Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Postscript on Century Lake

Not all my travel writing comes from personal observation.  I mix in research as long as it’s not too difficult.  I was anxious to find out more about Century Lake when I returned to the shack: its size, history, estimated fish population, whatever I could turn up.  Google makes it so easy to identify sources and shop facts these days.  My search however turned up nothing.  A search of Century Lake Ontario quickly devolved into various shipwrecks over several centuries found in Lake Ontario.  There is a Century Lodge on Eagle Lake Ontario.  But Century Lake, the one I came to know?  No footprint at all on the web.  Pretty amazing.

I found a lot of general information.  There are an estimated 3 Million lakes in Canada, 250,000 of them in Ontario, and 3,899 of those greater than 3 square kilometers.  Ontario Province lists but 155 lakes on its lake management webpage, which leads me to believe Century Lake and others like it are unmanaged.  The Canadian Wildlife Federation page had one of those (who cares?) discussions on the definition of a lake versus a body of water in a larger flowage system, which I stopped reading quickly.  Wikipedia only listed Ontario lakes greater than 150 square miles in surface area.  The on line maps didn’t help.  Many, no most, of the lakes in Canada are unnamed.  So far I have no objective proof that Century Lake exists save for the tiny laminated map we carried in our boats put together by our outfitter that shows only the east side of Century Lake but does contain the name.  That and the fact that my friends and I fished it.  Others surely know about it.  But there is nothing specific to go on.

At first I was frustrated at finding no information but then grew to like the fact that it is obscure, has escaped notice in this new world of so much data.  I hope I don’t contribute to its fame.  I don’t think this blog is much of a threat.  However in searching for something particular I learned a lot in general.  That happens a lot here in the shack.  Here’s what I know.

Century Lake is near these coordinates: 51.4603 N and -94.795189 W.  It’s in Ontario’s Woodland Caribou Provincial Park.  A guy in Red lake at the outfitters told me Job Lake, within miles of Century Lake, is about 52 miles north and west of Red Lake as the crow flies, although if I’m not wrong it is too far north for crows.  What look like crows up there are ravens.  And “as the crow flies” is the only practical way to travel.  There are no roads.  Birds and float planes have it the easiest.
My personal history with Century Lake is limited to eight hours, and my experience in the area only 21 days, three annual fishing trip of a full week over the past three years.  Century and its neighboring lakes have been there a lot longer.  Much longer as it turns out.  Way before rods and reels were invented that’s for sure.

As I fished I became obsessed with how long walleye as a specie has been living in Century Lake, but no one seemed to know how long fish have existed let alone walleye.  At some point I said who cares and moved on.  But my hunch was that walleye and Century Lake go together like bread and butter, and have for some time.  Time is, of course, extremely relative.  I devoted an unusual amount of it studying the genesis and development of the main elements of my trip:  the lake, the fish, and the men who catch them.  In doing so I learned a lot.

My curiosity was kicked off by a history teacher on the trip who said while talking in the car (it’s a long drive) that the Canadian Shield, a huge rock cap covering the earth in the area through which we were driving, was Pre Cambrian rock.

“What’s Pre Cambrian mean?”

He explained by describing an exercise he used while teaching to illustrate geology and time in the minds of his students.  He would put a timeline on a long banner of paper wrapped around the walls of the school gym with different colors representing the earth’s various geologic periods up to the current year.  The earth’s Pre Cambrian period was the timeline’s longest section, 7/8ths of the history of the earth.  Man’s time on the earth was but a narrow strip in contrast.

“What’s Pre Cambrian mean when you talk about rocks?”

“It means the rocks contain no fossils whatsoever.  From that they assume the rock existed when the earth was first formed but before life as we know it existed on earth.”

“No kidding.  So Pre Cambrian rock is how old?” 

“Anywhere from 4.5 Billion years old, when we think the earth was formed, to the beginning of the Cambrian period which started 540 million years ago.”  (A billion, for those of you who forget like I do, is a thousand million. 9 zeroes.)

“So what first showed up in rocks that changed Pre Cambrian to Cambrian?”  I wish I could have been a student in that gym to see for myself.

“Simple stuff that began in the sea.  The sea leached minerals out of the rock and it became something of a soup that grew bacteria.  Algae.  That was all there was for about a billion more years and then multi celled organisms began to evolve.  More complex life forms.”

“Wow.  And the lakes up here formed when?”

“Well, glaciers advanced and retreated several times over Ontario and the Great Lakes area.  After the last one subsided these lakes we fish would have been formed.  Hard to tell exactly when they first showed up as lakes really, but a very long time ago.  Five million years I’d say.” I checked.  He was right.

The Cubs’ World Series drought sounds a lot shorter when you think in these terms.  When you talk about geology and the beginning of life you’re talking about big, big stretches of time.  They’re hard to imagine.

“When did walleye show up in those lakes?”

“I have no idea.”

The story on fish is a whole other thing.
Fish started in the ocean when an organism like coral, commonly known as the sea squirt, changed into something else and remained something long and tube like for a hell of a long time.  If men existed then, which they didn’t, they would have had little fun catching those fish ancestors.  Catching the earliest form of fish fish would be like hooking a worm.  Ironic isn’t it?

I’ll spare you the details, but it took at least 121 million years million years, from 541 mya to 420 mya (mya is short for million years ago) for fish to develop jaws, which is a big deal to the folks that study the evolution of fish.  They’re pretty sure jawed fish were flourishing in freshwater 383 mya, but after that my sources went off detailing how fish grew feet, evolved to breathe air, became amphibians, walked on land, and then morphed into mammals.  That’s all fine and good but it’s a hell of a long story and I just want to know where and when walleye came about.  It turns out to be complicated.  Fish back then had a tendency towards going extinct, dying off and coming back differently, messing up everything linear.  We love stories that are linear. 

One of the oldest fish now alive, the fish with the longest evolutionary winning streak you could say, is the sturgeon, which lives and looks today just as it did 245 mya in the Triassic period when it was first identified by fossils.  Did walleye come from sturgeon?  I don’t know.  Let me put you directly on the walleye track.

The walleye we were catching on Century Lake are one of five species of the genus Sander, ours being Sander Vitreous.  Sander Vitreous has two sub species, make that had two subspecies as the blue pike was declared extinct in 1983, whereas the yellow pike subspecies (like #82 from the previous post) lives on.  Shit happens still, like the blue pike’s extinction from changing weather patterns and overfishing, in the world of fish.  Evolution goes on.

From fossils the experts have it figured that Sander diverged and became its own species 24.6 mya, and that the European and North American species diverged 15.4 mya, making the walleye in Century Lake a relative rookie to the fish game compared to the Sturgeon.  I digress, but I got this material from some biologist’s dissertation on the 4th page of a Google search.  In it I also learned that the North American walleye have a higher level of genetic diversity suggesting “fewer Pleistocene glacial bottlenecks” in Europe.  You learn something every day. 
Ontario and the Great Lakes area being one of those glacial bottlenecks, when Century Lake emerged from the glacier that covered the part of North America now northern Ontario, walleye as we know them were ready and waiting to live in it.  Walleye had 10.4 million years, give or take a few I’m sure, to perfect themselves before taking up residence in Century Lake.

The final piece of this puzzle not explained is how and when fishermen arrived.  How did we get there, other than the obvious and smartass answer “by plane”? As it turns out man is by far the biggest newcomer.  Here’s that story in a nutshell.

Somewhere a sturgeon is laughing.  256 mya sturgeons were the same as sturgeons today.  At that  time the closest thing to man was a mammal like egg laying reptile.  It would take another 36 million years for an animal with a constant body temperature and milk glands to evolve up.  Finally at 85-65 mya (what’s 20 million years?) a flying lemur that lived high in the forest canopy and only came out at night showed up with digits that grasp and was hailed as the ancestor of primates.  65 mya ago and man’s ancestors are not yet down from the trees.  Skip forward.
·        25 mya                 Your old world monkeys and apes show up
·       10 mya                 Chimps and bonobos join the party
·          7 mya                  Something different with a larnyx appears-Hominina
·        3.6 mya                A hominid foot print found in Kenya means it walked upright
·        2.8 mya                Homo Habilus, with less body hair uses stone tools
·        1.5 mya                Homo Ergaster controls fire (1.3M years to figure out fire?) 
  500 ka                  (500,000 years ago) Neanderthal appears
·        160 ka                  Homo Sapiens evolve, and learn to FISH
·        40-25 ka              Neanderthal dies out
·        20-16 ka              other humans die out. Homo Sapiens=the only game  in town

Whew.  That was a quick trip through human evolution. But it still doesn’t get people to Century Lake.  That didn’t happen for a while.  If experts are right about this (and who am I to argue?) man began in Africa and made his way to Asia and Europe a relatively short time later.  North American human habitation?  Probably after that, 16,500-11,000 years ago.  The most popular theory is the land bridge deal. You know this one too.  It was damned cold. Water was sucked up into ice formations, the sea retreated, human beings could walk from Asia to North America across a 1,000 km. wide strip of land (roughly where the Aleutian islands now are) without the sea in their way, and they did.

You saw a drawing of them in your social studies book.  People wrapped in animal skins, snow blowing around them, walking into a new land.  That theory is pretty well nailed down these days.  In 2007 a DNA test concluded that virtually all North American indigenous people share the genetic code of Eastern Siberians. Tough boogers those early men and women, and adventurous besides.  They could have been looking for someplace warmer, but most likely it was a quest for better fishing.  That is the McClure theory by the way, with absolutely no evidence of any kind to back it up.

Those that made their way to Ontario 9,000-8,000 years ago were later known as the Cree, Algonquin, and Sioux people.  When you travel to Northern Ontario you are well aware of their presence.  Although they lost control of their country and their culture was forever altered as a people they maintain their native rights to fish and trap the lakes and rivers that are leased from the Canadian government by individuals and companies(primarily white people) to promote the tourism and sport fishing industry.  On Job Lake we put our boat on shore one day to stretch our legs and look at a campsite local native people established there and no doubt frequent when the season is over.

On previous trips to other lakes in North Ontario we have seen native trapper’s cabins jammed with steel leg traps and other gear.  In the wilderness of North Ontario I feel as if I am trespassing on native land.

South Ontario is much different.  The southern portion of the province has cities like Toronto and Ottawa.  The land is arable and farms dominate the countryside.  But both people and soil thin out dramatically as you head north towards Hudson Bay.  Our band of fisherman cross the border at International Falls and go  north stopping at Dryden on the Trans Canada highway to buy groceries.  In the 216 kilometer 2 1/2  hour drive from there to Red Lake we encounter no more towns and few farms.  90% of Canadians, it is said, live within 100 miles of their border with the U.S.  I’m not sure there would be a road North to Red Lake if it wasn’t for the gold.  Red Lake is one of the world’s most prolific gold mining districts.  In 2015 the area produced 375,700 ounces of high quality gold.

The town of Red Lake, now with a population of 4,700, boomed in 1926 with the discovery of gold.  In addition to gold mining and light logging Red Lake has become as an air hub for fishermen, canoeists and kayakers exploring the wilderness inside and out of Woodland Caribou Provincial Park.  The highway essentially ends at Red Lake, though a dead end spur goes west to more mining sites.

Here’s the good news.  The miners, and the French and British fur trappers and loggers that came 300 years before them, though changing forever the life and culture of native peoples, appear to have done little damage to the land and lakes of North Ontario.  Henry Hudson claimed the region in 1611 and in 1670 the British Government essentially honored that claim granting the Hudson Bay Company free rein to develop the area.  But they did little.  Historically it seems in North America an area’s best protection against the rape, pillage, and exploitation of white men occurred when white people couldn’t figure out a way to wring money from a locale.  They took out a lot of beaver and mink.  But the mining industry is interested only in what can be extracted from shafts deep below the beauty of the Red Lake district.  The wilderness with its Pre Cambrian rock shield, pine forests, remote lakes, the walleye, the moose, the bears, the ducks are relatively safe I think.  Unless I’m wrong no more roads are slated for construction.  The fishermen are growing old from what I observe.  If a huge boom in flights to fly in fishing camps occurs in the future among young people I would be very surprised.  There’s no Wi Fi up there, or cell phone service of any kind.  Besides, the camps are equipped with outhouses.  They manage to get lake water running to a faucet in the cabin but flush toilets and septics are safely out of reach.  They’re not going to build a Hilton up there.  Thank God.

And the white people flying into the lakes, an industry that began in earnest after World War II with the development of safe nimble airplanes, barely scratch the surface of history.  60 some years of fishing from May to September?  I think it has altered the area little.  Our group, American immigrants of Scotch Irish, German, Norwegian, Mexican, and assorted lineages were mere visitors to the wilderness for seven days.  Hardly a blink in the enormity of time.  In that gym illustration of the history of the earth we would be a barely visible.  A slender streak of color drawn by a Sharpie. I don’t think we matter much in the grand scheme of Century Lake.  I hope not.
I think of Century Lake now when I’m home.  The ducks (Buffleheads? Mergansers? We’ll never know now) will be flying south soon along with the loons.  The Whiskey Jack, cousins of the Blue Jay, whom we fed peanuts in the shell on the deck railing, will stop hanging around the cabin and go back to the woods where they’ll hunker down for the winter.

The ground hog that lived under the cabin, the squirrels, the wolves we heard howling at the Northern Lights, will prepare for the coming cold.  Bears will hibernate.  The walleye will slow down and spread out in the lake but live comfortably under the ice and snow that will cover the surface of the lake, as they have in that lake for how long?  5 million years?  In the spring when the ice goes out they will school up, be ravenous, spawn, and get fat s the days get long.  Occasionally during a few months of summer out of shape fishermen will pull old boats off the sand, catch walleye but let them go, and leave laughing.  It’s life.  I hope it goes on forever.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Fishing Century Lake 2

I loaded my backpack with gear and swung it onto my shoulders. In one hand I held only the light portage poles in their cases, the other hand free.  My companions, younger than I, carried more.  They carried the coolers and a two gallon can of gas for the portage boats if needed.   We started by going up and over a boulder by the river, and then the path plunged straight into the woods.  Saying it was a path may be an overstatement.

There is more rock than soil beneath the boreal forest of Northern Ontario.  Sheets of rock cap and individual rocks of all sizes dominate the forest floor.  A ribbon of worn dirt as we imagine paths is seldom seen.  On top of and between the rocks moss, lichens, and pine needles form a spongy carpet underfoot.  Trailblazers had tied bright purple plastic on brush and branches showing the line to walk, taking us around obstacles like large tree and boulders.  Fallen trees and limbs lying across that line had to be negotiated, stepped over or scuttled under.  Mature jack pine, white and black spruce, and an occasional birch or balsam blocked the sky while seedlings and saplings crowded beneath them.  The trail rose and fell.  In the low places we discovered the worst hazard, bogs of standing water.  Do they have a bottom these bogs?  Surely they do, but how deep?  Trees had been chain sawed leaving stumps, other trees dead and broken from wind storms left sharp spears pointing up.  And ever present were tree roots.  It was a path obviously seldom taken.  Getting injured in a fall was a real possibility.  If I manage to hurt myself in here, I thought, and can no longer walk my friends will have a hell of a time getting me back to camp.  We made our way slowly.

After making our way down a drop in the path we turned a corner on a surreal sight.  Over a watery bog strewn with small logs was a wooden sidewalk of new weather treated lumber, three feet wide, twenty five feet long, flat as a pancake, on stringers set on concrete pads.  How they got the materials there and constructed  so perfectly is still a mystery to us.  Back at the cabin after the trip we entertained the notion someone had dropped it into place from above with a helicopter. Given the canopy of trees that’s crazy, but it’s equally unbelievable that they carried in the deck lumber by hand, the concrete mix, the long stringers of doubled up 2x8’s.  What a task that must have been. 

On the crude map they gave us every portage was a straight line of indeterminate distance.  We had no idea how long that walk actually was.  But it wasn’t any hour that’s for sure.  After the new footbridge there was another older bridge, with split logs as treads, some missing.  After that it was just logs across the muck.  My balance isn’t what it used to be.  When I stepped on logs and felt I was about to tip I simply stepped in the muck.  Yeah it went over my shoes, up to my pant legs, mid calf once.  I almost had a shoe sucked off so I stopped and tied them as tightly as possible.  I pressed on, keeping up by and large with the rest, and I didn’t fall.

One of us men strung out along the trail remembered that 25 years ago they carried outboard motors and cases of beer over trails like this.  When my son was in 7th and 8th grade, twenty years ago, I crossed long portages in the boundary waters with a canoe on my shoulders for Christ’s sake.  Sometimes we made two trips.  What’s wrong with me that I worried so about a relatively short walk to Century Lake?

I think I’m old that’s what’s wrong.  I think I’m old and I worry.  If I’m not careful I’ll worry myself right into limiting my activities and get even older. I’m 65.  No more and no less, and my physical abilities are what they are.  I have a friend who is 80, very active, and thinks I’m young.  I came to the realization on that portage, as I stepped over a log, that I was relatively OK, stronger than I thought, and with work and discipline I may be able to get stronger.  I vowed to let that walk to Century Lake be a lesson to me.

What’s the lesson?  One day I may no longer make the portage to Century Lake.  There may also come a time when I decide I can no longer make the trip to Ontario to fish.  It happens to every person that endures.  If we live long enough we give up things: golf, long trips, driving, living independently.  Unless we die before our time, old age can, and does slowly narrow and limit the world for each of us.  Age can rob us of all that once made us feel free and alive.  I want that time to come not one day too soon.  I do not want to give up my freedom until I absolutely must.  And I certainly won’t abide talking myself out of it.  Life as I know it now is very good.  I’m staying with it as long as I can.


You can tell you’re getting to the end of a portage because the sky brightens beyond the trees as the next open lake shore nears.  We walked parallel to the shore for a while, wondering why, and then turned down to the lake.  There were the two boats we were looking for, pulled up on a sand bar and tied to trees.  We put our stuff down, congratulated ourselves, and had a rest.  Then we loaded our gear and pushed off into new territory for all of us.  We had made it to Century Lake.

The lake didn’t look special.  It was small.  You could see every shore from the middle. There were a few islands, some rock points extending out into the water from the islands, and a rock wall on one shore.  We had no depth finders so we had to fish the old fashioned way, guessing where there might be structure holding fish under the water  and drifting over that area hoping to get bites.  My partner and I started at a rock point off one end of an island.  The other boat went to the opposite shore.  It was a warm sunny day with a decent breeze.  I rolled up my pant legs to dry off my legs.  We put our poles together, tied on jigs, baited them and got them in the water.  Our day of fishing had begun.

“Let’s count what we catch,” my partner said.

“Good idea.  I can’t imagine we’ll beat a hundred.”

“That had to be a fish story.” 

“No kidding.  Why do people do that?”

I caught fish one and fish two within five minutes.  While fish two was on my line fish three announced his or her appearance by bending my partner’s pole.  Five minutes, three fish.  I don’t do a lot of math in my head, and when I do its not complicated.  But there are 12 five minutes segments in an hour.  If you caught three fish in each of those five minute segments that would be 36 fish an hour.
“What time is it?” I asked my partner.

“About ten.”

“So if leave at say 4:30 we’ll be on the lake six and a half hours.”


“You know a hundred fish may not be so crazy after all.”

We kept a running total and did not stay at that pace.  Somewhere around noon, we were at 41 and getting hungry.  I’d made two ham and cheese sandwiches and packed apples.
“You ready for lunch?”


While I rummaged in the cooler for two beers and sandwiches I kept my line in the water.  We fish for walleye with a worm on a quarter ounce or heavier lead head jig trailed by a colored rubber twisty tail.  We debate the best color.  Anything bright seems good.  Because walleye feed near the bottom I let my jig go down till the line is slack, reel it up and few turns, and jig it occasionally.  Jigging is twitching the line, raising and lowering the pole.  My pole was lying across my knees while I cut the first sandwich in two on an oar.  I thought I saw the end of my pole twitch.  I picked up a sandwich half and laid it on the knee of my partner, who was likewise intently studying his line.  Picking up my pole I felt another tug, gave it a solid jerk setting the hook, and reeled up fish number 42.  He fought like hell and danced on the surface of the water with his tail.

After getting the fish in the boat I measured it and found it to be 19 inches of healthy, beautiful, fat game fish.  The walleye on Century seemed lighter in color than the fish we were catching on Job Lake, with whiter bellies and more golden sides.  I silently thanked that nice fish for selecting my bait and released it so it could return back down there near the bottom with the others.  I imagined a sea of walleye roaming the lake bed searching for food.

About the time I released my fish my partner, chewing the last of his half sandwich, was reeling in number 43, which could have been my fish’s  twin.

It kept up like that, steadily, so much so that we didn’t eat the second sandwich till almost two, and we didn’t eat the apples till we were off the lake and heading back to the cabin.

We were slowed at times.  Because we were fishing for walleye the northern pike caused us trouble.  They are bigger and more aggressive. When we fish for northern we use stronger line with steel leaders so the fish can’t cut the line with their teeth.  Horsing the bigger northerns into the boat is harder without a net, so we lost a lot of jigs, the northerns cutting our line, which  added more time time retying jigs.  Sometimes we felt the slightest tug and our lines would wave up out of the water, a northern simply gliding by and cutting our line.  When you fish for walleye you hate northerns. They keep you from your intended fish.
The wind came up, the sun was hot, and the fishing slowed a bit.  We repositioned the boat, traveled across the lake and back, and tried new spots.  Slowed is a relative term.  We were always catching fish, just less frantically at some times than other.  By 3:30 our count had reached 59.  A hundred fish seemed clearly out of reach.  We pulled up and traveled to our companion’s boat, which had been in the same area for a while.

They had lost count of how many fish they had hooked, but were giddy with their success.  You could feel and hear the fun coming from their boat.

“This just doesn’t quit,” our friend running the boat said.  “Move upwind about thirty yards and drift across this rock point.  We get five or six fish every pass.  It’s unbelievable.  And beautiful fish, nothing more than 20 inches, but nothing less than 16.  Get in there.  There’s plenty for everybody.”

We got in line.  As they passed the point and began to turn around we were halfway down the drift.  It was true.  We were constantly catching fish.  We consulted and agreed we should pull out about 4:30.  At 4:15 our count stood at 72 fish.
“We’re going to hit eighty.  Can you believe it?”

“We’ll do better than eighty,” my boat mate said.

It’s so hard to stop fishing when you’re catching fish at that rate.  At 4:40 we caught number eighty.

“Can we hit 90?” I said laughing.  ”It’s just ten more.”

“Hell, we could make 90 on one pass.”

We repositioned the boat, put on fresh worms, and let the wind carry us down for our last drift.  My partner caught 81 and I caught 82 at the same time.  A double.  The sun was getting low in the sky and sparkled on the water.  I began to fully realize what a day it had been.  As I grabbed the jig in the walleye's mouth and hauled it over the gunwale I looked 82 in one of its big eyes and spoke directly to it, in an attempt of sorts to commune with a walleye.  He seemed to be looking back at me. 

“Hello 82.  It’s an honor.  Thank you for being here.  I hope I didn’t hurt you.”  I had hooked him through the top of his upper lip, all gristle, no blood.  He would be fine, as would the other fish we caught that day.

Fish aren’t dogs.  They make iffy pets, and this was after all a wild fish.  82 looked frantic, but at the same time confident I would do the right thing.  Unlike some of his friends that had cut me with their gill plates and poked me with their fins, this fish stayed still while I worked the jig out of his lip.   I lowered him back into the water and let him swim away.

“It’s an amazing lake Gary.  And an amazing day.”

“Yes it is.”

We caught eight more fish on the remainder of that pass to bring our total to 90 for the day.  90 fish, two men, one boat.  I didn’t think it was possible. We had our boats back at the portage by 5:00, made the trek back, which was of course just as arduous but somehow easier knowing what lay ahead.  As we pulled into camp back on Job Lake our friends came down to the dock to help us with the boats.  We were tired. They had the steaks ready for dinner.

After dinner those  who braved the portage were the first to bed.  It was a beautiful day on Century Lake.  I hope to be back.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Fishing Century Lake 1

A brace of ducks skittered off the water as we rounded the first bend in the Musclow River.  We had eased slowly into the river from the west side of Job Lake.  The ducks flew low with the pines as background and then rose, clearing the tree line into a blue sky where we could see them more clearly before they flew out of sight.  Buffleheads we thought, maybe Mergansers.  Four of us in two boats were on our way to fish Century Lake.  We were worried about the portage.  At least I was.

I was one man in a group of seven on the fourth day of a week long fishing trip in Northern Ontario.  On the dock in Red Lake while we were loading the plane for the flight out, we asked the pilot about that portage to Century Lake.
“We finally got rain a while ago so the water should be up, rocks not a problem.  But it will be soggy on that portage.  Party I flew out a few weeks ago said it was a slow go.  An hour or more.  You gotta be in shape I‘d say.  Be careful.  The fishing should be good though on Job and Robert.  Century is catch and release. Can’t keep ‘em you know.”

We knew that.  It wasn’t the keeping but the catching that appealed to us.  We’d heard great things about Century Lake.  We all wanted to fish it.  But that report discouraged us.

Our flight out of Red Lake in an old De Havilland plane with a new turbo engine was delayed by low clouds.  Fine with us.  We prefer our pilot not take chances.  But because of the wait we didn’t get unloaded, sorted out into our bunks in the cabin, and into the boats with our gear set up and jigs in the water till almost two.  Despite the slow start we fried fourteen walleye that night for dinner along with salad and beer.  The eating was nearly as good as the fishing.

We follow the rules up there in Canada. We all bought eight day conservation licenses which allowed us to possess each day various numbers of fish by specie.  We were fishing for walleye and the daily limit was two.  Between ourselves we decided to release anything under 15 or over 18 inches long.  No young fish with a future and no old fish that are most important for breeding.  We harvested only the mid range fish, and they were abundant.  We take no fish across the border going home. The walleye were hitting hard that first day.  It was good to feel them on the line again, nearly a year since I’d felt that much anticipated tug.

We each kept our best two fish on stringers only on days were needed them for dinner.  We released them immediately on the off days.  We ate walleye fried, baked and served with a butter caper sauce, and in fish tacos with a choice of homemade Mexican red and green sauces.  We ate well up there, and decided to mix up the menu more than in previous years.  We brought steaks as always but also chicken breasts marinated and frozen in Jamaican jerk sauce, and penne pasta with a good homemade meat sauce.

Breakfast featured bacon nearly every day.  We order bacon from the outfitter in Red Lake that is cured and cut by a local butcher. I don’t know why it’s so much better than our bacon at home but it is.  We had bacon with pancakes and eggs, bacon with omelets, biscuits and gravy (skipped the bacon that morning and suffered a few complaints) along with BLT’s for lunch.  Some summers the tomatoes don’t last in our local gardens till Labor Day but this year we had plenty, along with home grown garlic and freshly picked Illinois peppers.  I almost added bacon to the homemade chili for Wednesday’s lunch but decided against it, believing that would be extravagant.  I can’t imagine groups in other cabins eating better than us.

The cabin was equipped with four boats.  Three boats switched off partners each day and one of us fished solo in the remaining boat.  Everyone fished with everyone.  On the day I fished with Bob, the only one of us with prior experience on Job Lake, we went down to the river leading into Robert Lake to fish the shallows and also to travel the river and see how the first portage into Robert Lake looked.  Bob had heard rumors of moose sightings in the river, so he put the motor up a notch and ran shallow and slow, carefully keeping the motor at the same speed so the noise from it became a steady drone rather than a rise and fall more noticeable to a moose.  Better to sneak up on them grazing the river. 

Moose who stand on those long legs in the shallows, often with their head in the water, are eating plants like wild rice.  There were big beds of wild rice in the Musclow, but as quiet and stealthy as we were we encountered nary a moose.

We did encounter two fishermen, the only other humans within miles we believe, staying in a cabin on Robert Lake, who had made the portage from there and were heading up the river to fish Job Lake for the day.  As their boat neared we began to talk.

“Have you seen any moose?” Bob said.

“Not a one.  Thought we saw some tracks on the portage though.”

“How are the fish treating you?”

“Good, especially on lower Robert.  How is the fishing on Job?”

“We can’t complain.”

“Have you been to Century?” I said.

“Went yesterday.  It was unbelievable.”

“How was the portage?” I said.

“Not as bad as we were told.  They built a new bridge platform over the worst stretch.  It only took us about half an hour.  You have to go slow and watch your step, but it is more than worth it.”

That was a different story than we’d been told.  Maybe the pilot was trying to discourage us?

“The two of us caught a hundred fish between us in one boat.”

“You’re shittin me,” I said.

I’d never heard such a thing or imagined the possibility.  A hundred fish.

“Swear to God.”

Fisherman and the truth are easily separated, even among the most religious of anglers.  But if it the fishing was anything close to that good, even accounting for the brag, I knew I had to go.  Our boats were passing out of earshot.

“Good luck fishing Job,” Bob yelled.

They hollered back, their response faint.

“Go to Century Lake.”

That night over Bushmills Irish whiskey and Molson Ale we planned the trip.  Four of us would go first and advise the other three as to the rigor of the portage and the advisability of going.  The youngest and those in the best shape would go first.  I fit neither category.  I was the oldest and of those four and definitely the most gimpy. 

“I’m going to have to go slow,” I told them.  “I got this right knee and left ankle thing.  I’m telling you, I could hold you up.”

They wouldn’t let me talk my way out of it.  The plan was to free our hands, mostly mine, carrying as little as possible so we could grab onto trees and stumps and break our fall if we stumbled on the trail.  We wouldn’t take full tackle boxes, stringers, depth finders, or nets and we would use backpacks to carry bait, boat gas, jigs and only a little tackle, lunch, and small coolers.  We had two portage poles, which broke down into four pieces and fit into short cases so they wouldn’t catch on trees and brush.  We would go in early morning, fish all day, and make the trip back while there was plenty of light.  We had only to hope for good weather.
Most days started still and cloudy, cleared up midday as the wind picked up, only to have the clouds return by evening.  We’d been hoping for clear nights.  You never see more stars than when you are way up in the north woods.  That night the sun set and the sky remained clear.  Our necks got stiff from looking up.  It was a waning crescent moon, just a sliver.  As it got darker more stars came out.  Before we turned in for the night the Milky Way was a bright carpet across the eastern sky.  The big dipper was huge, the front two stars of the pail pointing to the North Star.  Cassiopeia was there, like a big W, and I thought I saw the seven sisters.  I wish I knew more.  I wished I was a kid back home on the farm.  We would turn off the pole light and I lie on a blanket in the front yard next to Mom.  She knew them all.  We’d follow her finger, squinting with one eye, and pretend we saw them too.

We had a standing agreement that if anyone got up in the middle of the night and saw the Northern Lights they would wake the others.  That night, I don’t know when, I heard the call.  It was a cold night and not everyone chose to come out, some stayed in the warmth of their sleeping bags.  As I stepped onto the deck and looked north a dancing finger of pale green light, eerie and otherworldly, made its way through the middle of the big dipper.  No one among the small group standing in the cold spoke. The silence was intense. As we looked at the sky wolves howled far off. 
The sky was still clear the next morning.  After bacon and eggs with pancakes, four of us in two boats headed to the west side of Job Lake where we entered the Musclow River and scared up the Buffleheads (maybe Mergansers).  The trip down the river was short.  By the times we reached the falls the sun was still hidden behind the pine, spruce, and birch forest that surrounded them.  Job Lake is some twenty five feet higher than Job.  The river falls and tumbles nicely over large rocks before it opens up into Robert Lake.

We nosed our boats into the bank at the top of the falls and tied them next to portage boats placed there for fishermen camped on Robert heading the other way, like the ones we met the previous day.  We didn’t take extra care in packing up for the walk around the falls.  It was less than a hundred yards.  At the foot of the falls two boats awaited us.  We took them a short distance straight across the upper portion of Robert Lake and entered the river again, winding our way into Moose Lake, hooking around the first point to the left and finding the portage to Century.  It was obviously much less traveled.  There were weeds around the tie in.  The bank rose steeply.

It was getting warm as we began to organize for the long walk.  I took off my jacket and flannel shirt.  As I did I told myself that my right knee, although it may send shooters of pain up or down my leg from time to time, doesn’t really give out.  When it feels as if it does that’s just my brain automatically trying to take weight off the joint to avoid the pain.  It will hold steady even though it hurts.  And my left ankle, despite not allowing  my foot to fall flat when I step nor bend as much as the right, won’t turn or throw me off if I am deliberate and careful.  I would not hurry and hope for the best.