We paddled around a final slab of granite and peered into the bay. This was the moment of truth. And my friend Mark, paddling alongside, liked what he saw.
“I think my favorite camp in the whole world is secured,” he muttered softly.
A canoe was pulled up on shore, and two figures moved about the spacious camp. Two other members of our six-person crew had paddled on ahead of us and had already hauled their packs up a gentle rise beneath a stand of Norway pines.
The camp was ours for the Minnesota fishing opener and several days beyond. No doubt we were the first paddlers this year to arrive at the site, not far from the Ontario border north of Ely.
We were welcomed by a ruffed grouse drumming in the woods just behind camp, once emerging from the woods to see just who had intruded upon his courting grounds. He would drum every few minutes during the five days that followed, his muffled thumping like some kind of heartbeat in the forest.
We were on the early end of spring in the North. The water was frigid, surely just a few degrees above freezing. We would find remnant snow in a bay where we cleaned fish one evening. But all of us have been doing this for 40 years or so. We have the right clothes.
Thus began the idyllic daily ritual that we all love — fires, fishing, friendship. We would eat a hearty breakfast around a good blaze. We would venture out to jig for walleyes and crappies. We would clean the fish on a downed pine away from camp. Someone would carry the leavings up the hill, where a bald eagle sat in a pine awaiting his lunch.
We’d paddle back to our home in the bay, where the camp grouse drummed.
One other party of anglers was camped just down the lake. We would see them daily, as they ventured off to their own walleye haunts. Maybe one additional party would pass by each day, headed for points unknown, carrying along their own aspirations or traditions. They’d wave. We’d wave. They looked good out there on the water, leaning into their strokes, packs riding amidships — much the way paddlers have looked for eons in this country.
We watched them pass until they rounded a point. And the camp grouse drummed.
As we moved to and from our fishing holes, spring happened. A mist of new green appeared on the aspen ridges. One midday, 12 painted turtles sunned on a floating log. A pair of trumpeter swans glided across a still bay.
We devoured Ken’s sumptuous meals morning and night. He baked cinnamon rolls — from scratch — for breakfast. One night, after we all came back chilled and weary from fishing into the dusk, he whipped up a pizza — also from scratch.
We kindled good fires and kept them stoked. And we told stories. Six guys. Forty or 50 years apiece in this country. We have stories. They are not tall tales. They are not told with exaggeration or to impress. They are told because they bind us together and because they remind us of the ones who are no longer here. Or who are just no longer in camp.
In the silence between the stories, some of us may have imagined a time when our stories would be told and we would not be there to hear them.
And the camp grouse drummed.