Saturday, January 21, 2012

A North Woods Haunting (Revised)--An Essay

    When the northern sky begins to gray, early on a summer morning in the North East Kingdom, everything is still.  The moments before the sun comes up are serene and quiet, no human presence is inherent—they are the ones that make me appreciate where my feet stand.  When the sun peeks over the horizon, hundreds of  lakes and ponds shine in the midst of dark conifers and ferns, like mint coins tossed to Earth from heaven by God.  At that moment, you might look up to the mountains surrounding you and the streams that separate them, then back again at the water lapping against the monumental boulder where you sit and wonder what mysteries the water holds.  What mysteries are possible here outweigh the ones that aren’t; for these are not merely bowls of water, but abstract worlds carved by prehistoric glaciers, and any contact with one of the aged inhabitants of these submerged worlds is a purely magical experience.
    To think back, the first image that comes to mind when questioning the contents and goings-on of a mountain lake occurred on a summer fishing trip on a large pond in close proximity to my grandparent’s cabin.  The pond is stocked yearly in the spring with fingerling Rainbow Trout from the hatchery at the foot of the mountain, and is quite popular in the height of summer with swimmers and boaters.  Fed by a small brook in the south end, and (had the mountain not been cut away to build the road) several strong springs in the north, it is not a wilderness pond by any means; nevertheless, it is natural.  On a cool morning in the spring one could watch small native Brookies beat even the strongest hatchery Rainbows to an unlucky surface-dwelling insect.
    On the day I remember most clearly though, the frantically feeding fish had given up their vigils at the mouth of the brook for the summer, and turned to pursue aquatic food sources in the deeper, more oxygenated layers of the pond—giving way to the scrappy Smallmouth and Yellow Perch that dominate the shallows in the warmer months.  My younger brother and I had been working all morning for a tree that was in a terrible pinch between a young birch and an ancient oak.  Our grandfather, who was running the operation, was recruited by our grandmother to pick Blueberries in a nearby field after the determined tree had made its point that it was not coming down.  The grandparents were busy, meaning I had some down time.  What else was I going to do than fish?
    The conversation before going fishing was routine.
    “Wanna go to the pond?” I’d ask hopefully.
    “Which pond?”  Connor would reply, hoping for a change of scenery; for he doesn’t find fishing as entertaining as I.
    “The pond.”  I would say, slightly annoyed at the fact that he hadn’t caught on yet.
    Reluctantly, and seemingly disappointed, he would exhale, “Sure.”
    Ten minutes later, I would be paddling the canoe south to a stretch of wood-littered bank that we would fish for smallmouth.  We were always successful; it seemed to me I had the body of water figured out.  The swimmers at the fishing access, and Bayliners zipping up and down the length of the pond demystified it, as if I could firmly grasp everything it had to offer.  Paddling the canoe put me in a philosophical state, and the things that traversed my mind now escape me.
    After thoroughly fishing the length of the pond, we settled in the sunny, southern bay, where the rippling water spilled over a naturally sandy beach, and the pond came to a hard halt.  The water in the bay was skinny, not more than three feet deep at the most, and it was here that I boated most of the day’s bass.
    It was midday when the sun had tired me, I looked at my brother and he too seemed lazy.  The bay was the end of the line, and we would usually, as we did then, return after reaching it.  Like always, I paddled the canoe towards the opposite bank, the one we didn’t fish, and paddled the length of it back to our launching point.  This trip was one of routine, and like always, I leaned my rod against the canoe, angled back to give trolling a shot on the way back.
    The two of us paddled back in silence, my brother in the bow slowly digging his paddle into the dark lake water, and me doing the same, submerged in deep thought, coming out of my trance periodically to devote my attention to my rod tip, pulsing slowly as the lure crept through the depths of the pond.  When the silence was broken, it was by my querying brother, wondering if “fish [swam] out in the middle of the lake.”  The tail end of his sentence was brought to a halt by the sound of my reel slamming into the thwart of the canoe with extreme force.
    We both focused our attention on the rod, for the lure must have been caught on something, and we needed to retrieve it.  I set my paddle down with care in the hull of the aluminum craft, still trying to preserve some serenity and not wishing to spoil it further, and picked up the rod.
    Within a second of touching cork I was aware of what was happening.  The rod tip throbbed, powerfully, and the canoe reversed it’s course in the water to follow the mystery fish that I was tied into.  For several minutes, but what seemed like the rest of the afternoon, I held onto the rod as if it was made of thin glass and the weight of the fish was going to shatter it any second.  All the while the fish was under water, images of what I thought I knew to inhabit the pond swam through my head—none fit the monstrous profile.
    When the line began to slice upwards through the water column, I knew we were going to get a glimpse of a magnificent creature, and I looked on as if I was about to see something I knew I wasn’t worthy enough to lay eyes on.  A full thirty yards of line had risen out of the water, and a pale, green log broke the surface and exited in a glorious leap, exploding from the surface like a buoy being released at the bottom of the pond.  Now knowing what I was dealing with, I humbled myself, and prepared to boat a colossal Brook Trout.  I shuffled my feet in the canoe, to make room for the fish.
    Leaning over the side of the canoe, I stared into the depths of an unknown world, one that I previously believed to have understood.  My eyes searched for an outline, just a glimpse of a fish.  I was gaining line quickly, and my opposition was getting weaker.  In the dark, black water, I was excited by a quick flash of a green cheek plate.  It dove, and it was gone.  My limp rod and expressionless face were all I had to tell the tale.
    Mysterious are the waters of the north.  That day I was humbled by an ancient, native fish, one that had survived by way of nature.  To think that a fish that would have stretched three feet made its way to the world it still dominates by way of a feeder stream I couldn’t wet my ankles in is almost as difficult as swallowing the complexity and depth of the interconnected watersheds these fish thrive on.  Many claim to understand these waters though, and I might be one of them to some degree.  To really capture the essence of that water which wets your toes, you must gaze from your perch on the boulder, out across the water, take in the sound of bellowing loons and the cool, night breeze flowing over the lake that laps at your feet, and when your eyes finally rest on the mountain at the foot of the lake, that water on your toes will hold new meaning.  I believe a Montana gentleman said it best, “I am haunted by waters.” 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Maiden Voyage

    I hinted earlier that I had something to look forward to in the spring following Christmas, well this is it.
    I couldn't wait for the weather to warm to launch my new Emotion Mojo fishing kayak.  Why should I?  Although tougher, it is more than possible to catch pond fish in the middle of winter.  I carried my new craft to the banks of the neighborhood pond get one trip under my belt, and to prove that I could catch fish here in the cold months.

    I spent a few minutes initially learning the strokes, but after that it all seemed natural.  I quickly located the creek channel in the pond, dropped a spoon, and boated a lethargic Largie.
    With part of my quest accomplished, I now wanted to explore a little, so I pointed the bow of my kayak towards the feeder creek to go explore the marshier side of the pond.  Slowly approaching the creek, I caught a glimpse of several white heads--which I knew immediately to be Geese.  I slipped my Nikon out of it's dry bag and focused on the closest bird.  After snapping a quick picture, a gray outline to my left caught my eye.  A motionless heron stood in the reeds waiting for a chance meal; and he too was preserved forever.

    I only pulled off a few pictures before both the Heron and the Geese got uncomfortable and fled, but I still heard movement at the edge of the woods.  A few more subtle paddle dips and I was surprised by the thunderous wing-beating of Mergansers escaping to the twin pond on the other side of the ridge.  The pics I managed to pull from that experience were less appealing.
    I noticed a chill not previously present in the winter air, and when I reversed the kayak to pursue another fish the only warmth was disappearing behind the pine-covered ridge in a flaming escape.  My time was limited, and I knew I could boat another Largemouth.  So why not?  I scoured the deepest points in the creek channel for just ten minutes before I hooked another one on my chrome and blue spoon.
    The sun was almost gone when I planted the bow of the kayak on the grassy bank and dragged it to the nearest road to be picked up by my dad.  My first trip was a success, and now I have some ideas as to what modifications I can make to my watercraft.  Can't wait till spring rolls around!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Recycling Your Squirrels: Squirrel Pie

  • 2 1/2 pounds of cleaned and quartered squirrel meat
  • Chicken or beef broth (2 cartons)
  • Onions, mushrooms, garlic, rosemary, salt, and pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Butter
  • Flour
  • Pie crust


    Lightly flour cleaned and quartered squirrel and brown in the biggest pan you have with fresh rosemary and ground pepper in some olive oil.  Cook on high heat to sear, and then turn the heat down and cook through.  When the meat is fully cooked, turn on low heat, and cover the bottom of the pan with chicken broth, let simmer for several minutes.  If desired, add ale, or white or red wine.

    Pour the contents of the pan into a colander over a bowl to collect the broth.  Repeat until all the meat is cooked.  Let the meat cool enough to pick out.

    While the cooked squirrel is cooling, cut up onions, garlic, and mushrooms (however much you prefer).  Use the pan to cook the vegetables in olive oil on low heat, stirring periodically.

    While the vegetables are cooking, pick the meat from the bones and place on a separate plate.  When the vegetables are done to your liking, add the squirrel meat to the pan, and mix to create an even consistency.

    In another, smaller pan, make a roux (1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup flour).  Melt the butter in the pan, sprinkle the flour evenly in the pan, and whisk.  Add enough of the reserved broth (start with a cup and go from there) to create a thick gravy.

    Add the gravy to the squirrel/vegetable mixture.  Add salt and pepper to acquire the taste you are looking for.  This is the finished mixture.

    Spoon the mixture into a pie crust, cover the top with crust, crimp the edges to connect the two pieces, and cut slits in the center of the pie to allow for steam to escape.  Bake pie in the oven at 425* for 20-25 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown.

Recipe courtesy of Mrs. Patience Wood