Once long ago I had traveled north of the Arctic Circle, but never saw the northern lights. As a boy I lived in Minnesota, but never wrestled with a northern pike.
In nine days of fishing last month in the Quetico Provincial Park of southern Ontario, however, I saw more wildnerness, more ionospheric fireworks and battled more pike, walleye, bass and trout than I could ever truthfully count.
The people who organized this trip and the outfitter who provisioned it have asked me not to disclose too much about the individual lakes and streams we fished. I admit that this might appear to be an artifice of questionable honor, but I am told that in the lore of fishermen it is acceptable to combat the herd instinct. I have, therefore, agreed to abide by it.
But I am also here to bear witness that no special skill is required to catch fish in these lakes. And any fisherman -- who knows that walleye like the current, and the smallmouth bass congregate near the bank and the pike lay off the points -- will map his own success story. In fact, our outfitter neglected to tell us about the hottest smallmouth area in the lake chain, which we discovered through careful intelligence gathering along the way. So my omissions are for the good of the reader and they come with my assurance that finding the fish on your own will be easy and gratifying to the ego.
The landscape of northern Minnesota and southern Canada is an archipelago of lakes whose basins were dug by the backhoes of the glacial age. Native Indians fished, flourished and worshipped lake serpents on these northern waters for centuries before New World timbermen discovered the virgin stands of pine. One of the most interesting sidelights to the canoeing and fishing is the search for the Indian rock paintings which depict moose hunting scenes, witch doctors and, in one sobering pictograph, the arrival of Western man firing a musket.
Another haunting display smeared on the face of a granite ledge was a collection of palm prints made by ancient Indian hands. They appeared on the rock just above the water line, as if to depict the owner's last slide into the deep.
Today, the scars of the timbermen have healed and the area now is preserved and access controlled by permit through the Canadian park service.
The Canadian government manages the wilderness area with a great sense of balance. Entry is only allowed to those who are willing to paddle and portage through the chain of lakes, unaided by internal combustion engines. Fishermen camp under strict rules barring glass containers and cans. We seldom found a piece of litter and carried all of ours out.
Under this regime the fish have prospered, saved from the ice chests of sportsmen who would otherwise harvest all the fish flesh that could be hauled out by motorboat and loaded into the maw of a thousand Frigidaires.
You eat what you catch or, more enjoyably, you turn them loose to heal and grow wiser.
I arrived in the canoe area at Lac La Croix, in the company of a family of fishing fanatics. Howell Raines, another Washington newsman, and his two sons, Jeff and Ben, needed a fourth to fill out the two-canoe party they had arranged through North Country Canoe Outfitters in Ely, Minn.
By floatplane from Duluth, Minn., we touched down at the Hilly Island Ranger Station on June 6 and armed with maps and compass and seven big portage packs crammed into two Old Town canoes, we set off into the teeth of a mini-gale that so whipped up the lake, we almost swamped in the first hour of paddling and lost our bearings. It was good that nature tested us early for it taught me an important lesson that endured for the rest of the trip -- don't trust a navigator who leaves his compass in his pack.
We recovered and the rest of the afternoon was spent in a diplomatic session of blame-laying. But this all was forgotten by the time we crossed our first portage into a neighboring lake and made camp, where Jeff Raines, testing his light spinning gear with a few casts of his golden Rappala lure off our camp sites hit a three pound smallmouth. This sent the rest of us scurrying for our tackle.
The fishing was good until dusk, which did not arrive until 9:30 p.m, and the fishing fanatics established a pattern early on that they were more interested in fishing than they were in eating or camping. I am not a complainer by nature and so it was somewhat embarrassing for me to carry the burden of arguing for an acceptable mix of fishing, eating and sleeping. I was generally voted down in these discussions and when I demurred on only two occasions to join the nightly fish hunt, my seat in the canoe was filled with rocks for balance and, I believe, to show how easily I could be replaced.
Each lake had its own personality and our outfitter used colored-coded markers on the maps to indicate good fishing areas and the best camp sites. The morning of the second day, just after we had portaged to our third lake, I hit a 10-pound pike. If the trip had ended there, I would have been content at having landed such a fish. We took his picture before slipping him back over the side.
The next morning we caught a dozen walleye as we pushed our canoes toward long series of portages along a river to several days of concentrated lake fishing farther east. There, we found trout near the surface, smallmouth on the shore and, in one lake, a singular population of hard hitting pike. It was in this pike-laden lake that we came upon a large female moose and her calf taking a swim.
The lake waters are cold in June, but we found a solar shower a great tonic. The mosquitos were moderately heavy at times. The long portages teach you the virtues of traveling light. If you take no other lure in your tackle box, stock up on golden and silver Rappalas, though I personally believe that a sharpened toenail would catch fish on these lakes.
Finally, the most pleasurable part of this trip -- aside from the fishing -- was the solitude. Most days we had the lake to ourselves, which is why, I guess, that these fellows are worried about the herd instinct.
Patrick Tyler is The Post's defense correspondent.