Along with the ease of my paddle slipping into the murky waters came a comforting sense of once again being one with the Minnesota River. An intermittent facing breeze riffled the waters as we pushed off from the Wegdahl landing between Granite Falls and Montevideo heading upriver. This was my first paddling of the year and my shoulder weakness, particularly on the left side, was apparent.
“Tom,” I said to my longtime friend, paddling and fishing partner, outdoor writer Tom Cherveny. “Give me a little time to find my rhythm. It’s been a long winter.”
“No problem,” came his response. This wouldn’t be the first time he has “pushed me through.” We’ve paddled canoes for many years of our friendship. On the Minnesota as well as the other upper Minnesota River tributaries, on several area “motor-less” lakes and in the BWCA. Cherveny is an experienced and excellent paddling partner, and on this lazy Saturday afternoon our quest was to bring home a stringer of channel catfish.
For years we would slip into a canoe in his hometown of Granite Falls and paddle downstream to the then Minnesota Falls dam, which we would portage around before having a picnic lunch while angling in the waters below the dam. Fortunately the dam is now only a memory as the river has been returned to a natural state of interesting rapids. Typically that trip would happen in April or early May, which meant it was usually the second or third of our annual springtime paddles.
For many years we would tackle the stretch between Wegdahl and Granite as soon as the river was freed from ice, and sometimes that meant putting in as early as the first weekend of March. Death water, and only once did it cause heart palpitations. That was a spring of extremely high water, and the current from above was colliding with the water being backed up by the dam to cause our canoe to rollick and roll in the frigid waters. No one would have survived a capsize in that combination of unrestrained currents and the near freezing water temperature. Otherwise it was a wonderful trip for observing geese, ducks and eagles, which seemed plentiful on every bend of the river.
Eagles were scarce Saturday afternoon, and we saw only a couple of pair of Canada Geese. Wood ducks were plentiful, though, and broke often from the wooded banks and from the trees on the entire paddle upriver to the first major turn after the straightaway … probably a couple of river miles upstream.
The water wasn’t extremely high on this jaunt, yet it was high enough that we canoed easily over the rapid field as if it didn’t exist. Tom’s idea was to paddle upriver against the current to the bend heading due east. This bend heads into the long lower leg of the wide “u” that then takes two 45 degree turns before the river cruises beneath the Highway 212 bridge toward Prein’s Landing just outside of the city limits of Montevideo.
It wasn’t long before my shoulder muscles warmed up enough to ease into the routine so I could take some of the paddling pressure off Tom in the stern. Our route was accented by dimpled reddish hues of springtime buds on trees along the banks of the river, adding to the beautiful fleeting color of the wood ducks … perhaps the most beautiful of the duck species if not the entire avian universe.
And certainly, after all of the rain these past few weeks, seeing a cloudy yet sunny sky was a blessing. If there was a “down” on the afternoon paddle it was the drone of traffic on the parallel highway. When I’m driving on the highway, though, passing this stretch of the river brings back many memories of paddling through here over the many years; along, of course, with the many fishing memories. Our afternoon would add to those, no doubt.
In high water a temporary island appears on the first turn after the Wegdahl bridge, and just past the island along the bank is a deadfall that seems to always produce some nice catfish. This would be our last stop on the way home a few hours later.
When we eventually reached our intended destination at the top bend of the straightaway, where a small stream eases through the woods to empty into the river, I pulled my cellphone from the Ziplock to take a picture of the stream. A split second later as I was slipping it back into the bag, a deer suddenly bolted from the woods and leapt across the stream. “Shit!” I shouted. “That missed picture will haunt me for the rest of my life!”
“It probably isn’t your only missed picture,” came the response from the stern. How true.
Once tethered to a branch of a deadfall, our lines went into the waters and the wait began. Fishing is another term for the wait, and conversations between old friends and writers ensued. These are some of my favorite moments. Tom has paddled probably every lake in the BWCA at some point, and has hundreds of stories. I’ve begged him for years to put those memories into a book.
Here’s one: Years ago a Scout Troop leader, Dan Stephens, inexplicably left his canoe and group in search of a portage, and lost his balance hopping over a rock in the deep woods and was knocked unconscious, resulting in confusion and a concussion. His was one of the two stories in the book “Lost in the Wild” (by Cary J. Griffith, Borealis Books). Griffith writes of a paddler’s group that was stopped by rescuers and asked to break down Stephens’ camp and drop off his tent and other items at the headquarter’s office in Ely. That “group” was Cherveny and his sons.
On Saturday he had another interesting tale involving a bear hunting companion with serious health issues who joined him on a hunt in the BWCA this past September. When Tom returned from his post his friend was nowhere to be found, and due to his friend’s heart condition and bad knees, the time of day and temperature, Tom called for help from the search and rescue squad. This resulted in a massive manhunt that included manpower on the ground plus a helicopter and float plane. Around dusk he was found two lakes and a muddy marshland away, and hopelessly lost when the helicopter pilot spied the man’s campfire.
I mean, what better way to spend a springtime afternoon than catfishing and listening to another Cherveny tale? Not all of the stories, though, are as dramatic as these.
As the afternoon passed, we began bringing catches to the gunwales. We normally do rather well with the rods, and this was no different. Tom was in the stern last summer and netted my 8 lb. walleye, and years before he witnessed a great hour of wilderness walleye fishing below a falls in a BWCA lake when I used a deer hair jig I had made. On this afternoon I personally landed three different species of fish, including a nice channel, and Tom did even better on the catfish as we worked our way back down river toward the landing. Wood ducks, and a huge turkey tom, made their appearances on our way back before we stopped at the deadfall just upriver of the island.
Besides the fish, a few reflection photos found their way onto my cell phone to help ease the pain of my missed photograph of the leaping deer. Little did any of it matter as much as simply being out on the Minnesota sharing a commune of nature with an old friend. As a late prairie wordsmith and colleague, Whoopy Warrings, was prompt to say, “A great time was had by all!”