Friday, May 09, 2014

It's Eat or Be Eaten in Canadian Wilderness

I'm not your textbook fisherman. I know how to fish, I even like to fish. And I get a thrill of excitement whenever I actually get one on the line.

It's the actual touching of the fish that icks me out.

This was a problem when I would go for fly-in fishing trips to Canada with my father-in-law and brother-in-law. These are trips out to the Canadian wilderness, a part of North America that makes your weekend camping trip look like croissants and cappuccino at a sidewalk cafe. At least until I show up with a pair of gardening gloves and needle nose pliers to avoid any fishy contact.

The outfitter would fly us in on a Saturday, check on us on Wednesday to make sure no one died, and then picked us up the following Saturday. Since humans can live without food for three weeks, and it takes a few days for any waterborne disease to take kill you, we just had to wait for the plane to return and hope we didn't meet any bears.

"If something happens," they said, "go out to one of the islands and set it on fire. The fire service will be along shortly to check it out, and they can fly you out if someone is dying."

You bring your own food in, of course. No one wants to live only on fish. Besides, you have to have backup in case you get skunked for a day or two. One year, we were skunked for nearly four days, but we had plenty of food. Most years, you take food back, or leave it for the next group. That year, we were down to a few cans, and the others kept looking at me like I was a giant steak.

It's also a great time to eat food you don't normally eat, or aren't allowed to eat. You don't take wives on a trip like this, which means no carbs, no Paleo, no South Beach, no organic anything. If you want organic food, you look for it in the woods and hope you don't get trampled by a moose. But if a bear finds you, you are the tasty organic treat.

Hapless tourist: the other pink meat.

A good fisherman can fillet a fish without leaving any meat on the skin, leaving solid fillets that remain intact. A poor fisherman has mangled fillets that fall to bits while it's being cooked. The broken bits go to the chef while no one is looking. A sort of secret cooking gratuity.

My father-in-law is so good, he can fillet a fish in 10 second flat. The one time I tried, I did a better than average job, having watched him for five years. I just told him to make sure the fish were dead first — sometimes when he fillets fish, there's still a little, let's say, "spasming" left in them.

Whoever didn't clean the fish or cook dinner had to haul the guts in a plastic bucket to a nearby island for dumping. After I dumped the guts, I'd move away from the island and sit for a while, because I liked watching the scavenger birds fly in. So many fishermen have done this over the years, the birds know when it's dinnertime. It's a sort of a Pavlovian aviary response: boats come in, men stand around the table, a man goes back out in the boat, and it's time to eat.

The birds even had a hierarchy — a pecking order, if you will — about who went first. There was a bald eagle that would perch on the highest tree, while the delivery guy dropped off dinner. He went first. The other birds — hawks and crows, mostly — waited nearby for the eagle to make his move. Once he took his share, the rest pounced and fought over what was left.

It was weird to learn that our national bird was actually a carrion bird that eats leftover fish guts, and not a mighty hunter that preyed on America's foes and crapped fireworks. Benjamin Franklin may have had a point in lobbying for the wild turkey to be our national bird after all.

It's been several years since one of our fishing trips, and I can almost forget what it's like to be out there all alone. When it's very quiet, and I close my eyes, I can still hear the boat's motor as we trolled for walleye and pike, hoping and praying we catch enough to eat for dinner that night.

Because it's rather awkward to wake up and catch your fishing buddies standing over you with forks and a bottle of barbecue sauce twice in one week.

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