Sunday, July 15, 2007

Reflections of Smoothrock Lake

Long, lazy thunder rolled across the sky. Grey clouds hung low as we huddled in our cabin. This was the first day we spent indoors--not fishing. Smoothrock Lake had been pretty generous with her bounty, though not quite as generous as her sister, Kenoji, to the northwest.

All four of us could claim respectable catches for the week. When you wanted to catch fish, you pretty much caught fish in this lake. Dad and I caught the most fish, whereas Uncle Dale, the most A.D.D. fisherman I have ever met, spent most of his time changing lures and very little time actually fishing.

Uncle Dale couldn't sit still. He was constantly looking for that better lure. He'd catch a big ol' pike on his line, and immediately feel the need to swap out his lure. If he wasn't swapping out his lure, he couldn't keep his hands off the sonar depth finder. On the first day, before we took away the finder from him, he somehow had that thing singing like a chickadee. "Bweeedle-beep! Bweeeedle-boop! Bweeedle-beep! Bweeeedle-boop!" It took me ten minutes to figure out how to get the damn thing to shut up, and eventually, I had to reset it to the factory defaults.

Uncle Dale did have fun, don't get me wrong. He caught lots of fish, and he got the dubious honor of pulling in the smallest fish of the day, a minnow he hooked measuring less than two inches long. We figured this fish won the prize for having the biggest fishy ego--biting on a lure twice its size.

Mike caught a little here and there, but he was mostly content to just ride in the boat without fishing (or "mentally fishing," as he called it). One day, he took a break from fishing to enjoy the solitude of the cabin and write his sermon for the coming Sunday.

Every day, we'd wake early, between 5:30 and 6:00. We'd eat a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, biscuits, gravy, hash-browns, and steaming hot percolated coffee. Then, we'd set off to explore the labyrinthine lake. Smoothrock is an incredible network of twisty inlets, archipelagos, and narrow gulfs. To get to a point two and a half miles northeast of us, we have to navigate over four miles in every point on the compass, including directly opposite our destination (or southwest, as it were). Without our GPS, we would have surely gotten horribly lost. Most days, it was so overcast that you couldn't tell north from south, and once you got turned around, you were done for without the GPS.

In fact, Mike, our fly-in operator, told us a story of a friend of his, Rich Bucksmith (not his real name). Apparently, one day, Mike had some extra time, so he joined Rich to fish on the lake. As the day drew late, Mike and Rich were still catching lots of fish.

Finally, Mike said, "Rich, it's 4 o'clock. If I don't leave now, I won't make it home in the plane before dark."

Mike and Rich were in separate boats, so Mike continued, "Do you want to follow me back to camp?"

Indignantly, Rich replied, "Hell no! You think I can't find my way back on the lake?"

"OK, then," Mike replied amiably. "I'll see you later then." And so Mike left and flew home to base camp in Emo.

The next morning, at four AM, Mike gets an urgent call on the emergency radio.

It was the other members of Rich's party in the Smoothrock cabin. Rich hadn't come home that night. They were all worried.

As it turned out, Rich arrived later that day, safe and sound, but he had indeed gotten lost on the lake, and was forced to sleep that cold night on his own on whatever scrap of rock he could find on the lake. I imagine he came home a pound lighter from all the mosquito blood-loss.


Our trip has had some rather funny incidents of its own. First, there was my being stranded across the lake, like a helpless princess in a tall tower. I had taken the boat to dump a bucket of fish-guts onto a remote rocky island (to keep the bears away from our camp), when my motor died. I tried to restart the motor by tugging on the hand-pull, but the handle wouldn't budge. It was jammed. Damn! How was I going to get back? I mean, I had a paddle, but the cabin was only a few hundred yards away. I decided to call over to the guys at the cabin.

"HALLOOOOOO!" I cried.

They didn't hear me.


They all gave me puzzling looks from the dock.

"MY... MOTOR... IS... BROKE!" I called again.

They finally understood me, and got in their boat to come give me a tow. As my dad pulled up in his boat, I told him that my handle was stuck. He glanced at the motor, and exclaimed, "Scott, you have it in gear."

Oh, gee. I felt my face flush hotly. I put the motor in neutral, pulled the handle (which started the motor right away), and motored into camp to Uncle Dale's yuks of laughter.

Then, there's the story about how my father never seems to be able to take a dump when he's in the refined comforts of the cabin, where he has complete access to reading materials, toilet paper, and a nice light over him. This is not an isolated incident. This happened on Kenoji last year too. His bowels wait until he gets out on some remote godforsaken, mosquito-ridden rock, and then, "Oooh! Oooh! I gotta go!"

This time, it was during our portage walk to Spring Lake. As we came around the bend of our walk, nearing the end of the hike that would lead us to the boat, there was a nice little clearing in the woods that had obviously been used for campers. There was an old fire ring and a very level cleared spot perfect for a tent. It was here that my father decided he "just had to go." So he discreetly stayed behind.

Mike and I finished the hike which led us to the remote boat that had been placed on Spring Lake by our outfitter. We surveyed the boat, however, deciding that standing in knee deep water to install the motor didn't seem worth it, so we decided to return. We met up with dad, after he finished with his business. However, as I walked through the little camp, I notice that there was a "present" just behind the fire ring for the next generation of campers. Jeez, I hope it rains before anyone arrives!

Dad was sheepishly apologetic, "Hey! I just had to go!" was his only reply.


So, as I sit here, rain coming down on the camp, all three of my companions napping away the storm, I reflect on the best aspects of this trip. I call them my four F's of Smoothrock.

Family: The first, of course, is family. Seldom do we get the chance, just the four of us Harris men, to enjoy each others' camaraderie. During this trip we played hours of Pitch (a card game of trumps similar to Euchre or Whist... "High, low, Jack, Joker, Game" is the trademark phrase). We also told countless stories (most of them true, and only a few were crude). We stayed mostly out of politics, politics being a topic that doesn't promote harmony in the camp. We did some excellent male bonding, which of course requires copious amounts of food and whisky.

Fishing: What can you say about the fishing that would accurately describe it? We caught fish every day we were on the lake. Even the lull hours seemed time well spent: recharging the batteries, trolling up and down remote and gorgeous shore lines, inlets, bays and river channels. It teaches one patience and calmness. When it's peaceful, there's nothing wrong in the world--no politics, no work, no stress, no nothing. But when the fish are biting, nothing can be more exciting. At times, every throw into the water would net a fish.

By the end of the trip, the official tally of fish would have us at "too many to count," but here are the results for the big ones:

  • Scott
    • 30" pike (1st place pike)
    • 23" walleye (1st place walleye)
  • Dad
    • 26" pike
    • 20" walleye
  • Mike
    • 25" pike
    • 17" walleye
  • Uncle Dale
    • 25.5" pike
    • 22" walleye
    • 2" minnow (booby prize)

Food: Of course, with good fish comes good food. Walleye is known as the "filet mignon" of the freshwater fish, and we caught well more than we could have eaten. We had it fried in corn meal, egg battered, pecan crusted, and sautéed in garlic, shallot, lemon, wine sauce. Yum!

Flying: Finally, there's the plane ride. I have to admit, being an airplane buff, that the ride on the sea-plane is half the fun of the trip. I could make that voyage over and over again, six hundred times in a row. Taking off in the De Havilland Sea Otter, cruising low over the countless lakes, and landing on the crystal-smooth water is an experience I'll not soon forget.

Despite the blood lost to mosquitoes--my transfusion is schedule for Monday--this entire trip has been remarkable; something I'll remember as a trip of a lifetime. In twenty years, maybe I'll bring my boys up here. They'd love it as much as I did. That's for sure.

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