I was born and raised in California, and have never been to Mexico. I have lived in Minnesota for a total of 12 years now, and just last week finally made it to Canada. Less cheap fireworks, more moose.
Months ago, gathered ’round a table with homebrewing comrades, I was asked by an old friend if I wanted in on a Canadian fishing trip. At the time, it seemed like a good idea so I gave a quasi-commitment to think about it as I hemmed and hawed. I guess that means I was shortening some pants with sewing equipment and laughing.
When I casually mentioned it to my wife later that night, thinking of the infeasibility, she said, to my surprise, “You should do it.”
After passports and draining all my Cabela’s points on new lures I was all set to go. I set off last weekend with a group of 20 – half of them boy scouts. We drove over the border to Fort Francis, Ontario, bought more tackle and weird candy, and stayed at the Super 8.
The morning’s drive put us at Nestor Falls and the float plane docks at Northwest Flying Service. If you’ve ever watched “Flying Wild Alaska,” it wasn’t unlike that. Except with less blizzards and more looking at gift shop sweatshirts. Probably the same amount of waiting.Some planes took humans, some took lumber. I was on the last flight in after 4 hours of literally standing in the parking lot. I also might have sat.
The trip was beautifully mundane in that it was nothing but pine trees and varying shades of blue and green water below. I’ve always loved to fly and I’m not afraid of heights, but between the cabin sounding like a 500 ci engine was sitting on my lap and the pilot appearing to keep us from crashing by incessant turning of a little knob on the ceiling, I was glad when we skimmed down to the dock to see everyone readying their fishing gear.
Keeping in mind that the destination, Atikwa Lake Lodge, only exists through what can be flown in on small airplanes, I was thrilled to see that the roof of our cabin didn’t leak and that there was hot water. Although one must get past the frontier-era burlap blankets and composting toilets.
After scrambling to throw on zip-off pants and assemble my rod and reel, we hit the boats for a bright, hot exploration of the lake. Not understanding how the fish finder worked at that point, we jigged blindly until the other members of my boat crew caught lake trout and northern pike, respectively. I got skunked to be sure, but it was nice to get on the water and kick back after dark with some freshly-grilled fish and bourbon.
The second fishing day was my day. On a cold, rainy morning we found a southerly lake segment that was historically promising. Sure enough, within an hour I had caught my first lake trout ever, and a nice northern. Anything could have happened the rest of the day and I would have been content.
I ate the trout that night because it needed to be done. The menu was fish tacos and, with some quality cumin, refried beans, Spanish rice and bourbon, my evening was complete. Due to the fact that I would have massacred the flimsy tin bunk bed upon boarding, the staff secured me an available small cabin of my own that promised not to crumple under my weight. Meaning the bed was made of a plywood sheet and milk crates, albeit close to the ground. Also the toilet was 3 feet from the bed, complete with a sack of peat with which to insert after each use.
The third day was insurance. I caught my limit of lake trout, 2, and the one I deemed “Barely Legal” was right at the 24 inch cut-off length. I fileted it and packed it neatly in the freezer while getting drained by mosquitoes and went to bed happy. After eating more fish, venison, and bourbon.
Each morning I had gotten up before dawn and trudged from my one-roomer over to the main cabin to fire up some French pressed coffee and chat with my new friend about the days of yore. Most mornings it was cool enough to wear a jacket but warm enough to stand on the deck staring at the water.
On Thursday, the last real day of fishing before flying out, we took a peculiar little jaunt. The protocol was to take our boat, along with food, gas and a tiny outboard motor, to a distant bay. Through cutting rain that whitecapped the water enough to rival the Disney Log Ride, we eventually found our cove for portaging. The boat motor across my shoulders, we took a logging road and a trail through dense forest to No Name Lake where an entity that passed as a boat waited for us half-rotted in the overgrown grass. The motor was clamped, the supplies loaded and we jetted off at roughly 0.5 mph across No Name to yet another portage entry. Everything all over again until we got to Rainmaker Lake with the promise of ridiculous Northern fishing. It did turn out to be ridiculous in that we ran out of gas twice, fought incessant wind and caught minimal fish. But then the magic happened.
On the way out, after vowing that I was headed back to the portage, we trolled around an island and caught a Northern. The crew members asked me to make a wider swing, but I basically didn’t. So we risked scraping the prop, but another Northern hit. I then made an impetuous but iron clad oath that I would keep rounding the island until we did not catch fish. We kept catching fish. In the same exact spot. They kept asking me to give some more room. Maybe I should have after the wind pushed us into a fallen tree on the island, but I didn’t. We were catching fish. On the final swoop, giving a wider berth, we did not hook a fish, but we noticed something better. A rainbow ended in the grass 50 yards away from us. That was cool. Until we saw that the other end of the rainbow was on the grass on the other side of the lake, also 50 yards away from us. No big deal. Happens all the time. Then we noticed that it was a double rainbow.
After we snapped some shots and conjectured that bald eagles provided golden eggs to supply leprechauns with the contents of their pots, we knew it was time to go. But we weren’t getting out so easily.
On the way out of no name we ran out of gas. After already refilling the tank with the surplus gas. Fortunately I had held back approximately 6 ounces of gas in the red carton and that was enough to sputter us to the end of the lake and get us out of there.
Trolling our way back to the lodge that evening, I tested my week-long suspicion that I could tell exactly when a fish was going to bite. After being told that fish showed up as upside down bananas on the screen, and after figuring out that upside down bananas that appear to be hit with napalm are moving fish, I started doing some amateur physics (I dropped out of high school physics) to guess when an interested fish would be going after lures. Sure enough, once again, the last fish of the day and my last fish of the trip, I said to the others in the boat, “Okay, I see a bright pink fish. Get ready for a strike.” Bam. Fish on.
With that, we cruised home into the sunset.
The next day was packing and trying to stay dry and running to the dock in the middle of eating breakfast when the lodge staff told us the plane was leaving. We made it free and clear and Friday was a solid 10 hours of driving back to Rochester, Minn.
I have now been to Canada. This is my Canada story.