asking if they wanted the whole plate, and sort of taking orders.  The Rockford kids were close in age, two boys and two girls.  The youngest boy wanted to skip the eggs opting for ham and potatoes “with cheese on ‘em.”  He took the ordering thing seriously.  The rest of the family were in for whatever, the whole deal.  When I brought the young boy’s plate he looked up at me with a long face.

“These don’t have any cheese.”

“Oh that’s right you’re the cheese guy.  Just a minute.”

I went back into the kitchen, sprinkled a portion of shredded cheese from the bag we’d brought from church, added bacon crumbles for good measure, and microwaved his plate so they melted on the spuds.  When I slid them in front of him again I informed him

“You know I’m not going to be here tomorrow morning.  I wouldn’t expect the same service.”

His Dad laughed.  “You don’t expect this kind of breakfast at a homeless shelter anyway.”

“Today’s breakfast just kind of fell into place,” I explained.

All the potatoes, most of the ham, and eighteen eggs later I was taking a break and having my own breakfast with the Tribune in the dining area. It was a scramble, pardon the pun, cooking, plating, and serving individual breakfasts to sixteen people but I got it done.  After that I dispensed some meds, passed out towels, and then there was a lull.  I would wash the dishes later.  People were doing their chores, taking showers, making their beds and getting ready for the day.

The boy who had eaten my cheese potatoes came out of the bathroom with wet hair and walked up to me.

“Let’s do the handshake.”

“What handshake?”

“My handshake.  I’ll show you.”

He raised his hand.  We did high fives, then low fives, then bumped fists, all which I followed.  But immediately after the fist bump he put his hands in the air, fingers spread, and shook them hard, along with jumping from one foot to another.

“You gotta do the hand and foot thing,” he said seriously.

“Give me another chance.”

We high and low fives, bumped knuckles, and I shook my hands over my head.

“You didn’t do your feet.”

“I’m sitting down.”

“You gotta do your feet or it doesn’t count.”

On my next try along with all the other moves I lifted my feet off the floor, wiggled them one after the other, and put them down.
“Now you got it.”  He smiled and sat down next to me, asking questions about what was in the paper.

Turns out all the Rockford kids have developed their own personal handshake.  When my new friend’s sister came by, a little older I’d say and also freshly showered, he told her.

“This guy knows my handshake.”

“Show me.”  We did it and her mouth fell open.
She looked at me.  “Well then you have to learn mine.”  Hers I found out was a back of the hand slap, a front of the hand slap, a curl of your fingers and hold, and a pull forward.
“Now he knows mine too, but I bet you don’t know his name.”

“How do you know his name?” her brother challenged.

Earlier that morning when he was in the shower I had gotten his sister a towel.  She waited for me to come out of the backroom at the doorway to the kitchen.  Next to that doorway is a bulletin board with a picture of each resident and their name.  When I handed her a towel she pointed to the pictures and said

“Those are wrong.”

“Which?” I said, looking at the pictures.

“Mine and my sister.  You’ve got her name on my picture and my name on hers.  I’m not Sheri, I’m Natalie.”  She sounded offended.

“Well, let’s fix it.  We can’t have that.”

I took the thumbtacks out of photos, printed from the computer snap shot size, showing the smiling confident faces of two separate little girls.
“So this picture should say Natalie?”

“Yeah, that’s me. Can’t you tell?”  I looked at her.  She flashed a big smile.  Her eyes are blue.

“Yeah of course.”  I turned back to the photo, scratched through the name Sheri, and wrote Natalie.

“And this one is Sheri right?”  I did the reverse and pinned them back up on the board.  Natalie seemed relieved.

“So now you know my name, what’s yours?”

“I’m Dave.”

“OK.  Thanks Dave.” With that she spun on her heel and made her way towards the showers.

A little before eight thirty the Rockford family gathered by the door waiting for the Mom, who was meeting with staff.  I stood next to the Dad.

“So you came from Rockford?”

“Yeah.  Well Machesney Park, then Rockford, now here.”

“Why did you leave?”

“It’s a long story but there are a lot of bad characters in Rockford. We felt like we had to get out of there.”  The Dad was thin.  He looked old but I knew he wasn’t.

“I know what you mean.  Was last night your first in a shelter?”


“What are you doing today?”
“Registering the kids for school.  We’re going to try to stay.  This seems like a good place.”

“It is a good place.”
As we talked his wife came from the back with a piece of paper in her hand.  She was plump but spunky looking.

“You were right,” she told her husband.  “They’re in three different schools.  One in Jefferson, two in Central, one in Shepherd.”

“Told ya.”

“Good thing is Central and Shepherd are right next to each other.”
I did individual handshakes with the other two kids.  They were ready to venture out.  They looked so clean and hopeful, those kids.  If they were scared or daunted by the next step it didn’t show.  My wife and I, and both our kids, started and ended our public school educations in one system.  Both of us lived in one house from infancy till leaving for college.  I never had to do what they were about to do, walk in as the new kids, let alone listing their residence as the homeless shelter.  Refugees of another sort, I thought.  Making a fresh start.  God I hope no one makes fun of them, I thought to myself.  I hope they transition from the shelter to a safe home.

I came back from a fishing trip and found Illinois still does not have a budget.  Most recently Governor Rauner failed to restore funding for homeless youth just as he has refused to relent on drastic cuts to day care assistance for low income parents.  Both legislative chambers had to override his veto in order to restore funds for treating heroin addicts for Christ’s sake.
Illinois is going backwards in its support of marginal families like the one I cooked breakfast for on Monday.  Is anything in Illinois more important than supporting that family and others like them?  If so, can you tell me what that might be?

Something stinks in Illinois all right and it’s not coming from the ravine by my shack.  It’s coming from Springfield.  That stink is not going away.  

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Marvin Lake

We left the water of Red Lake Ontario at 6:00 a.m. in a yellow 1956 high winged  de Havilland Otter equipped with pontoons. 

“Is the engine from 1956?”  In 1956 I was five.  Now I'm 64.

“No.”  He yelled over the noise of the single engine.  “It was replaced in 2010 with a new 750 horsepower Pratt & Whitney turbo.  Plenty of horsepower.  Lots of hours left.  Runs like a top.  Not to worry.”

Not that I was worried.  But by their standards we were overweight.  Before we boarded the plane dock hands put all our food and gear on a flat scale.  We exceeded the allowable pounds by over 250.  Mostly that meant we would pay the outfitter extra.  They also put us on the scale, six of us, and we weighed actually less than I imagined, just shy of half a ton.  A quick calculation done silently in my head told me I exceeded the average considerably.

“Don’t worry about the plane,” the pilot repeated.

Six of us were traveling with too much stuff to Marvin Lake.  Six men; five between the ages of 63 and 70, with the youngest, father of three young kids, hovering somewhere around forty.  Six men with twelve knees; ten God given and two artificial.  That God given number of knees promises to wane if the same six men return next year.  Included in our gear were medications and devices, medical supplies, hearing aid batteries and the like, all designed to keep us functioning for the week.  Leaving civilization does not miraculously make one healthy and whole.  I think we all privately hoped for the best.

Our final destination, Marvin Lake, is an outpost fishing camp 45 minutes north and west of Red Lake.  It is one of eleven outpost camps leased and maintained by Chimo Lodge, which operates its main resort on Roderick Lake.  The facilities at Roderick Lake, with flush toilets and wi-fi, are luxurious in comparison to the outposts.  There are no roads to any of these lakes.  Unless you want to strike out across the watery wilderness with a compass, a map, and a canoe you enter and exit via the plane.

All the controls in the old Otter are manual.  Our 32 year old pilot, Ian Partridge, worked the controls, seriously and silently, without looking.  He pumped a lever on the right side of his seat.  He fiddled with a dial in the ceiling above his head.  He turned a small steel wheel next to the lever a few revolutions, then back a little.  All the time he did this he scanned the sky.  After taxiing slowly across the water for a while he reached behind him and pulled a steel cable with a loop from a low peg to a higher peg, hooking it there by feel.  Then he gunned the engine and raced over the surface of the lake.  It seemed a long time before the pontoons left the water.  We cleared the trees, with many feet to spare, and were safely in the air.  Take offs and landings are what really matter. As take offs go, this one was pretty smooth.  On these short trips the Otter flies low under the clouds navigating by visual reference.  From there on it is all view.  Ian, like us, kept his eye not only the sky but on the lakes and land below.  Fortunately, he knew where he was going.

At 2500 feet it’s hard to determine if there is more land than water down there or the opposite.  At times the land seems only to infringe, to poke at the edges of big jagged lakes.  Other times the land, really mostly rock, is separated only by long snaking ribbons of water.  If you look at a map of Ontario North of Red Lake there are thousands of lakes and rivers. Too many to name.  Thank God nothing so valuable has yet been discovered up there which tempts humans to build roads and cities further north.  As it is the Canadian wilderness is home to bears and beavers, loons and bald eagles, moose and caribou, walleye and northern pike, and your occasional wide eyed fisherman or hunter.  Humans are seriously outnumbered, almost inconsequential, not only extraneous but also seasonal.  After November and until May few if any of us venture there. The creatures need only wait and we go away.  The air and the water are clean.  The land is wild and undisturbed.  It belongs to them not us.

The plane descended, the pontoons skimmed the surface of Marvin Lake, and quickly we were unloading our stuff onto the dock.  After doing so we helped the outgoing group of men put their gear into the plane.  Fishing had been good they said, though they reported annoyingly catching northern while fishing for walleye.  They recommended the portage to West Lake, and suggested we keep the motor running while fishing the outflow there.  Ian handed us a dirty yellow box containing a satellite phone to be used only in emergencies and then the plane was in the sky and we were alone.  The six of us would see and speak only to each other for seven days.  I touched the I Phone in my shirt pocket.  For the next week it would be merely a camera and a flashlight.

We were fishing within an hour, pushing three 14 foot aluminum boats off a good dock, 8 horsepower motors powering us across the lake in three directions, two to a boat, in search of spots.  The collective hum of the motors faded as we separated. We were armed with maps marked in blue pen by others who claimed to know where the fish would be, and depth finders, but also with the knowledge that during the week we would need to find our own spots to fish.  Fish like to be near things; rock piles, drop offs, weeds, anything that offers shelter and perhaps food beneath the water.  In the fishing world that is called “structure.” The other factor is water temperature, which correlates to depth.  We expected the walleye in the cumulative warmth of late August to be 14-20 feet deep, where the water was cooler.  It felt good to be back there, out on open water, awaiting our first fish.

The bottom of Marvin Lake is remarkably smooth and even.  Finding the small neighborhoods where the walleye hung out proved difficult.  We were able to catch supper that first afternoon of fishing, but little more.  All week we would keep only as many fish as we could eat and release the rest.  There is something refreshing about bringing fish into the boat, seeing them for a brief time, and watching them swim away vigorous and healthy.  Walleye are a beautiful species of fish.  But you know, the trip is not all about the fish.

It was hotter than normal, even that far north.  The wool socks, flannel shirt, thick sweater, and long underwear never made it out of my Duluth pack.  Nearly every day was tee shirt weather.  The cabin was three small rooms with cots (no sheets), a bathroom and a kitchen.  Propane refrigerators made the kitchen warm.  The deck had a picnic table but mosquitoes invaded after sunset.  When we weren’t on our cots we were together.  Occasionally someone would go to their room to read or nap but for the most part it was communal living; fishing in pairs, cooking, doing dishing, sitting around a table, talking as a group.  There was lots of talking.  Mature men talk about the past more than the future.  One memory invokes another.  Jokes are remembered.  Laughter is abundant.

A string of 25 annual treks to Canada surround this trip and create nostalgia.  A long and unknown list of men has participated.  There was a notebook which recorded such things but its whereabouts is now unknown.  Some of the men who fished on these trips have died and others are now unable to travel.  Some have drifted away.  Many were remembered, their words quoted, their deeds, no doubt exaggerated over the years, recalled.  Their stories were told around the kitchen table.  In addition to glee sadness sometimes crossed the faces of trip veterans.  I have been part of the group only this year and last.  I listened and watched with interest.

As the week went on we became more accustomed to the dead stillness that surrounded us.  We learned to distinguish between the occasional jet and a prop plane.  We learned that the sound of the solar powered water pump near the lake was not a faraway outboard motor.  We waited for the eerie sound of loons across the lake, often at night, quivery and lonely.  There were ducks, mergansers we thought, quacking softly above us.  Occasionally we heard a crow, or was it a raven?  Water lapped on stones.  Wind sifted through pine needles in a low whoosh.  More and more often we found times when there was no sound at all.  We settled into the stillness.

Stillness makes for good thinking.  Of course men think things they don’t say.  I thought of my kids and my wife, and our bigger family.  I thought of people I know and see and people I once knew and miss.  I thought of my long gone parents and what they experienced as they aged.  I wondered about the future.  The first few nights I slept restlessly, waking and not going back to sleep.  Our week in Canada included a full moon, the cabin brightly lit through curtain less windows.  Flashlights weren’t needed in the middle of the night.  After a few nights I fell into deep sleeps filled with crazy dreams.  The quiet up there is calming. 

One hot afternoon my fishing partner for the day, at the front of the boat, pointed excitedly toward shore.  We were exploring a shallow bay on the west side of the main lake.  A bear walked out of the water some fifty yards away, ambled onto shore, and hearing the boat motor (we think) turned to look at us.  He rose up on hind legs and sniffed.  I killed the motor and we sat still.   The bear, shiny and fat, gazed at us looking at him for maybe a minute before slowly, unimpressed and bored it seemed, returning to all fours and walking slowly into the woods. 

Beaver dams were abundant on all the lakes.  Returning to the cabin after a day’s fishing we saw a wide V of small waves on still water.  At the top of the V was the head of a beaver pushing a green stick with leaves and swimming towards his log covered lodge on a narrow inlet.

Each evening after we filleted our fish we put their remains and the day’s kitchen scraps in a white plastic bucket.  Across from the dock was a small island fronted by a shelf of flat rock.  We would make the short trip with fish guts and scraps in one of the boats and dump the bucket on that rock.  Before we were twenty yards away, headed back to camp, the bald eagles were landing in the trees, chasing off the gulls which competed for the food.  Mature white headed eagles along with their dark headed immature offspring were part of the crowd.  An eagle’s nest, prominent at the top of a tall pine on the north side of the lake, became one point of a rough triangle we used to mark a good fishing spot.  Bald eagles were our everyday companions.

Why do men go on these trips year after year?  I think it’s the beauty of wilderness, of which stillness is such a big part.  But the fishing helps.

On the third day my fishing partner and I decided to make the portage to West Lake in the afternoon after lunch.  The morning was hot and the fish weren’t biting.  Few fish had been brought in by any of the boats.  We were looking to change our luck.  We left our boat tied up at the portage point on Marvin knowing there was another, with gas, waiting for us at the other side on West Lake. 

The portage path between those two lakes is long and somewhat difficult.  The terrain is uneven.  A few boards and logs are placed in marshy areas but muck can still pull you down.  There are logs to step over and rocks to negotiate all while carrying tackle, rods and gear.  The going was slow.  At the end of the path we loaded our gear into an old patched boat and made our way into West Lake.

Using the map we motored to the inlet, where something of a river or the narrow throat of another lake flows swiftly into West Lake. The air was cooler there and the water moved quickly.  We caught a few walleye that were small and a big northern but it was a long time between bites.  We motored slowly back up the lake, using the depth finder to scout likely spots, but by the end of the day we had had little success.  No keepers.  We were trying to find the outflow at the opposite end of the lake but it eluded us.  We’d almost given up when we heard the sound of rushing water.

The outflow on West Lake is a cross between a waterfall and long steep rapids.  Big chunks of rock litter the passage from West Lake to its neighboring lake, unnamed on our map.  The guys on the dock that first day were right.  It’s a treacherous spot.  We made our way above the rocks and sized up our prospects.  My partner was driving the boat.  He put us in a likely spot, turned the boat sideways, and we got ready to fish. 

Walleye fishing is built around simple jigs, fish hooks embedded in a round lead head with an eyelet.  The heads are different weights and colors.  On the hook we thread a brightly colored rubber tail, mostly whites and yellows that week.  We tip the end of the hook with half of a plain night crawler, proven best for late summer walleye fishing.   We tie the jig directly to 8 pound test line with no leader.  The line is threaded through the guides of a slender graphite rod that is flexible and sensitive to movement.  Walleye bite lightly.  You need to feel when they tug the line even a little.

The jig sinks, it is on the bottom when your line goes slack, and then we pull it up a few cranks.  Let it sit.  Be patient.  After some time raise it up, cock your wrist, jig it.  Create some movement down there in the water, some flash, then let it settle again.  Repeat.  It’s simple fishing.  The only hard part is feeling the bites and knowing when to set the hook.  If you set it too early, jerk up too hard too soon, you can pull the bait out of the fish’s mouth.

We threw our jigs in the water at the same time.  They sank.  As my jig neared the bottom I had a strong bite.  I pulled quickly and had a fish on the line.  It’s customary for the second fisherman to reel in his line, grab the net, and prepare to land his partner’s fish when he has a fish on.  As my partner began to do that he had a similar bite and an equal result.  We both had fish on.  It was a double.

“Do you need the net?” he asked.

“I think maybe.”  I had my rod tip up but it was way bent.  I was reeling and the fish felt heavy.

“Do you?”

“I can’t tell.  I’ll try to keep it on and help you.” My partner is a good fisherman.

He raised his rod high with his left hand, grabbed the net in the right, and waited as I brought the walleye to the surface and laid it in the water, pulling it headfirst towards him and the waiting net.  It was big.  I put my rod down, took the net from him and brought the fish into the boat.  He found his fish still on the line and began to reel it in as I got my fish off the jig and fumbled for the stringer. 

“Do you need the net?”

“I think I’m OK.”

With that he hoisted his fish, only a little smaller, into the boat.  It flopped on the bottom.

“Let me get him on the stringer for you.”

“That’s good cause look where we are.”

In the excitement of the double catch the bow of our boat had been pulled toward the outflow.  Water flowed fast and loud on each side of a large rock not four feet away that marked the beginning of the rapids.  He threw the motor in reverse, revved the engine, and pulled us back to the safety of calmer water above the rapids.

“We gotta watch that.”   The guy is a master of understatement.  If we had gone through the rapids we might have gotten out, but not with the boat that was certain. 

I put the second fish on the stringer, tied it to the gunwale, and lowered them both into the water. 

“Let’s get some more.”

We dropped our jigs again.  My partner got the first strike this time and I was able to pull in my line and net his fish.  As he was getting it out of the net I dropped my jig and had another fish in seconds.

“Jesus Christ,” I said.

That’s the way it went.  At one point, as my partner was backing the boat away from the rapids for the third time, we decided to forget about putting the fish on the stringer and just leave them in the bottom of the boat.  Finally as the sun neared the horizon and fish collected at our feet, we stopped. 

“We have enough for tonight’s dinner and more,” my partner said.  “And we have to carry them back across that portage.  Let’s leave the rest of them in the lake.” 

That’s what we did.  The fish never stopped biting.  We stopped fishing.  The sun was setting when we reached our boat at the other end of the portage.  Our friends, worried at our late return, assumed one of two things when we were so late; we ran out of gas or were otherwise in trouble, or we had gotten ourselves into a serious bunch of fish.  Hearing our motor across the lake, relieved, they realized it was the latter.  When we docked at the cabin and killed the motor the sun was gone.  I’d never caught that many fish that fast in my life.  It was a good day.

After a big fish dinner I put on bug spray and went out to the picnic table on the deck with two perhaps three fingers of Bushmills whiskey and a cigar.  I knew the moon would rise about where the sun had come up that morning.  It was very dark.  When I puffed on the cigar the end glowed red in front of my face.  It was so quiet.
You never know about the future.  You expect to come back next year but something else may be in store for you.  Life changes in unexpected ways.  After a while the sky brightened in the east and the moon glowed through the pines on the opposite shore.  When it rose above the trees a narrow white path of moonlight appeared.  It stretched clear across the water, lighting the small ripples in its path.  White light on the lake danced and sparkled all the way to the shore in front of the cabin where I sat.  The silence was broken by the far away cry of a loon.  I closed my eyes.