Jul 22, 2011

Forest treat circles

The three of us skulked along the shoulder of a nearby gravel road and squinted through the greenery and grays at the margin, seeing only a few stragglers here and there... Then we heard the shots in the distance, what sounded like a .22 target practice session... And we pretty much knew: Wild strawberry season has ended in the northern wilds. We stopped at a few more spots but the story was the same... The jagundo berries had disappeared for the summer.

I ate what was in my cup and we headed back to camp for the rare combination of burrito night, badminton and a twilight jump off the dock.

While the arc of strawberries has closed for 2011, the forest has many new treat circles that are only now just beginning, especially with the epic rains we received a few days earlier. Strawberry season had been good to us Clearwater pickers, with plenty in the freezer for jam-making, and soon enough, heaps of blueberries will spring up throughout the burn areas, another example of the circles all around us. Where the old-growth forest once stood, new growth like berry plants erupt from the ash-altered, sun-soaked soils. In the northern wilds the forest and burn areas - pines and berries - are continually dancing around the igneous rocks. Smokey the Bear told as children that we could prevent forest fires, and I will always be careful, but I don't think we can prevent them, and I doubt we should. The forest needs to burn, and it's much bigger than us. The other day we had hazy skies - a result of a massive fire in north-western Ontario and north-western winds. The Canadian radio said citizens were calling resource managers to complain about the haze... People are funny. The forest wants to burn, so it will burn. And the berries want those sunny open areas, so they will grow there when the fire had done its job.
One thing I am trying to learn more about this summer is plant and animal (and fungi) identification - a daunting task for a non-scientific mind. But I'm keeping my eyes peeled as I wander. The other day I spotted a cluster of bright yellow Amanitas near my cabin. These are not recommended for consumption and may lead to temporary blindness and/or insanity. But they are cool to look at. I really missed Morel season back in Wisconsin, and have only seen one false morel up here since spring, so the recent boom in wild mushrooms this July has been enjoyable, even if I can't eat most of them. The baby cabin also has a few Boletes and what I have concluded is a Destoying Angel as neighbors. There is also a Turdus Migratorius that thinks my truck is his enemy. He shits on my mirrors and flies into the windows until his little bird brain bleeds, and I try to deter him with the BB gun but it shoots unpredictably. At night I listen to the Swainson's Thrush up the hill, with its beautiful maniac song.
And then I sleep. And I wake up. And all these days blend together and I dance around the igneous rocks.

Jul 20, 2011


It's been a filthy hot week up here in the northern wilds, so I've been swimming before and after work in Clearwater Lake on a regular schedule. We get two radio stations up here: Community radio WTIP - 'The Tip' - and a terrible Canadian rock station out of Thunder Bay called 'The Giant'. It's fundraising week on The Tip so I was listening to some Fine Young Cannibals on The Giant while painting some signage in the workshop - I really enjoyed their weather reports, which are fairly accurate for our location. Of course they use Celsius! But my favorite part is the regular updates on wild fire smoke- and haze-forecasting and the use of 'The Humidex'. This is Canadian for 'heat index'. Today the Humidex reached 35!!! 44-thousand hectares or forest were burning out of control, haze everywhere! Whoa!

When the heat wave hit the north I knew it was time to trim down on the hair. I gave myself an emergency hair- and beard-trim with a tiny scissors, looking in a tiny mirror, but I think it turned out OK. I kept trimming here and there for several days as I discovered lingering longies, and my brains have breathed perfectly throughout this spike in the Humidex.

This abnormal humidity-event was capped today by an unusual storm, which dropped 9 inches of rain in total on July 20. I awoke to a strobe-light monsoon at 4 a.m., and between then and 8, we got 8 inches, which nearly sunk the fleet. Had we not gone out in the storm at 7 a.m. to emergency bail the vessels, they probably would have sunk. All our roads were washed out. I spent the day shoveling gravel into the roads-turned-stream, and then after dinner it rained another inch. The lake is up nearly a foot already in one day!

And yet the humidity persists and I sit by my fan... I cannot get far enough north to escape this heat, this suffocating Humidex... These fires of summer...

Addendum (7.22.11): I wanted to also note the concept of a 'personal humidex'... as in: Geesh, my humidex is at 50c right now... I need to jump in the lake.

Jul 5, 2011

Cloud camp

One of my goals for the summer was a multi-night solo camp, so last week when I was the only one off work I set out on a trip to a nearby 'mountain' lake that was full of brook trout. These are not actual mountains, but the eastern section of the boundary waters is often called the 'Minnesota Mountains' - and it is exceptionally rugged terrain. The overall elevations are not impressive on paper, but the climbs you can find here are certainly challenging, especially with a full pack and canoe on your shoulders.
My destination was 'three lakes in' and well above neighboring West Pike Lake. To get there, I paddled the entire six miles of Clearwater after the day's work was done, into an east wind, then portaged 214 rods to West Pike, then paddled a short distance to the final portage, which was 80 rods of steep climbing. It's like carrying a canoe and full pack up a ladder made of wet rocks and roots, and I was shot by the time I reached the top, where I saw the lake's only campsite unoccupied (whoo!). By this time I had about 30 minutes of light and there was thunder on the horizon, so I paddled across to the site and got to work on my rain fly and hammock.

Since our Clearwater Loop trip I've been fascinated by hammockry, and I intend to camp only in hammocks if possible from here on out. It's a good thing I brought that rain fly, because five minutes after I set it up over my hammock the rain started, along with energized wind. I was too tired to start a fire in the rain with wet wood so I quickly cooked a few Zup's wild rice brats in the frying pan and writhed into the hammock for the night, where I sipped on whiskey and read a large slice of Bill Bryson's Walk in the Woods, which was given to me by a guest that had hiked three days on the Border Route Trail the week before. All the while I watched lightening and listened to the thunder and rain.

It seemed the clouds were right on top of me.

The next day I had a delicious breakfast: One pound of thick pepper bacon (also from Zup's!) and four eggs, with an entire pot of coffee... Then I tested the box shitter... Then I sawed up and split a couple large chunks of cedar and read more of my book, before heading out to look for brookies. I got about halfway around the lake on my first trolling run when I caught a nice 11-incher (below). Later I got a foot-long brookie in the same area, casting the same lure, but with the added bonus of seeing the strike, which always thrills me (he escaped getting his picture made, the rascal!). Had I not brought a pile of delicious meats with me, I would have eaten a great brookie dinner, but I was well-meated so I let them go.

I didn't fish very long. Like solo camping, solo fishing is relaxing but lonesome. I'd much rather have company.
Solo camping did offer the opportunity for lots of hammock-reading and note-taking for my book project, thinking, and napping. The sunset on night two was outstanding, and I cooked my brats on a one-person cedar fire, making sure to leave plenty of good split firewood for the camp's next visitor (bonus camping points!).

Click images to view full size panoramas

Since I had to work at 1 the next day, I planned on getting up at first light and setting a course home, but I awoke to the densest fog I have ever seen. My hammock was maybe ten feet from the shore, and I couldn't see the lake. Could barely see the tree my hammock was hanging in! It was an odd feeling, like cloud camping. Regrettably, I didn't get a photo of this, but I'm sure the Fuji wouldn't have done the scene justice. I went back to sleep for another hour (or two) and then had to turbo-paddle to get back to the lodge by noon-thirty. Being out of the office and up here for over two months is starting to show - I worked a full shift and cooked dinner for 16 and wasn't even sore, even though the entire adventure required a great deal of energy.

July is here and there is lots more to do: I'll have posts on berry picking (strawberries are here!) and slip bobbering leeches on a dynamite walleye lake in the near future. And next week I am heading west, meeting up with Slowhand Lucious, Chinwhisker Charlie and Warden Cass for some big water trolling and cabin shenanigans at the other end of the boundary waters.