Steven Simpson’s Blog
Please check every Monday for my most recent blog posting. Most entries will be about nature or other environmental topics, but occasionally I will write about writing, family, travel, or the Driftless Region.
Two years ago I wrote an essay titled “Goodbye Deadbroke.” It was written as a farewell to one of the best backcountry sites I’ve ever known. Now that I think about it, it might be the only campsite anywhere that I’ve ever intentionally returned to. The site is a peninsula on the west end of Deadbroke Island in the Ontario portion of Lake of the Woods. It offers good fishing, excellent sunsets, a breeze to keep down the mosquitoes, and a small natural harbor to protect our fishing boats. The attributes that make for a good campsite also make for an excellent shore lunch location. Shore lunches are noon-time resting spots for people who stay at wilderness resorts, but need a place for lunch when they are out all day fishing. Every year that we went to our campsite, the evidence of a human presence (e.g., fire rings, litter, even makeshift tabletops lashed or nailed between trees) was more pronounced.
Unfortunately people who use a site for shore lunches do not exhibit the same backcountry behavior as campers. Specifically shore lunches often include filleting and cooking the morning catch of walleye – and because shore lunchers are on site for only a few hours, they are not as careful about the disposing of fish carcasses as campers would be. It is not a big concern to them that the remains might attract gulls, pelicans, and bears. In our early years on Deadbroke, we were able to leave our food on the ground without fear of unwelcome visitors. During our previous stay, black bears came at night. It was not the bears, however, that drove us away. On that visit, a houseboat pulled into the bay only a couple hundred yards from camp and anchored there for three days. With our solitude disrupted, we realized that future trips would have to be deeper into the undeveloped sections of Lake of the Woods. Our days at Deadbroke Island were over.
Or so I thought. Last week was my annual Canadian fishing trip. Our group of four fishermen had grown to seven, with two of my friends bringing their sons. The dads had spoken so highly of our great campsite that the kids wanted to have the same experience. After only one season away, we returned. On our boat ride out, we passed two houseboats chugging in the same direction as us. I worried that they too were headed for Deadbroke, but no houseboats came anywhere near us the entire time we were on the lake. Bears, on the other hand…. Not surprisingly, we had a bear in camp. It first came during the day while we fishing. Since it only ripped into the trash, we blamed the damage on gulls. It returned the next day and was more complete in its scavenging. It also left tracks in the sand and teeth marks in some our food containers, so we had to apologize to the gulls for accusing them.
Back in 2017, our ursine visitors were a sow and her young cub. In 2019, we imagined that the cub had grown up and taken over the family business. It is wonderful to go to a place where bears might come into camp. It is a hassle if they actually do.
My previous blog was about age and stupidity. This blog is just about stupidity. With the Mississippi River so high, I haven’t been paddling at all this spring. Growing impatient, my friend Buzz and I put in at Black Deer to at least get ourselves on the water. Black Deer is a narrow strip of water, really not more than a wide ditch along the eastern shoreline north of the Dresbach lock and dam. By midsummer, Black Deer is so weedy that paddling is difficult and fishing impossible, but in the spring it is a good place for bluegills, perch, and bass. Fishing was not very good that day, so Buzz and I set off exploring, and we wound up at Black Deer’s source – which is a 60-foot culvert. The bow of our canoe just fit into the opening of the culvert, so we laid down in the bottom of the boat and pushed ourselves hand over hand through it. There was a pile of sticks and busted reeds jammed into the far end, and we got stuck. My claustrophobia started to kick in. Fortunately I was able to wriggle forward just enough to get my hands on the end of the culvert. It gave me enough leverage to force us through the flotsam (jetsam?). I cut my fingers on the sharp edge, but we got through. There was nothing on the far side of the culvert that wasn’t on the near side, but we had an interesting backwater all to ourselves.
A few days later, I recounted our little adventure in an email to a friend in New Mexico. She was shocked that I would be so stupid as to enter a culvert. In New Mexico, kids drown in irrigation ditches, and often it is because of a clogged culvert. New Mexico even has a Ditch and Water Safety Task Force with a message of “Ditches are deadly – Stay away. Find safe places to swim and play.” My friend also wrote, “There is actually a scary folktale that is told to keep kids from doing what you did. It is La Llorona.” La Llorona is a centuries-old Mexican legend of a woman who loses her husband to a younger woman and, in her grief, throws her two sons into the river. Because of her actions, she is condemned to wander for eternity until she finds her boys. Today she is so desperate to find her children that she sometimes thinks that kids playing in the irrigation ditches are her long lost sons, and she steals them away.
Here in Wisconsin I don’t have to worry about Llorona. Still what Buzz and I did was a little bit stupid.