By Jerry Dennis | Illustration by Glenn Wolff
I was invited to stay at a friend’s camp near the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. I drove there on a day that began bright and promising, but by L’Anse the sky had clouded over and a light drizzle was falling. By the time I reached the camp the rain was a steady downpour. It didn’t stop for two days.
Jim, Ron and I hadn’t seen each other in nearly a year, so there was plenty to talk about. We built a fire in the stove, threw together a meal and caught up on things. The weather turned dismal — cold wind and relentless rain, the kind of rain that churns gravel roads into oatmeal. It was a weekend better suited to cribbage and thick novels than to outdoor pursuits.
We were patient the first day, but after 24 hours Ron and I couldn’t sit inside any longer. Jim is a retired conservation officer and a native Yooper who’s been stomping around in the U.P. all of his life. He wasn’t keen on going out in the rain, but he told us about a good lake nearby and plotted a course for us on a topo map. Ron and I put on our rain gear and went outside to load Jim’s canoe on the truck.
I was a little disappointed in the canoe. It was short and squat, made of dented aluminum and painted army green. One seat was broken and had to be propped up with a chunk of two-by-four. But we were in no position to be choosy. We threw it on the truck and tied it down.
Jim waved from the door as we spun up the driveway.
The lake sat at the end of seven miles of flooded two-tracks, in a valley between hills of hardwoods and pines. It wasn’t pretty: a hundred acres of whitecaps and weed beds with drowned cedars ringing the shores. Gray clouds scudded past overhead, shredded by powerful winds off Lake Superior. A couple of miles away the shore of Superior was being battered by enormous waves. I thought I could feel the ground shuddering. Even in the woods you could sense the immensity out there.
The little lake was supposed to be full of northern pike so vicious they would charge our lures like Dobermans. We couldn’t wait. We had been working too hard of late and needed this as therapy. It took maybe five minutes to run the canoe to the shore, toss in our gear, and push off.
The canoe caught the wind and sailed. Even with rain slanting into our faces and wind yanking the rain hoods from our heads, our guts clenched in anticipation.
We cast our lures with the conviction that discomfort is sometimes rewarded. We cast into shallow water and we cast into deep water, over weed beds and over rocks and into godawful tangles of driftwood and stumps. We tried deerhair poppers and streamers and Daredevls and Mepps Spinners and Rapalas and Bombers and a muskie lure as big as a squirrel. But we caught nothing.
Not a thing.
In three hours and hundreds of casts we didn’t have a single strike.
We had theories about why. Low-pressure system. Wind from the east, fish bite the least. Too much rain — the fish were sated with drowned creatures.
As we fished we realized, to our surprise, that we liked the little canoe. It was fat and ugly, it was broken, it may have been designed by a military engineer whose previous experience was with portable pontoon bridges, yet it was responsive and deft and stable in the waves.
We found ourselves laughing and singing as we paddled. We wished the lake were bigger and linked by channels with others we could explore.
“On this bad day of fishing, there was no place we would have rather been.”
At noon we pulled up on the shore of an island and found one of the world’s finest campsites. It was sheltered under tall pines, and the ground was spongy with a couple of centuries’ worth of needle drop. You could look beyond the trees in three directions and see water. We sat on old, mossy stumps with the rain falling around us and ate a lunch of French bread, cheddar, liverwurst, and crisp McIntoshes. Ragged flocks of ducks rocketed over the lake, then wheeled and set their wings and came in hard against the wind and the whitecaps.
Ron and I looked at each other and grinned. Jim was back in the cabin alone, probably reading a novel by the stove, warm and dry.
We couldn’t wait to rub it in. ≈
Author Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City and has collaborated with fellow regional artist Glenn Wolff on many books including “The Bird in the Waterfall,” now available in a new edition (jerrydennis.net; glennwolff.com).