My formative years were spent in a first ring Chicago suburb. I’d get to Western Illinois farmland and to some lakes in Wisconsin, but I was a city kid. I was used to alleys and gangways. My dad wasn’t much of an outdoors type of guy, he was certain that his blood was a delicacy for mosquitos. Needless to say, we never had a family camping trip. The first time I slept in a tent, it was in a basement at a friends’ house.
I went fishing twice as a child, once when I was little and skinny with my Uncle Jim in Illinois and I caught a few bullheads in a pond out back of his friends' hobby farm. The other time I was about twelve and fished off the dock in Elkorn, Wisconsin and caught a bunch of bluegills. The only other fish I caught was a one and a half pound rainbow trout. I guessed a ping pong ball number at a fair and they gave me the fish. I then gave it to my grandfather who cracked the head of the flopping beast on the edge of his cast iron white chipped sink.
The only college that accepted my mediocre academic record and government loans was a Catholic school in Minnesota. I came to visit and was impressed with the cleanliness and the sandstone buildings and a giant elm in the middle. As time progressed, I realized that there were more than colloquialisms in Minnesota, there were ways of life. Certain things, like the Blue sky.
Take the game, Duck, Duck, Goose for instance. Here in Minnesota they say, “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck!”. They go around the circle and say, “Yellow duck, green duck, blue duck, crazy duck, Gray Duck!” . Minnesotans also actually obey don’t walk signs on stop lights. I soon discovered that the cleanliness was for the love of golf. Minnesotans totally love golf. They also love fishing and ”Going up nort to the lake”. Most of the, “Up Nort” cities have mascots or oddities in the form of giant statues or something. World records most of them. These lake cities boom in population in the summer and swindle down to town in the harsh winter.
Folks love fishing here and I’m a novice. I’d never even been camping in my whole life when I was eighteen years old. No tent, no campfire, nothing. Minnesotans are nice and stuff so all my cronies drafted me on a trip to the Boundary waters canoe area wilderness for a week long journey after our Freshman year. No motorized boats are allowed in the Boundary waters, just canoes. You pay for a nine dollar permit and map your way through inland lakes and rapids. The maps also measure portages, which are areas you have to carry your canoe and supplies over land to another water source, these portages are measured in “rods” A rod is the standard measurement of a canoe, 16.5 ft long.
I was going with a swell bunch of seven good eggs. Six guys had lived in Minnesota their whole lives, the other cat, my good friend and canoe partner, Jim was a stoner from Omaha, Nebraska who had spent less time in the out of doors than me. Our friends chuckled at us as they sped away from our launching site while Jim and I tried to get a feel for the circles we were spinning. We finally started to move forward and baded a wake in the crystal still waters.
When we caught up to the convoy, two canoes were casting into some tall reeds near a beaver den. We passed and it seemed like they were pulling snakes into the boat.
”Shore lunch fellas!”, They laughed
Paddling is a tough go and when we reached our first portage it was comical the way Jim and I carried together the canoe, like blind mice over lichen covered stone moved by glaciers too long before. We didn’t know that our party had let us off easy, just carrying our own bags, no supplies or Duluth packs.
Later, Jim and I eased into a groove and the still September afternoon grew warm. We were packing pinchies the whole way and mowing on trail mix when the guys ahead pulled over to a break. The Minnesota natives spun to work. Most of them were old pals and knew the dynamics of a functional camp. A fire was started and fish were cleaned. A coffee can with two holes punched near the top of either side was looped with a wire clothes hanger as a handle. The plastic cover came off.
”Eh. Bob, put these potatoes in some tin foil with some oil. ‘K?” My friend Mike said to me, handing me a roll of tin foil and a bag of potatoes. Then he pointed to the oil.
I poked holes in the potatoes with a fork and then coated them with oil, salt and pepper, I rolled a few garlic cloves and an onion in each tightly bound lump of tin foil.
The fire was getting a good bed of coals and they told me to put my potatoes on the edge of the embers.
The coffee can was half filled with lard. Mike put the can directly on top of the burning logs in the fire and stoked it. He tore off the paper of two large cans of baked beans and opened them with a can opener from a pocket knife. He put the beans on the side embers with my potatoes.
Everybody was in good spirits and I was breathing easy. I was hungry and stoned and soaking up all the poplar and pine. They were all talking about a steak dinner and I didn’t understand. I had essentially given Mike about twenty bucks because he had said that was the cost of the trip. I thought maybe we were stopping at an Inn on one of the lakes for dinner.
They dipped the fillets of fish into a an egg batter and then put the wet fillets into a broken up bag of potato chips. The coated fillet then went into the bubbling pot of lard followed by another and chunk after another. The pieces came out golden brown and delicious. We unwrapped our potatoes and had some beans and went back out on our way to our campsite thinking of steak for dinner.