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.
“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.
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.