Tuesday, February 19, 2019
The plan, as Ed explained it to Pete, his life-long friend and fellow fly angler, was to fish Moose Creek in Northern Wisconsin for brookies. They would park the old Buick at the highway bridge, wade up the creek carrying their lunches, and be able to fish right until dusk without having to retrace their steps after dark by utilizing a dike which lay at the upper stretches of the creek, and ran back to the road through a cranberry bog after skirting a local lake.
This idea emerged after last year’s trip to this same river led to stubbed toes, a dunking or two, a lost wading boot in the bog, and an exhausting trek back out following the meandering river back downstream to the car, and missing the evening rise for fear of being trapped after dark. This seemed like a better plan Pete thought to himself, but asking Ed anyway “Are you sure about that dike short-cut… Is it public…?”
“Old railway bed, I checked with the guy at the gas station, and he says it’s fine.”
It was a warm sunny morning when they parked the car at the bridge after a drive of six hours from the city.
“Risers!” Pete said as he looked over the bridge into the little creek as Ed busied himself with waders and assembling his Garrison bamboo rod, his cherished possession. Pete had purchased a Payne rod ten or so years ago, but he always was jealous of the Garrison. Ed felt the same way, he was jealous of the Payne.
It had always been like that for the two old lifetime friends. Since they met in grade school, they had always done everything together, fished, hunted, dated and even married two sisters, having the ceremony together at the same church. The friendship had warmed to a form where polite teasing and friendly competition always formed a background to their adventures.
Ed opened up the sack with his lunch to check it before stuffing it into the back pouch on his vest, and the smell of burned bacon wafted forth. Betty was a great cook, Pete reflected, but she always burned the bacon. Everything Ed owned tended to smell a bit like bacon, even his fishing tackle. Pete’s wife, on the other hand, had a thing for cabbage, and cooked it into everything, even the eggs. His lunch would be stuffed cabbage rolls wrapped in foil. Between the two of them, they smelled like a cheap diner blue-plate special, but Ed liked burned bacon, and Pete had an affinity for cabbage. The friendship fit together like two puzzle pieces.
The rising trout were a good omen as the two friends fished their way up the stream. The air was filled with little brown mayflies, and each angler had several dozen flies they had tied in the weeks before the trip that matched the hatching insects perfectly, even if Ed’s flies smelled a bit like burned bacon.
By the late afternoon they had made their way a mile up the creek and stopped for lunch. Both Pete and Ed had released a dozen brook trout in the ten to thirteen inch ranges, and kept several of the largest for the ladies to cook for breakfast. They paused for an hour after they had eaten and smoked a pipe, quietly enjoying the beauty of the conifer forest, the spring warblers, the wood ducks flying overhead, and hidden calls of woodcock and bittern.
They needed this trip away from the noise and fast pace of the city and their jobs, Ed thought. They were both nearing retirement age soon, and the thrill of business was slowly being replaced with a longing for memories made in quiet places.
Pete thought about the time in their early teens that the two of them discovered his dad’s beer stash under the porch, and climbed an apple tree to drink a few in secret, feeling like men, or at least playing at being one. The beer was warm and kind of skunky, but neither of them would admit it or say anything, so they finished drinking them while telling stories of the future, and what they would do when they were older. The problem became how to get out of the apple tree. Pete’s legs didn’t work right after the beers, and Ed was seeing double. They both had thrown up their dinners, and it took them several hours to sober up and get down from their perches among the branches.
Ed reminisced upon the time when he and Pete had first hunted grouse together. Pete’s first hunting dog was a remarkably dumb lab named ‘Pep’, short for Pepto-Bismol because that damn dog gave anyone hunting over her a case of sour-stomach. Sure enough, Pep never did flush a bird that day, but instead found a skunk, and deciding it might be a funny kind of grouse, chased it into some bushes. They returned to the car and drove home with Pep in the trunk covered in tomato juice. They both had to burn their hunting clothes.
Funny all the memories that old friends can share, and through all of them, they had kept the vast majority of any misadventures to themselves, despite temptation after a few drinks to tell the boys a hell of a story. “Let’s keep this to ourselves,” became their oath of silence.
With evening approaching and the sun beginning to angle, the woods and river cooled and mists began to rise along with the trout, giving an otherworldly almost spooky church-like atmosphere to the upper stretch. It was worth all the planning though. As dusk set the two friends caught more trout than they had ever caught before, and Pete hooked one while his fly was dangling beside him in the water between casts, while Ed managed to hook a trout on his back-cast. The fish were suicidal now in a crazed frenzy to eat the falling spinners of the brown mayflies that hatched all day.
The last light faded from orange into pastel pinks and fuchsias as the mists rising from the creek and surrounding bog became thicker. It was time to go. They could keep the trout fresh in the cooler in the car and breakfast tomorrow would be heavenly.
Ed led the way through the bog to a small rise that indicated the side of the dike or railway grade dimly appearing through the growing fog which smelled and tasted like something from prehistoric times. Whippoorwills began to call all around them, and darkness blanketed the woods.
They were ten feet from the dike when Ed stopped.
“Shh…” he whispered. “There is something big and dark standing out in the cranberry bog right ahead of us… Don’t look like a tree, kind of like a bear or some animal…”
Pete had better eyes than Ed. “That’s a Moose,” he exclaimed in surprise, trying to keep his voice low.
“Shoot. Moose are unpredictable and dangerous. Does it have antlers?”
Ed squinted through the fog. “Yup, big rack too. I can see them clearly outlined against the sky.”
As darkness settled into inky blackness, the two stayed very silent and still. Neither had any idea what to do at this stage, and the thought was beginning to occur to them that they may have to spend some time stuck here until the moose, still dimly outlined in the near distance, moved on from its feeding. Ed found a large boulder nearby, and suggested that if they were going to be stuck here for a bit, they might as well be dry. They climbed the knobby chunk of granite careful to not make an errant sound.
It became obvious to both of them before long that they were well and truly stuck. The moose might or might not be still there, and they could no longer see through the fog and moonless night to be certain.
“O.K., let’s take inventory,” Pete quietly murmured. “I have a bag of peanuts, what do you have?” “A half a pint of peppermint schnapps,” Ed replied. They had left the half-full thermos of hot coffee back in the car because it was such a nice day. Both of their minds ended up focused on that hot coffee as a light drizzle began to fall, and their backs began to ache from sitting on the uneven cold rock.
After midnight, they broke down. Ed offered the schnapps to Pete after taking a swig himself, and Pete opened the peanuts. “Wait a minute Pete!” Ed exclaimed. What if Moose like peanuts? I can smell them like anything, and I bet the moose can too.” The peanuts were put away, and a long silence began. After an hour a staccato rattling was heard.
“What’s that?” Pete asked in a hush. “My teeth!” Ed answered. “I’m freezing, and I can’t feel my feet!”
“We need energy… food. I am so hungry I could eat my hat.”
“Kind of like the Donner Party…”
“What…. Eat each other and our hats?”
“No, as in we need food and we are marooned. Moose don’t eat trout, get it?”
“Cold trout? I can’t see my pocketknife to clean them.”
Hunger and cold can drive men to do things they might think themselves incapable of in better circumstances. The raw trout tasted like bog, slimy and silty, and made an interesting combination with the last of the schnapps. They almost gagged, but managed to eat a trout apiece to help keep them warm through the night.
The two old friends spent the night on a cold knobby boulder in a cranberry bog miserable with the drizzle surrounded by woods noises that to both of their now acute imaginations sounded like a huge moose on the prowl. In the weak dead hours of pre-dawn, they managed to nod off to sleep, propped against each other for warmth and stability.
A cloudy and misty dawn broke slowly into the forest and bog, the light increasing until the two anglers could begin to see again. Awake, but bleary eyed, they both peered through the banks of fog and into the heart of the cranberry bog in the direction of the road and the position of the moose the night before.
“I can’t see it,” Pete sputtered, “It must be gone by now…”
“No… there it is!” Ed chattered through his teeth, “It hasn’t moved!” “It’s in the same place as last night.” “It’s huge! I can see its antlers from here!”
“Wait a minute…” Pete exclaimed, the increased volume of his voice causing Ed to cringe. “I smell foul here. No moose is going to stand out there in a field all night and not move. I am too tired and cold and hungry to care any more. I am going to creep forward and check it out.” They decided that Ed would follow behind, and if Pete got mauled, he was in charge of breaking the news to Erma, Pete’s wife. Pete figured he had the better end of the stick.
The two crept slowly forward on the relatively dry abandoned railway dike toward the outline of the moose, appearing now menacingly large before them. Fifty feet away they paused. Pete spoke first, standing up and clicking his tongue in disapproval. “Look Ed, It has wooden posts for legs!”
“I’ll be a monkey’s…” Ed began, trailing off into silence. They walked up to the moose. Ed knocked on it with his knuckles. Wood. It was over life-size and was painted black. They could see the highway now clearly as the meager sun began to burn off the fog of morning.
They walked around the moose and stared at it from the front. A stylized moose it was. Looking not half like Bullwinkle the billboard proclaimed cheerfully…
“Visit Scenic Moose Lake! Next Exit.”
“I’ll be damned…” they both exclaimed quietly.
“I feel like an idiot,” Ed admitted.
“That is beside the point Ed,” Pete laughed rather seriously.” “The point is I feel the fool too, but the important thing is to keep this to ourselves. Nobody, even our wives must ever hear of this.” “Even our wives?…” Ed grimaced. “Yea, especially them. You know the boys at the lodge and the tavern would here of it sooner or later, and we would be the butt of jokes forever.”
They came up with a story. The car broke down, and they had to spend the night huddled under blankets until in the morning, when they discovered the problem: wet spark-plug wires. That would do the trick, Ed thought aloud. “Yea… Betty is always nagging me about getting the spark plugs changed anyway. She would get a chuckle out of that one, and it would only cost me a few bucks for new plugs.”
“I am serious about the silence thing Ed,” Pete said shaking his head and smiling. “I think we should take an oath.”
“What… like double dog dare, or spit and shake… that sort of thing?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of something else… If you tell anyone, I get your fly rod, and if I tell anyone, you get mine as a penalty. That should keep our mouths shut for a while.”
The two old friends shook on it and the oath was taken.
Ed got the nickname of ‘Bullwinkle’ a few weeks later. Pete was referred to as ‘Moose’ for the rest of his life.
It was worth it, Pete reflected as he landed a nice trout on his new Garrison rod. Pete was in the distance, proudly playing a fish on his equally new Payne.
Author’s note: On a trip to the Brule’ river in northern Wisconsin, I passed a field on foggy autumn morning and glancing to my right, spotted a huge bull moose with black fur and white antlers standing in a boggy lowland, partially shrouded by the enveloping mists. I was pumped to see such a rare sight in Wisconsin… until…
Out in the field stood a perfect replica of a moose, made of plywood and life-size, and painted black with white antlers. Some farmer’s idea of a joke. I felt the fool. Now that might make the basis for a good story I thought… until three years later here I am with the idea fully formed. A fishing trip and an oath of secrecy… else the fool!