© 1987 Michael Furtman
GOING ALONE Ė A TRIP TO CANOE COUNTRY
Eino Makiís back hurt. He put each foot down carefully, watching where they were placed, mindful of the rocks and roots. The old canoe on his shoulders felt heavier than he ever could remember, though he knew its weight hadnít really changed. Despite the weight, it felt good to have it on his shoulders once more.
The portage had seemed longer, the hills steeper, the trail rougher. He knew too that this was only in his mind, that it was the years that made it seem so and that the young bucks could still fly across this portage. He had.
The trail climbed out of the dark evergreen forest and into a little clearing, a small knob of ancient greenstone that is the bone of this part of the canoe country. At the top of the hill stood two enormous pines, towering whites that had somehow been spared when this land had been logged off a century ago. Between the pines a cross member of spruce had been lashed some ten feet above the ground. Eino pushed the bow of the canoe up onto this rest with a grunt and stepped from beneath it, knocking his battered old fedora from his head. He slipped the patched Duluth pack from his shoulders and swung it to the ground, leaning it up against a boulder. Although he was traveling lightly Ė much lighter than was usual on his canoe trips Ė the pack and canoe had built up a searing pain between his shoulder blades.
Eino stepped aside and arched his back with his elbows pointing to the rear, pushing them toward each other as if to touch, forcing the kinks from his muscles. Hat still off, he dug a bandana from the back pocket of his wool trousers and wiped his brow.
From the top of this knob was a view of the lake. As it always had, it shone a brilliant blue through the forest. But at this time of year, autumn, when much of the undergrowth was down, Eino thought it particularly brilliant. He could make out, across the lake, the tattered red flag of a mountain maple, solitary in its splendor amidst the golden aspens. Walking a few yards to the highest point of the little outcrop, the lichens crunching under his boots, he sunk to the ground. The rock beneath him was cool despite the heat of the summer which had recently ended. Though it was sunny this day, the air was crisp and the nights had been colder. The sun on his woolen clothing was warm. It felt good. Looking through the trees to the lake he felt relieved that he was almost there. He had often stopped at this point for the view on previous trips. This time it was for the rest as well. It hadnít always been so.
Eino had come a long way this day. Seven portages was a good day for anyone and he took some small pride in the fact he had accomplished this task as old and as sick as he was. No one would believe he could have travelled so far. He was sure they wouldnít look for him here. Not soon, anyway.
Not that he didnít feel bad that it had to be this way. But his wife and bow paddler of forty years was gone now and there was no one else that really understood. Not his kids. To them he was an old romantic fool. He hoped that someday they might understand.
No, he had to go alone, just as he had as a young man so many years ago. He knew the first time he ever saw this country that it would be the place not only for his youth, but for his old age. Yes, he had thought of this trip even then. What he would do when the time came. At that time it had even seemed a bit romantic and foolish to him. Now it seemed right.
"Dad," his daughter had said, "really, I donít know why youíre being so difficult. I wish you wouldnít be so stubborn. The doctors say you can lick this. Youíll be able to make it. Why, youíll just have to take it easy, thatís all. No more of your silly running around in the woods. You need plenty of rest. And youíll have to go in for treatments a few times a week. Weíll sell your place and you can move into town. Iíve already been over to Pleasant Acres. It looks nice. Lots of friendly people your age. Youíll like it there."
Bullshit. Pure, unadulterated bullshit, thatís what it is. Iíll be damned if Iíll live with a bunch of bed wetting, canít feed themselves zombies. And they can take their "treatment" and shove it. No one ever said anything about licking this thing to me. No sir. Youíll be able to go on quite a bit longer, thatís what they said. Told me Iíd have to quit exerting myself, come in for treatments, take that damn poison they call medicine and stay in bed. That is what they told me. Smartass kid doctors. Who the hell wants to "go on quite a bit longer?"
Eino coughed and it felt like his lungs were going to come out of his mouth. He spat.
Well, there was no time to worry about all this. Heíd left a note on the kitchen table at home. He wouldnít look backward now. He had to make camp before it grew much later. There was still a fair distance to go.
Eino shouldered the pack and got under the canoe, straining to lift it from the rest. He swung the bow around and pointed it down the portage. It was all downhill from here and he thought heíd better be careful if he didnít want to go ass over tea kettle down the rocky trail.
The blue of the lake grew larger through the trees. Excited as he always had been by that sight, Eino pushed himself to the waterís edge.
"Never was a very good put-in spot," he said to no one as he surveyed the rocky shore for a place to set down the canoe.
Wading out to his boot tops he rolled the aged craft gently into the water. Sliding the Duluth pack from his shoulders he put it on the canoe floor behind the bow thwart and at the same time freed a paddle from where it had been wedged in the bow. Pulling his jacket from under the lash-down straps of the pack, he folded it double and laid it on the floor in front of the stern thwart. Eino eased himself into the canoe, one hand on each gunwale, shaking the water from his boots. He knelt upon the jacket, his back against the thwart. Picking up the paddle he gave two swift, shallow strokes and floated out from under the cedars.
The wind was blowing soft but steadily toward the point he had planned on camping upon. Eino let the wind do most of the work, thankful for the rest. He sat back on his crossed ankles, paddling infrequently, watching the forested shore drift by. He wondered if the lake trout were biting. He also studied the empty bow seat. Eino looked away, his eyes falling on the well worn cedar of the Chestnut canoeís ribs and planks. Though aged, they were sound, whole. No rot had crept into their fibers.
Eino recalled when he purchased the canoe. "Why, this canoe will outlast you!" the salesman had said. Sonafabitchiní prophet.
In the north country autumn nights come early and Eino realized he had much to do before dark. He stirred himself from his recollections and picked up the pace of his paddling, feeling the icy water splash on his lower hand every few strokes. The point took form on the horizon, rising from its watery island mirage to become connected to the mainland. The little open area beneath the tall pines at the very tip of the point grew more defined and looked inviting.
This had been his very favorite campsite in all of the canoe country. It had a perfect flat spot for the tent with, miraculously in this thin skinned land, enough soil for firm tent pegs. The point stuck far out into the lake and most always had a breeze, which Eino liked for better fire draft and bug relief. A large sloping rock shelf that lay under the whole of the point tipped into the water at the pointís terminus. There was even a perfect berth into which a canoe could be paddled, carved out of the rock. The berth was deep enough that the canoe did not scrape yet sloped to one side, making climbing in and out of the canoe simple. Just up the slope from this slot was a thick bed of caribou moss that made an ideal spot for rolling over the canoe without damaging the wooden decks or gunwales. And off the north side of the point ran a reef which always had lake trout cruising about it.
Eino nudged the bow of the canoe into its berth and creakily climbed ashore. He carried the pack and paddle up the slope to the campsite and propped both against the bole of a giant pine. Walking back down to the canoe and grabbing it amidship, he carried it a little way up the smooth rock slope.
Though he hadnít been there in years, Eino found the campsite had not changed much from his last visit. A large pine branch fallen across the tent pad proved that he was the first camper here in some time. He dragged the wood down to the fire ring. It was dry and resinous and would be all the firewood he would need for dinner.
Dinner! It surprised him that eating was on his mind. All the time he had been sick this past year, food was of little interest to him. He had shrunk to the weight of his fit twenties. But the exercise of the day had made even a sick man hungry and he thought of perhaps catching a lake trout for dinner. First, though, he rummaged around in his pack and removed what he needed.
With the tent up, Eino turned to the firewood. He broke as much of the branch as he could into foot long pieces by leaning it against a log and stomping on it. The few arm thickness chunks at the branchís base fell quickly to his folding saw. He piled it all up neatly along side the fire ring and dug into his pockets for the strips of birchbark he had stuffed there, strips that he had picked up along the portages shed by the birches. Gathering a few twigs for tinder was easy and he was shortly set for the evening.
Eino was amazed at how good he was feeling. Why, he hadnít felt this good, though tired, in many a long month. Maybe, he thought, maybe I should have listened to those doctors. Maybe I could have licked this thing.
"Either way," he said aloud, "either way Iím damn hungry. Wonder if thereís a laker or two still off this point?"
Eino went down to the canoe once again and unlashed his old rod from the slotted gunwales. Setting the rod aside he picked up the canoe and carried it on his hip up to the caribou moss and set it down. "Itíll be fine here," he said, rolling it over.
Back at the pack he retrieved a small box that contained a few odds and ends of fishing tackle. He also pulled out a small plastic bag which held the big salted shiner minnows he had picked up at the bait shop on his drive to the trail head. Eino threaded a shiner on his hook, pinched on a few sinkers a couple of feet up the line and walked to the waterís edge at the tip of the point. With a heave he flipped the rig out into the lake. Eino put the reel on free spool and stuck the rodís butt in a crevice of the shelf rock. Two bread loaf sized rocks, one each in front and behind the rod handle, would hold the works in place.
All of this activity, and the dayís hard work, was beginning to wear on Eino. Getting his sleeping bag he carried it down to the shelf rock near the rod, spreading it flat in the late afternoon sun. He sat down slowly on the bag. Taking out a hip flask, Eino poured a couple of fingers of brandy into a battered camp cup and drew a sip.
"Sípose the damn doctors wouldnít like this," he chuckled.
He looked down at the tarnished silver flask. It had been an anniversary present from his wife. God, how he had missed her these last years! How he missed her now! Gazing out over the darkening waters of the lake he thought of her and downed his drink in silent toast. Eino recalled the first time they had camped on this point together when he was young and strong and she was so beautiful. How, on a warm and sunny day they had spread out their sleeping bags after lunch on this very same rock. He remembered her warm touch and how they had made love in the open air and had finally drifted off to sleep. What a sight they would have been if someone had come along! Eino smiled at that thought and laid back on the bag lost in his youth, dreaming of her. He closed his eyes after one last glance at the tip of his fishing rod.
At first all was black. Then he could make out a red glow, as though he could see the blood in his eyelids backed by the setting sun. Out of the glow stepped his young wife walking gracefully toward him, arms outstretched.
In the clear waters of the lake a trout swam up to the shiner minnow. It nosed around the bait cautiously and bumped the minnow with the side of its body. Turning around, the fish engulfed the shiner in one quick motion and swam swiftly off. Feeling the sting of the hook it made a rapid run many yards along the top of the reef. In and out of the boulders the trout swam, trying to free itself of the trailing line. Up on the shore the rod tip bucked, the reel whined and the line unraveled. But there was no one there to stop it. Reaching the end, it parted.
© 1987 Michael Furtman