Friday, September 14, 2018

Animal Stories

Yesterday a red fox trotted into our yard.  It was  sunny summer, but the air had a hint of fall.  The fox was enjoying the day.  He slowed to a walk then sat in a patch of sun.  He scratched for a while, stood and stretched, doing a downward facing fox, then laid out flat.  I was taking pictures of him through the patio door.  As I looked at him, he looked at me.

After a time he moseyed into my neighbor Bill’s yard and laid there, not far from the shack.  I opened the door quietly and slowly made my way toward him.  The fox watched as I neared,  not particularly concerned.  As I put my foot on the shack steps the fox stood, looked at me for a last time, and trotted into the ravine.  My fox encounter was over, as was his encounter with me.  Though I shouldn’t speak for the fox, I think it went pretty well for him.  As for me, something about it warmed my human heart.

You can’t make these things happen.  You can go to a zoo, but that’s a rather forced meeting wouldn’t you say?  Who says the giraffe wants to be anywhere near you?  He has no choice.  The fox however chose my yard, and I was there when he did.   It’s all chance.  But when it happens it’s meaningful, at least to me.
You can improve your odds of encountering wild animals by going into a wilderness.  I was just there.  I’d like to share an account of that experience with you.  Think of me as your roving reporter, and this an edition of animal stories.

Going north from Dryden Ontario, on Highway 105 to Red Lake (where the road more or less ends), the roadside is bordered by lakes and wetlands, trees and rocks.  Aside from the pavement and power lines few signs of human intrusion are seen for 130 miles.  Four American guys traveling that road, in one of those big plush four passenger pickup trucks, were bemoaning the lack of moose sightings. We were slowly scaling then descending gently rolling rock hills.  At the bottom of the dips there was invariably water. 
“Every time we pass one of those bays I expect to see a moose.  I always look, but I never see one,” the driver said.

“I know what you’re saying.  I do the same thing,” said the guy in the passenger seat.
We didn’t listen to the radio driving up.  It was like we were slowly decompressing.  The truck had a Wi-Fi hotspot, but soon we’d be completely cut off from all outside signals; phone, internet, radio, TV.  I was looking forward to it.  My smart phone would be reduced to simply a camera and a flashlight.

Not a town, not a person, very little traffic greeted us along the way.  It was quiet in the truck.  Then, just south of Ear Falls, one of the men in the back uttered a single word.

The driver immediately slowed and we all looked toward the water.  Standing along the road, not twenty feet away, was a bull moose.  Big rack of antlers, long skinny legs, dripping wet and nearly black.  At first I thought he was a statue, and then his head moved.  He held his head high and his big eyes looked at the truck.  We glided past him.  He never took a step, and then we were gone.
Funny how a few moments can make such an impression, the image burned into your brain such that you  will never forget.

Our destination was Job Lake, one of the many lakes leased to outfitters in Northern Canada which are reachable only by float planes.  It’s a 30 minute flight from Red Lake.  When the plane lands on the lake, taxis to the dock, your gear is unloaded, and the plane takes off again-you and seven friends are the only people on the lake for the next seven days.  4 boats, 8 guys, a rustic cabin, and 8,800 acres of clean fresh water lake. 


We go there to fish, but long ago we found out it’s not just the fishing that brings us back.  It’s the quiet, the beauty, the seclusion, and the wildlife. 
Up from our dock is a rustic cabin with a deck, porch, kitchen, half bath, and a big room with a dining table and 8 bunks.  We always go the week before Labor Day.  The weather is usually good and the bugs absent, so we spend a lot of time on the deck.  When we do we have visitors.

The boldest are the Whiskey Jacks.  Also called Canadian Jays or Gray Jays or Camp Robbers, these birds will land right beside you and stare you down.  Nate was having a sandwich on the deck at lunch and thought a Whiskey Jack was going to go for a chunk of it while it was in hand.  They’re brassy, those Whiskey Jacks, and hungry.  Some took to feeding them, leaving bits of leftover pancakes, biscuits, what have you on the deck ledge until an unfortunate incident made us question the wisdom of our human intervention.  But no sad tales today.  Here’s a healthy and happy Whiskey Jack.

Always present it seemed and oblivious to any threat we might pose was a snowshoe rabbit.  Snowshoes look like a hare, and are dark in the summer.  I’d love to be there in the winter when their coat turns pure white.  They say they replace the pontoons on the planes with skis and land on the ice.  Damned cold though.  I track the weather out of Red Lake on my phone.  I don’t think you could cut wood fast enough to keep that summer cabin on stilts warm through a frigid North Ontario winter.  Here’s our friend the snowshoe rabbit, who made a daily appearance on the trail to the outhouse.

One of the most distinctive sounds each day are the cries of loons.  We saw them every day on the lake, some with babies, keeping their distance, fishing like we were, doing what loons do.  When they take off they slap the water with their wings before rising off the lake.

A few boats saw otters.  They keep their distance as well, their heads often appearing as bits of wood bobbing in the water until they suddenly disappear, only to pop up again further away.  I once saw an otter running the bank of a lake in the boundary waters.  They’re bigger than you think, sleek and shiny.
Bald Eagles are quite a show on Job Lake.  Perched in the trees that ring the shore, the eagles are always on the watch at day’s end when we clean fish.  Our daily trip across the lake, to make sure bears are not attracted to the fish guts, lends itself to this close up view.  The other birds, mostly gulls and vultures,  scatter when this guy is hungry.  Among birds he’s king of the lake.

But the dominant animals, and the main attraction, are the fish.  A natural hatchery, the lake system in Northern Ontario maintains a nice balance of perch, walleyed pike, and northern pike primarily.  There are lakes where bass are plentiful, as well as lake trout and muskie, but you can’t prove it by our experience on Job Lake.  We catch an occasional perch, northern pike by mistake, but we fish for walleye.  We use light tackle, colorful jigs fished very near the bottom tipped with live bait, from boats drifting with the wind.  Occasionally we troll, but when we do the motor runs and breaks the silence.  My attraction to jigging for walleye is the quiet of it, the concentration.  Present the bait, imagine the fish below you, watch for the rod tip to twitch, wait for a tug on the line.  It’s a wonderful way to spend a day.  

When you do get a northern pike on the line it’s a rush.  Northern, who grow bigger than walleye, fight harder.  Serious northern fishermen use high test line and steel leaders with big spoons and other artificial lures.   Steel leaders, tied on the very end of the line before the lure are used to keep the fish from cutting the line with its teeth when they hit.  Stronger line is employed to keep the fish on when hooked.  Northern are the giants of the lake.  My friend Nathan caught a thirty seven incher (37”), the biggest northern of the week.  Not an easy task to land a northern that big on a walleye set up, but Nate’s a good fisherman.

There are ruler decals in the boats to measure fish.  We buy Canadian conservation licenses, which have strict limits on how many fish of what size can be kept, and which must be released.  There is a daily limit per fisherman of four walleye between 15 and 18 ½ .  One fish exceeding 18 ½ can be kept as part of that number.  The reasoning is this.  The little walleye deserve to grow, and the big ones are important to breed the next generation.  But you can keep, and eat, members of the biggest group, the top of the bell curve, those of average age and size, the most plentiful fish in the lake.

We follow those rules closely, and kept few if any fish over 18 ½ inches.  We want Northern Ontario’s fishery to be as healthy as possible.  In fact, on days we ate fish we found that four fish per boat was too many.  That would give us 16 walleye, 32 filets, which was more than we could eat.  So we cut back to three per boat.  Plenty for us.  No need to be greedy.

Truth is, we caught lots more fish than our limit.  It’s the catching not the eating, the experience not the trophy.  Like the moment I had with the red fox when I came home, it’s the encounter with those beautiful wild fish that makes the trip.  One more fish story and I’ll let you go.
I was fishing with Gary that morning and it was a little slow.  A cloudy day with a little chop, waves on the lake, chilly, spitting rain once in a while.  That’s usually perfect for walleye.  But our spots weren’t panning out. 

“You want to go to the wall?” Gary said.
“Yeah, I love the wall.  Let’s head there.”

We brought our lines in and set off for a trip across the lake.  The wall is sort of the entrance to the southern part of Job Lake.  It’s a tall rock island.  On one side is a sheer wall of stacked red and gray granite, some green with lichens.  You can see where over time rock has sheared off and fallen in the lake.  Blocks of granite are strewn by the shore and underwater.  Pine trees cling to cracks in the rocks.
The water is deep right up to those rocks.  To be that close to land yet in such deep water is unusual.  The catching is not always good, but it’s so beautiful I love to fish there anyway.  I scan the intricate rock wall and imagine the millions of years it took to form.  I imagine fish among the boulders way below me.  I space out and get lost in thought.  Sometimes that’s a great place to be. 

Gary judged the wind and set us up on a drift that he hoped would sweep us relatively near the shore across the wall.  He knew from the depth finder we were in deep water, sometimes thirty feet.  The drift took us in a little, maybe too close.  We would have to go out and reset the drift.  I put my pole down to get something out of my tackle box.  The tip of my rod leaned outside the boat.
“I think you’re getting a bite,” Gary said.

I looked up.  Sure enough, the end of my rod was bending then letting up.  I picked up my pole and felt the line twitch.  I let it go for a few seconds more, felt another twitch and pulled up quickly, setting the hook.  It felt solid. My drag began to whine.  After a time I began to reel it up. 
“I may need the net,” I told Gary.

Usually we just bring the walleye up to the side of the boat, grab the jig in their mouth, and lift them into the boat.  You can do that with an average fish.  This felt bigger.
It didn’t fight a lot.  I continued to reel it in and then we saw him near the surface.  When the fish saw the boat it headed back down where it came from.

“Whoa,” Gary said.
I didn’t want to horse the fish into the boat.  My line was six pound test.  The fish would tire out, Gary would net it, and then we could see what we had.  I worried my line could snag on the rocks.  I kept my rod tip up and continued to work the fish slowly.  Finally we saw it again.  The fish broke the surface and rolled on its side.

Gary got the net under that big fish and scooped it into the boat like he was shoveling snow.  He put it at my feet.  It thumped the bottom of the boat hard as it flopped. 
“Jesus, what is it?”

“It’s a walleye.”
“I thought it was a catfish.  Look at its head.”

It had a huge head.  Something about that fish immediately made me think of it as female.  I felt as if I had caught the big Mom of all the smaller walleye I had caught up till then.  It made me want to get her back in the lake safely, and as quickly as I could.

I opened her mouth.  Rather than being hooked through the lip the barb of the jig hook was buried in the top of her upper mouth.  No blood, it’s all bone and gristle there, so I dug in my tackle box and got out the needle nose pliers.  It wasn’t stuck as bad as I thought.  I grabbed the shaft of the hook, gave it a turn and a pull, and she was free.
“Wow Gary.  Let’s get a picture.  I want to get her back in the water.”

“Well you have to measure it.”
She was hard to hold.  I got a good grip on her tail, the other hand under her head, and put her against the side of the boat where the inches were laid out.  Twenty seven inches (27”).  Biggest walleye I’d ever caught. 

“Hold her up Dave.  Let’s get this done.”

As I held her and Gary took the picture I could feel the warmth of her.  Her body was warmer than the air.  She was alive and strong.  As soon as Gary snapped the photo I lowered her into the water and held her for a moment.  Then I let her go.  With one big flip of her tail she dove out of sight, safely back in her element.

And there you go.  Of all the moments I’ve had with wild animals that was one of the best. She was a beautiful fish.
On the drive home we rounded a curve and a small black bear was in our lane, taking its time crossing the road.  Rick slowed, honked his horn, and the bear looked over its shoulder at us as if annoyed.  Finally it turned and disappeared into the woods.

An hour later, in broad daylight, another shape crossed the road in front of us. 
“Is that a coyote?” I said.

“That’s a cat.  And not a bobcat either.  Look at that tail.”  Bob said.
It was a cougar, also called a mountain lion.  Bob cats and lynx have short tails.  This tail was long and fluffy.  It was a first for all of us, seeing that big cat.

Here’s the refreshing thing about our trip.  The only politics we encountered in the wilderness were the ideas, the frustrations, and the observations we brought with us.  They faded.  Soon we were asking what day it was, what was next for dinner, what we thought the weather might be, and where best to fish next.  We lived in the moment for the most part, and anticipated the next, as those animals we encountered did.  Fish swim and eat for the most part.  Animals simply live their lives.  Life is simple.  And it can be for us if we let it.
Don’t get me wrong, you need to vote in November.  But you also need to escape the craziness of modern life when you can.  It will you do you good I guarantee.

1 comment:

  1. Incredibly beautiful pictures and really helpful piece of writing.! It's really an absolute delight to watch your clicks.

    Thanks for sharing!
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