The Approaching Dream
By: Kelly J. Maguire
Rainy Lake is really not a lake. It’s the widest part of Rainy River and runs through The Voyagers National Park in northern, Northern Minnesota. At no place is the river too wide to see across. But in numerous places, the view is blocked by one or more of the thousands of wooded islands that fill the waterway. In other places, the river is so wide, that the sixty foot Fir trees that line the Canadian side are partially blocked by the curvature of the earth. They are so far away that the base of the tree is actually below the visible horizon. The surface of the water covers them about half way up.
The islands that fill this water system are unique. Each is recognizable by it’s individual tree line, or it rocky shoreline, or it’s position relative to the neighboring island. One can easily learn to navigate this area purely by reference to these islands. Their only drawback as reference points is their pure numbers. They’re everywhere.
I’m part of a fishing team. We’re a team, only in as much as we work together as a unit. We don’t actually compete against other teams. No one would want to. As fisherman go, we’re unquestionably average. But we’re passionate. Passionate about the fish, passionate about the scenery, passionate about the time and the talk that we share, and most importantly we’re passionate about our campfires.
We’ve achieved some “world class” campfires. These are magnificent works of art. They are so moving, and so calming that as I begin to describe them to others, outsiders, I’m tempted to backup all the way to my birth before I begin to describe them. Only from that perspective can I give listeners a true appreciation of what goes into a fire, and what takes place around one.
This is a diverse group of players ranging in age from the early thirties, to late sixties. Hard to imagine a more unlikely bunch. If a screenwriter were going to invent a rag-tag bunch of unlikely friends to get stranded on an island or something, they could never use this bunch of guys because the grouping would be unrealistic. This collection of characters would be preposterous and movie goers would reject the premise.
Among the group there is a 40 year old bachelor farmer, a 42 year old married body shop owner, a factory manufacturing manager, a data base analyst, a dispatcher, a federal customs agent, a Polish immigrant (now proudly an American Citizen), an electrician, a Director of Information Technologies (whatever that is), a retired cab driver, a self employed printer, and Denny. I don’t really know what Denny does. I do know he’s in his early 40’s and lives in his parent’s basement. I'm pretty sure I don't want to know more.
There is a rare if not invisible balance of power. There are no serious disagreements ever. You get the impression that most of us are so happy to be in the woods, on our own, and always within 24 hours of a campfire, that nothing could ever really be upsetting. I think that may be part of the problem in big cities. They don’t get to sit by the fire.
Our days are full of the pleasures of work. Not work like we have at our jobs, but work that has actual meaning…. cooking breakfast, making coffee, cleaning up from the night before, loading the boats, making sandwiches, filling the coolers, organizing and inventorying the remaining bait and most importantly planning the evening meal. You see each day has a special menu for the evening meal. These meals are planned out, in some cases, a year in advance. This is no small affair. It’s hard to describe this without sounding a little silly, but on these trips every aspect of this “free time” is so integral, so important, so valuable, that nothing is done in a casual manner. From your tackle to your t-shirts, you plan it out.
The evening meal has taken on this elevated importance over the years for several reasons. The first of which is an easy one. If you’ve ever spent a few days in the open air of the North Woods you know that as you fill your lungs with the clean air of freedom, you’re merely breathing life into a man-sized appetite. For some reason, time spent outdoors, on the lake, in the sun tends to lead to a profound hunger.
But there are other reasons why the evening meal is important. In most cases it is truly the last part of every day. In the summer, the sun stays up until late into the evening. Most of the time, it’s light out until well past 9:00 PM and so you fish. You fish right up until you can’t see the cooler. Then you talk about, thinking about, starting to consider going in for the day. Also, when you finally pull for shore and join up with the rest of the gang, there’s a good chance you have not seen some of them since that morning. Some days we stick together, some days we don’t. So the arrival back at the camp is potentially a big deal. This is the “weighing in” ceremony. Everyone tries to pull their outboard into camp and step down on the beech with no visible expression to betray their success or failure. There must be a certain pause before each team of two men (we usually fish two to a boat) draws their stringer from the water and the audience on shore either ooh’s or boo’s.
A light stringer is really nothing to be ashamed of. It means you had a great day fishing. Not so much catching, as fishing. That, among these men, is a successful day.
But a stringer full of nice chunky Walleye, on the other hand, that is truly a thing of beauty. It’s hard not to tear-up when one of your buddies pulls out a stringer with six, or seven nice looking fish. Occasionally a team will attempt the big “psyche-out” by which I mean they will display their stringer, usually not an impressive one, but then, just when you think they’re done showing their catch... WHAT’S THIS ???… they suddenly produce a truly magnificent fish from ANOTHER stringer !!! As if to say, “You didn’t really think that first stringer was all we caught today, did you?”
A well executed Psyche-out is a joy for all.
So here’s where you are…. you woke up early, DID NOT GO TO WORK, spent the day with a good friend, on the lake, fishing, drinking beer, eating summer sausage, smoked oysters, salted nut rolls, and baby carrots, always washed down with about 3.4 bph (beers per hour). You actually caught some nice fish. You’ve arrived back at the camp and are enjoying the re-telling of everyone else’s day, which in some cases is better than experiencing their actual day. And now you have to ask, what lies ahead? The answer: The Campfire and Supper.
It’s too much really. You’ve already been pleasured all day. You’ve discussed tackle, football, marriage, work, retirement, whether you prefer to undress the woman, or watch her undress herself….. you’ve discussed everything that matters. You’ve had a whole day of relaxing and living and not had to try at all. It was not an effort. It was a naturally enjoyable day. But that’s just it. It’s not over yet. As you pull into camp, the fire is already started. (first one in starts the campfire). In fact, that’s usually what made you head in in the first place. If you wrap up your fishing anywhere near the camp, chances are it was the campfire that ultimately convinced you to pull up the bait and head in.
The campfire is a key element. It is the capstone. A perfect day, by definition, can only be discussed by the fire. This is where the real wisdom, the incredible depth of communal intelligence is really brought to bear. I am living a better life, in part because of the discussions I’ve had around the fire.
If you’re lucky, your clothes will take on the smoky smell of the campfire. I have certain sweatshirts that I leave around for months after a fishing trip just to get a whiff of that fire from time to time. If I could develop a fabric softener that makes clothes smell like that, I guarantee you, even Wall Street would begin to smell like the woods.
The fire itself can be a topic of intense debate. How to stack the wood…the size of the next log, the exact placement, how much to poke the embers, and where precisely to disturb the pile to release the hidden flame. It is a lost art. It is a learned skill. It is a magic place to be.
As for the discussion itself, it varies. Some nights it’s almost silent around the fire. Other nights can be deep and personal. There is no agenda. Each man knows the same truth. Thinking almost as ONE, we sense what the others are feeling, what the others are needing and without question, we are willing to provide that.
There is usually a short period of time between when all the members have gathered around the fire, and when supper is actually ready. It’s during that time that one can truly measure a good day.
If there’s one universal rule among this clan it’s this: “You must always have something to look forward to.” There must always be something of importance on your horizon like an approaching dream. I think that applies to the short term as well as the long term. Part of what makes my months away from the lake enjoyable, is the certain knowledge that I will eventually be back by the fire. Part of what makes a day of fishing that much more enjoyable, is the certain knowledge that I will eventually be back by the fire. Whether it’s eight months away, or eight hours away, it’s the fire that centers us.