Friday, July 13, 2012

Of Sweat and Flannel

According to the all-seeing eye of the National Weather Service, we are now experiencing an official severe drought over here in my neck of the woods, with no rain in the foreseeable future.  Glad they cleared that up.  I'd been wondering why my lawn has taken on the shade of a blond roux, puzzling over my home smallie water, and its resemblance more to a rock garden than a stream at the moment.

Not only that, but we suffered brutal record temperatures most of last week.  I personally saw 106˚ accompanied by sopping wet dew points on two different occasions.  That's just uncalled for here in America's Dairyland.  When one travels from Wisconsin to warmer climes, towering mercury is a novelty, something to be braved and remarked upon.  I've experienced blast furnace Phoenix and jungle-wet Baton Rouge, among others.  They were all bearable, if not entirely enjoyable, only because I could say I'd done it.  Been there, did my best to make like a local.  When that same heat follows me home, smacks me on my sweaty red face, it's just soul-deadening.

I enjoy all seasons outside.  Point to a week on the calendar, I'll have a fair idea what I hope to be doing then; armed with rod, gun, foraging bag, or simply my favorite pair of boots.  If I were forced to arbitrarily lay aside a couple of those weeks, hop into one of those slightly creepy, claustrophobic stasis beds from a science fiction movie for a fortnight,  I freely admit I would aim for the bull's eye encompassing the dread high heat of summer.

I should be running to "my" stream after work these days.  No epic fishing excursions that take on lives of their own, mind you, merely a quick check-in a few times a week.  I know it better than any other water, and it produces fish for me most times I stop to visit.  Sadly, thanks to the combination of crushing heat and no rain, it has been rendered practically unfishable for the moment.  That is not the end of the world, it happens every few summers, but it does rob us of some of the joyful spontaneity of the fishing quickie.

If nothing were rotten in the state of Denmark, I'd also be gathering chanterelle mushrooms right now.  I can almost taste them, almost smell that earthy aroma, but I cannot find them, thanks to the parched earth tactics currently being employed by Mother Nature.  I checked my favorite spot late last week, neck crimson and sticky, salt stinging my eyes, only to confirm that there were no fungi to be found there.  It was a pleasant hike if you enjoy trudging up and down oak forested hillsides in a sauna.  The only squirrel I saw looked as hot and panty as I felt, and I think he wondered just what I was doing out there.  Similar thoughts had occurred to me.

Shortly thereafter, Trout Caviar's gorgeous pictures of a chanterelle-based salad served only to pique my envy and frustration.  Emotions might've grown a bit out of control were it not for his calming, nearly libidinous foodie photos and my minty mojito close at hand.

Of course, one can simply purchase the chanterelles I crave, but that always seems a touch boorish to me for some reason.  Much like wild game and sex, a man shouldn't have to pay for wild mushrooms if at all possible, but I am only human after all, and I caved to my need for the shrooms after only a few days of resistance. 

Fortunately, even in the presence of mirages shimmering off every flat surface under a pounding sun, acres of pastel clusters appear in the form of the milkweed flower.  Being half a Scandinavian mutt myself, I've pickled nearly everything short of a doorstop, or have enjoyed such treats pickled by others.  Smelt and pike, Brussels sprouts and ramps, eggs and asparagus and sugar snap peas-- even some cucumbers on occasion, but I've never pickled milkweed pods, which seems odd to me now as they do sort of resemble fat little gherkins.  I'd never even considered it, a personal shortcoming I hope to overcome post haste.

We denizens of the Midwest know well, however, that punishing heat and drought cannot last.  Living closer to the center of a massive continent than our compatriots nearer the coasts, we are lucky to experience a wider climatic range than those more temperate, consistent environs.  In short, we have seasons, and I, for one, am pretty happy about that.  Among my travels, I've also been in Tucson for a Badger bowl game near the new year holiday, and let me state plainly: garland on a saguaro does not Christmas make for this Yankee.

As the seasons of summer and winter are polar opposites, so are my feelings toward them.  Between the two, I'm a  praise-Jesus-and-pass-the-ammunition affirmed man of winter for many reasons, some of which I've stated here before.

I'm a gear and clothes nerd for one thing.  There is only so much pride of ownership to be found in a wicking t-shirt and a pair of shorts while earth bakes underfoot.  Conversely, when the snow flies and mercury burrows, there are entire hosts of fragrant wool and fleece to choose from.  Earnest discussions take place concerning the contrasts between natural and synthetic fibers as base layers.   Big chunky boots and a snug balaclava can make a man feel like a northern ninja ready for assault, whether the target be fish, fowl, or fur.  And alone in my ice shanty with only the glow of a lantern and comforting whir of the Vexilar, I find chilly, comfortable peace.

In summer a person can shed only so many clothes in public before the local constabulary makes an unwanted appearance.  While Old Man Winter visits, there are almost always more layers of heavyweight Polypro to be found.  And then there's flannel.  Glorious, glorious flannel.  Give me a thick Woolrich flannel shirt and pair of broken in leather work gloves, I'll move your firewood all day with a silly grin plastered to my mug.  Add a Stormy Kromer, the pinnacle of northwoods style, and we're ready to head to town for dinner and a brandy old fashioned, your treat in exchange for the labor of course.

Honestly, I'll take this over last week every time. (photo courtesy of Adam Schruth)
I fished with a group of friends the morning that picture was taken, though I was in Alpena, MI while the photographer, Adam, was at home in Wisconsin.  The weather was equally tepid in both locations.  We caught only one fish through the ice that arctic day, but such is not always the case.  If you are brave enough, and properly prepared, those deeply sub-zero days can provide very good fishing.

Years ago at the annual "Drink Beer, Burn Wood" celebration with the old guys up at the camp, the thermometer hovered at a benumbed -24 when we awoke.  With the woodstove set to pinging and a hot breakfast in me, I set forth to venture out on the ice while those of receding hairline and perhaps more intelligence gifted through age, decided to stay in the camp.

Fishing in extreme cold is a slow and sometimes cumbersome affair.  It forces you to think, to plan ahead, which is one of the reasons I enjoy it.  Much like stalking a rising fish in warmer months, simply flailing about without a plan will not do.  You'll get cold and tired long before you get your dinner.

The first thing you learn on the south side of zero: plastic breaks.

I set up my portable shanty, being reminded the entire time that slow and steady defeats the cold most of the time, and managed to get that broken heater started using a pair of needle nose pliers.  Then, with slow boreal contentment, I set upon the single greatest fishing day I have ever enjoyed on that lake.

I was fishing with dead smelt under tip-ups, and often had the great and rare pleasure of multiple flags being tripped at once.  The pike were big for that small northern basin, and hungry.  As the wind whispered through the crown of pines around the lake, I eventually flopped prostrate on the ice in appreciation, warmed by contentment and wool, and perfectly happy to be left out in the cold.

Here's hoping the weather breaks soon.  Not all the way to winter yet, but some moderation would be greatly appreciated.  I could do with some ice time, but not just yet.  There are grouse and woodcock to be chased in the thickets before then, fat fall fishes and squirrel pot pie, venison and pheasant for the dinner table before the hammer falls.

Gloves are for pansies... and for putting on immediately after your picture is taken.



1 comment:

  1. Some seasons to savor, some to endure.......


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