The year in graduate school was one of the best years of my young life. Judy and I celebrated two years of marriage, I had a full ride scholarship, which meant I didn’t have to work at all, just go to classes. There weren’t even any teaching assistant duties. The guys I was going to school with were a lot of fun, too. One of the professors, Dan K, had an idea for us the week after school was out in June of 1973.
A dozen of us piled into two old vans along with several canoes, twelve pounds of coffee and several pints of whiskey. We headed north for seven hundred miles to Flin Flon, Manitoba. That’s the farthest north I’ve ever been. Then we continued north for more miles to get to the lake. It’s hard to remember now where we ended up, there aren’t a lot of roads there even today. After parking the vans we paddled for several hours and a couple of portages. This was wilderness. More wild, and more remote than the Boundary Waters. We set up camp on a point, high above the lake. The view was fantastic and there was room for all the tents and a large fire pit. Down by the lake there was a place to clean the fish and pull in the canoes. We settled in for a week of fishing, eating, telling stories and canoeing around the lake.
The old guys, a couple of college professors who were maybe thirty or thirty-five years old, led the group, but as I think about it now, they didn’t try very hard to teach us the ropes. Being college kids, we didn’t have much money for fancy camping gear, and certainly no time to learn how to drive a canoe. My shortcoming was foul weather gear. For the week we were there, we had only one day of serious rain. My preparation for rain was an Army surplus poncho. Complete with dozens of pin holes that only showed up after a couple of hours of rain. Had it been cold, and it could have been that first week of June, my cotton clothes would have been an invitation to hypothermia. As I think back to all the other time we’ve camped, that week was a godsend. The goal of the trip was catching fish. Big fish. Walleye. Dan and his buddy were close to professional in their fishing skills. My student buddies were not that far behind them. I had borrowed a pole and other essential gear. We’d head out to fish right after breakfast, staying out most of the day, coming in late in the afternoon to clean and fry the fish. We’d go out three to a canoe. The other two guys in my canoe would try to teach me how to fish. Hopeless. Absolutely freaking hopeless. They’d be pulling in fish right and left. Nice big Northerns and Walleyes. I’d do everything they told me. Jiggle the line this way. Use this lure. Put the bait on like this. Nothing. Nada. Not even a nibble. I became a joke by the end of the first day. Nobody relied on me to catch dinner.
After a couple of days of that I’d convince the others who weren’t really into fishing that we should go exploring. There were fast rapids where the water flowed in from another lake. In another spot a rock barely poked above the water. On the other side of the lake was a huge beaver dam. Everywhere there was incredible beauty. Wandering around the lake, with no humanity within earshot, we reveled in nature. We must have put a hundred miles on the canoes. All week we saw maybe one or two other people. Fish for breakfast. Fish for lunch. And fish for dinner. Coffee in the morning. Whiskey in the evening. Story telling into the night. It was a glorious week.
This was early summer in far north Manitoba, Canada. We got lucky with nice weather, but even with sun and warm temperatures, the water remained in the forties. Washing up became a problem. Swimming was out, and taking the plunge to soap up just wasn’t in the cards. Shaving was out of the question. By the end of the week we stank of smoke, sweat and general filth. I do not remember what the inside of the vans smelled like on the way home.
The drive home was the second highlight of the week. Here in the states we’re used to good roads. In northern Manitoba they’re lucky to have roads. We learned that the “Bump Ahead” sign means “Slow down, you’re about to lose an axle.” Huge holes in the road. After the first one, we took it slow. In the twenty-first century we’re never out of touch. Everyone has a mobile phone. There is wi-fi seemingly everywhere. We had none of that when I was in college. The vans didn’t even have working radios. The first news we heard in ten days was at the border crossing when we entered the states. We were returning to the good old USA in mid-June of 1973. The Watergate hearings had just gone on television in the weeks before we left to go fishing. Based on what we heard before leaving, it wasn’t clear that the government would hold until we got back. The border guard gave us a complete update. We learned about John Dean and so much more.
If you don’t remember Watergate, it was possibly the biggest presidential scandal of the century, perhaps the biggest in the history of the republic. It ended with President Nixon resigning the presidency in the summer of 1974. I remember listening to the resignation announcement over the PA system while sitting at my IBM desk. The group of guys who went on that trip stayed close for a long time after that fishing trip.
That summer of ’73 we went camping almost every weekend. Those were glory days, as none of us had real jobs, school was pretty slow for us, even with classes. I had no classes, with only my MS thesis to complete. We had one sobering moment while camping at Professor Bob Longhenry’s cabin. This was over the Fourth of July. A glorious, sunny and warm day at the lake. We got to talking about the Flin Flon trip. What else would we talk about? That was the biggest thing we had done until then. Someone asked if we wore life jackets. Laughter all around. Unnecessary baggage, we said, they must have been somewhere in the canoe, used as a seat pad at best. Then the challenges started. Several beers and young men, what could go wrong? Two of us climbed into a canoe and paddled away from shore. I don’t remember life jacket status, but I remember the goal was to swamp the canoe and prove how easy it was to right it. HA! A beautiful, sunny and warm day on a calm lake. Nothing in the canoe except two healthy young men wearing swim suits. We dumped the canoe and attempted to right it.
Not a chance in heaven. Eventually we drifted to shore, sobered and thinking about what it would have been like to swamp a canoe full of gear in the middle of a forty degree lake, in the wind, bundled up in coats and boots. The possibilities were not pretty. Our wives were not too happy with us.
After that wonderful summer, we wanted to do it all again. We agreed that the Montreal Olympics in 1976 was our goal. That’s a wonderful story and a check off the bucket list. You’ll read that story later.
More pictures from the Flin Flon fishing trip. Click a photo for a slide show.