Canadian Camping 1996

Walleye for dinner!

Well, that’s a surprise. My Ideas folder has a document I thought was a description of my first Canadian camping trip with my buddy (let’s call him) “Scott”. I’ve been meaning to post it one of these days. Having just told a story about my dog Sam, I thought maybe it was time to post some of the other memories stories.

The surprise is that the document is about a trip in 1996, the 10th (or so) annual pilgrimage we’d made. That first time we didn’t really know what we were doing and both under- and over-prepared. That was of a vacation with a lot of pain, but which engendered fondness in retrospect.

Enough fondness that we did it annually for over 15 years.

I’ll have to look through my files to see if I can find that first story. I should still have it, but I have a lot of files to search through.

In the meantime, I give you:

Canada 1996

This was the 10th (or 11th, I’ve lost count) Canadian Fishing Expedition, and in many regards, it was the best ever. It was certainly the best we’ve done at Thompson Lake.

Every year, my buddy, Scott, and I (and anyone we can talk into it) take a camping/fishing trip somewhere “up north.” Except for three years, each year we go to the same lake in Canada: Thompson Lake.

An isolated lake in Canada. Home for a week.

The three exceptions were: the incredible trip to the Churchill River in Manitoba (so far north, it’s off most maps of the state); the year we rented a houseboat on Lake Vermilion (in Minnesota); and the horrible time we went to a lodge on Lake Kabetogama (the time I didn’t catch one single fish).

Thompson Lake is just across the border from Crane Lake, Minnesota. It’s an undeveloped lake in the middle of Nowhere, Ontario, Canada. The only access is to portage in (difficulty level: high) or to fly in on a float plane.

We fly in using a Canadian lodge’s flying service. They pick us up at Crane Lake, land us briefly at Canadian Customs and then in to Thompson. We’re dropped off on an island in the lake, our gear is unloaded and we’re asked when we want to be picked up.

This is “if you didn’t bring it, you don’t have it” camping. There are only two man-made things on the island: a box with a hole on the top located back in the woods (the commode) and some beat up boats scattered about the island. The lodge people provide both, although the boats are rentals (the commode is free).

Everything else we bring in.

The mighty de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver.

That amount to: a tent for housing, gear for cooking (including camp stoves), tarps to build a cooking shelter (gets windy when you’re on a small island in the middle of a lake), all our food, soda, beer, fishing gear, a motor for the boat, gas and fuel for stoves and lantern, and the most important part of the trip — hammocks for the afternoon snooze!

Thompson is a decent sized lake, about 4 miles the long way, maybe half that the short way. More importantly, it’s an interesting lake; lots of islands big and small, lots of interesting — and convoluted — shore line and (most importantly) lots of interesting “structure” under water.

That is: the lake is full of rocks. Big rocks. Rocks the size of houses. Rocks the size of airplanes. It’s a lake you don’t go motoring around full speed until you know the lake or you’re likely to knock your prop off.

The best part is that we usually have the entire lake to ourselves. Our own personal Canadian Wilderness Playground.

§

Saturday: Leave the Twin Cities at 6:30. Well, that’s the schedule. We usually run a little late. This time was a first, we actually were on the road by 7am — the closest we’ve come to leaving at the right time.

Our flight was scheduled for 1pm; Crane Lake is almost exactly 300 miles from my door (303, I think). The drive specs out to six hours following standard rule of thumb techniques (50 MPH average), but we usually do it in five. My goal was to hit Crane Lake at noon.

The drive was uneventful, although it did get rainier as we got further north. Kind of worrisome, that. Last year, for the first time, we had to stay over in Crane Lake one night because the weather didn’t permit the small planes to fly.

It was raining when we got there, but with little wind and they assured us that the service was flying. It was just a matter of waiting for our flight to show up. The service is casual, to say the least. Our 1pm flight reservation is more of a rough estimate and reservation of a “slot” than a real 1pm flight time.

I suspect Campbell’s (the lodge/fly-in service) waits for the customer to show up before dispatching a plane!

We fight over who gets to sit in front next to the pilot.

Gear was loaded, and off we went into the skies. Almost as soon as we’re in the air, we’re coming down for Canadian Customs at Sand Point. It’s pretty casual. Crane Lake isn’t a major port of entry, although they do get about 200 people a day according to the U.S. Customs officer.

Getting into Canada, they ask a couple questions (how much alcohol, any weapons, that sort of thing) and that’s it. Our gear was casually searched one time because we’d used empty whiskey boxes (you’re only allowed one bottle or one case of beer duty free, else you pay extra).

We also buy our Canadian fishing licenses at the shop there, and I always buy some maple sugar candy.

Home for the next week.

Then it’s up, a short flight, and there’s the lake (about eleven miles from Crane Lake as the crow flies). We unload our stuff, and our pilot leaves.

The first thing we notice is the hordes of mosquitoes! The second thing was that it stopped raining and didn’t rain again the rest of the week.

Scott and I usually have a tug of war over the exact week to go. He wants to go as late as possible (for the sake of good fishing), and I want to go as early as possible (for the sake of bug-free camping). This year, we went as late as we’ve ever gone. And both the fish and the bugs were out in great numbers.

Scott had evidenced disdain when he saw I’d packed two cans of bug spray. I got the last laugh on that one.

We set up camp, had a beer, relaxed a bit and went off to recover our stash.

Our stash is a collection of stuff we’ve hidden on the lake. Last year we tried a new spot on the mainland rather than on the tiny island we usually use. Big mistake, as it turned out. A bear found the stash, drawn we assume by the smell of the small BBQ cooker we brought up last year.

Oddly, that cooker was unscathed, but the bear vanished one of our five-gallon gas drums and dragged the other off into the forest.

We found that one a ways away. It had been punctured by bear teeth, and when I consider the thickness and strength of that plastic (built to safely hold gasoline!), I’m very, very impressed by the strength of the bears jaws. Looking at those bite marks is enough to give one the willies.

Our tarp-sheltered “kitchen” (design by yours truly)

Speaking of bears, we saw one by the side of the road on the drive up, and we had an unconfirmed sighting of a timber wolf running across the road (too far away to be sure). Wildlife is a big part of these trips. It’s gotten to the point that beaver, bald eagle, and otter, are the norm.

It’s not to uncommon to walk to the shore and find a beaver dragging off a small tree he’s chopped down. One year we had a lot of trouble with an otter trying to get at our fish (did get several, in fact). This year, we saw a bald eagle being driven off by three lake gulls (eagle was probably after the younglings).

And the loons are everywhere. I’ve decided they are the police of the lake, since they seemed to be everywhere we were, in mated pairs, watching us all the time.

There is small wildlife, too. My favorite insect is the dragonfly for three reasons: the dragonfly is a signature beast of mine; the very cool way they look; and that they eat mosquitoes. With the mosquito crop up there, we saw a lot of dragonflies.

A place to crash.

We needed that stash in order to have our dinner, grilled steaks and mashed potatoes — our traditional first night in dinner. Mine was two one-pound filet mignon; Scott’s was a porterhouse. We tend to eat like royalty on these trips.

We also got in a bit of fishing, and Scott caught a nice walleye — a sign of things to come.

§

Sunday: The true beginning. Our proposed schedule is to get up around sunrise and get out on the lake immediately. Walleye are (normally) hard fish to catch. They’re usually active in the spaces between light and dark, the early morning and in the evening. They don’t like bright light, and they’re (usually) fussy about what they eat.

Nasty sharp fish teeth.

Contrast that with pike who are active all day and will hit on just about anything (like the sort of men one meets in bars).

But pike aren’t as nice to catch as walleye (sometimes called “God’s gift to fisherman” — they’re considered especially tasty, but I find them a bit bland; pike has more flavor).

Pike are slimy for one thing, which makes them a little nasty to handle. Worse, they’re crazy predator fish with wildly dangerous teeth, and they thrash about like crazy in the boat.

(Oddly, we sustained more minor injuries from the walleye than we did the pike. Walleye also have sharp teeth and nasty spines in their dorsal fin.)

The intended schedule is up with the sun, eat a granola bar, go fish until about 10am. Come back in for breakfast, and then goof off, do camp stuff, sleep in our hammocks, fish if weather is okay, whatever until around 4 or 5 pm.

Then we have dinner and fish all evening until dark when we goof off around the campfire, tell lies, and drink (more) beer. The stargazing is excellent that far north, and there are fireflies and toads and frogs that come out of the lake after dark.

Sunday, we slept in, but otherwise we kept to our schedule better than we’ve ever done before.

It’s gonna be grilled lake trout tonight!

The real highlight of Sunday was catching two lake trout.

We were trolling past the mouth of a channel when I had a “fish on!” (It’s like in some card games where you call out something when you win and the action stops. When trolling and you get a fish on your line, you call out “fish on,” and the driver stops the motor so you can land your fish.)

Well, Scott kills the engine and begins to reel in his line when he gets a fish, too. So we’re both busy bringing in… two real nice “lakers” (not to be confused with the L.A. sports team).

Trout in general are big fighters, and large trout are quite the battle. They have teeth, too, so you have to watch yourself.

A couple of nice lake trout. Great as fillets grilled on the skin.

The “double hit” isn’t common, but it happened to us at least four times during the trip. This time it was trout, the other times it was walleye, pike or combo walleye/pike (usually I got stuck with the pike).

As also turned out to be common this year, when we both caught the same species of fish at the same time (or close to it), I got a nice one,… Scott got a nicer one.

[Truth is, Scott is the better fisherman; he takes it very seriously, I don’t. We understand that he rough camps for the great fishing, and I go fishing with him for the great camping. It works out for us both.]

We went back to camp, filleted the fish, put the bigger one in the ice chest and grilled the “little” one. I’m not a huge fan of trout (it’s a bit greasy), but it’s good grilled.

No other humans for at least 10 miles. Perfect isolation and quiet.

That evening we saw a bit of a northern lights display. Nothing spectacular, but interesting in that I’d thought we were out of the sunspot cycle for a number of years now. Much of my life I wanted to see the northern lights. Being in Minnesota finally allowed that to happen.

They still thrill me, but I have become somewhat accustomed to them (the first time took my breath away).

§

Monday/Tuesday: Pretty normal camping days. Nothing special happened.

On one of those days we had our “big” breakfast. Normal breakfast is Bruegger’s bagels, toasted on a camp toaster, with cream cheese and hard salami (I was skeptical at first, but it’s very tasty — the cream cheese and the salami balance each other in a really neat way).

We have two “big” breakfasts of pancakes and bacon (one pound between two people!).

Mid-day hammock time. (“Fishing? Maybe later.”)

We’ve been doing this so long now, we’re pretty good at it. In fact, we’ve gotten too good at it and too casual about some of it. As a result, we both forgot a number of things this time.

But we do have our meals down pat, and we’ve gotten good enough to get all the side dishes to come out at the same time.

Except for the two times we eat steak (first night in and one other night), we have a main course (fish), a side dish of a carbohydrate nature (mashed potatoes; stove top stuffing; Rice-A-Roni), and a canned vegetable.

We also schedule one meal where the main course is not fish (we tried sloppy joes this time; we usually just do brats).

Our own private Canadian lake.

And because we use dry ice in the cooler, we bring in (drum roll) Dove bars! (Which stay rock hard for about four days in the dry ice.)

As I said, we eat like royalty!

So, Sunday was grilled trout, Monday was walleye, and Tuesday we ate pike.

§

Wednesday: The day I caught eight (or more) huge walleye in one half-day of fishing. ‘Twas fantastic!

The only fishing experience that compares was the time on the Churchill River with those two evenings where we found a spot where we were literally catching fish on every cast. Where we actually threw back anything under six pounds.

As I’ve said, the lake is about 4 miles by 2 miles, but highly irregular in shape. Because of the islands (some of them huge lake fillers), there are at least five distinct areas of the lake with may sub-areas. It would be possible to have about five different groups fishing and never see one another; the lake is that varied.

First two bass I ever caught (photo from the first trip up (1985?)).

In previous years, we’ve found the best fishing at the other end of the lake, and that’s involved longish drives back and forth (trip takes about 15 minutes — a long time when you’re trying to get living fish back).

This year, for the first time ever, the fishing was best on a submerged reef very close to “home”. We used less gas than ever, but did more fishing than ever.

On Wednesday, we were trolling that reef when the walleye started hitting my lure like crazy (and not Scott’s!). One right after the other. Big walleye like I’ve never seen (except as trophies), let alone caught.

That was odd because it was mid-day. Walleye don’t typically hit at mid-day. The water was very choppy (which breaks up the light below), and the sky was overcast, which might explain it.

Hello, Walter! Care to join me for dinner?

I learned how dangerous walleye are (they’re also predator fish; all four species we fish are: walleye, pike, bass, and trout).

Walleye have nasty teeth, but also have hard scales that can cut (pike are, by contrast, slimy “bags-o-meat”). Walleye gill covers are hard and sharp and, worst, as I mentioned, their dorsal fins are spiked!

Got real nasty cut on my right thumb (healing now) from my biggest catch. (But I’ll have the last laugh as I wash him down with a nice beer!)

Wednesday we ate walleye again, needless to say! And had a huge celebration bonfire.

§

Thursday: The weather changed a bit, and the fish weren’t hitting as hard, but it was still good enough to realize that, for the first time in our fishing history, we stood a very good chance of actually hitting our limit on walleye. A dream we’ve had is to bring out a limit of “Walters” — a dream that’s now become a reality.

I’ll probably never again be able to convince Scott to go early.

A little rain does not stop the fishing. (That’s a pike.)

The change in the weather was twofold: first, the wind was up which made the water choppy (good for walleye fishing, although it presents a set of boating problems all its own) and blew away most of the bugs; second, the temps dropped which decimated the mosquitoes.

The latter half of the trip was much better in terms of bugs. A good thing, since that first day, it was looking painful, and I was beginning to wonder if two cans of bug spray was going to be enough!

At this point, we were on a “meat run” — fishing for meat to take home, and our dinners were non-fish. This night we grilled steak again (filet mignon and porterhouse with mashed potatoes).

§

Friday: Last full day and the last fishing day. The worm turned and it was Scott who was slamming them. I think I caught one walleye that day, but I did get a nice trout (got a picture, threw it back), and I lost a couple of nice pike.

Another lake trout. That one went back in the lake.

When you fish for pike, you have a steel leader at the end of the line attached to the lure. Pike have teeth that interlock and can cut fishing line. Without the leader, you lose the lure and the fish.

But walleye don’t have those interlocking teeth, so can’t cut line. Plus, they are finicky and the leader can put them off. So when you fish for walters, no leader. But that means, if you catch a pike, you lose the lure. Just part of the game.

The most fun was that trout, since I was using my lightest rod and tackle. Took about ten minutes to land that sucker.

§

Saturday: Time to strike camp, bring stuff back to the (original) stash, fillet the fish in the “live well” (a mesh cage we keep in the water) and wait for the plane.

A limit of fish to take home (on ground in front me me).

Another large party arrived during this time, and it turned out to be Mr. F, the father of one of Scott’s buddies-since-grade-school. Mr. F is the guy who turned Scott onto this lake in the first place, and he has been a resource on where and how to fish that lake.

Mr. F had been going up there for over 20 years. One year our trips overlapped for several days, and it was fun to share the island with him and his crew. It was nice this time to “hand off” the island to him and the six or so people who came with him.

We fly in on a de Havilland Beaver, a mid-largish bush plane. We do this so we can bring in a lot of disposable gear (the food, soda, beer, charcoal and ice). On the way out we can use a much smaller plane, a Cessna 185. Our gear, the two of us and the pilot just barely fit!

Loading our ride home (a Cessna 185 — I’ve jumped from those).

We fly straight back, land in Crane Lake and are met by U.S. Customs. We always seem to get this one cranky grim lady. One year, she really tore apart our gear — I have no idea why, random spot check, I guess.

But over the years, as we’ve chatted with her, she’s lightened up. I started yakking with her while we were unloading, and she was very pleasant with us. Just asked the usual questions and that was that. A matter of being on someone’s good side, I’d say.

We did the 300 miles back in one marathon drive (stopped once for a burger), and did it in about 4-and-a-half hours.

A very, very good trip, all in all.

Stay camping, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

5 responses to “Canadian Camping 1996

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Apologies, this is a lot longer than I usually allow. I thought about splitting it into two posts, but it’s still the same amount of reading, so I figured “what the heck.” (I have an even longer account of a Boston trip from long ago.)

    Hopefully the pictures will make up for the length. (Regrettably, I don’t have any pictures of the Boston trip, so I may have to split that in two posts.)

    [This is post #994. Only six to go to 1000!]

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Looks like an unbelievably picturesque vacation! Although I suspect the mosquitoes or the temperatures would probably shut me down.

    Do you guys bring any kind of communication device, like a radio or satellite phone? Just curious. I have a friend who disappears into the wilderness on hikes for weeks at a time, and she never brings anything. (She once broke her wrist and had to spend days hiking back with it like that.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      My life has been blessed in multiple ways, lots to be thankful for, and those vacations are definitely among those blessings. The bugs usually weren’t a major problem. We sometimes had more issues with thieving squirrels or that otter who wouldn’t leave our live well alone. But the sights and general experience were more than worth the minor issues.

      For instance: Lots of beaver up there, and sometimes trolling a beaver would come check out us out. Sometimes they seem to find it amusing to race the boat. I’ve grabbed an oar and slapped the water, beaver tail style, just to watch them react to the danger signal (instant dive and swim away). Or one time sitting in the boat for an hour drift fishing while watching three eagles play in the air column. Up to thousands of feet and diving down, swooping around each other, just playing. The only way to see that stuff for real involves getting out there. The wild woods are amazing!

      We did have some safety concerns. We always brought axes and tree saws; we eventually began bringing up a small chainsaw. No cell service, and we didn’t know of any radio contacts. Neither of us was much interested in investing in a sat phone just for that trip. (I never looked into renting one; maybe that would have been an option.)

      We did, fairly early on, start bringing little pen-sized flares with the idea of signalling a passing plane if we got into trouble. Only problem with that logic was a sparsity of passing planes. Maybe a few a day we could see, although small float planes are very common up there as the only truly viable means of longer distance travel.

      It was working without a net to a great extent, but that has its own thrill level. Instills caution and good sense. 😀

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Damn it! I cannot find the account I wrote of the first trip. What’s funny, is that it’s an account of all the things that went wrong and all the misery, but the last paragraph admits that I actually might do it again (with better planning).

    Kind of a classic, “Oh, this sucks so much,… but actually,…”

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