White perch fever in July

I’m sitting here in July with an unusually high heat index.  It seems
like only yesterday we were waiting for the lake to warm up enough to
trigger the white perch into their annual spawning frenzy.  As it
turned out, the water was slow to warm due to cold spring air
temperatures.  Eventually, around the beginning of May, there were
reports from some town docks there were silver colored fish
floundering on their sides.  To a white perch hunter this means find
an empty five gallon bucket, a dozen night crawlers, and make sure the
Coleman lantern has fresh mantles; because it is going to get busy at
dusk.  Every year the crowds form at the rivers outlet filling plastic
buckets with limits of these delicious fish.  For all too many anglers
this is the only time they can easily catch these spine fish to enjoy
the many ways to cook them.  It’ is unfortunate for them, because they
can be harvested nearly all summer and fall, not to mention through
the ice, but for some reason, most folks only seek them during the
spring spawn.

I was lucky enough to get out this week with my good friend Al, in our kayaks, and we both caught a healthy 25 fish limit in under three hours.  We started fishing at Zero Dark Thirty to beat the heat, and by half past seven we were counting each others fish.  White perch are always in schools and these schools move around to different areas of the lake or pond based on the time of year, water temperature, and food source.  We generally find these summer perch in the same spots we catch them through the ice, similar to small mouth bass.

The technique we use is a bit different than most, but its very effective.   Both Al and I have Garmin fish finders installed on our kayaks which help locate fish but you can still find them without the use of electronics.   We cast out an old school snelled Eagle Claw trout spinner, baited with a juicy night crawler and a 3/8 ounce non-lead egg sinker on top of the swivel.  We then put the rod in a rod-holder and troll around at a comfortable pace until the rod bends.  We immediately throw a bright colored, counter-weighted marker buoy to mark the spot we caught the first fish.  Paddling in figure eight patterns around the marker buoy, we usually keep pretty busy reeling in white perch and re-baiting the hook.  If that first fish was a fluke, you will know it within 15 minutes.  In that case, you are best off to grab your marker buoy and keep scouting.  We have caught them with this method trolling in eighty feet of water, time and time again, and the fishing is always faster when there is a chop on the water surface.  Some of the best spots are where the water goes from very deep to shallow steep banks, and they also tend to like deep weed beds.  However, there are other ways to fill your creel with these delicious fish; including vertical jigging with small tube jigs.  Many bait companies are making small jigging spoons that most of us use when we are ice fishing, these work well in the summer also.

White perch are almost always schooled up,  so if one is hungry,  that usually means they all are.  It was a late spawn here in New Hampshire and the males were still full into late June, which is odd.  This is usually the time of year the fish start to move back into the deeper water for the rest of the hot summer. Another overlooked season is the fall.  Right around October these fish tend to put on a good feed and can be caught by the numbers here in New England while enjoying the bright autumn sun, blue skies, and foliage.  Always keep in mind, the lake levels tend to be dropping and the water temperature is cooling down fast.

After loading the kayaks and drinking a cup of coffee in the beach parking lot, we both went home to clean our days catch that was slowly melting through the bag of ice in the cooler.  It only takes a half hour or so to clean a limit of white perch.  Then you can vacuum pack them for the freezer, or heat up a cast iron pan with  cooking oil to enjoy a few fresh fillets.  These fillets of white perch tend to flake like haddock and have unique taste unlike the blandness associated with most fresh water fish. The old-timers used to soak them in buttermilk in the refrigerator overnight to get rid of the red coloring of the meat.   Al likes to batter and deep fry them, but I use coconut oil and a sprinkle of camp salt.  I can’t tell you how many people say they don’t like fresh water fish until they try white perch.

“Carving a home in the north woods” chapter 11

As it turned out, Les had been out on the last day of a three day fly fishing trip with an old client of his. They had spent the whole time in his canoe poling down the river catching trout and salmon. The weather had been cooperative until today with no overcast and hot sun.   Les was in very good spirits because he had found some chanterelle mushrooms near one of the campsites. These were his favorite mushrooms next to the oyster and hen of the woods.  He showed John other species in his trusty wild edibles book, along with the chanterelle look-a-like, the jack-o-lantern, which is extremely poisonous.  The Maine woods are full of delicious wild edibles if you know what to look for, but it takes years of experience to become competent when identifying things like mushrooms.

John put his prize northern pike in the sink and removed his leather belt  he had used to carry it.  Les’s reaction was similar concerning the invasive fish and the damage it was causing to the future of fishing as we know it.  The DIF&W (Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife) had proposed catch and kill pike tournaments to help get rid of them altogether, but Les was convinced it would be impossible to completely eliminate northern pike from the rivers once they established a population.  As it stands now, they can only make it to the dams like other fish and those are whats known as “choking points” but eventually they will infest all of the rivers.  There were plans in the works for more fish ladders which enabled salmon and trout to move around dams and get further up river to spawning grounds and other habitats but that meant the pike could do the same thing.  The only difference is that salmon aren’t spawning like they used to hundreds of years ago, while the pike can live and reproduce just fine and feed on trout and salmon.

Les was making the evening pot of coffee while John was trying to figure out how to cut up his fish.  “So why can’t the salmon spawn like they used to? The rivers are cleaner now and they stock them every year.” John asked.  “Well there is more to it than just cleaning up rivers and stocking fresh fish.  A-lot of things have changed in the years since salmon where born in these rivers and returned years later to reproduce.” John seemed puzzled with this.  “Yeah but the rivers are cleaned up, and if they are able to bypass the dams they should be able to spawn.  Right?”  Les lit the burner under the coffee pot and fanned out the wooden match.  “Its just not that simple, John.  You see many things have changed, not only the rivers but where the Atlantic salmon go the rest of the year.  Out in the ocean they feed on capelin, and the capelin feed on zooplankton.  The zooplankton gets pushed around with the changing water temperature, which is slowly rising, and one food source follows the other, and so on.”  “What’s a capelin?” John asked.  “Its basically a smelt. They are a major food source for lots of ocean fish including cod.”  “Really.” John said.  “Yeah really, you see so much depends on water temperature. There are studies that have proven the salmon could never reinhabit the same waters they once flourished in because of warmer water at sea.”  “So your saying the bait fish in the ocean move to other locations based on temperature?”  “That’s exactly right.  Even the young salmon put in the rivers that swim out to sea rarely return.  Many people think their migration routes are changing based on their food source. The upside is that the lobster population booms when those predator fish like cod are feeding someplace else. The down side is, that without the efforts of hatchery re-stocking programs, you probably wouldn’t see many salmon in these rivers, and the pike only add insult to injury.”  “That almost makes it sound like the whole recreational fishing industry is contrived.”  Les half smiled as he turned the burner off under the boiling coffee.  “I think you understand more than you realize, John. The world runs off the economy and the economy is supported by people spending money doing what they enjoy.  The fishing business is no exception; people buy fishing equipment, boats, licences, build camps and go on trips all to catch fish.  The fish are raised and allocated by the state and become a resource.  Those resources are protected by laws, and the wardens enforce the laws.  Its really quite simple; like one food source following the other.”  “Well if you put it like that.”  “There’s no other way to put it John, its business.  Plain and simple.”  “So what your saying is, as bad as we screw things up, we can figure a way around it and continue to masquerade as woodsman?  Hunters?  Fisherman?”  Les poured coffee into cups and set them on the table. “Well you could look at it like that, but don’t get too disheartened.  There is still adventure to be had out there, and the world loves an original.  Although, it is very hard to be an original at anything because it has all been done.  We live in an ever changing world and the environment is key part of that.  We as woodsman or guides are really just stewards of the wilderness.  Our job is to teach and pass on tradition and skills while preserving what we have in front of us.  The wilderness certainly isn’t what it was two hundred years ago, but its well worth saving.”  John took a sip of coffee and leaned back in the old kitchen chair.  “I guess I just imagined it differently.  I thought the rivers where full of native fish and the forest was full of wildlife that had never seen a real person.”  “Oh the rivers are full of fish and these woods are crawling with critters.  But its more like a system of checks and balance, and it works, mostly.”  “Do you think if society took the right steps now, this whole imbalance could be repaired and things would eventually go back to the way they were?” John asked.  “There are many who feel that way, yes.  Is it realistic?  Not really.  There are also those who believe that we as a society have done such damage to the environment that it could never be reversed.  I’m not sure either camp is right, completely.”  “One of my college professors talked about how the roads and highways used to be littered with bottles and cans.  Then there was a controversial bottle bill passed that put a five cent return on empty beer cans and soda bottles.  As the years passed, there were fewer and fewer cans and bottles beside the road.” Les took another sip of coffee and set the cup down.  “Anything is controversial as soon as people are being told what to do.  However, that is a great example of how we can fix a problem.  There are people now who want to put a deposit fee on rubber tires.  I think that would stop folks from throwing them in the woods and creating mosquito habitats, thus stopping the spread of disease carrying mosquitoes;  not to mention fire hazards and  chemical  contamination of the soil.  If you put a monetary incentive behind an idea, it tends to go over better. The trick is to find a use for those used tires. They have already started making asphalt products with them and there are other plans in the works, but it all takes time and money.”  “It seems like it takes little time to create a problem and then it takes forever to fix it.” John said.  “It certainly takes longer when it requires pulling money out of someones pocket, that’s for sure.”  Les wasn’t telling John anything he didn’t already know.  He had seen plenty of examples in his studies of how big business had impacted foreign countries with environmental issues.  “So, to get back to the fishing problem, do you think if, miraculously, the whole world straightened out the environmental issues causing water quality and temperature stability, things would return to what salmon feel is normal?” John asked. “That’s a question no one really has an answer to.  What is, or was normal?  We know a-lot from studies but there are certain things that don’t add up.  It’s also hard to determine exactly what conditions were here two or three thousand years ago.  How many salmon where there, really?  I’m sure even the Native Americans had conversations about the good old days.”

Les got up and walked to the kitchen sink, looking down at the slimy northern pike and whistling a tune that sounded like a polka song.  “You know this fish is an incredible hunter” Les said. “Really?” He pointed to the fish’s dorsal fin. “You see it sits very still in the water by fanning the rays on the back of the dorsal fin, that in combination with a little stability from these pectoral fins, and it waits in the tall grass seemingly motionless and stealthy.  Then when a bait fish swims by,  it bends in the middle and with that wide tail fin it pushes itself like an arrow under water and darts out seizing the prey, quite amazing actually.”  “Is that why they call them water wolves?” John asked.  “I hadn’t actually heard them called that but it seems appropriate.  I have a couple recipes for these things you might like, we could make fish cakes and fry them up.”  “That sounds good to me, I’ve always loved crab cakes.”  “Well I can’t promise they will taste like crab meat, but I think you will like them.”  “I heard they are as bony as pickerel.” John said. “Well they have fork bones in them over the back bone, but there is a way of cutting them out without wasting too much meat, we call it the five piece fillet method.”  “O.K, let’s see.” John said.  Les grabbed a big cutting board from the cupboard and set it on the counter, then put the pike on it.  He started sharpening his old fillet knife with a steel and asked John to grab the empty plastic bucket from the back porch.  When John returned to the kitchen sink Les started  processing the pike.  He placed the fish on it’s belly and made a cut just behind the head and gill plates down to the back bone, then went down the back just ahead of the dorsal fin and made a cut down to the spine.  Starting back at the first cut, behind the head, he ran his knife down over the spine holding the edge up at a slight angle just over the tip of the fork bones while rubbing the back bone with the back of the knife.  This rendered a boneless piece of meat.  He then put the fish on it’s side, slicing off the two sides from behind the dorsal fin all the way down to the tail.  Then, while the fish was still on it’s side, he found the edge of those fork bones and worked his skinny fillet knife down to the top of the ribs slowly separating the meat from the rib cage down to the belly meat.  That made five cuts of meat that had no bones to deal with.  He then  ran the knife between the slimy skin and meat on each piece and threw the rack of bones and skin into the empty plastic bucket. “That looked easy enough.” John said.  Les then started heating up his cast iron fry pan with a little butter to cook up those fresh chanterelle mushrooms.  Once those were done and set aside, he put a little fresh oil in the pan to, as he put it, “whiten the fish.”  He gathered a few items from his pantry including breadcrumbs and a bag of rice which he started preparing in a separate pot.  The other ingredients where from the old refrigerator: butter, one egg, mustard, mayonnaise, onion, fresh chives from the garden, and a little salt and pepper.   All went into a glass bowl on the counter.  Once the fish and rice where cooked he mixed everything together and made a half dozen small patties. Putting fresh butter in the fry pan he cooked the patties for a few minutes on each side, the whole process took around thirty minutes.  There was also a makeshift steamer on the back burner preparing some fresh green beans from the garden, and Les had bought a loaf of fresh bread on his way home that afternoon.

The two sat down at the table and enjoyed the fish cakes.  John was surprised how good the pike tasted, and was delighted to have something with spices and flavor.  The chanterelle mushrooms were delicious along with the fresh green beans and bread, complete with hand churned butter.  John knew he was becoming obsessed with food so this was a real treat for him.  “That didn’t take long,”  Les said as he looked at John’s empty plate.  “Yeah, they were delicious.”  Les got up and filled both cups with coffee and pushed his unfinished plate aside.  “I suppose we have to get that fly rod set up for you so you can start catching some good eating fish.”   John looked covetously at Les’s remaining fish cake.  “I would be just fine eating bass and pike for the rest of my life.”  “Oh that’s good because catch and release of brook trout is highly encouraged around here.” “Why is that, exactly.”  “Well for a few reasons, but mostly because the trout have such a hard time competing for food with bass and these northern pike. Speaking of competition, why don’t you finish my last fish cake.” John was happy to clean the rest of the plate as Les talked about brook trout.  “When a trout reaches three pounds these days its almost a miracle.”  “is it just because of the lack of food for them?” John asked.  “That’s part of it, along with warmer water temperatures and dams that prevent them from retreating to those colder places in the rivers they went to hundreds of years ago.  They managed to hang on through the straightening and dynamiting of river banks to push logs through, but the water temperatures and lack of forage fish are making it almost impossible for them to survive.”  “But the bass and pike can survive and eat the small trout along with everything else.” John said.  “Yeah. that’s pretty much the concern of most trout and salmon enthusiasts these days.  Again, back to the re-stocking programs, if it wasn’t for those efforts,  there probably wouldn’t be any trout left.”  “Yeah I’m getting the picture.” John said. “So did you pick up that fly line I mentioned you would need?” Les asked. “I did in fact.”  “Good, tomorrow we can string up the old five weight and get you started.  You can practice out back on the lawn to get the feel of it.”  “That sounds good to me.” John said.

The next morning Les was up early, as usual, and had the fly rod broken down in two pieces sitting on the kitchen table.  He had started a breakfast of eggs, toast, and ham steaks.  The coffee was bubbling away and filled the house with it’s aroma.  They ate breakfast and went out to start setting up the fly rod.  Les set everything down on the open tail gate of his pick up truck and tied one end of the new fly line onto the reel.  He already had “backing line” on the fly reel  to avoid having unnecessary fly line on the reel.  These two lines were tied together with  a “nail knot.”  Out of his bag of goodies, Les retrieved some leader material  that was to be attached to the fly line.  Les said he liked the leader, in this case, to be around eight to nine feet long because of the particular rod length.  The leader can be joined by loop knots, but Les preferred another nail knot because he felt it was smoother.  John was already confused and Les still wasn’t done.  The last thing to be added was a “tippet” which was attached to the leader with a “double surgeons” knot.  The tippet was about two feet long and the actual fly is tied to the end of it.  Les explained the reason for different thicknesses in tippets depends on the fly, water clarity, and the size of the fish you are catching.  In dirty water you can use a heavier tippet, whereas in clear water you want a thinner tippet, so as not to spook the fish.  The thinner the tippet the less unnatural drag on the fly, therefore, making a better presentation.  Les felt a “five X” tippet would be adequate for the fish they were after.   Over the course of the day the tippet  should be replaced as  new flies are tied on.  Les tied  a small piece of yarn where the fly usually goes to eliminate the chance of John hooking himself in the eye while practicing.  Les tied  the amount of yarn that would match what he called a “one eyed poacher” fly.   He said this would work on trout, salmon, and even small mouth bass.  John laughed when he heard the name, but liked saying it. “Ha, the one eyed poacher, I love it!”  “Oh its a dandy for sure.  Now when you try and cast it out, let the rod do the work.  That’s the best advice I can give anyone.  There are many things to consider when selecting a fly rod.   Rod sizes, and weights are all key to your fishing situation.  Wind can also be a huge factor.  Line is another variable depending on current, fly size, and the fish you are going after.  Les also pointed out that each part of this assembly, the line, leader, and tippet all work as a system.  If you remove one of these pieces, the system won’t work.  The line is heavy and will propel the rod,  you should “feel the load” as the rod flexes back and forth.  This is something that takes getting used to.  The last variable is the choice of fly you are presenting to the fish; this is the thing most people get flustered with and, in my opinion,  waste time trying to figure out.  I suggest you stick with three flies to begin with, a dry fly, a nymph, and a streamer.  The streamer is easier to learn but the purists insist that the true zen of fly fishing can only be experienced by making a fish rise to bite a dry fly.  The nymphs are tricky but effective. There are many opinions and practices and nothing teaches you better than experience.  If you ask three people what is the best fly for salmon you will get three different answers.  The best thing you can do is just start fishing.

John walked to the middle of the yard and felt some nervousness in his stomach.  He had Les standing there watching him and he had no idea what to do.  Les explained he needed to keep his wrist locked and his elbow close to his side.  The idea was to rock back and forth with the rod, like a clocks’s pendulum between ten and two o’clock, the whole time peeling off line,  to get the his fly further and further out in front of him.  This is how you cast in a pond or out in the river when you have ample room and the repeated casting imitates a bug before it lands on the water.  There was plenty of room on the back lawn but John had line wrapped around his head within three swipes of the rod.   It seemed impossible  to coordinate all these things together and have any accuracy whatsoever.   How could anyone find this relaxing?  He made several attempts but couldn’t get the line out past twenty feet.  Les told him that he wasn’t letting the rod flex enough and was trying to rush it.  The other thing he couldn’t seem to do was keep his wrist from bending, and that prevented the rod from flexing as it was supposed to.   Les told him to keep at it and went inside to go over his monthly bills and write checks.  John managed to keep from getting tangled in the fly line again, but felt more like he was trying to fight his way out of a paper bag than anything else.  He couldn’t imagine ever being able to catch a clever fish with this outfit.

 

 

“Carving a home in the north woods” chapter 10

The morning was cloudy and the threat of rain persisted, but John was determined to get something accomplished.  John needed to improve the trail to the river and start a firewood pile.  He figured he would start cutting trees close to the tent and and drag them back up the path he was developing.  The spruce trees were not big ones, maybe three to six inches at the stump, but they were very thick and he couldn’t  find a good enough opening to fell one completely to the ground.   After some thought, he decided to cut a small one first so if it got hung up in the other trees he would be able to drag it down safely.  This would avoid creating a classic “widow maker” which consists of a tree which, after being cut, gets stuck in a standing tree; then if you cut the standing tree down, you have two trees falling at once.  Many people have been severely injured and in some cases, killed…hence “widow maker.”  John took his new cross-cut saw and cut a small notch on one side the tree.  The saw was razor sharp and cut into the green spruce effortlessly.  He then went to the other side sawing through to meet up with the notch.  He was only a half dozen strokes into the tree, and it started leaning to the side he wanted it to fall, then it cracked, spun and stopped.  The spruce was stuck in two other trees.  John cut a few more times then the saw refused to move. He was jammed.  Already.

So here he was, cutting his first tree down and already failing miserably.  The saw was stuck and the tree was lodged.  Apparently, when it started to fall the top got caught and twisted, thus pinching the saw blade.  He thought about grabbing the ax but he would be chopping into his new saw, so now what? Fortunately, it was a small tree and he could manage to push it back up but couldn’t pull his saw out at the same time.  After a struggle he manged to dislodge it and the tree spun off the stump.  John grabbed the trunk and walked toward his tent and the spruce top finally hit the ground.  It took him almost a half an hour to cut one tree, but he did it.  Now he needed to cut off the limbs and top so he could process it into firewood.  He decided to use the small buck saw to limb it and began cutting the many branches off starting at the trunk and working his way up to the top.  It was seemingly endless work, but finally he had a log that was about twenty five feet long and a good size pile of spruce boughs. The whole operation took almost an hour, but he felt he had accomplished something.  After cutting the log into sixteen inch lengths and piling them up, John was ready for another tree.  He realized he should have been wearing leather gloves to keep his hands cleaner and protect them from cuts scrapes and blisters, like the ones he had now.

John spent the rest of the day cutting down several trees and bucking them up into firewood.  He decided to forego the fishing for today and eat canned beans with white bread.  Standing at his tent and looking at his woodpile was very encouraging.  He had simultaneously started a firewood pile and made a good start on a main trail to the river.  The list of needs was slowly growing:  a pair of gloves, a  big pot for  boiling water and washing up,  and eventually he would want dishes and silverware.  Another issue was trash and what to do with it.  He was eating out of cans and they would eventually pile up, it seemed he would need to find a recycling facility, or  find another food source.   For tonight he would enjoy his campfire and a pot of coffee.  The forest was starting to come alive with the night sounds and the coyotes were howling across the river like they did almost every night just at dark.  John had taken some better spruce boughs into the tent to try and thicken up the bed.  Some of the new material was thicker and seemed to lay flatter providing a better surface to sleep on.  It wasn’t perfect, but better than the previous night.  He sat beside his small campfire drinking coffee and thinking about what he would do tomorrow. Maybe he should check in with Les to see about some lumber and if he had any work around his house to be done.  It bothered John to some degree that he was spending money without bringing any in, with the exception of what he made from Les for doing odd jobs.  John drifted off to sleep listening to a pair of owls calling back and forth to each other.

The next day brought rays of sunshine through the trees as John was starting his morning fire to brew coffee.  His hands were more sore and raw than they had been the day before.  He decided a good pair of leather gloves were a must for handling the spruce boughs and the rough bark of his winter firewood.  The thought of a fresh fish for breakfast convinced him to walk down to the river and make a few casts, hopefully landing a small mouth bass or two.  He had given up on trout fishing for now and decided to make use of the easier fish to catch.  When he approached the river he noticed a female moose with her calf on the other side of the river eating some leaves off saplings.  He watched them for a few minutes then walked downstream to the small eddy where he had caught fish on his first visit.  After a few casts he had one good small mouth bass and lost a bigger one.  Deciding that one fish was enough for breakfast, he cleaned the fish by the river, filled a water jug he brought with him and returned to his campsite.  After boiling the water he set it aside to cool so he would have drinking water later in the day and began heating up the cast iron pan with some vegetable oil.  John was getting good at filleting small mouth bass; he cut through the side of the fish just behind the gill at an angle then went down to the vent and worked his knife up through the body and separated the tail meat.  He then cut down through the back of the fish along the spine until the knifes edge hit the rib cage. He then worked the knife over the ribs while at the same time peeling back the meat until he hit the belly of the fish.  Then he put the slab of boneless fish, skin-side down, on a flat surface and ran his knife through the slab of fish separating the skin from the fillet. This left him with a good size, boneless fillet that took very little time to cook in a hot cast iron fry pan.  The fish popped as soon as it touched the oil in the pan and began turning white almost immediately and after only a couple minutes on each side it was ready to eat.  The only spices John had with him were salt and pepper and a sprinkle of each was all it took to make this breakfast complete.  John wondered how he was going to feel about never having certain creature comforts and food was becoming an obsession. Things like ketchup and mayonnaise where not going to be on the menu without refrigeration.  He didn’t mind canned beans but was already getting tired of them and craved things like hamburger and pork chops. Things like rice and peanut butter would last, as long as they were not discovered by the red squirrels, but how long could he eat that before he got tired of it?  The other concern was not getting enough vegetables and vitamin C over the winter.   Somehow he was going to have to figure out a way to subsidize these things. Thoughts of scurvy ran through his mind and stories of mad trappers filled his head.  Maybe he should visit Les today….

After breakfast and two cups of cowboy coffee John started walking to his truck.  The path to the road was getting more and more established with every trip in and out of the woods.  John turned around and looked at his campsite on the way out.  He felt a sense of home here with his new tent and firewood pile waiting for his return.  The sun was hitting the top of the tent and beginning to dry it out from the morning dew that had set in last night.  The smell of spruce was ever present and the air had a whiff of lingering campfire.  When he got to his truck he started a list so he wouldn’t forget anything.  At the top was a good pair of leather gloves and a stock pot, along with some dishes and silverware.  John had been eating out of the fry pan, which didn’t bother him, but it was black with soot from the fire and made his clothes even filthier.  The other thing that seemed mandatory was a small folding table so he could prepare food and not sit on the ground when eating his meals.  John was thinking about some of the aluminium mess kits and kitchen supplies he saw at the military surplus store where he bought his stove.  He wished he had the foresight to have purchased a few other items.  There was a whole section there dedicated to cooking equipment including giant pots and all kinds of gadgets and they appeared to be high quality and very affordable.  They also had wool blankets, but he knew that most of them were a wool and synthetic blend and wouldn’t perform as well as a good Hudson Bay blanket like the old trappers used to use.  However, they were very inexpensive and if kept dry they would work well enough to keep the chill off.  Maybe he could find a surplus store somewhere between here and Bangor that had some useful items, another question for Les.

John stopped at the steel bridge on the way out where he usually catches his small mouth bass to talk to a couple of fisherman.  They were using worms and sinkers so he felt comfortable enough to engage in a conversation.  As it turned out they had caught a few bass and were more interested in talking about moose hunting.  The older of the two men had been drawn in the annual moose lottery for the first time after sixteen years of participating.  Every year residents and non-residents enter the lottery with the hopes of being drawn and given the chance to hunt moose.  The moose is symbolic in Maine and seeing one for the first time is usually described as majestic and surreal.  Some of the big bull moose look like a creature more suited for Alaska, but Maine is actually a great habitat for them with the thousands of square miles of wilderness.  Some of the males are well over one thousand pounds and have antlers that stretch over sixty inches!  John couldn’t imagine trying to get one of these creatures out of the woods to bring it to a “check station” as required by law; never mind processing and preserving all that meat without the benefit of refrigeration or a freezer.  He had read about the frontiersman drying and smoking meat to preserve it, but that must have been a huge undertaking.  This seemed like another romantic illusion of the wilderness lifestyle.  Maybe he should stick to hunting small game for now,  if he could secure a hunting license.

When he arrived at Les’s house there was no one home and the lawn needed mowing.  John went to the freshly painted barn and pulled out the lawn  mower that was full of gas.  He started with the backyard and finished the entire area, front and back, in less than an hour.  The house was unlocked as usual but John got a drink of water from the hose that Les used to water his tomato plants. The water was to warm to drink at first but then ran cold and had the slight taste of rubber from the old garden hose.  Some water managed to run down his neck and under his shirt but that seemed to happen every time he drank from a garden hose.  John decided to ride up to the bridge and see if anyone was fishing.  It was mid afternoon and not the best time to fish as the sun was still high and not a cloud in the sky made for little or no shade on the river.  Les had told him to always stick to the shade and don’t cast a shadow in the water when fishing, as the fish will think its a predator and run for cover.  When he got to the bridge there was a truck parked but no sign of anyone fishing.  John tied on a spinner, baited it with a juicy garden worm he dug up at Les’s house and made a few casts.  With no luck by the road he walked upstream about one hundred feet and found a nice deep hole that looked promising.  He made a cast and immediately the rod bent.  He started reeling the fish in but was surprised how little the fish seemed to resist, then it all at once shot to the depths almost ripping the rod out of his hands, John got a little exited thinking he had a bass on that felt like it weighed five pounds!  He started to reel the fish in again with a little concerned as the drag on his reel felt like it was locked up and not releasing any line to keep from breaking the fish off.  After fumbling around he managed to get the drag working, but now it wasn’t how he liked it. Slowly the fish seemed to be coming closer to the surface and once again it shot straight to the bottom.  John started wondering what he had hooked into. It was fighting different than any bass he had ever caught and seem very strong and fast.  On the third attempt to land the fish it became apparent that it wasn’t a bass because it hadn’t broken the surface trying to spit the hook. When It finally tired enough so John could get it close to shore he noticed it was at least two feet long and looked like a chain pickerel that he caught back in New Jersey under the rail road trestle.  No, in fact it was a northern pike! John was astonished.  The fish kept fighting but eventually tired and turned on its side and John dragged it in on the rocky shore.  John had never seen a northern pike and was ecstatic.  This was something out of an old magazine that usually was caught up in the Canadian waterways on big wooden fishing plugs by men in big canoes wearing stocking caps with tassels hanging almost to the water.  John reached down to grab his trophy fish and immediately cut his thumb on the sharp teeth.  These fish are also known as  “water wolves” and John just realized why.  He managed to get the fish far enough away from the water so it couldn’t escape and tried to remove the snelled hook from its jaw.   The fish was incredibly tough.  It took John a few minutes to get out his hook, and he realized the only reason it’s sharp teeth hadn’t cut the line was because he was lucky enough to have wrapped the leader around the fishes gill plate.  Fatally injuring the fish, but enabling John to land it. There was blood on the rocks and it was hard to determine who was bleeding more, John or the northern pike.  Still exited, John pulled his belt through the loops of his pants and shoved it in the fishes gill and out through the mouth, then through the belt buckle cinching it tight.  He was determined not to loose his trophy fish.

It was then the driver of the parked truck appeared after fishing upstream and walked up to John who was smiling from ear to ear.  The man introduced himself as “Tiny” Saucier and was all of six foot six inches.  He wore steel rimmed glasses and a tan shirt that was half soaked from perspiration  and wading in the river fly fishing.  “Got yourself a pike huh?” John double wrapped the belt around his fingers and exclaimed “Yes, it seems I do.”   “Glad to see you killed the bugger, don’t want them this far up river, or anywhere as far as that goes.”  John was a bit surprised this man implied his prize fish was unwelcome.  “What do you mean by that?” John asked.  “Oh a few years ago someone got the notion to put northern pike in the big lake and now their taking over the river.  They haven’t got past the dam yet,  but its just a matter of time before that happens.”  John couldn’t believe anyone wouldn’t be as happy as he was to catch one of these monsters, but sensed a certain predatory nature from the fish.  “You think they hurt the fishing?” John asked. “Oh they are  invasive and will eat trout and salmon whole! The river isn’t big enough and the pike will take over.”  Still in disbelief, John had to learn more about this and Tiny seemed to know what he was talking about. “You mean the pike are a threat to other fish?” John asked.  “Oh absolutely! You see, the fish in the lake can be controlled to some extent with electrofishing and netting. Once the fish are caught they can be released unharmed or killed, but once in the river its almost impossible to manage them. They can keep stocking the rivers with trout and salmon, but in a sense, they are  just feeding the pike.”  “And the pike can survive in the river?” John asked.  “The pike can survive anything, that’s the problem.  Trout and salmon aren’t nearly as tough as pike, or small mouth bass for that matter.” Tiny said.  “I’ve been eating bass for the last month it seems.”  “Oh sure, they are good eating, just not as coveted as the trout and salmon.  That pike will fry up nice too.”  John was glad to hear that.  “Well it was nice talking lad, but my wife has dinner waiting for me.”  John watched Tiny walk away and thought it was odd that people would have so much regard for a species of fish that seemed so fragile and dependent on re-stocking programs.  The pollution of rivers, over-fishing and installation of dams had made the once wild run Atlantic salmon a thing of the past.  The salmon sold in fish markets today is raised in the ocean, but in the confines of netted pens and subject to whatever disease is present.  It was hard to imagine that salmon once spawned and returned up these rivers year after year.  Looking at it now, John wondered  how it could ever be fixed.  Even if the dams where torn out and the pollution stopped the salmon are dependent on a food source and water temperature is a huge factor.  Had the rivers and climate change reached a point that restoring the once thriving salmon population was an impossibility?  This problem was similar to soil issues John had studied in college.  It seems like society has always been able to manipulate the environment to suit their specific needs, whether its building a dam to created power or bulldozing and straightening a river to force logs to market. When there are no fish in the river we raise them someplace else.  When the country can’t grow enough food to sustain itself, we grow it in other countries and create the same problems elsewhere.  Maybe those are problems to think about later.  John threw the big pike over his shoulder and the bleeding in his hand had mostly stopped.  He figured Les would be home by now.  Maybe he had a good pike recipe.

 

“Carving a home in the north woods” chapter 8

When John pulled into the Orman farm there was no one home.  Although he had permission from Les to help himself to anything, he wasn’t comfortable going into the house, but he did get his steel foot locker from the barn and put it in the back of his pickup.  There was still an hour before dark and he wanted to try and catch a trout, something that had eluded him thus far.  Les had told him about a pool up the road that was usually good for at least one, if not two, brookies by the end of the day.  Les referred to the last hour of daylight as the “witching hour;”  if you had a slow day with a client, and found yourself up against the wall, this was the time to redeem yourself as a guide.  Generally, if a person caught a fish at the end of the day, that meant more to them than having a very successful day over all.  When you catch fish all day it appears easy, and seems less significant.  When a person starts at the crack of dawn,  has traipsed all day in hot chest waders, eaten only a soggy sandwich washed down with warm soda, somehow, when the rod bends at dusk, it rejuvenates their soul.  They feel as though they have earned the experience, rather than payed for it. 

When John arrived at the bridge that crossed the river, he pulled off the road and noticed two other fishermen, waist deep in the river, fly fishing.  Their oscillating arms resembled pendulums, working back and forth until the end of their line was exactly where they wanted it.  The tiny fly would land and begin to slowly sink while the current swept the thick line down stream, slowly arching, then straightening out  left to weave back and forth a few times in the swirling water.  Then the line was pulled back through the eyelets of the rod, and the whole process was repeated.  Suddenly, the rod tip bent and the highly visible line went taught.  The other angler retrieved his presentation and fumbled with a net that seemed to be stuck to his back.   After a few minutes, the fish was tired and brought in close enough to be netted.  The fisherman who caught the fish removed a trout from the net, dislodged the small hook, and released the fish.  This process happened four times in 30 minutes and John never left the seat of his truck.  He felt funny about trying to hook a brook trout with his hardware store presentation, and even worse, he was using a live night crawler and a shiny trout spinner.  He doubted he would even get a strike. How could the fish be so anxious to attack these tiny flies made of squirrel hair and not seem to have any interest in a fat juicy night crawler?  It made no sense, but Les had spoken about “matching the hatch”… whatever that meant.

Feeling defeated again, he drove back to Les’s house.  It was getting dark and the kitchen light was on.  When he got out of the truck, he saw Les through the open window, standing at the small cook stove.  The the smell of fried onions filled the air.  “Hey John, I bet your hungry!”  John was always hungry when Les was in the kitchen.  “I guess I could eat,” John said.  “How was New Jersey?”  “It was nice to see the folks and I bought a truck.”  “I see that, four wheel drive too.”  “Yeah, I got it for two grand, an older guy had it and  took good care of it by the looks.” “That’s good, looks solid.”  “Yeah, no rust to speak of,  it made it this far so I guess it will go for a few more years.”  The coffee started boiling in the glass bubble on top of the percolator.  Les grabbed two cups from the dish drainer.  “Coffee?”  “Yes please!” John said as he pulled out a chair and sat down at the table.  For some reason, the coffee pot reminded him of the tent, and the fact he had to tell Les he was planning on spending the winter in it,  maybe tomorrow he would broach that.

“So have you seen Ken?” John asked.  “He was here two days ago, said he was going to have your stuff ready next week.”  “Yeah that is the plan I guess.  I was up at the river tonight and a couple guys caught some nice trout.”  “Did you get any?”  “No, I just watched them catch four nice ones.”  “Are you planning on getting into fly fishing?”  “I would love to, but don’t have a clue.”  Les was flattening out some ground meat and making patties.  “I have an old five weight you can use if you want, needs a reel though, I might have an extra if I dig for it.”  “Whats a five weight?”  “That’s the weight of line the rod is designed for, generally you can go one size up or down, depending on the size of the fish you are going after.  Around here you won’t need more than a six weight.”  “So I need line and some flies?”  ” You need a leader and a tippet also.”  “Why?”  “Because without the leader, which is generally a foot longer than the rod, and a tippet, which you attach the fly, you can’t cast a fly rod.” “Doesn’t the fly have enough weight to cast it?”  “That’s not how it works. The fly has nothing to do with it.  If you are using a very small fly,  like a nymph, you would use a five or six x tippet, so the fly can sink, that’s if your using a wet fly.” John felt more confused now than all his years in calculus and trigonometry combined. “There is a-lot to fly fishing I guess.” John said as he sipped the hot black coffee.  “Sure there is, but it gets to be second nature after awhile.  Don’t over-complicate it and let the rod do the work.  That’e the best advise I could give anyone.” “Okay then, I guess I will grab some fly line at the hardware store tomorrow.”  “Get a five weight, double taper, you won’t be making long casts and the wind isn’t bad in the river for the most part.  I have some leader and tippet in the barn. There are a few knots you’ll need to know how to tie in the dark.  We will get you started on nymphs and later some dry flies.  The suckers are done spawning  so they will be hitting other patterns.”  Les put the burgers on plates along with some fresh green beans and and potatoes.  The two ate supper and drank coffee for an hour, then John washed the dished while Les did some planning at his desk for an upcoming fishing trip the following weekend.

The next morning both John and Les were up with the sun and drinking more black coffee.  John was making a trip to the hardware store for some fly line and a few groceries to help out Les.  He had stayed there enough that he felt obligated to pitch in.  Before he left he took some mental notes of what Les had for canned goods in the pantry and he looked low on coffee.  Les didn’t use many spices to cook with outside of salt and pepper, and the occasional splash of garlic powder.  Les was in the driveway looking at John’s new truck. “Looks pretty solid.”  “It runs good too, uses a little more gasoline than I like, but it will do the trick.”  John was actually quite happy with his new acquisition. The truck ran great and had a certain squareness to it that looked tough.  The sparkling brown paint was in good shape and the chrome was still shiny.  It had a big diamond plate bumper on the back with a trailer ball built into it.  The front bumper was shiny chrome to match the big mirrors.  It also had chrome window trim and a sliding rear window he could stick long poles through for transporting, it was perfect.

When he got to the store he gassed up and bought some groceries.  He pretended to know what he was talking about when he asked the location of fly line in the store, and was relieved no one asked anything that revealed his lack of knowledge of the sport.  He bought a long handled shovel to dig a hole where he thought there might be a natural spring on his property.  The thought of fresh fish for lunch sounded good,  so he stopped at the steel bridge where he caught his first two small mouth bass.  On the second cast he connected with a nice bronze back and decided to keep it and try for a second, that would give him enough for lunch after he dug a hole.  He made several more casts and caught another bass almost exactly the same size.  Happy with his fish, he drove back to the property and blazed a trail to the area he thought would be the best place to set up camp.  It was reasonably flat, seemed dry, and the sun seemed to shine in for most of the day.  He knew he would have to cut some trees and pull stumps if he was eventually going to grow food.  He located a good place for the outhouse, in the opposite direction of the water to avoid contamination.  When he got to the spot he had dug by hand it was full of clear water.  It had filled up overnight….. This was good….. John started digging with the shovel and piling up the wet soil off to the side. There were many roots and some jagged rocks that he had to pry out, but after an hour of digging he had a hole three feet deep and four feet wide that already had twelve inches of muddy water in it.  His next task was to ferry some rocks up from the river bed to line the sides of the hole to keep the earth from falling back in. This would take many trips, and he was looking forward to lunch, so he went back to the truck to get his two bass and start cleaning them.  Within minutes they were cleaned, skinned, and sizzling in the cast iron pan that was sitting on his new camp stove.  He was impressed by how much faster he could enjoy a meal by using the stove verses having to build a fire and wait for the hot coals to form.  There was a definite advantage to modern conveniences when your had chores to be done and time was limited, not to mention he had worked up a good appetite digging his new well.

After lunch he walked down to the river and started piling up round, flat stones from the stream bed.  If he adequately lined the hole he had dug, and kept it from caving in,  it should be possible to fill a bucket of water.  If it was a natural spring it would provide him with water all summer.  He spent the rest of the afternoon carrying stones up to the new well and managed to find a route that wasn’t overgrown with thick spruce trees.  He liked the shapes of the stones and thought about building a ring for his campfire, but then remembered the stories of exploding rocks from the moisture inside river stones.  When the rocks heat up, if there is water trapped in them, they explode like a hand grenade and many campers have been seriously injured by this. There were plenty of rocks around the property so he could build a fire pit without the risk of bodily harm.

By late afternoon he was heading back to the farm and thinking about how he was going to set up his tent.   He needed some poles for the tent, as he had passed on the metal frame that was available from the manufacturer.  Many outfitters out west use the same poles every year,  leaving them at the camp site, so they only had to transport the tent and supplies on horse back.   However, some places where they camped forbade the cutting of trees so a metal frame was available.  John had plenty of trees and the black spruce was ideal for making poles.

Les had gone into town and stocked up on the food and other items he needed for the weekend.  He would be guiding the grandson of one of his oldest clients. The weekend fishing trip consisted of a canoe trip and fly fishing.  He insisted on making a traditional meal for this trip;  t-bone steaks with carrots and potatoes in the dutch oven along with peach cobbler.   Les put a-lot of emphasis on food and its preparation.  He cooked everything in cast iron or over the open flame of the fire. These were the nuances that made river trips so memorable.  Many of the old traditions of guiding were being replaced with modern techniques.   Prepackaged freeze dried meals in foil bags, cooked over titanium stoves seemed to be the new trend.   Carbon fiber was replacing the warmth of ash canoe paddles.  The old canvas paintings of men sleeping under a canoe on a river bank told of a different time that was alluring and romantic. These were the images that brought John to the north woods of Maine.  Now he was here and had the opportunity to try and adapt to the surrounding environment in any fashion he chose.  He could easily build a comfortable home that would completely isolate him from the elements.  Or, he could sleep on the ground and wash up in ice water like the woodsman of old….  Maybe something in between.

Les owned a canoe made by the E. M. White Company that was made of ceder and canvas.  It was long and heavy making it stable and capable of carrying very heavy loads.  He had used it on moose hunts and camping trips for many years.  He had removed it from his pickup for the long ride to attend the funeral service, and it had to be loaded for the upcoming weekend.  “You want a hand loading the canoe?” John asked. “Nope, I got it.” John watched in amazement as Les grabbed the gunwale, rocked the boat on its side so the keel was facing him.  Then in one fluid motion, he grabbed the thwart, gave it a spin.  The canoe was upside down on his shoulders.  Just as effortlessly, he walked to the back of his truck and slid the canoe onto the rack.  The whole process took thirty seconds.  The paddles he used were made from ash that Les claimed had a certain “spring” to it.  The forests of Maine had many hidden Jewels and brown ash was one of them.  This wood was used for making traditional snow shoes, toboggans, canoe paddles and the coveted pack baskets owned by every Maine Guide.  In the early days, a woodsman could survive in the wilderness with only what he carried in a pack basket.  It included a wool shirt, ax, a good knife, rope, fire starter, a small tarp, a pot for boiling water and a sewing kit.  Wool was a woodsman’s best friend because it maintains most of it’s insulation even when wet and has saved the fingers and toes of many lost hunters.

“You do any fishing today?” John asked. “No, I was in town most of the day doing errands.  I talked to my friend with the sawmill and he said he had a big pile of scrap you could pick through and have for the taking.”  “Well actually, I was thinking about using a tent.”  “A tent?  What kind of tent are you gonna live in all winter?”  “Its a wall tent, you know like they use out west, with a wood stove.”  Les finished tying down his canoe with a ribbon knot and climbed down out off the back of his truck.  “How did you come by this idea?”  John thought about it.  He saw an ad in a magazine…. It struck him like a bolt of lightning…..The last two major decisions he had made were sparked from ads in magazines, one of which he threw away!   He’d spent four years of his life in school researching modern agriculture and its effects.  The whole “living off grid idea” was because of an ad he saw at a bus station.   Backpedaling,  “Well I just thought, for now, I could get by in a tent.”  “Yeah, now its summer time, the nights are warm and the days are long. That’s going to be over in two months.” “What do you mean two months?” John asked bewildered.  “I mean we get frost in late September.  The ponds are frozen over by thanksgiving, then it gets cold.”  “Yeah, but I have the wood stove and plenty of firewood.”  You have a wood stove and trees that need to be cut and processed into firewood.  That is what you have.  That road you are on isn’t even plowed.  How are you going to get out for supplies?”  “I guess I’ll stock up.”  John said, some what abashed, and staring off into the field. “Stock up?  Where are you gonna put a winters worth of groceries in a tent?”  John felt a heaviness in his chest and wanted to change the subject, but he couldn’t.  His whole plan seemed infallible last week, and now he felt foolish for ever leaving New Jersey.  He was standing there with a pickup truck, some camping equipment, and no explanation.  Maybe this was all a mistake.  Maybe he should have looked into getting a job and started a life doing what he was educated for, work in the field of agriculture; and have a steady paycheck, and house or an apartment.  John felt as if the world had stopped, and it wouldn’t start back up until he had an answer, a good answer for this giant of a man staring at him.  “I guess I better start cutting wood then” was all he could come up with.  Les dried the sweat off his fore head with the back of his wrist, “Coffee?” “Yes, please”.

John spent the weekend doing the odd jobs Les had given him around the house while he was away guiding his trip. There was an underground waterline going to the barn that had frozen and broken last winter to replace.  The ground was hard and rocky but John managed to get a ditch dug by the time a local handy man showed up to replace the line.  As a bonus, he found a dozen worms in the process of digging the ditch.  Some of the house windows needed to be tightened up and Les had shown him how to repair them with putty and little triangular wedges. The screen door needed new hinges and the mail box was tipping over.  By the end of the weekend John had the list of chores done and drove back to the fishing spot up the road.  There was no one fishing, so he tied on a trout spinner and put a fresh ditch worm on the snelled hook.  He went to the same spot he saw the other fisherman catch those trout, and manged a half decent cast in the rippling current.  After a few unsuccessful attempts he moved down river to a pool that looked promising and made several casts,but no luck.  On the other side of the river he noticed a muskrat swimming up stream.  It veered off and climbed up the bank to feed on some tall grass and vegetation.  After several minutes it returned to the water and continued upstream.  It made him think of a book he read about a trapper who ate beaver and muskrat all winter to survive.  The idea of eating a rodent was unacceptable to some people,  but many of the wilderness travelers would look forward to the lean meat.  The beaver had a good supply of fat in its tail,  and it was welcomed by those who were deprived of fat in the kettle for months at a time.  This got John thinking.  Why couldn’t he learn how to trap and harvest meat along with the fur from these animals?   It made sense in a way because when trapping, unlike hunting, you only had to make your rounds once a day.  It enabled a person to get other tasks done over the course of the day, and chances were, at least one trap would hold a bounty of fresh meat.   When trapping is compared to hunting, it seemed trapping was better both because it’s passive and because trapping season went all winter until the rivers thawed out in the spring.

John fished for another half hour unsuccessfully.  He drove back to the farm and Ken was just leaving. “Hey John, great news. The paperwork will be ready in the morning and you can come down to finalize everything.”  “Oh that’s great!” John said, feeling rejuvenated after his thoughts of trapping and possibly having a food source over the winter.  “I have to run, but swing by any time after ten o’clock, I will have it all ready and we will have lunch to celebrate; my treat.”  “That sounds great Ken,  see you in the morning.”  John watched the red taillights fade around the corner. He stood in the driveway listening to the frogs and night birds start their nightly rituals.  The air was warm and a slight breeze brought the smell of fading lilacs.  John knew he had bitten off far more than he could chew by coming up here and starting out with nothing but a few camping accessories and a romance for a time that was fading fast. Somehow he had to figure it all out, and hopefully in good style.

The city of Bangor, Maine is well populated.  Bangor is the home to Husson University, and has a joint civil military international airport.  The Penobscot River separates it from the town of Brewer, and at one time this river supported the  countries largest run of Atlantic salmon.  It still has many miles of wilderness shorelines that draw in float fisherman, and there is a huge population of healthy small mouth bass.  John was here to finalize his paperwork.  The real estate office was buzzing when he arrived and  Ken was on the telephone.  A secretary informed him that everything was ready, and Ken would be with him shortly.  Ken finished up his phone call and the documents were signed.  John wrote a check for the remaining balance, and received a quitclaim deed.  It was official, he now owned a home in the north woods.

“Carving a home in the north woods” chapter 7

The sun was coming up over the eastern skyline that was cluttered with industrial buildings and smoke stacks. The steel bridge girders resembled long arms reaching out to support the morning traffic invading New York City.  John was glad to be heading north, back to the cold rivers and thick green forest of Maine, no longer a part of this rat race ensuing in front of him.  He noticed the temperature gauge on his truck creeping up every time he stopped in traffic but it seemed to go back down when he started moving again.  He exited the interstate when he saw a sign for a vehicle service plaza deciding it was better to address the issue now rather than in the north woods of Maine, where little was offered in the means of mechanical services.  People in Maine were inclined to fix things for themselves, and automobiles where no exception.  The service garage had an open bay and the mechanic was able to diagnose a stuck thermostat as the cause of the over-heating.  He was informed by the service manager it could be replaced now, or he could loosen the radiator cap and that would keep the temperature down until he got where he was going, but it needed to be addressed soon.  John decided to wait the two hours it would require to fix the problem, rather that risk breaking down or doing damage to the engine.

By the time the new thermostat was installed it was late morning and the traffic was flowing better.  It was early afternoon before he started seeing highway signs for Maine and New Hampshire.   A feeling of relief started creeping into him.  John contacted Ken earlier in the week and was informed that all the paperwork would be ready by the following week, all he needed was a few signatures and a check for the balance.  Once this was completed he officially owned his land and could do with it anything he pleased, as long as it was withing the bylaws of the Forest Land Use Commission.

The idea of spending the winter in a wall tent with a wood stove was exiting, but also concerning.  He was reluctant to tell his parents about the idea, and left it as a “temporary” solution to keep dry while building a more permanent shelter for the long cold winter.  He knew it was possible, but also realized the reality of living in an un-insulated canvas structure would be damp and extreme at times, but hopefully dry and cozy when regulated with a wood stove.  He read books about early mountain men building shelters from the local forest in the fashion of a lean-to or even using a canvas tarp.  They would build fires but had to keep them going constantly to stay warm and when it stormed it was nearly impossible to stay dry.  These systems seemed suitable for a few days, but ridiculous for any long term situation.  Building a log cabin was possible with all the spruce trees that were on his property, but it would take a year just to dry the logs.  He had no experience hewing or chinking walls to keep out the weather, and he would have to build a fire place or chimney for a wood stove to sufficiently heat it.   A fire place is good for aesthetics, but a wood stove is much more efficient requiring less wood to get through the long winter. Harvesting and processing firewood was probably the most laborious and time consuming chore he would be facing in the coming winter.  There would also be constant shoveling and gathering water.  The river would be a good source of water, and if he boiled it for several minutes he would be able to drink it safely with out getting sick.  The river was crystal clear,  but it also contained parasites from the beaver and muskrats.  He could also melt snow for water, but that also involved boiling water and again, required firewood.

The issue that worried him most was he had no plan yet for how to provide or keep food.  He had no refrigeration or means of freezing food so anything he harvested had to be smoked, dried, or consumed immediately.  The warmer months would bring fish, but that food source would be cut off when the ice came in.  There was an abundance of red squirrels, but he had yet to see any grey squirrels like the ones back home or in the trees of Bangor.  Upland game was plentiful and Les had talked about migrating water fowl during fall hunting trips, but it seemed that everything was seasonal.  Surviving on wild game would involve a lifestyle of constant overland travel.  It seemed inefficient and time consuming.  How could he constantly hunt for food, collect firewood, and get all of the other details taken care of?

By late afternoon he was on that stretch of highway in Maine that seems to make time stand still.  The towns become sparse and the forest gets thick.  He decided to go directly to his land and sleep in the truck that night.  He was anxious to visit with Les, but he also wanted to try and get an idea of where he was going to set up camp for the winter.  He made his usual stop at the hardware store.  He filled the truck with gas, bought a few groceries, along with a fresh tub of worms, and he remembered to by a few gallons of drinking water, something he forgot about on his last visit.   All of his fishing equipment was still at Les’s house. He would get that tomorrow.  For tonight, it would be a can of beans mixed with Vienna sausage rolled up in slices of bread,  this time heated on his new camp stove.

He decided to go straight to the river to see if the water level had gone down any, and try to find a place to cross the river.  John got out of the truck and started bushwhacking down towards the spot he had gone fishing, he noticed, to his relief, the flies weren’t nearly as bad as they were on his first visit.  He hadn’t even used bug spray and  he wasn’t getting attacked.  It was too warm for the wool shirt, but he was wearing a long sleeve t-shirt to protected his arms against black flies and the scraping of small trees that managed to snag every piece of loose clothing he was wearing. The small bough of a spruce tree poked his eye with its sharp needles but he was lucky enough to have seen it coming and turned his head just before it slapped the side of his face.  Getting blinded out here wasn’t something he wanted to experience.  Recalling stories  of men being snow blind and starving to death got him thinking about eye protection.  The next thing on his list was a good pair of polarized sun glasses. Any injury out here could be life threatening especially in the winter without the means of being evacuated.  Being alone in the wilderness means everything you do needs to be deliberate, complacency leads to catastrophe.

When John got to the river it was close to the same level as it had been two weeks ago.  Les had told him that by the end of the summer it would be too low for a canoe trip, and all the fish would be scattered in the deeper holes.  The only way to fish it was walking up and down the stream bed in chest waders. John decide to walk upstream this time. He found a dead tree that spanned the river making a safe river crossing.  He had to knock a couple branches off, but managed to cross safely.  He put a small buck saw on his list of needs.  Les had also mentioned that you can process more wood with less effort with a saw than an ax; so a good saw is as important as a good ax.

The land on the opposite side of the river was more open and seemed to have a higher percentage of hardwood including birch, ash, and maple. The ash trees had many uses.  People made snowshoes, pack baskets, ax handles, and especially canoe paddles out of ash because it had a certain spring to it.  The birch trees have a natural oil in the bark making it a great fire starter.  The maple was stripped almost clean from the local moose population.  There was a large eddy on this side of the river that had a bank with holes burrowed in just under the surface.  John had heard of beaver living in these banks but there was also a big beaver lodge down stream.  He knew that when a beaver abandoned a home it wasn’t long before another critter made claim to it. There were many small tracks on the river bank that suggested mink and otter were in the area, and he had already seen few muskrat.  When a beaver suddenly slapped its tail in the water it startled him, and a half dozen wood ducks flushed from the bottom of the eddy.  John hadn’t even seen them.  He admired their colors when they flew off,  but it surprised him how well they blended with the thick cover of the river bank.

The land he was standing on was part of the National Forest.  The state had a program that allowed residents to harvest two cords of firewood for their own use every year.  It forbade selling the wood or transporting it across state lines. John figured he would become a Maine resident anyway,  but this was definitely a perk.  He could harvest fire wood and get some ash for building items he would need.  The only issue was getting it across the river. That was going to be a challenge. There was no access from the other side and with the exception of a chain saw, the use of mechanized equipment was forbidden. The idea of carrying every stick of wood across the fallen tree seemed impossible.  Or was it?  If he managed a few trips a day, every day, eventually it would get done.  When a person lives in a society that demands having a job to pay for housing, food and clothing it takes all their time to earn a living.  Any spare time is filled with hobbies and relaxation.  If an individual chooses to forgo the luxuries associated with an urban lifestyle it provides them ample time to preform tasks directly related to there needs.  The list of “needs” is a small one compared to the list of “wants” that seem to consume most of society.

When John got back to his truck the sun was setting and he was hungry. He set up his new stove on the tail gate and filled the fuel canister with fuel he bought at the hardware store.  After a few pumps with the plunger he lit the stove and started heating up his supper.  The sound of the stove hissing away was satisfying, and it only took a few minutes to prepare the meal.  After he ate he thought about how the early mountain men must have felt after eating a good meal at the end of the day.  He also realized how important the early trade routes must have been to them.  Without trading posts and rendezvous people wouldn’t have been able to survive.  It was such a misconception that people could disappear in the wilderness and survive alone with no assistance or support from anyone else.  The trappers and gold prospectors would spend a great deal of time at remote camps, but eventually they had to get resupplied with goods such as pots, pans, clothing, and tools. Without that they would have perished to starvation or disease.  There were a few exceptions, but rarely did any one person survive completely alone for a lifetime without some means of assistance or a means of conveyance. Canoes and dog sleds were probably the most used and efficient means of getting supplies from one point to the other.  The rivers were the highways. When the rivers froze the dog sleds took over the job until spring.  It was a constant battle with the elements, and many people died from starvation, drowning, or simply froze to death.

After dinner was consumed John heated some water to wash his his dishes. He wished he had his coffee pot that was in the steel foot locker at Les’s house, but he figured he should be drinking water anyway.  It was at this point he realized his sleeping bag was in the same place as the coffee pot.  He figured it would be warm enough, and he had his wool shirt to keep warm. The truck seat was about six inches to short to completely stretch out on, but he manged half a nights sleep and was glad to see the sun come up. The forest was filled with the usual sounds of birds and, at first light, he heard a coyote across the river.  John thought it sounded close to where he had explored yesterday.  He wanted to spend the morning looking for a place that best suited his new wall tent.  He walked back into the thick trees wondering if he should stay closer to the road rather than the river.  At some point he would have to construct an outhouse or some kind of compost toilet and that must be as far away from the water as possible.  There was an area that was reasonably clear and the ground was flat enough, but it was close to the edge of his land.  John wanted to be in the center of his property, if possible, so he continued bushwhacking toward the river.  He found a nice spot that was fairly open and the sun was shining in which seemed necessary.  He knew the winter was going to be cold enough without being in the shade; sunlight was important.  Many people get depressed without sunlight and anything he was going to grow for food, wouldn’t grow well in the shade.  This spot seemed good, but the ground was very spongy and almost seemed wet.  He dug the heel of his boot into the ground and the soil was dark and wet under the dead spruce needles.  The ground had surface water down a bit further and there were a few small green ferns sticking up.  He got down on his hands and knees and dug with his bare hands until he had a hole about ten inches deep. The ground felt cooler and it had water forming in the bottom.  Could this possibly be a spring?  What a miracle that would be, to actually have a source of water right on the property.  If that was the case then he couldn’t establish a camp here because it could possibly contaminate the water.  John followed the wet ground and the further he walked, the wetter the ground became. At one point there was a puddle of water almost six feet around and it had ferns and moss all around it. This was definitely a spring coming from somewhere on his property.  The question was whether it dried up or ran all summer.  That is something only time would tell, but it was very encouraging to have one of his major worries figured out sooner than later.

It was mid morning by the time he circled around and came back to his truck.  It was almost an hours ride to Les’s house.  He was anxious to see him and to pick up his stuff, but he also wanted to find out if Les had any more projects that needed doing.  He felt lucky to be able to work for him in any capacity and to have conversations about hunting and fishing. He was learning so much he felt he should be taking notes so he wouldn’t forget what they talked about. He knew it would all come into play at some point. There was hardly any traffic on the road with the exception of a few logging trucks fully loaded and on their way to the interstate.  He stopped the truck when he saw a big female moose and a small calf in a clearing. They were eating the small shoots of trees that were covering an area that was logged off the previous year.  When an area gets cleared of timber it offers new growth, a perfect food source for deer and moose helping the population to thrive.  With the modern mechanized tree thinning that is used today, many areas are managed properly, and it is actually beneficial for wildlife.  Its a difficult balance, wildlife can’t survive without any trees, and equally, it can’t survive in a habitat that consists of nothing but trees.  In nature this is remedied with natural forest fires.  When humans get involved they alter habitat by developing land.  The trees are cut to build houses and manufacture products that tend to have a detrimental effects on the landscape.

John knew he didn’t make the world the way it was but somehow felt responsible.  It was a tough balance to live in the natural world and drive a vehicle with rubber tires that will never go away.  He was buying gasoline and fuel for his stove as well as the food he ate came in a metal can and was delivered in a truck from across the country.  These were the things he couldn’t figure out driving to Les’s house, and maybe Les would have a better answer.

“Carving a home in the north woods” chapter 6

John was standing on Union Street in Bangor waiting for a bus ride back to New Jersey.  It was only seven days ago he got off the bus with the intention of looking at land parcels in northern Maine.  He was thinking of all that had transpired in the last week and the events still had his head spinning.  He had put down a sizable deposit on land, camped out, caught some fish, and established a friendship with a Maine Guide.  It all seemed to happen so fast that he really had no time to process everything until now.  Had he moved to quickly?  Could he really make it up here through a cold winter? Would he be able to make money?  These were the questions John was asking himself while the line of people waiting for the bus ride grew bigger, indicating that it must be close to departure.  He was still unsure what he was going to tell his family, and it was beginning to concern him.  He had thought of the surveying job as a smoke screen but that was a complete lie.  He felt obligated to get a job in agriculture  to justify his four years at the university, but that meant moving somewhere he didn’t want to live.  He knew people who had careers with the Department of Agriculture, most of their work was completed from behind a desk.  There were some exceptions where people did extensive field work in other countries, and traveled, but that was a small percentage.  Some of his professors worked for the USGS before they settled for  a career of education.  They would often talk about spending months in remote areas, studying stream flow, and observing related habitat, which seemed interesting.  However, they also spoke of endless bureaucracy and legislature that took years to negotiate, and the frustration of dealing with politics from state and government officials.  Even worse, the possibly of seeing months of work and research end up in a filing cabinet, never to be seen again, because it conflicted with some politicians bargaining with a major oil company.   Some of the deep rooted propaganda in supposed “green projects” that translated into more government spending with private industry was more than John could get his head around.   John did not want to spend his life shuffling documents for the sake of a steady salary and pension, providing he could stick it out.

John had left all his new possessions at Les’s house with the exception of his new wool shirt and boots.  The coffee pot, fishing equipment and cast iron fry pan were put in a steel foot locker he found in the barn while helping Les fix the old wavy glass windows.  He packed the wool shirt on top of the pile in his duffel bag,  intentionally left half unzipped so he could see it to  be reminded of the north woods.  The shirt was  emitting a slight wood smoke smell from the campfire he found very comforting.

The twelve hour bus ride back to New Jersey was reasonably uneventful with the exception of a safety stop by the Highway Patrol in New Hampshire. The state routinely stops commercial buses and trucks to check brakes and safety equipment. There were no issues with the bus, and all of the paperwork was in order.  There was a decommissioned tractor-trailer, bound for Canada,  that had been  “red flagged”  because it was over-loaded and without correct paperwork for leaving the country.  John spoke briefly with the operator at the rest area, who was finishing his last day of work before going into the hospital for cancer treatment.  The conversation left him feeling lucky to be healthy.  He genuinely felt sad for the truck driver who had worked his entire life supporting a family, and the only thing he had to look forward to, in this stage of his life, was possibly beating cancer.  The two men shook hands and John returned to the bus feeling a connection with this man.  Maybe it was just fate.  Seeing another person looking back at their life, talking about things they wished they had done, was something he needed to hear.  In any case, the bus was back on the highway traveling south on interstate ninety five.

The tall and peaked trees of northern Maine behind him, he now saw the  architecture of a city skyline at sunset.  The sound of vehicles whizzing by at high speed,  overhead steel bridges looming in the distance, combined with the clamor of the bus and it’s passengers was in striking contrast to the sound of the Aroostook River and the northwest winds that had blown campfire smoke into his wool shirt.  He had decided to tell his parents the truth about his intentions of moving up north, living off grid, and surviving off what the land had to offer.  He knew it was going to be difficult, but he had to be honest. There was no point in starting a story he couldn’t finish later.  The learning curve is huge when you live self sufficiently.   Everything you do from the time you wake up until your head hits the pillow must be deliberate. The tasks and chores are enormous for one person to accomplish on a daily basis.  Gathering enough wood in itself is daunting, never mind collecting and containing water, providing food and trying to maintain some modicum of hygiene. The wet heavy snow was going to pile up on the roof, and he didn’t even have a roof yet, but somehow he would have to figure it  out.

Eventually the bus came to a stop three blocks from his parent’s house.  He got off with his bag and zipped it closed.  Walking down the street, he was thinking about four years earlier when he left for the university.  The time had gone by fast, but he felt like he accomplished more in the last week than all his time studying fertilizers and hybrid seeds.  It was early evening and both his mother and father were in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner.  John walked in and his mother ran over for a big hug.  “Oh you are home already, and you need a shave.  “His father closed the door to the dish washer and gave him a firm handshake.  “What smells like a fire?” he asked.  “That must be me dad, I’ve been camping.  Caught some nice small mouth bass up in Maine.”  “So how was your trip?”  John sat his bag down and went to the cupboard for a glass.  “I can’t begin to tell you how much I love it up there.”  “What else did you do, any hiking or sight seeing?”  The water from the faucet smelled like a swimming pool compared to the spring water he’d been drinking the previous week.   “I did some fishing and spent a few days working for a guy fixing up his barn.” “You worked up there?” his mother asked. “Yeah, actually I met a Maine Guide and stayed with him for a few days.  He paid me to help him with some projects and I stayed with him.”  “Really?” his mother asked.  “Yup, I can’t even begin to tell you how nice people are up there.”  “Well I’m glad you had a good time.” “Oh for sure, actually…  I’m heading back up there next week.”  “For what?”  his father asked.  “I am in the process of buying land.  I want to build a cabin and live there.”  “What do you mean live there? In the woods?”  “Well no…I mean yeah… I guess… in a cabin though.”   “That’s pretty much living in the woods John.” his mother said.  “Your out of college for a week, and now you think your Daniel Boone?” his father asked.  “No more like Jim Bridger.”  “Who is Jim Bridger?” his mother asked. “It doesn’t matter, I know who I am and that’s what I want to do.”  “I think we should start over with a drink.” his father said as he walked out of the kitchen.  “I didn’t expect it to go that smoothly.” John said to his mother.  “Oh he just worries about you and Steve.”  “I think Steve will be just fine.”  His mother pulled the coffee maker toward the front of the counter and started getting it ready for the morning. “You know I half expected you to do this after high school.”  “Do what?” John asked. “Go away and carve yourself a home in the wilderness. You always read books about mountain men and trappers. You were obsessed with the fur trade when you were ten years old.  You even talked about moving to Alaska.”  “I do have a plan, its not like I’m just giving up on the world and becoming a recluse.”  “John you have always been focused on the wilderness.  When the other kids on the street wanted new bicycles you were building forts and looking for animals down by the rail road tracks.  Both your father and I know you and your brother are two different people.  I worry more about Steve because he takes chances.”  “You mean you don’t think I’m crazy?” “No, actually you have never given me or your father a nights worry.  You were in college four years and not a single problem.”  “Wow, I expected you both to talk me out of it.”  His mother slid the coffee pot to the back of the counter. “Would it have changed your mind if we disagreed with you?” John thought for a second before he responded. “I would always respect your opinions and concern, but this feels right to me.  I just have to give this a try, and if I didn’t, it would nag at me forever.”  John’s father returned to the kitchen with a double scotch.  “Let’s go out to the back porch and sit down for a bit.”

The backyard at John’s parents house was secluded with trees and shrubbery. John spent many afternoons here as a kid pretending he was in Alaska panning for gold. There was also a trail down to the train trestle where he would catch bass and other panfish.  If you followed the path far enough it led to the golf course where John’s father spent most of his spare time.  You used to be a pretty good bowler in college didn’t you?” John asked.  “I remember the parties and people talking about it.”   His father had multiple trophies in his den from college bowling tournaments.  “When I graduated college two of my friends and I were going to open a chain of bowling allies in Puerto Rico.” “Seriously?”  “Yes, we had the financial backing and sponsorship from a major manufacturer.”  “I have never heard about this.”   “That’s because it was a sore subject for many years.”  “How so?”  His father took a sip of his favorite scotch. “Well, I met your mother in college and wanted to marry her.  She was all for getting married and moving to Puerto Rico, but your grandfather forbade it. He said it was too dangerous and risky.  If his daughter was getting married it was going to be to a man who could provide her with a secure lifestyle.”  John had never heard anything about this and was a bit shocked.  “I really had no idea you ever wanted to do that.”  “Oh yes.  I wanted it very much but I also wanted to marry your mother.  My friends went on to open a franchise and became professional bowlers, both of them.”  “Wow, I really never knew.”  John said.  “Not many people do now.  I have done well in business with the company, but I never had the passion for it like I did for bowling.”  “Why don’t you buy a bowling ally now and retire into that?”  “That ship has sailed John. Those windows of opportunity don’t stay open very long.”  “So your not going to try and talk me out of it?”  “No,  as a matter a fact I want to here all about this fool hardy plan of yours; going off to be Daniel Boone!”  “Its Jim Bridger dad.”

John was beside himself after hearing the story about his father wanting to move to Puerto Rico and become a professional bowler.  It also sparked something in him that he never felt before concerning his father.  It was the first time he had ever talked about anything passionate or being adventurous. The only thing he ever saw his father do was work and play golf.  He never seemed happy about work, and his name wasn’t on any plaque at the country club.  Not to say he was a bad golfer, but occasionally his friends put a handicap license plate on his golf cart.  It seemed he went there to drink and avoid projects around the house.  He entertained business clients there so it was a write off if nothing else.

The next morning John was up before daylight  drinking coffee at the kitchen table.  He was reading the magazine he purchased out west on his way home from college.  It was the “living off grid” article he saw on the cover that had inspired his trip to Maine, but hadn’t yet had time to actually read it.  Now as he was thumbing through the pages, seeing pictures of tomato plants in styrofoam cups and solar batteries running laptop computers, he started thinking about how foolish he would look showing up to Northfield with a truckload of plastic.  It was a concern for many of John’s university professors that there was a growing trend for solar power.  Although not as environmentally harmful as removing mountain tops and mining coal,  the manufacturing of solar cells produces  dangerous waste  including mercury and chromium.  These potentially end up in landfills, eventually infecting ground water, especially where these systems are manufactured in countries with very little, or zero EPA standards.  Every year the electronics industry alone generates millions of tons of toxic waste. The propaganda for installation and disposal of solar systems is often deceiving, the components and compounds used are petroleum based, but marketed as clean and green.  It seemed like another example of marketing and profits getting ahead of responsible manufacturing and distribution. The styrofoam cup is horrifying to anyone who does five minutes of research on materials that are detrimental to the environment, so how could these pictures be associated with a lifestyle, non-dependent of electricity, and free of fossil fuels?

The farm back in Northfield, complete with a blacksmith shop, along with a hand dug well seemed like a very small carbon footprint by comparison.  The people that ran that farm were already self sufficient. The only thing they really needed was wood and steel.  The steel to cut the wood and the wood to manipulate the steel in the blacksmith shop was only walking distance from the barn.  Very little was brought in from outside except a few staples like flour and sugar.  The animals were raised and plowed the fields, and the fields were cut to feed the animals.  Trees were cut for firewood and sawn into boards while the firewood forged the steel to make nails. There was no marketing involved, it was simply a lifestyle…. And when compared to the simple “living off grid” article  on the table in front of him,  John was embarrassed for buying it and felt he had a duty to walk it to the nearest redemption center to dispose of it properly…..

John spent the next few days visiting childhood friends and family that still lived close by.   Most of his uncles and aunt’s had retired and moved to Florida. The old bakery was still operated by the same family that owned it for thirty plus years.  They made the best bread and pie crusts around.  It was a simple operation, and they were famous for their blueberry pie and muffins.  Most people don’t think of blueberries when you mention New Jersey, but there are  thousands of  acres yielding, arguably, the best blueberries in the country.  He found a couple of used pickup trucks for sale in the local paper and looked at both of them.  The first one was a two wheel drive that had high mileage and low maintenance records.  The other was a Ford half ton, four wheel drive with a standard transmission and square headlights that John liked.  It was root-beer brown color with little or no rust.  He noticed the vehicles in Maine showed rust after the age of ten years for some reason.  The price on the windshield was twenty five hundred,  but the older gentleman who owned it said he would accept two thousand after learning John was moving to northern Maine to start a life.   John gave him a five hundred dollar deposit to hold the truck, and would return the next day with the remaining fifteen hundred, taking the truck along with a tool box for the back.

It seemed like things were going too easily.  His parents were actually supporting his decision to move north, and he found a pickup in good shape that was four wheel drive.  His thoughts went back to the cabin he was going to build.  He figured the library may have some trade books with pictures and ideas.  He found a couple of popular mechanics magazines that featured modern contemporary vacation homes that had no appeal to him.  There was a whole book on ways to build tree houses and live in them which he found amusing.  There was also a pile of Sports Afield magazines, the one on top had an elk hunt featured on the cover.  The story inside showed hunters sitting in camp with horses and wooden boxes that contained there camping and cooking equipment.  He also noticed a white canvas wall tent with a wood stove……. This was a new concept…… Could he get by with a tent all winter?  It seemed ridiculous, but there it was right in front of him.  Men living in white canvas tents… in Montana… in November!  He remembered the stories of gold prospectors living in Alaska and they had tents like that with wood stoves.  So why couldn’t he do that instead of trying to build a cabin, at least for the first winter?  In the back of the magazine was an ad for the same tent and he wrote down the phone number.  He knew of an old military surplus store out by the Parkway.  They carried  all kinds of camping and cooking equipment.  They had huge tents,  maybe they had  a stove to heat it with.

The next day after paying the balance on his new truck, and almost two hours of dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles, he drove to the surplus store to look for a stove.  They, in fact, had three of them that would burn either wood or coal.  They came with a tripod and connection hose that accepted an upside down jerrycan so you could burn diesel fuel.  This surprised John,  he felt it was unsafe, but took it anyway. He figured, worst case scenario, he could use diesel fuel, but only in an emergency.

He contacted the tent company in Montana and ordered a twelve foot by twelve foot wall tent with three foot sides.  The company also offered a pole kit with the tent but said he could cut wooden poles on-sight if that was possible.  John remembered Les telling him about the black spruce trees the  guides used for poling their canoes and he figured he would harvest some when he got back to Maine to save the extra money. The Tent was expensive, but he thought even if he couldn’t make it work to live in for a year, it would still last him a lifetime, and he would never need another tent.

When he got back to his parents house there was no one home.  He made a quick dinner from leftovers, and read through some of the old magazines he brought home from the library.  He especially liked the elk hunting story that inspired him to by his tent.  There was an old wooden box out in the garage that belonged to his grandfather that would make a good addition to his camp. It would hold the tent and most of his camping equipment.  He still needed a few things like a lantern and a camp stove.  He enjoyed cooking over a fire, but didn’t think he would always have the time, and the stove would make a quick meal.  He decided on a stove that ran on white gas instead of bottled gas because it was easier to find in stores, seemed to be less expensive, and  he wouldn’t have empty gas canisters piling up around camp.

The tent arrived three days later just as expected.  John had most of his belongings loaded in the truck with a makeshift rain cover fabricated from old plywood.  He cleaned out his old bedroom taking only a few books and clothing including a wool sweater.  The rest was donated to the church where, as a kid, he helped out with thrift sales on weekends.  His  parents took him out for dinner the night before he left, and his father told everyone in the restaurant his son was going off to live a life in the wilderness like Daniel Boone.  It didn’t matter to John that his father had never heard of Jim Bridger, as long as he was happy.

“Carving a home in the north woods” chapter 2

When John returned to the car he was over-heated and very thirsty.  His wool shirt was half unbuttoned before he reached the safety of the vehicle, out of the black flies.  As soon as he finished the rest of his water he squished a dozen of the pesky man-eating bugs that followed him into his personal space. He sat wondering how anyone could possibly deal with these bugs on a daily basis.  He had read about life in the northern Maine woods for years, and heard mention of them, but he had no idea just how severe they really were until now.  It was still June, so he figured they must start to thin out at some point, but when would that be?

The sound of the approaching automobile broke his concentration,  he realized he had to get back into the swarm of vampires to meet his realtor who was right on time. The car came to a stop just behind John’s rented Chevrolet.  A tall thin man in a brown suit got out as soon as the wheels stopped turning.  He was a well dressed and freshly shaven gentleman  appearing to be close to retirement age.  “Hello, you must be John,” the man said with a welcoming smile.  “My name is Ken Orman, were you able to find the property okay”? “Actually I drove right to it without getting lost and I have already found the river’ John replied.   “So what is your first impression?” John noticed that Ken wasn’t getting eaten alive and he had at least six black flies biting the back of his neck. “I absolutely love the river and these woods are incredibly beautiful.” “Are you looking to build a vacation home?”  “Well, actually I am thinking more like a year round type of place.”  Ken smiled and turned his head in the direction of the river. “Have you ever spent a winter in Maine?” he asked. “Well, actually no, I haven’t”. “I don’t want to discourage you before we get off the ground, but I’m pretty sure we are standing on a class six road.” John turned his head towards the bridge “what is a class six road?” he asked. “That means un-maintained, not plowed in the winter.  The good news is you can shoot from the road during hunting season; the bad news is you need a snowmobile or a dog sled to get here in the winter.”

John thought about that while Ken was spreading out listings of other properties on the hood of his car.  Ken pulled out two pieces of paper that had the words “sub-development” on the description and john’s heart sank a bit. “You know we have a bunch of lots in the next county that are already approved for building and the electricity is on-sight”.    “I really don’t want to live in a sub-development.   I have been reading about homesteading and living off-grid.   I am looking to build in an area that is more rural.”  Ken looked at him with a big grin.  “I have lived here my whole life and have seen many people come from the cities and try to cope with whatever nature deals them.  This is a beautiful part of the world, no question.”   Ken set his paperwork down and crossed his arms over his chest.  “How do you like the black flies?”   By now John had blood running down his face. “I knew the flies were considered thick up here but honestly had no idea they were this bad.”   Ken’s smile got even wider,  “This is almost the end of the fly season,  you should be here in May!  The winters are colder than you could possibly imagine.  We have snow well before Thanksgiving which is great for deer hunting, but it makes the season that much longer”  Ken unconsciously slid his hands into his front pockets just thinking about it.

John had read stories of people going stir crazy from being stuck inside for long periods of time over the winter months.  He recalled stories of Maine guides living all winter in seclusion;  with nothing but an ax and all the hard cider they could possibly carry back to “winter camp”.  The stories of falling through the ice, pulling yourself to safety in sub zero temperatures,  barley being able to get a fire going to save yourself from hypothermia, were in fact true events that led to best selling novels. The woodsman of old had an unwritten code to help each other, but all of them knew that ultimately you had to help yourself.  Being unable to do so made for a short stay in the big woods of Maine.  Anything could happen to a person out here, as well as nothing could happen at all.  John had run all those thoughts through his head and decided the best way to deal with anything is as it happens, in front of you.  A person can plan for anything, but until the situation presents itself, there is no way anyone can know the outcome… until it is hindsight.

“I will look at some other properties but I really am not interested  in anything  close to town or in any kind of association.”  Ken had three other parcels that were twenty acres and one that was forty-five acres, but nothing else on a river or even close to water.  ” Okay,  lets walk  the road and find the pin so you actually see how much road frontage you have,”  Ken suggested.  The land had five-hundred  feet of road frontage and almost six-hundred feet of river frontage. The land to the right was wet-land,  considered by the forest service to be unbuildable.  This was a bonus because it meant he would never have neighbors except the local critters, but it also meant a nesting ground for bugs.  The land to left was in the process of becoming a conservation area for wildlife.  This was exactly what John was looking for.

Ken walked at an extremely fast pace for an elderly gentleman.  “This is the corner right here.  You have walked to the river, you said, did the ground look fairly level?”   John was still swatting flies.  After spitting a few out of his mouth John was able to speak, ” It seemed like level ground except for a big mound of earth and some large rocks about one-hundred feet in.”  Ken, still seeming to be in exile from the swarms of flesh eating insects, chatted on  “I have a brother who guides canoe and fly fishing trips every summer down this river.”  “Your brother is a Maine Guide?”    “Yup, he’s been at it almost forty years now,” Ken said as he slicked his thin hair back.  John got his second wind now and wondered how he could meet up with Ken’s brother.

At Kens insistence  they looked at two more pieces of land that afternoon.  One of them was almost two hours away.  It had been logged off two years prior leaving waist deep slash making it almost impossible to navigate. The other was not as bad, but the closest lake was seven miles away and offered little or no canoeing in any of the small rivers.  John knew he wanted to be able to launch a canoe at a moments notice and be able to fish every day if he wished. The first property he looked at also had both hard and soft wood. The hardwood was great for fire wood and possibly carving projects. He could build a cabin or get a portable sawmill to process the softwood into lumber for a more conventional home.  All these thoughts raced through his head as he followed Ken’s olive green sedan from one place to the next.

At the end of the day John decided he wanted to proceed with the first parcel he looked at by the river that morning.  He did feel better that he at least looked at some other land, not just jumping at the first place he found.  He had made a few big decisions in the last twenty-four hours, and felt a little nervous about the next step,  filling out paperwork and committing to the whole idea of living in a place he was not at all familiar with. The price was right, but it was a big percentage of the actual funds he had available after investing half of his inheritance into the stock market.  He still didn’t own a vehicle and had absolutely no tools to work with.  He had a choice, he would either have to hire some expensive equipment to move dirt quickly, or do everything by hand which would take him a long time. That wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it did mean he would have to stay somewhere else over the first winter, and that would cost even more money. 

It was almost dark when the two men made it back to the main office of the real estate company.  Ken was used to working odd hours as an agent and didn’t seem to mind.  He had all the paperwork in order, and John wrote a check in the amount of five thousand dollars to be put in escrow to hold the property for thirty days.  Ken leaned back in his chair and locked his long fingers behind his head  “So your really going to do it…”.   John set the pen down and put his elbows on the arms of the Naugahyde chair, “Yes I am, and in fact I can’t wait to get back and start this project”.   Ken was smiling, as he had been all day, leaned forward and crossed his arms on the desk , “I think its going to be a great experience for you.   Even if you don’t like it, and want to go back down south, you have a great piece of land there that is only going to appreciate in the next few years. There is a big trend of folks like yourself who want to get away from it all and live a peaceful life.  Some even want to build businesses up there that incorporate the wilderness into a paying job.”  John was glad to hear he wasn’t alone in thinking that the world has gotten a bit out of hand with technology, and that things were moving at a rate that was unsustainable, but he didn’t want too many people around either.

“Do you think it will get overpopulated?” Ken let out a big laugh and said, “oh not in your lifetime…  Some day civilization will catch up to us but that is a long ways off.  These are big woods and not everyone can make it up here.”  John felt like he was keeping Ken from his family and realized he still hadn’t gotten a hotel for the night.  “Well I guess I will see you in a couple weeks, and is there anything else you need from me?”  Ken put the papers in a folder and slid them aside reaching out for a handshake at the same time. “No, that’s all for now.  Oh, by the way, if you were ever interested, my brother is getting older and talks about hiring an apprentice for his guide service.”   John nearly jumped out of his seat, “Oh I would love to meet him and discuss any options he has for employment.” Ken stood up and placed the folder in the top of his file cabinet. “You know being a guide means you never get to do those things you love to do anymore. You spend all your time cooking, carrying loads, and untangling fishing lines… and that’s on a good day.”  John was still trying to compose himself, but the excitement  was getting the best of him. “Oh I have read about the horror stories, I would just love a chance at helping out.  I would be very grateful if you mentioned my name to him.”  Ken grabbed his coat and was walking to the door, “I reserved a room for you at the hotel across the street, your in room 101,  In the morning you can look out the window and see the mountains by your new piece of land.”

 

“The things you can do with a .twenty two”

A recent phone conversation with a kindred spirit from Alaska got my nostalgia pumping for the .22 rimfire. We talked for an hour or so and the conversation ended only because of a dying cell phone battery. The topic was guns of course, but what I found interesting was that we both loved our .22 rimfires. He had a Colt Woodsman that his father had passed down to him, used it daily as a kid and still carries it today. I have a Ruger Bearcat that I’m very fond of but, embarrassingly, it hasn’t seen one tenth the service his Colt has.

We talked about squirrel hunting and shooting cans off saw horses, back when the police weren’t summoned at the first report of a rifle. In the old days you could go out after school and target practice in hopes of bringing home the occasional tree rat or, if you got lucky, a ruffed grouse. My Grandmother used to cook the grouse with strips of bacon and root vegetables in the pan. That is still probably one of my favorite meals of all time. The squirrels she roasted whole, then separated the meat and deep fried it battered in egg, milk and cornmeal mixture. Those bushy tails tasted pretty good to a kid who had never been spoiled by major fast food restaurant chains offering free toys with their meals.

We discussed many popular cartridge choices and firearm designs, but it kept coming back to the good old “double deuce”. I guess for a few reasons, but if you think about it, the .22 is still very affordable to shoot. You can get 500 rounds for around $40.00, and even less if you shop for it online. The 40 grain bullet packs enough wallop to bring down a coyote with careful shot placement. Granted you are better off with a 22-250 or .223 for “yotes” but the little .22 will work in a pinch. The lack of recoil also enables you to shoot hundreds of rounds improving your marksmanship. Some of the best shooters I know insist on target practicing with a .22 because they feel you develop skill without being punished with the recoil of a heavier rifle. A good marksman will tell you that you want to see your bullet hit the intended target; what happens after the shot is as important as taking the shot.

I grew up like most kids, starting by shooting a Daisy BB gun, but soon graduating into a Ruger 10/22 that belonged to my Stepfather. We would spend hours at the sand pit shooting. I carried that gun on many after school and weekend small game hunting trips. He bought it brand new in 1968, and that gun is still in his cabinet today. I have had many guns over the years, but that 10/22 is one of my favorites. I also have a 1984 Ruger 77/22 with a detachable box magazine that I mounted a Burris 4X20 scope onto. It may sound like overkill, but when your shooting grey squirrels at 50 plus yards its a nice feature to have, especially with aging eyes.

One other thing we talked about was how easily you can carry 500 .22 rounds with you and not even break a sweat. If you where living off the land and needed to keep moving its hard to imagine carrying that many shotgun shells, or .308 for that matter. Not to say that if you where living in the interior of Alaska you wouldn’t want a 338 Winchester or one of it’s contemporaries to fend of grizzlies, but that’s not what we were talking about. If you were just living a life of overland travel, out of Kodiak territory, and you needed to dispatch small game as a source of protein then the .22 would be a great choice. Think about it, if you shot a moose for instance, how much work it would be to properly prepare and store 100% of that animal. If you were living in a cabin with a smoke house then no problem! But, if your just passing through, you need to select smaller game, and keep moving, and hopefully not perish from the elements…or an abscessed tooth.

He talked about his father mounting some PVC pipe on the front of his snow-machine and using it as a cradle to carry a .22 rifle. When he was out on the trap line he would use it to dispatch birds and other small game to be served at the dinner table that night. I always find it very interesting when I learn about the actual equipment used by the people so many of us try and emulate. These folks make do with what they have and are very “skilled” at it. Without that “skill” they wouldn’t last long out there. If you have ever tried to set a 330 conibear trap at below zero temps, in the dark, standing on thin ice, you know what I’m talking about.

As I said, we had a great conversation about the good old days and where the world is headed, but sometimes we need to get back to the things we enjoyed at a young age. There was a time when you could walk into a local hardware store, buy a rifle or a shotgun, and go put food on the table. The world is changing and it doesn’t seem like things are going to slow down anytime soon. It’s hard to find the time to get out and enjoy the things we used to, but if you get a chance, grab a box of rimfire and go shoot some cans. It won’t solve the worlds problems, but it does bring us back to a simpler time when the only thing that mattered was firing ten shots and counting ten holes in a soda can.

“A bee-line to navigation”

Looking down at the 24″ X 36″ piece of paper that said USGS Topographic map in one corner, and a maze of wavy lines that differed in thickness and color, Tom thought it resembled a plate of spaghetti more than a tool used for not getting lost in the woods. The map was on a table in his friends hunting camp. It was marked with all kinds of interesting stuff that made absolutely no sense to him, like multi colored lines that varied in thickness and in places very close together. There was a book that accompanied it titled “Navigation made easy.” If Tom wasn’t already confused, this book and it’s illustrations left him wondering if he could find his way home, never mind plot a course and not perish in the wilderness due to the cold or some wild animal. Words like declination, azimuth, and bearing sent him into a tailspin, but he needed to learn this map and compass technique to keep up with his best friend who had the benefit of a father that was an avid sportsman and scout leader.

When Tom returned home that night he received the typical enthusiasm from his father when he asked him if he knew how to read a map. “Why do you have to know that”? his father asked him. Tom thought for a moment before answering because he wanted to avoid the usual lecture about wasting time in the woods when he should be studying for chemistry tests. “I was just curious. We get extra credit in geology if we no how to navigate” His father put the news paper down and looked out the window and said, “I guess you could get a book from the library and figure it out”. He then went back to reading the financial page and sipping his coffee. Tom wasn’t surprised his father didn’t know how to read a map. He decided to ask his grandmother who had grown up on a local farm and knew everything about living off the land. When he saw her that evening he asked her if she knew how to navigate with a map and compass. “I can show you how to use a compass but there is a-lot more to it than that” she replied. “Okay” Tom said, “where do I start”? “I’m going bee-lining tomorrow afternoon and you can bring a compass with you and practice”. Tom was thrilled to learn about the workings of a compass, but not so crazy about getting stung by a bee. He couldn’t get within 10 feet of a hornet without receiving a dime-sized welt in the process. Nonetheless, he would tough it out for his grandmother and the chance to master this art of navigation.

Many of the locals used to harvest honey from wild bee hives found near farms in the area. The trick was to find a worker bee and follow it back to the hive then harvest the honey comb. When a worker bee finds a food source it returns to the hive in a perfectly straight line hence the term “bee-line”. There were a few old timers who had it down to a science. Rick Eastman was a local contractor and known for never wearing a watch and always being on time, but he also had a knack for finding bee hives. He used a device he made called a bee-line box that had two compartments and a window made of glass. He put a sweet smelling concoction inside it to feed the bee once he caught one. It was quite a trick but he would catch a bee, cover the glass to block the light and pull out the compartment divider so the bee could find the food. Once the bee settled down and ate the sweet mixture he would release it and watch in exactly what direction the bee flew away. He then stuck a stick in the ground, attached the box on top and waited for the bee to return. The time in which it took for the bee to return told him how far away the hive was. This was the part that made him unique because he never wore a watch. Tom’s grandmother was a master bee-liner but she insisted on using a watch.

The following afternoon he met her in the field behind the farm and she was wearing a white long sleeve shirt, buttoned at the sleeves to keep out horse flies and a bright red hat. She claimed that bees are attracted to bright colors and they would find her in a field of goldenrod. Tom brought his compass along and was eager to start using it. They walked to the end of the field and sat down looking towards the treeline on the east side of the property. They found a good patch of goldenrod and sat down in in the middle of it. It was an overcast day in August and she claimed that made it easier to see the bees flying in the sky. It wasn’t long before a bee was feeding close by and she was able to sweep it into the bee box. This amazed Tom because he couldn’t get near a bee without being stung and he just watched his grandmother catch one, bare handed. After the usual commotion the bee settled down and ate the sweet mixture that was inside the bottom compartment and when it seemed it was ready she opened the box to watch it fly straight to the edge of the field.

“Now might be a good time to pull out that compass Tom,” she said. Tom didn’t remember exactly where the bee went but she assured him that it would be back with some friends. She told him to take the compass and “put the red in the shed”. “What Shed”? Tom asked. “The red part of the magnetic needle needs to go inside the orienting arrow, that’s the shed”. Tom looked confused but did as he was told. “Now hold it level and twist the housing until the direction of travel needle is pointing to where the bee went”. Tom was completely lost now, so she took the compass and oriented it to 90 degrees east, that she said is where the bee flew. It wasn’t long before the bee came back and went right into the box. “Now lets check the time when it leaves and pay attention to where it goes,” she said. When the bee flew off Tom watched as hard as he could and noticed it flew straight towards the big white birch tree. After six minutes the bee was back and filling up. When it left Tom was certain it flew in the same direction as it did the last time and pointed his compass, it read 90 degrees east. “Okay Tom, I would say it’s about a half mile or so to the hive”. ” Now you need to take your bearing and make note of a specific point and walk to that exact point to take another bearing”. Tom looked at his compass with that red needle in the shed and the direction arrow was pointing right at the birch tree. ” Okay, so we go to the birch tree and then what”? “Then we mark another point and keep doing that until we find the hive”. ” Okay” Tom said and set off towards the edge of the field.

When They reached the edge of the field it was muddy from rain and hard to walk in, but Tom was confident the bee had flown this way, right towards the big birch tree, but what now? “Okay now point that compass in the same direction using the needle, and where does it point to?” Tom kept the red part where it was supposed to be and the direction needle pointed at a big rock with green moss on one side. “That big rock up there is where it says to go” Tom said. Right at the same time a bee flew by them heading straight to the mossy rock and Tom realized he was on track. They both walked to the rock and picked another point of reference. After doing this several times Tom realized he was hearing a constant buzzing sound over his head. After they started walking again his grandmother looked up and said “whoa, look at the size of that hive!” Tom looked up, and sure enough there was a massive hole in a rotted out oak tree. The bees had made their home and were flying in and out faster than he could count. “Well I guess that’s the hive, now we have to get Gramp’s out here to cut it down in the morning when its cooler”.

There was no shortage of bees and bee hives because of all the farming. The locals used to harvest a few hives every year, never wasting any of it. They would use the honey all year long and sell some occasionally. “Now Tom, you can figure out your back azimuth and get us back to my bee-box?” Tom remembered the term but had know idea what it meant. “How do I do that,” he asked? “You came in at 90 degrees east, right? So, if we do a 180 degree turn around, and we go out 270 degrees west, it leads us straight back to the spot we started”. Tom spun the dial around and realized that now the black part of the needle is in the same spot as the red was on their walk in. Now feeling confident with this new devise he assured his grandmother he could get them back home. Sure enough, after leap frogging from point to point they ended up right back where they started. Tom started thinking that now he had a better understanding for the compass maybe he could better understand that book he tried reading in the hunting camp.

March update and thoughts on hunting.

It’s been a typical March here in New Hampshire with the late season Nor’ Easter’s dumping 26 inches of heavy, wet snow and sub zero temps following.  The fox are in the dens, and the sap is making it’s second good run of the season.  Unfortunately, the last cold snap we had froze and split 10 of our 150 buckets, but we think we can repair them with some tin solder.  It looks like another good week of boiling before the maple buds come out, so it should be a good syrup season overall.  I plan on making maple sugar again this year because  we find that it is good in most recipes to replace processed sugar and that has been a goal over the last year.

The ice fisherman are still at it where the ice is accessible.  My friends Randy and Mike are pushing record numbers with the Lake trout (togue) they have been jigging up this year.  Randy Rod Co. makes handcrafted ice fishing rods that come in a variety of models.  He makes a “Laker Taker” that is good for the deeper jigging that has some clandestine back bone but has an ultra-sensitive tip.  My favorite is the “Spicy Noodle” that we use for jigging saltwater smelt up in Maine.  My friend Big Al and I had a good season up there but it always is too short with ice conditions being what they are. You can check out the Randy Rod on YouTube and Instagram on his channel Randy Rod Co.

I was hoping to get in some last minute snowshoe hare  hunting as the season goes until March 31st, but with the boiling of sap and work it doesn’t look like I will get the chance.  It’s hard to believe with the number of coyotes we have now there are any snowshoe hare left, but they still seem to be in decent numbers as compared to 20 years ago.  Rabbit populations do cycle for one reason or another. The development of land and loss of habitat is probably the biggest reason for it.  There have been some programs in neighboring states to reintroduce the cottontail and there seems to be some success at it.  It is hard to imagine any wildlife reintroduction program ever being more successful  than the wild turkey.  When I was a kid back in the 70’s there were none at all.  Now you can’t go out in your car and not see a flock of these things.  Its a good thing but some think we are getting overrun with them and its hard to disagree.

Many hunters and non-hunters think the state should allow more birds to be harvested. Change like this comes slowly when it has to be passed through legislature.  A good example of that is the grey squirrel, the Sciurus carolinensis (grey squirrel), was protected in some counties for decades.  I don’t think anyone would disagree that there was no shortage of these tree rats, and it was hard to believe you couldn’t hunt them. It was too bad because they are great eating and it gets the younger generation into hunting and that value of hunting is learned and passed on.

Its a tough pill for some to swallow, but without ethical hunting the wildlife would be endangered or extinct.  It is the hunter/sportsman that support the wildlife habitat.  Without programs funded by hunters  the animals wouldn’t be managed properly and would exceed the carrying capacities of areas leading to either nuisance issues or starvation. This is an age old argument, but fact is, without the tradition of hunting and harvesting the wildlife suffers.  I also have to mention again, this only works when done ethically.  The same goes as far as fur bearers.  It makes more sense  to harvest an animal ethically and make use of it than to let the species get overrun,  become a nuisance to people in sub-developments, have the habitat destroyed, and ultimately abolish the species.  Fur harvesting is under fire across the country and better education needs to be in place to promote the ethical harvesting of wildlife.

I have always felt, personally, if you ethically harvest an animal from the wild and make 100% use of it,  that animal has had a far better life than one raised for human consumption.  There is no peaceful end in the wilderness.  Death comes hard and  is not always swift.  Its a very emotional issue for many, and even worse as the generations get further removed from the tradition of the hunter/gatherer.

This is just my personal opinion and nothing else.  I have seen a change in lifestyle over the last few decades and I wonder where its all going.  The truth  is that wildlife shouldn’t live behind fences, and we as humans need to live with it.  I have learned a few things about animal habitat, food source, reproduction and the carrying capacities that are necessary to support wildlife and I learned it all through hunting them.