Jan 30, 2012

A good day for Brussels sprouts

After a long weekend up north the thought of any beer or meat or cheese was extremely unappealing. The fridge was close to empty so I paid a visit to my friendly grocer this morning, and was surprised to find some Wisconsin-grown "chop chop bok choy" and these Brussels sprouts. 

Haven't eaten Brussels sprouts in years, but for some reason they looked really tasty, so I put them in the cart. I had nothing in mind but figured I could find a use for them. When I got back home I jumped online and found a recipe for dijon-braised Brussels sprouts that I had bookmarked a while back. I was excited until I realized my kitchen didn't have half the ingredients (who drank all my white wine!?!).
It mattered not. I had to have Brussels sprouts for lunch. Now. 

So I improvised. Halved and sauteed the sprouts in butter, then added chicken broth, salt and pepper to taste, and some green onions. After letting that simmer for ten minutes I realized I didn't even have Dijon mustard! Drat! But there was no turning back now so I added some Zups Hot Mustard (which goes well with anything) and completed the dish. It was really good. I always remembered Brussels sprouts being terribly bitter but these were rich and sweet. 

Total cooking/prep time: 22 minutes.


Jan 23, 2012

Bed of Thunderstorms

Winter camping has a way of turning the natural world upside-down. This has been something on my to-do list for a long, long time, and I finally had the chance to give it a try last week, returning to the park I spent seven months of 2011 exploring. And this was a good excuse to visit my good friends Erik and Tori, who are lucky enough to have each other and an off-grid cabin in the northcountry complete with a wood-burning sauna.

And what better way to see the Boundary Waters in winter than by dog-sled?
The reason Erik gets to stay up north year-round is he works as a dog-sledding guide in the winter months, and so we followed up a perfect fall trip into The Quetico with a two-night winter trip up to Knife and Ottertrack Lakes on the border-route. Myself, Erik and Tori were joined by fellow adventurers Ed and Nick, out of Duluth, and so five sleds and twenty-five doggies set out into the Park on Tuesday morning over a crisp two-inches of snow. My team, pictured above, featured a crazed yearling named Proby (top), lead dog Possum, Xena, Brillo and Cash.

Everyone else in the group had already run dogs before and as we harnessed and hooked up the teams, the lake access became a scene of organized chaos. I wasn't sure what to expect. I was definitely a bit intimidated, but was told Possum would follow the track automatically, and that I should use the brake as needed through portages, and then suddenly all sleds were cut loose and we were off into the frozen wild. In the moments before we turned the dogs loose they were all going crazy and yipping and howling and barking, but once the sleds were set free it was business time and the quieted huskies happily began churning out miles and miles of pristine borderlands. The cold froze in my beard and stung my face but the dogs simply loved it. You could tell. They ran with purpose. This was a paradise.

A twenty-mile day by canoe is a strong effort, but we quickly gobbled up nearly that much distance in just a few hours, and I only crashed my sled once along the way (but I didn't let go). We quickly found a wind-protected bay on Knife Lake and got the dogs all settled in and fed (frozen mink - yum!). Then we got to setting up camp and collecting a huge pile of wood, and finally Ed and I peppered the bay with traps. Although we didn't spend much time fishing we did pretty well during the trip, each catching a nice Lake Trout.
There is really no way to prepare yourself for spending three days in sub-zero temperatures without the benefit of permanent shelter. It's one thing to travel through The Quetico when it's around the freezing mark at night... quite another to travel through the northcountry when it's well below freezing the entire time. No matter how big a bonfire you build, things simply freeze and never thaw. Putting your contact lenses in upon waking becomes a hazard, assuming your contacts are not frozen solid. And although we had a big tent with a wood-stove, I was determined to earn my 'sleeping on the frozen lake' badge. I had my 15F bag stuffed inside a -60F bag, and the first night was very comfortable sleeping beneath the stars. The second night the lows dipped to 30-below and it was colder than that with the wind-chill. Weather radio warned against exposure... keep your pets inside, it cautioned, as our dogs slept on the snow nearby. The clouds and flurries of the day broke around midnight and as the stars twinkled above the lake really started to sing, seismic molecules whistling like whales from the deep.

As I snuggled into my sleeping bags, the ice shuddered and boomed, and I could not sleep on this bed of thunderstorms. Like everything with winter camping, the world was askew... the storm on the horizon was beneath us, and the only calm in the Milky Way overhead, vivid and steady.
In the morning we pointed the dogs west and our faces were burned by the wind. Like every trip to the northcountry it was over too soon. And you would think there would be comfort in a heated cabin, in a huge cheeseburger and good beers, in a sauna so hot it made breathing difficult... but there is nothing in life like the power of a thunderstorm, real or imagined. Already, I miss this frozen bed, and how I got there.


For more information on dogsledding in the BWCA, visit White Wilderness.

Jan 11, 2012

The old-fashioned box trap

Something doesn't belong here...

I easily obsess. Ice fishing became much more than a hobby, for me, a long time ago. And let's call it what it is: Out there on the frozen lake, we are trapping wild beasts. I realize it's an odd way to spend so much time. The spread is this machine from my mind... It is a creative outlet... I construct from frozen water, this pattern... I feed it small fish and it brings me big fish, and I take their picture. I am very particular about my machine, but it is always organic, derived from the day, and so I never have complete control over it's design. I only want the best for my spread, so I take good care of my traps, the mechanisms of this device. Probably, I'd be better off directing that attention towards more important things, but will I ever? I wonder.

I have more traps than I need, but it's good to have a deep tool-box. And they all pretty much look the same and work the same way, when you get down to the moving pieces, and then there's this box trap I got my hands on. My buddy Tim stopped by for the weekend and he brought this old-fashioned gizmo from the roaring twenties. This old relic is the kind of trap my Grandpa Walter would have used back in the day. It's a beast of a contraption and awkward to use, and there's a reason they don't make them like that anymore, but Tim quickly explained that it did one job better than anything I was currently using.
The old-fashioned box trap, Tim noted, is perfect for running monster bait. The reason is the box keeps the hole from freezing up so often, which allows you to use a huge bobber to keep the monster bait under control.
Our foot-long friend Glen, pictured here, is such a bait. As I said before, when I put little fish into the machine, it produces big fish... So what happens when you put big fish into the machine? Aha! A-HAA!

Well at least that's the idea. Tim agreed to loan me the box trap and two jumbo suckers, Glen and Gary, since I live on the lake where the Wisconsin State Record Northern Pike was caught and this type of monstrous presentation seems appropriate for the setting. Nothing has happened yet, but I know this strategy requires great patience. 

And I am willing to be patient to get what I want... So I spend days and days sitting out there trapping, seeing, waiting for the biggest fish in the lake to wander by and think, Oh my, Mister Glen, you Handsome Devil... Why, I bet you are quite delicious! 

And I watch the other folks out there fishing with worms and catching little perch, smaller than our friend Glen, and I can't understand why there are people who don't want the biggest fish in the lake as badly as I do, and I wonder what kind of machine I am to think that way? Am I an old-fashioned box trap in this world? Do I not belong?


Jan 4, 2012

Riding the Pine Highway: On proper tip up etiquette and procedure

Everyone calls the moment differently...

It all depends on the situation, of course. Who you are with. Where you are fishing. How long it's been since a fish has been caught, and a multitude of other factors. The classic is calling it by name: "Tip-Upppp!" I use that out of habit nine out of ten times. Sometimes I just yell "Flag!" Other calls I've used include "Yep" and "There it is!" Occasionally I'll just start running towards a struck trap with swift silence. The key is not the words or actions used but the tone. When your trap has been hit you must convey the excitement of the moment in your call... You must let your fellow anglers know - instantly - that the time for action has arrived. A big rule we have on the ice is "No Running or Yelling!" There are exceptions, like if we are playing football... But excitable actions like running or yelling are primarily reserved for the big moment we are all seeking out there on frozen lakes.

I would say there is a sort of honor in getting to make the call... Of course you have to be the first to see the flag to sound the alarm, and so over the years I have developed a 'constant scan' when I am on the ice with bait in the water. I do this automatically, like breathing. I program the spread into my internal GPS and then I spend the hours looking for the slight change in picture that tells me the moment is here. It's not that I'm looking for the risen flag, so much as I'm looking for the motion or ... or what is out of place here. The sensation of that realization is one of my most alluring addictions, and I'm not ashamed to admit such foolishness. I take pride is editing the spread, on noticing, on sensing the attack. It's one thing to land a fish using a fishing rod and nets, but quite another when the line is in your hand, when the net is literally your hand... and so every second is crucial for success.

Watching your traps is just one part of the big picture, out there. Unless you are in the right spot at the right time, with your traps set at proper depths with the perfect bait, you are already of-pace. It takes many correct decisions just to get that bite, and even then nothing is guaranteed.

The complexities of ice fishing dynamics could fill a book but there is no substitute for actual trapping experience. You really must know the thoughts of your fellow anglers, and this can only be achieved through many days and nights on frozen waters. I have a telepathic connection with my main crew of ice fishing buddies - Chinwhisker Charlie, The Warden, Silly Deen,Wolfspotter and Slowhand Lucious - but we only share that bond because of the systems we have perfected through the years. And I would say the system allowed us to more quickly form the bonds that join our thoughts on the trap-line.

(Another fun part of ice fishing culture is the selection of a fun 'ice fishing character' that is tuned for precision setup and flag-watching and hand-to-hand combat with massive cold-blooded fishes ... mine is Ike Walter).

We call our system "Riding the Pine Highway." The origins of this peculiar name are unimportant... It was coined after a day of drinking beer in sub-zero temperatures and it is fun to say. So it stuck. What that phrase means is the subject of tonight's post.

You could say the Pine Highway is a philosophy... But I guess it's more an extension of the laws of nature. At the heart of this system is this truth: You will be judged by your peers. Each angler is responsible for his or her own traps (or 'rigs'), and when it is your turn on the Highway and the moment arrives, your form and results carry weight. There is pressure to do well, but what the system really requires is that you are honest in assessing your effort once the moment has passed.

The Pine Highway is a communal system designed to give each angler the best chance at catching a fish. When I first started ice fishing each guy would bring his own rigs and it was kind of an 'everyone for themselves' deal. If you were new to the sport and didn't know what you were doing, you learned by watching... The Highway is more of an apprenticeship, it offers a sense of teamsmanship in the cold wind. I am sure we are not the only ones that use this sort of approach, but I don't think it's the norm. Essentially, when we are using the Highway, each angler will put his or her best three traps into the collective trap-line (you are allowed three lines in Wisconsin, at least). So say four of us are fishing. Normally you would have your three traps and if you happened to pick an unlucky location, then that was your problem. But with the Pine Highway, all twelve of those traps are now in play. We use a 'shotgun start' method, so that if you have a good rig with a good bait in the right spot, and it goes up first, then you get to take that flag. Eventually a 'lineup' is created through this process and then the sharing begins.

Riding the Pine Highway indicates that you are 'up to bat' ... that all of the group's traps are now yours. So instead of fishing with three traps you are now using all 12 ... or all 21 ... or all 30. Whenever that next flag pops it is yours to take. Doing this ensures everyone gets some action and usually everyone ends up with a fish at the end of the day. At this point I am always hoping I catch a big one, but if Chinwhisker catches a monster then I consider the day a huge success. And if I have a fish on the board, then I am always hoping my buddies get the next one. So I guess I'm a Bolshevik.

The key 'moment within the moment' comes when you are on the Highway and a trap springs... Hopefully you catch a fish, but often there is no fish to catch. Sometimes they hit the minnow and drop it before you can reach the line. Sometimes the minnow is a rascal and the flag is false. The brilliance of the Pine Highway system is giving the 'rider' the power to 'make the call.' Was it really a fish or not? If not, you are still on the highway, but remember, you will be judged by your peers! Even if you end up getting two 'falsies' in a row it is usually time to jump off the highway, making way for the next in line. There are only so many flags to go around on most days, and so, you don't want to be greedy with your opportunities. On good days we might go through the lineup three times fully. Sometimes it's your day and sometimes it's not. This is the nature of trapping.

While I enjoy the basic philosophy and real-world application of the Pine Highway, it is not a perfect system. Like communism, it fails on a larger scale. The more people in the system, the more impracticle it becomes. Once you have six or seven people on the highway, it is likely the people in positions six or seven won't get an opportunity unless you are on a high-action lake. So there are still cases where 'every angler for him- or herself' is the best option. But, in groups of 2-6, the Pine Highway is an ideal method for giving everyone the best chance for success, and that is why we have enjoyed utilizing the system whenever possible.