Thinking about my annual trip to Canada this summer. Oh Canada, where there is still wilderness that seems to go on forever.
Erratic weather is not unusual in the northern and central tiers of Quebec, particularly in the Spring. And so, three long time friends trek yearly for a week of bonding, companionship, and good times to be reflected on later in life. Smitty, Jeff, and I have been fishing in remote areas of this wonderful province for quite some time. Most of our fishing has been in the early season when the weather is usually warm during the day and downright cold at night. Although we have fished in a few different wilderness areas in Quebec, for a few years we fished with one particular outfitter that has a large territory and a lot of different fishing options.
On this occasion we were fishing on a medium size lake, known as Lac McLennan. The lake has an irregular shape with several large bays. To be brief in description, it is generally about five miles long and two miles wide. It is large enough to catch a good amount of wind, and it has enough open water where the wind can whip up good size white caps in a hard blow. Over several years we had seen this happen a few times, but on this day we got way more than we ever expected.
The walleye fishing had not been very good. The constantly changing weather patterns seemed to blow in a different low pressure area about every 18 hours. Walleye, for some reason, are not fond of changing air pressure. The more frequently the air pressure changes with each approaching cold front the less interested they seem to be in foraging. Given the poor walleye fishing we were concentrating on lake trout and northern pike during the bad weather days.
We had been on the lake for two days and seen two major cold fronts pass through. Each morning we started the day with blue sky. Then the wind would pick up. This would be followed by black, ominous skies and strong, cold rain showers. We had two different thunder storms accompanying each cold front. Each one came so quickly that we were barely able to beat the storm off the lake. A fiberglass boat carrying three adult males powered by a ten horsepower motor does not make a speedy vessel. It will get you home, but you really can’t be in too much of a hurry. For this reason foul weather gear is essential. We had gotten used to switching in an out of our clothes in the boat that week. In the morning we would cast off wearing polartec jackets over woolen shirts. By late morning, if the sum was still shining, we might be comfortable with just our T-shirts on. When the cold front started moving in before noon we’d put our shirts and jackets back on, followed by gore-tex foul weather gear as the dark clouds and impending rain approached. We were catching a few lake trout on those trips out onto the lake and so were content to keep trying.
When the bad weather could be seen blowing in from the north and west we would pull anchor and head for home. Smitty is the designated pilot. There is a specific reason for this. Jeff is blinder than a bat and I, as the largest of the three of us, am relegated to the middle so the front of the boat isn’t two feet out of the water. The waves can grow into white caps in almost no time at all if the winds are sustained and in excess of 15 knots. On our northern journey home from our favorite lake trout fishing area to our camp there is a large area of open water, followed by a few islands that we pass between where the water course is sheltered, followed by another large area of open water. In bad weather Smitty tries to keep the bow cutting across the oncoming waves at a forty five degree angle to lessen the splash over the bow but there is still a lot of spray that finds its way onto the three fishermen in the open boat.
Generally a hard blow accompanied by waves and a good soaking is something we face with great pride. Jeff is almost always in the bow taking on the worse of the pounding. Smitty and I take our share of the pounding waves as well. A hard blow fills a man’s veins with adrenaline. It is reminiscent of the days when man versus the elements was a way of life; the days when everyday activities, like fishing for food, were a matter of survival. So it is that in this spirit we actually enjoy the challenges of the inclement weather in our small craft as it bellies through a raging lake.
The third day of this week in our wilderness paradise, however, proved to be another story. Like the two previous mornings we had gone to the east side of the lake near a series of holes on the lake bottom where the water depth quickly changes from 30 feet deep to about 80 feet deep. We like to fish the edge of these holes, on the deep side. Here the bait fish often collect, and so do the lake trout who take advantage of the forage opportunity. It’s not like shooting fish in a barrel, as the old saying goes, but it does afford the fisherman an opportunity to land a large lake trout now and then.
On this morning Jeff had caught a nice 5 pound lake trout, but generally the fishing had been slow. The three of us do not mind the slow fishing as we always spend the morning telling stories and recollecting the advantages of times long ago when we were a little younger. After one story I looked to the west and saw a black, black area of clouds to the west. Simultaneously the wind started picking up in such a way that would grab any would-be sailor’s attention. Without much fanfare all three of us reeled in our tackle. Next, Jeff began hoisting the anchor. I was busy stowing the gear and an assorted beverage container, while Smitty started the outboard motor. In a matter of about two minutes we were on course for our camp, thinking that we were way ahead of the approaching storm.
This was no ordinary storm. Within minutes the wind was blowing between 30 and 40 knots, and the waves were lapping over the gunwales at a steady rate. The wind and waves were hitting us broadside. Jeff and I, without prodding, each grabbed a bleach bottle that had been fashioned into a water baler and started tossing water over the side. The storm was on top of us within five minutes. There was almost a total absence of light at this noon hour from the thick overcast as we navigated across the lake in a heavy, unforgiving downpour. The waves and fierce winds pummeled our small craft as the motor struggled against the choppy water.
Smitty held a steady course at the tiller as Jeff and I continued to furiously bale the oncoming water. The waves pounded us broadside. A change in coarse was not a good option as it would make our slow trip even longer. There was not a doubt in our mind that would arrive at the dock at our camp safely, but each of us knew we had a job to do, and do well, if we were to arrive safely.
It is about a twenty minute journey from where we were fishing to our camp. On this day, with the heavy winds, torrential rain, and challenging waves our arrival would be delayed by about another ten minutes.
Gore-tex is a good weather proof material but it cannot keep you dry in this type of horrible weather. The wind was blowing so hard that the rain was flying horizontally finding every possible crevice and seam that lies between your rain suit and the underlying dry clothes. In these conditions it isn’t too long before you are feeling the water steadily oozing into your dry clothes.
Normally Smitty takes great pride making a perfect landing at the dock. On this day with the bow of the boat bobbing up and down like a cork in a whirl pool he elected to put us up on shore on a sandy beach. As we got close to shore Smitty cut the motor. Jeff jumped over the bow of the boat with rope in hand to secure the boat temporarily to a tree that sat on the edge of the beach. I jumped over on the starboard side of the boat, clammered around to the stern, and began unhooking the outboard motor. Smitty jumped out over port side of the boat and helped Jeff secure the boat to the shore.
With the motor up on the nearby dock, the three of us pulled the boat partially on shore and turned it over to spill the water over the side. We then hauled the boat so that it was totally on shore above the waves and secured it by tying the bow to several nearby trees. We brought the motor up to the camp’s porch in order to keep it dry. We thenwent inside to light the gas lights, start the wood stove, and change into dry clothes.
The storm was unrelentless. It pounded the lake like there was no tomorrow. Almost immediately after we had gotten into the camp and changed our clothes there were several mind numbing wind gusts that shook the camp to the point where we were all showing signs of doubt. Trees could be heard snapping outside in the storm, and at one point Jeff was looking out the window and declared “Hey, the outhouse just flew by!”
Smitty and I thought Jeff was pulling our leg, but sure enough, there was the outhouse laying against a bunch of fir trees about 100 feet from its point of origin. Smitty said something about he was glad that nature had not been calling at that particular moment, and we all laughed.
The storm continued for another 30 minutes, but not with the same intensity. Near the end we could see blue sky in the distance approaching as quickly as the storm had passed through.
The storm passing brought cold, clear air. We all had an alcoholic beverage or two after the storm had passed to calm our nerves. There is nothing like a good medicinal tonic to calm one’s nerves. The three of us then dragged the outhouse back to the privy hole and put it back in its proper position. Smitty mentioned that he was still glad that nature wasn’t calling when the storm blew through, and we all had another laugh.
The next morning the outfitter came by to make sure we were all right. They had lost a couple of motors and boats at some of the other camps because the fishermen had not had the foresight to remove the motors and bring the boat ashore. We were in good shape having already put the boat back in the water and mounted the outboard on the stern in preparation for the day’s fishing.
The outfitter told us that the winds had been clocked at over 100 knots during the height of the storm. At the main lodge, which is located on a nearby lake, the winds were so fierce that they blew an entire floating dock out of the water with several 14 foot fiberglass boats and motors attached to the dock! The good news was that miraculously no one was injured.
That morning, as the three of us headed back to the eastern part of the lake in search of lake trout, the skies were blue and the air was crisp. As usual, Smitty was at the helm piloting the boat, I was in the middle, and Jeff rode in the bow. We all wore a smile as we boated across the lake at the thought of a morning of good company, and, with luck, good fishing. To the west there was likely another storm somewhere, for that was the kind of week it was, and so, throughout the morning we each kept our eyes on the western sky. In the end it proved to be a week that mimicked our many years together; stormy weather, good company, challenging conditions, and team work that had for so many years defined our bond.
Written for wildramblings.com in April 2009.