“Carving a home in the north woods” chapter 4

At first light John was standing at the river, tying on a trout spinner he purchased at the hardware store.  He was determined to catch a brook trout and hopefully have it for breakfast. The worms he bought yesterday were cool and lively when he popped the lid off the tub.  After pinching one in half, he baited the hook of the number six trout spinner and did his best to hide the hook with the worm.    He squeezed a piece of split-shot onto the line about a foot up from the knot and felt pretty good about his presentation.  Walking down the river bank to a piece of ledge that provided him with enough distance from the thick  overhanging conifer limbs, he was able to make a decent cast out into the fast current.  The line was immediately swept down stream and almost instantly snagged on a dead piece of wood half submerged in the fast moving water.  After trying to free his lure for several minutes, he thought he would have to break it off and start over when at the last attempt it somehow freed itself, and John reeled in the bait.  Thinking he didn’t want to repeat this, he moved further down stream to find another good casting spot. The water began to slow down and formed a small eddy.

Casting back out into the current, as he did before, the line still went down stream but at a slower rate than before.  He kept this presentation up for a few casts but wished he could be further out, away from the overhanging branches.  John realized then the importance of hip boots or chest waders when fishing these cold streams.  If he could wade out a bit, he would be able to put his spinner right where he wanted it to maybe entice a strike, rather than the fish just catching a glimpse of it as it rifles down stream.  After several more unsuccessful attempts, John again moved down stream to wider and calmer water.  He stopped at the bottom of the eddy and made a cast straight out to the current and began to reel in when immediately the line went tight.  Somewhat astonished, John brought his hands up to his chest and bent the rod almost in half.  He had a fish, and it felt like a big one.  Almost as fast as the rod bent, the line went slack again. The fish was gone.  He reeled in quickly and made two more casts into the same spot but with no luck.  He then cast a little further to the right and started reeling in.  At about the halfway point he connected with another fish that seemed to dwarf the first one, again the rod doubled, and this time the tip almost touched the water.  John had what felt like a huge fish and was determined not to loose it.  Images of dark football shaped brook trout raced in and out of his mind.  All those stories about Guides and there clients catching record book fish came and left his mind in a split second.  He was finally going to catch one of those illusive creatures and all he had to do is hold on.  It seemed like an eternity, but he knew the fish was almost to the shore when all of a sudden the the water surface broke and the fish came two feet out of the water revealing its bronze back and unmistakable spine fin.  John had caught another small mouth bass.

Still in somewhat of a surreal state of mind, he was able to get the fish in and after it tired enough, he grabbed the bottom jaw to get the hook out.  After the hook was disgorged John thought about keeping it, but he didn’t want bass for breakfast, he wanted a trout.  When he put the fish back in the water he held on to the bottom lip and moved the fish with a back and forth motion to stimulate the fishes gills.  After a few seconds, the bronze back bolted back out into the current and disappeared into the black water.  How could he have possibly caught yet another bass?   He re-baited his spinner with the other half of the worm he’d used before and continued to fish.  In the next two hours he caught two more bass and a creek chub. The sun was rising now and he heard logging trucks off in the distance. There were crows calling each other  to the other side of the river, they were all feeding on a dead rodent that looked like a muskrat.

John returned to the car and pulled out a can of beans and some bread.  He decided to eat the beans cold, wrapped up in the bread to save the effort of starting a fire.  He also figured he should start a list of things he needed, after realizing he had no coffee or means of boiling it.  He ate the can of beans that he opened with his camp knife.  A can opener was at the top of the list, followed by coffee, a coffee pot, hip boots, and a pair of sunglasses. The sun made him squint when it hit the waters surface and gave him a slight headache, not to mention he would be able to make out underwater structure better with a pair of polarized glasses.  He was almost done writing his list on the car hood when he heard an approaching vehicle.  It was Ken from the real estate company.  Ken got out with his usual stride and smile and went straight for a handshake. “Good morning John, I see you like this place.”  John wiped the remaining cold beans off his right hand on his pant leg, and shook Ken’s hand. “I do, in fact I stayed here last night and ate dinner, I hope that’s not a problem.”  “Oh no not at all, no one is going to bother you out here unless you set the woods a blaze.” ” Well I won’t do that, I can promise you.”  Ken looked at the fishing rod leaning against the front bumper of John’s rented car, “any luck fishing?”  ” No, not really, just a couple more bass this morning.”   ” Oh those bass eat up pretty good you know, and there is no shortage of them.” “Oh I ate two last night, they were delicious, just got my mind set on trout.” “You fly fish?”  “No, but I guess I’m going to have to start, I saw a guy catch a couple of beauties yesterday afternoon down off the main road.”  ” Right about this time of year they are doing real good with egg patterns because the suckers are still running and the rivers have been stable.”  John shrugged and felt a bit foolish.  “Egg patterns?”  ” Yeah, you know, the eggs are running out of the suckers and the trout are feeding on them.”  “Well I guess that explains that,” John said.  Ken put his hands in his pockets and looked down at the gravel road. “Hey, I mentioned my brother Lester is a guide the other day.  He is in town for a couple days to attend a funeral, and I’m going up to his house tonight to pick some rhubarb. Your welcome to come along if you’d like.”   ” I would love too, but it sounds like he has things to deal with.”  “He always likes to meet new people. He lives alone, his wife passed away 10 years ago, and he could use some conversation.” ” Fine then, where does he live, and what time?”  ” He lives on the main road just past the plantation, its the white house on the left, we drove right past it looking at those other properties the other day.”   “I remember the signs for a plantation but don’t remember a white house.”  “Can’t miss it.   He drives a green pickup, meet me there at five o’clock this afternoon.   I have to show those properties again to some folks from Connecticut.”  ” Sure thing,” John said,” looking forward to it.”  “Good, see you then.  Also, he goes by the name Les not Lester.  I’m the only one who calls him that.”  Ken said as he was getting back into his car.

John was ecstatic from the idea of meeting an actual Maine Guide for the first time in his life.  He put his fishing pole back in the car and decided to spend the rest of the day getting more supplies and exploring some of the roads he had driven by in the last two days.  When his car came to a stop at the gas pumps back at the hardware store, he noticed a couple of older gentleman eating sandwiches and drinking coffee at the end of the parking lot.  They were both wearing chest waders and had the biggest canoe he had ever seen on a trailer. He wanted to talk with them, but didn’t feel like intruding on their morning by asking questions.  He couldn’t help but marvel at them and the old wooden square stern they had attached to their truck.  He filled his tank and went inside to pay.  Mert was behind the register and greeted him with the same smile. “Mornin’, how’s the fishin?” he asked.  “Oh just some bass and a chub, nothing spectacular.” “You eat the bass?  They are tasty when the water is this cold.”  “I ate two last night,  but put some back this morning.  I want to get a trout.”  “Those two out in the parking lot caught some nice ones today.” “Really?” John replied. “Yup, been hittin’ good first light, then slows down after a couple hours, usually it picks up an hour before dark.”  Bewildered, he changed the subject, “You have any coffee pots for sale?”  “Sure, out back by the light bulbs.” John found a coffee pot and noticed a couple pair of hip boots on the next shelf down.  He picked one up and blew the dust off, they were a size eleven, perfect.  He found a can opener close by and grabbed a can of coffee.  When he went to the counter Mert’s face, again, lit up.  “We’ve had those hip boots here for five years!” he said, “glad to see them gone.”  “Yeah, I needed a pair this morning.”

John spent that morning driving on the back roads that seemed to go on for ever.  They were in fairly decent shape and he was able to maneuver his car around the few high water areas he encountered.  The roads went on for miles and then all of a sudden came to  big landing areas where the timber companies piled all their logs until they were shipped out. The amount of trees cut and piled surprised him.  He couldn’t imagine how with all this timber on the ground, and the never ending convoys of logging trucks he saw on the highway, there could still be a forest left.  However, it seemed the trees just kept going.  The only sign of civilization were the roads and the clearings that had old and expired timber harvesting equipment  rusting into the ground. Every landing had at least one dead machine and piles of plastic buckets that at one time contained hydraulic fluid, or some petroleum product. These sights brought John’s thoughts back to his studies at the university.  He started to see, first hand,  the impact of development  to a given landscape. This made him wonder how anyone plowing a cornfield in Iowa could possibly know the effects of harvesting a forest in Maine, or if a person buying lumber in Colorado knew it meant fewer trees in the north east woodlands.  On the other hand, what would a timber harvester from Maine know about Hybrid seeds and petroleum fertilizers in Ohio, without the benefit of a college education?  Just because its not happening right in front of you, doesn’t mean it isn’t going on.

The sound of an oncoming tractor trailer down the gravel road got John’s attention, and he was able to pull off the road and let the truck pass.  It seemed to be going at a good rate of speed and was loaded heavy.  John rolled his window up to keep the dust out, and when the truck passed he continued on.  After the dust cleared, he rolled his window down and immediately felt a cooler air temperature and heard the sound of a river.  When he got to a bridge and saw the big river, he realized it was the St. Croix Stream.  The river that flowed beside his property was a tributary of this river.  John pulled off the road and shut down the engine.  He looked up river and could start to see how the early settlers were able to get from place to place using only a canoe. These rivers were the early highways and trade routes,  also used for harvesting the tall trees of the forest that were floated down stream.  Very skilled men could manipulate them with long sticks,  jumping from tree to tree, preventing log jams and keeping the flow of timber running into the mills downstream.  These log drivers, like the Maine Guides, have a place in history that could never be recreated.  These men woke up every day before light and worked until the sun went down, only to do it again the next day, with sore muscles and worn out tools.  They had a sense of ruggedness and character that can never be emulated.  The days of log driving are gone forever with the advent of modern, more efficient equipment. The rivers flow free and are healthier without the constant buildup of tree bark and rotting timber.  The fish can spawn and the water runs clear.  John felt a slight sense of envy for those who lived this lifestyle just as he felt admiration for the old Maine Guides.  The loggers of today are still hard workers, and the younger generation of guides are more versed in the ecology of the woods, which helps them to understand and preserve the wilderness, but with that understanding and education, comes a softer and less charismatic soul.

When John got back to the main road the sun was well on it’s way west.  He knew about how far it was to Ken’s brothers house, and figured it was a forty five minute drive from where he was now.  He thought about getting something to eat in town, but decided to eat a couple pieces of dry bread to hold him over.  He drove in the direction of the plantation and stopped at a farm stand to by some honey.  The man at the stand had an old canoe for sale which John found interesting.  It was made of ceder and covered with canvas. The seams needed work, but it still looked solid.  John was surprised how heavy it was, and thought he would like something lighter if he ever bought a canoe.

When he got to the plantation he saw it was four-forty five on the car’s clock. He noticed a little white house at the other end of the field and assumed that belonged to Les.  There was a green pickup in the driveway with a big canoe on top of the rack.   After a few minutes he saw Ken’s sedan coming from the other direction,  pulling in the north end of the u-shaped driveway.  John felt a bit nervous, but put the car in gear and drove up the road to the little house. Ken was standing beside a taller version of himself, looking out over the field and talking about tractors. When John got out of the car,  Ken walked over to him with the usual friendliness. “John, this is my brother Les.”   Les was a couple inches taller than Ken and had a look of hardness.  His hair and posture told the story;  deep lines in his forehead and leather like skin on his big hands from a lifetime of working outside in the elements. The top of his back was rounded from lifting heavy loads and sleeping under canoes.  The sun had bleached his hair and his fingers looked disjointed.  He stood close to six feet tall but his body was mostly torso.

“Hello, Ken tells me your buying land off north road” as he shook John’s hand. “Well, yeah.  I’m in the process.  Hopefully it will be done in a couple weeks,” John replied.  “That’s a nice piece of land there, I used to camp just down the river on some of the old canoe trips.”  “Do you still guide trips there?” John asked. “Not in years, not too many people doing canoe trips anymore.” “Really?”  “Yeah, I mostly do fly fishing trips and moose hunts these days.  The few canoe trips I get are one day events.”  “I’m surprised to hear that,” John replied.   “I used to be booked all summer for canoe trips that took a week to complete, but people just aren’t into it like they used to be.”  “I see canoes everywhere though.”  “Oh sure, no shortage in sales, however people would just as soon sleep in a motel and do day trips.  They hire you once to get comfortable, then they are experts, you know what I mean?”  John was a bit surprised, but thinking about his college friends and their interests he could see Les’s point.  “Who want’s coffee?” Les asked.  Ken said, “Thought you’d never ask!  You guys go inside and I’ll pick some rhubarb, see you in a bit.”

John followed Les into the house and let the wood-framed screen door close behind him.  It was a very modest home with a front kitchen and metal cabinets.  It seemed very sparse.  Les seemed like a simple sort of man and probably didn’t need many creature comforts. “Have a seat while I get the coffee going.”  John pulled out the red, vinyl backed chair and sat down at the table.  He liked the big metal rim that went around the edge of the table and could see from the wear marks where Les had most of his meals. “Nice table” John said.  “It came with the house forty years ago, been a good one.”  “You’ve lived here forty years?” John asked. “Yup, don’t plan on movin’ either.”  Les scooped out some coffee from the metal canister and counted four scoops as he filled the basket of a glass percolator that was on the stove.  Les opened  the refrigerator and pulled out a paper bag full of fresh fiddlehead ferns he picked earlier that day.  “You want to stay for dinner?”  “Oh I don’t want to put you out, you have things to do.”  “Your more than welcome to stay, I’m not going anywhere and Ken has to be back at the office by seven o’clock tonight.” “He works long hours doesn’t he.”  “Sure does, but he’s always been the go-getter.”   John felt like Les actually wanted his company and wasn’t just being polite.  “Sure, if you don’t mind, I would love to.”  “Sure thing, I have some brook trout I caught yesterday and just tapped a new keg of cider.”  “You make hard cider?”  ” Its been a family tradition.   My father made the best cider in the county, even through prohibition.”  “I’ve never tried it before.”   Les turned his head with a grin  “Where are you from man?  Never had hard cider?  What ails you?”   John felt a little more comfortable now Les was joking with him.  “I was going to make some rhubarb cobbler too if that don’t scare you off.”   “You seem to do your fair share of cooking,” John said.  “Les started cleaning the fiddleheads in the sink with an old enamel colander.  “That’s about all I do these days, cook and tie knots.”  “Really?” John asked.  “Pretty much, most of my clients have never fished and have always wanted to try.  They often never come back, a few do, but not many.”

Ken came into the kitchen with a big pile of rhubarb and put it in the sink. “That should do it, I will take half and you keep the rest, as long as I get some cobbler tomorrow.”  “Fair enough.”  The coffee was done and John was looking forward to a cup as he missed his morning coffee ritual.  Ken pulled out a chair and sat down with coffee. “Anybody need cream?”  Les asked with the refrigerator door still open.  “Nope, all set here, unless John needs it.”  “I’m good, thanks.” Les and Ken talked about the old tractor out in the yard and came to the conclusion it was time for a new one.  John sat sipping his coffee and enjoyed listening to the two brothers talk.  After Ken finished his coffee, he left for the office and Les started boiling water for the fiddleheads.  “Why do you boil them” John asked.  “You actually blanch them, just for about two minutes, it takes the bitterness out of them. Then you cook them in a pan with some salt and pepper for a few minutes.”  Les pulled two brook trout out of the refrigerator that looked to be sixteen inches long.  “Wow, those are nice!” John said. “Not a bad pair” replied Les.  “How did you catch them?”  Les pulled a film canister from his pocket and told John to open it.  John removed a beautiful red, white, and blue fly with a gold bead on the eyelet. ”  “Wow, that looks amazing.”  “Don’t it though,” Les said with a grin.  “I’d say it works good by the looks of these fish,” John said with confidence.   Les reached in his other pocket and handed John another canister.  John looked inside and saw the tiniest hook he had ever seen with some yellow thread wrapped around it.  He thought it looked like a worn out fly Les was saving for the hook. “That is the fly I used, the pretty one is for the people that ask me what I catch fish on.”  John felt a bit foolish for  assuming the fish would love the looks of that fancy fly.  “Its all about matching the hatch, what fish eat depends on the environment they are in at the time.  It changes constantly.   A good fisherman has to adapt quickly, what works this afternoon may not work tomorrow, but then again,  it might.”  “So which fly will you use tomorrow?”  “The one that works,”  Les said with a crooked smile.

After the fiddleheads were blanched and the two trout were rolled in flour, Les started heating up a cast iron fry pan.   He cooked the ferns in butter first, then put the fish into the remaining liquid left over in the cast iron. The trout cracked in the pan, Les put some salt and pepper on them. He flipped them twice letting the skin get crispy.   John was starving, all he had eaten that day was a can of cold beans and a few slices of plain bread.  They sat down at the table and Les had his jug of cider, filling two glasses.  He slid one to John and raised his with a gesture of cheers. They chinked glasses and John took a sip. The cider had a fruity smell and when it hit the roof of his mouth it made him salivate.  John had tasted a few wines in college and this reminded him of a very expensive pinot grigio, only better.  “That’s amazing” John said.  “I do love my cider” Les replied.  The fish was delicious and the fiddleheads the same. John enjoyed his meal, but felt like he ate too fast as Les was only half way through his plate.   “You were hungry!”  John wiped his face with a napkin and said “Yeah, I guess I was.”  After Les finished, he poured another two glasses of cider. “Your more than welcome to stay here tonight, I have an extra room.” “Oh I don’t want to put you out.”  “Your not putting me out at all, plus I am making some cobbler and will need help eating it.  That is unless you like sleeping in that car more than I realize.”  “How did you know that I slept in the car.”  “Your sleeping bag is spread out in the back seat, I deduced it.”   John again felt foolish.  “Ken tells me you are interested in living up here and maybe getting some work.”  “I want to build a place and start living off grid,”John said. “That seems to be a trend with people from the city, move away from the hustle and bustle and start over, live a simpler life.”  “Yeah that’s the idea, but I don’t think too many people I know would last up here.”  ” Well therein lies the problem, John.  When people come up here they tend to bring bad habits with them.  Not everyone, but a great percentage want the same comforts they had in the city.”  “Isn’t that counter productive?”  Les took another drink of cider and set the glass down.  “I hear people talking about sub developments and building bigger houses constantly.  I see roads being built and more cars coming up the highway every year.  I’ve lived here almost three quarters of a century and every year there is a little less forest and a few more houses.”  “Do you think at some point the forest will be gone?” John asked.  “Oh not in our lifetime. It will eventually be developed and sparse but not gone all together, but that’s not the real issue.  The issue is loss of habitat. The reason we have the wildlife, and the streams are clear is because there are only a few people living here and the mills are shutting down.   All the farms are going away because you can’t make enough money farming to pay the taxes.  The people have no choice but to sell to developers.  The timber companies still own a huge portion, but that is forever changing.”   “What keeps things going then?” Recreation, but not hunting and fishing.  People want to ride snowmobiles and all terrain vehicles.  They want to drive a boat, not pole a canoe up river. ”  “Do you see this through being a guide?”  “I started guiding back when I was your age, it was different.  You felt, at the end of the day, you taught someone something and you had a friendship that lasted a lifetime.  Today its more about pictures and bucket lists.  I seldom get repeat customers and I see the best and worst in people.”  “Do you see a difference in the younger people becoming guides?”  ” Most definitely. The younger generation are trying to preserve a tradition they know nothing about.”  “How so?”  “Well for instance, you have a young person who has read a dozen books and seen a few movies and has romanticized what they have read or seen in pictures.  There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact its healthy.  However, very few people can completely strip themselves of everything that’s been instilled in them up to that point in their life. Today’s society breeds complacency and people are inherently lazy by nature.”  John took another drink of cider and leaned back in his chair.  “So what is the future of being a guide, in your thoughts?”  “There will always be work guiding, and there will always be guides, it’s just a different client with different ambitions.  If you think about it though, the younger guides are more in line with the modern clients needs, kind of like birds in a feather.”  “I guess I never thought of it like that.”   “That’s just my take on it, one persons opinion.”  “Yeah but you’ve seen it all over your lifetime, people coming and  going, things changing.”  “Sure, but that’s just my side of it.  I don’t know where people are coming from, or for that matter, what they have gone through up to this point in there life.”

John finished his cider and got up to rinse his glass.  He was connecting the dots in his head.  “You want me to clean up these dishes, Les”?  “Nope, put them in the tub and lets get going on that rhubarb cobbler,  I have some home made  ice cream to go with it.”  John wasn’t surprised.


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