I recognize a sharp character flaw among outdoorsmen of all sorts—an uncontrollable urge to exaggerate—particularly after an excursion to a wilderness such as northern Manitoba. Permit me to treat you to a few horror stories of the Great North Woods. I promise to debunk them all.
Mobs of Tourists
Multitudes of crude drinking-age folk and their dirty urchins shack up in run-down resorts and shabby private cabins. They dot the shores and pollute these once-fine waters. Long, loud lines form at boat ramps. Rough individuals engage in open hostility.
Huge speedboats, stinking of gasoline and oil, cut across fishermen’s lines. Meanwhile, high-speed suicide boats equipped with 150 horsepower motors shoot up rooster tails of greasy water as they propel themselves gunnel to gunnel at 70 miles per hour in a desperate competition for the rare undisturbed fishing spot.
That may be true of many waters one might fish. But my experience is entirely different. Ours is THE ONLY LODGE ON THE LAKE. I am speaking of a body of pristine water almost FIFTY MILES LONG with close to 150 islands! Dense forest surrounds us for hundreds of miles. NO ROADS. That is correct sir! Our magazine staff and I have the place all to ourselves and for a span of four days, we OWN this vast stretch of wilderness paradise.
Yes, I must congratulate Jonelis, no matter what anybody says about the man. He picked a plumb spot! This is the NORTHSTAR RESORT on KNEE LAKE, MANITOBA—one of the newest of Chicago’s startups.
“Chicago Startup?” you ask. “Aren’t you gentlemen thousands of miles north of that distinguished metropolis?”
- Most all the patrons either hail from Chicago, once enjoyed that honor, or pass through O’Hare Field on their way here.
- This is Northstar’s first full season.
I submit that they qualify as a Chicago Startup.
We are guests of the Cree Nation and they provide abundant hospitality. This is Cree water—a protected Trophy Northern Pike Lake. Professional management handles the lodge. The Cree handle our boats, chop our wood, fillet and cook our fish. Most important of all, they bring us to the best fishing spots. My only responsibilities are fishing, eating, drinking, gambling, and indulging in the time-honored tradition of gross exaggeration.
One note—Manitoba Law: Barbless hooks. Artificial lures. All pike released unharmed. But consider—if we kept them all, our boats would sink from the weight of our daily catch. These fish live to bite again and according to local lore, some of the largest pike have names.
Pike Set Free
I hear ugly reports of outdoor privies with no walls or roof whatsoever—one’s rump exposed to swarms of biting flies and mosquitoes, and interested bystanders.
My experience is entirely different. No pit toilets here. The plumbing is all indoors—modern, new and clean. Hot and cold running water. Showers. Facilities that rival fine hotels.
I have heard a typical base camp described as a set of rotting clapboard shacks or moldering canvas tents dating back to frontier times, swarming with biting flies, mosquitoes, and other vermin, and periodically overrun by man-eating bears.
Perhaps one can find such conditions if looking for trouble, but my experience is entirely different. I find solidly and exquisitely constructed log cabins gorgeously appointed with appropriate and tastefully rustic furniture. Everything is meticulously maintained. Tight-fitting screens grace all windows and the roofs do not leak. We sleep upon firm new mattresses and choose between wood fire and electric heat. The lodge generates its own electricity.
The main lodge boasts a full commercial kitchen, bar, billiards, and poker tables. Yes, they spared no expense constructing this magnificent facility.
I must admit that a bear pays us a kind visit. The abundant scent of cooking explains the presence of this noble predator. The kitchen staff wastes no time chasing the animal off with angry shouts and vigorous gesticulations.
I hear agonized complaints of Black Flies so thick they crawl across your eyeballs and into your mouth. The Mosquito is called the National Bird and you are out of Deet.
That is enough, sir! Permit me to address this repeated barrage of braggadocio regarding swarming insects. Fishermen love to blather about such things in polite conversation. I will set the record straight forthwith. Canada has no national bird. Manitoba’s provincial bird is the Great Grey Owl. Our sightings of flying creatures include the Bald Eagle, the Golden Eagle, and the Blue Heron.
It is true that some fishermen who have not done their research arrive at these shores during Black Fly Season. Such is the price of ignorance! But a well-designed lodge is strategically perched on a high peninsula where cool lake breezes waft away flying vermin. I do not require insect repellent on this entire trip!
According to popular wisdom, there is no protection in an open boat. Exposed to the elements all day, one is cold and miserable. You endure constant driving rain and sleet. You are constantly wet from head to foot, your energy and spirits entirely sapped.
It is true that on this trip, we experience the full range of weather. One day reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit and finds me decked out in short pants, my pale hairy legs exposed for all the wildlife to see. The next day brings wind and rain but in my Gore-Tex rain gear, it cannot touch me. The next day is refreshingly cold, but the simple addition of an insulated sweatshirt turns my rain gear into winter garb. I laugh at the weather, sir! Laugh, I say!
I am full to the eyeballs with stories of leaky boats with motors that sputter, stutter, then die. Others tell of harrowing canoe romps, paddling until—I suppose until one cannot paddle any longer. Your frail craft pitches in the waves miles from shore as you frantically bail water from the bottom.
My experience is entirely different. We explore this enormous lake in comfortable fishing boats—ample even for Bill Blaire, the Paul Bunyan of Chicago. These boats are tricked out with carpeted casting decks and plush swivel seats. Depth finders and live wells. Ice coolers and communication radios. Fine big motors and guides to operate them.
I am told that for breakfast, a surly cook serves up execrable mush slopped into dirty leaking bowls.
Up here, we awake to the heady aroma of bacon and eggs, flapjacks with real maple syrup, Red River cereal, and piping-hot coffee. We congregate at the well-appointed main lodge and roll up our sleeves to punish that food in a proper manner. Blaire asserts that bacon is a basic food group and I concur. He didn’t attain such gargantuan stature eating boiled vegetables.
I am led to believe that, likely as not, we will catch nothing fit to eat. At noon, we may be 20 miles or more from the lodge and will go hungry till supper. “Bring sandwiches,” they say. Then they go on to suggest peanut butter and jelly or cold canned beans shoveled down the gullet in a pitching boat.
First let me state unequivocally that we suffer no difficulty catching our lunch. The only delay in capturing fat delicious Walleye are trophy Northern Pike that grab our twister tails before the jigs can reach the bottom. Many times, we hook two of these savage water wolves at once! To be fair, I must admit that the Walleye grab the Pike baits too.
After a full morning exerting oneself in the raw elements, no food on earth tastes better than freshly caught walleye! Walleye is a delicacy served in the finest restaurants but these are not anonymous fish—no sir, these are OUR walleye. This is an important point if you wish to understand the joys of a wilderness excursion. An intimate connection with the source of food is emotionally satisfying in a profound way. I admit it is difficult to convey the feeling in words. One must experience such a thing to appreciate the bliss it engenders in one’s whole being.
Permit me to expound upon our lunch experience because it gives me a great deal of pleasure. Every day, our boats rendezvous at a different rocky island and we conclave among the jack pine and birch to tell lies and drink beer. Meanwhile, the guides fillet our fish, chop wood, and start a bonfire on which they will cook our meal. Yes sir—we indulge in that glorious, overwhelmingly delightful tradition known as SHORE LUNCH. To those of you lucky enough to experience this ritual please indulge me while I explain it to the uninitiated.
.While the food cooks, we explore the island, beer in hand. Naturally, everyone is in jovial spirits. Kren casts a line from shore. Ludditis snaps a photo of Jonelis and Bill Blair. For some reason they wear camouflage. Strange. Can it be that those two actually believe fish cannot see them when dressed in such garb?
Jonelis and Bill Blair in Camo
The head guide calls us to table. Our first shore lunch yields deep-fried walleye with onions and potatoes, hot beans and corn. To my tastes, this represents the ultimate in wilderness cuisine. I am subsequently proven wrong. The next day, we are introduced to Walleye with peppers and sharp seasoning. The day following that, they roll out Honey Garlic Walleye! I squeeze my eyes closed to concentrate fully on that exquisite flavor! I will always remember shore lunch as the pinnacle of life as we know it.
On this particular day, Alexander Harbinger is first to spot a floatplane headed directly to our island. The plane lands on the water and taxies to a rock slab. Out the door pops the manager, dressed in his Sunday best, balancing a platter high like a professional waiter. Martinis in long stemmed glasses! I tell you sir this is my idea of roughing it!
After a full meal, we lay about on huge slabs of rock, looking perhaps like beached whales. Jim Kren finds sleeping quarters more to his liking. If this is the wilderness, we lack for nothing.
On this lake, I bring a mug along on the boat and dip it in the freezing water whenever the thirst takes me—no ice cubes required. And I suffer no unseemly maladies whatsoever!
I have it on competent authority that fishermen typically sit in boats all day and return perhaps with a small bass and a couple puny pike of no account.
Up here, we are well beyond the habitat of the Bass and Musky. The great Northern Pike is king and grows to prodigious proportions not seen further south. The lake is virgin. They do not even stock it! No sir! Yet, a man can almost walk on water across the backs of these ferocious predators.
And indeed, our hearty crew experiences glorious fishing with a pike strike about every five casts. The only impediment to a man landing 150 worthy fish is overindulgence in Canadian beer. There is no other excuse sir! And I repeat—they do not stock the lake! These fish are aggressive! Large Pike attack anything we attempt to bring to boat, including their own kind!
This is akin to pulling pan fish out of a favorite fishing hole one after another. But we are throwing heavy lures on stout lines and steel leaders. We cast with rigid rods at toothy giants that savagely attack the bait with a jolt that sends a shiver down a man’s shoulder. These fish splash gallons of water, jump and dance on their tails, roll up in your line, dive under the boat, and generally do everything possible to escape. With barbless hooks, it requires only a momentary slack in one’s line and the fish is free! Repeated tug-a-war matches such as these strain a man’s entire body.
No one can call a pike fisherman lazy!
No Night Life
Friends who travel to the wild tell of returning after a day of howling rain to dark leaky quarters buzzing with biting flies and mosquitoes. In total exhaustion and utter defeat, the intrepid explorers crawl under inadequate blankets and share body heat with friendly field mice, marmots and perhaps a snake or two.
.I have yet to see these vermin you continually reference, sir! We are back in the shelter of our fine log cabin. Weary but satisfied, I treat myself to a warm shower and then slip into the white terrycloth robe kindly placed on my king-size bed by the excellent maid staff.
.We all indulge in cocktails while Jonelis grills thick steaks on the deck in full view of the lake.
After a satisfying meal, we repair to the lodge for a night of poker and aggressive wagering. You may criticize such vice, but in defense of the entire group, let me point out that cards provide scant diversion after the experiences of such a day unless real money is at stake. We trade our petty empires back and forth across that table. Seated around me are men who know how to live!
Sweet Home Chicago
Too soon we find ourselves in the magazine’s corporate offices—the backroom of Ludditis Shots & Beer where you find the best potato pancakes in town. Jonelis raises his feet to his battered WWII Air Force desk. I raise a jigger of Sour Mash and read the words emblazoned upon his shirt: SURGEON GENERAL WARNING: FISHING IS EXPENSIVE, ADDICTIVE, AND MAY LEAD TO AN UNCONTROLLABLE URGE TO EXAGGERATE.
Our Corporate Offices
The Real Thing
Ludditis discovers an online video that shows, in slow motion, a Northern Pike attacking its prey. I place it here for your edification.
Northstar Resort on Knee Lake can be reached at northstarresort.ca Northstar Resort makes no endorsement of the statements and views expressed in this article.
Photographs by John Jonelis and Donatas Ludditis
Video of Pike Strike from Underwater-Ireland.com
T-shirt text ©earthSUNmoon.
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