IN THE BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA WILDERNESS, Minn. -- Most times on these winter trips a campfire is lit as much for heat as for cooking. This particular Thursday had begun cloudy with the wind blowing a good clip. We thought upon our arrival on Basswood Lake a fire would be needed. But by then the sun had broken through and the breeze was barely strong enough to rustle the needles of the long pine boughs that canopied the shoreline.
We had come to fish for northern pike though thick ice. Basswood is a giant of a lake and is home to good numbers of these fish. Officially, the state record Esox lucius was caught in Basswood in 1929, a fish anchored in the record books at 45 pounds, 12 ounces. Whether such a behemoth was actually winched from this border water is an open question. But then suspect records aren't limited to angling, as Lance Armstrong can attest.
We had guided four teams of dogs to Basswood, each configured by Stu McEntyre, a longtime friend from Ely who has been around winter travel since childhood. For many years he raced dogs throughout Canada and Alaska. Now with his wife, Jeanne, he runs winter sled dog adventures into the boundary waters. December through March, Stu might be in the bush five days out of seven.
Also along on our northern pike adventure were Todd Snell of Oakdale and Mark Lindeberg of Stillwater. Additionally, Stu's daughter, Shelby, 19, a capable musher herself, made the trip, this time riding in her dad's sled and watching ahead as the flailing legs of her favorite canines used up ground like frightened deer.
Jumping off from Fall Lake, we had loaded a hand auger, a cooler, a cook stove, tip-ups, extra clothing, frozen ciscoes and minnows into the sleds. Also among our cargo were first-aid supplies, folding chairs, a gaff, knives, a cook kit and a tape measure, the latter to accurately gauge the length of any fish we might pull through the ice.
Winding across Fall Lake, our route to Basswood crossed Four Mile Portage, whose narrow track was traveled generations ago by the Chippewa, also by French voyageurs and, more recently, by fishermen in motorboats.
Now by government fiat, the circle has come fully around, and travel in this part of the wilderness is by primitive means only: foot, paddle or running dog.
"It's great country in winter," Stu said. "We have people come from all over the world to travel by dog sled."
Years ago on such trips the occasional moose might be encountered. Or at least moose tracks. On this Thursday, we saw none. Also no eagles or ravens, though we did pinpoint two pileated woodpeckers, brightly colored birds whose tortuous wing beats suggest the tenuousness of all flight.
Barking like lunatics while being harnessed, the dogs fell quiet while running, leaving only the whoosh of the sleds' runners to interrupt the great white silence.
An hour and a half later, we were on Basswood.
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At first, our fish-catching prospects appeared bleak.
We had drilled half a dozen holes in the ice and were using tip-ups.
Each time a flag on one of these ancient contraptions was triggered upward, presumably by a fish taking the bait dangling below, we descended upon it like vultures on carrion.
Usually this involved short sprints through deep snow, at the end of which one or more of us peered breathlessly through 3 feet of drilled ice.
But each time we either missed the fish entirely, or lost it on the retrieve, without seeing its size or even whether it was a northern pike.
"Next time I'm not going to set the hook, I just going to pull it up steadily," Todd said.
But that ploy didn't work either, and with noon fast approaching, Stu put a match to a pot of wild rice soup, also hot chocolate, accompanied by a spread of sausage, cheese and crackers.
Such distractions, oftentimes, can tweak an outing's karma in favor of the sportsman or sportswoman. Some question this. But the fact remains a watched pot boils only slowly, if at all.
In any event, we had barely immersed our spoons into Jeanne's excellent chowder when another flag jumped up, and another still.
Both would result in pike on the ice.
The first was small, while the second -- caught by Mark -- was huge.
And a high-wire act.
"I can see him," Mark said finally, after attempting to eyeball for long minutes what exactly hung from the end of his line.
Whatever it was -- and it appeared now to be a big northern -- had taken a frozen cisco in about 8 feet of water, then refused to point its nose into the bottom of the drilled hole.
The water was dark, with ice chips covering its surface, a disadvantage to Mark as he attempted to maneuver the fish into position.
Mark was pulling straight up now, while I stood alongside, gaff in hand, looking for an opportunity to help.
I wouldn't hurt the fish, which we would release in any event. If I could, I would lip-hook it to help get it onto the ice.
That didn't happen.
Instead, just as the anvil-like head of an immense northern pike emerged into daylight ... Mark's line broke.
Dropping the gaff, I clamped the pike's girth with both hands and heaved it onto the ice.
Get the tape.
And the fish was released.
Overhead, now in early afternoon, scudding clouds appeared in an otherwise blue sky, and the temperature rose to perhaps 20 degrees,
Reheating the soup, we joined in the happy talk familiar to all successful anglers, while not far away the dogs that would take us home curled in the snow.
Then another flag jumped, and another, and another still.
Each yielded northerns, the biggest of which, caught by Todd, was nearly a clone of Mark's hefty specimen.
On the return trip, we saw no pileated woodpeckers.
But fresh rabbit tracks crisscrossed the Four Mile Portage, good pickings, Stu said, for a great-horned owl that had migrated down from Canada for the winter to feast on these furry critters.
Our morning's sled tracks were nearly drifted over on Fall Lake, the wind having pushed snow across this great open expanse.
Still, the dogs found their way, jogging determinedly, tongues hanging, happy enough to make the trip and happy also to be heading home.
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