The Death March

Mississippi River, Red Wing, Minnesota – August, 2009

“One, two, three.” Joy and I lift the canoe from the roof of our car, flip it right-side-up and carry it down the boat launch to the edge of the water. We load it with gear—rods, tackle box, tent, sleeping bags, cooler, bait bucket, paddles and anchor—then I throw the ropes and canoe pads in the car, park it out of the way, and double check that I have the keys before locking the doors.

Joy takes the front seat and I step into the back of the canoe and push off onto the wide Mississippi River side channel. We paddle casually, letting the sluggish current pull us along. Tiny minnows skitter along the surface of the murky water and the occasional large fish leaves a swirl. The steep streambanks are lined with fallen trees. I imagine the giant catfish that must be lurking beneath those log jams.

Conditions feel perfect for catching a monster. The warm air is calm and humid and the river level is just right, similar to when I caught a thirty-pound Flathead Catfish on this very stretch of water two summers ago. The sun dips behind tree tops, casting long shadows and illuminating the surroundings with a warm “magic hour” glow. These are the carefree times when it feels great to be alive. Tonight’s going to be a good night.

I knew from past experience that this spot held fish like this 42-inch, 30-pound Flathead Catfish.

About a mile from the boat launch the river forks. We steer right and approach the long sandbar where we will set up camp. We pull ashore, slide the canoe onto the sand, and toss off our shoes and socks. The sand feels great on my bare feet and the water warm as I wade knee-deep into the river and cast a nightcrawler rig out near the opposite bank, where the water is deeper. Schools of baitfish swarm the shallows, interrupted by frequent swirls and splashes―some startlingly large and close―that prove the presence of larger fish.

It doesn’t take long to get a bite and I catch a chunky Silver Redhorse as Joy sets up the tent and forages for firewood. With camp set, we get back in the canoe and anchor ourselves in the middle of the channel. Our rigs are heavy, equipped with sliding sinkers and big circle hooks baited with live sucker minnows, so instead of casting far we fish them vertically off the sides of the canoe. The water can’t be more than five feet deep here, but at dusk the big catfish will leave their daytime hideouts and cruise the shallows through the night to prey on any smaller fishes they can catch.

We crack beers and toss out nightcrawler rigs while we await nightfall. The bite is hot. Joy and I take turns landing a mix of Freshwater Drum, Sauger and small Channel Catfish on worms. There’s still light in the sky when the tip of my heavy rod slams down. Surprised, I reach out and jerk the rod up, setting the hook into a decent fish. It’s not a monster, though, and with the stout rod and heavy line it doesn’t take me long to bring the fish to the surface. This one is an unexpected Walleye, probably weighing about four pounds. On a different day I would consider this a keeper, but this evening I don’t have a fillet knife or the interest to clean and cook this one. I remove the hook and cradle the fish in the water until it swims out of my hand and disappears into the swirling brown water.

The next surprise is not a good one. Thunder. A towering cumulonimbus cloud looms high in the western sky. Within minutes the storm blocks out the sun and everything darkens rapidly. When the first heavy drops of rain hit my face and I know we’re in for it. The wind picks up. We reel in our lines, lift anchor, and paddle ashore. We pull the canoe up the sandbar just in time. It begins pouring and lightning flashes above us. Close. Thunder booms. Again and again. We scramble into the tent and cower, but the tent feels extremely inadequate and exposed out on the sandbar.

I grab my cell phone and call my friend Steve for a weather report, and it’s not good. He warns that it probably won’t be letting up anytime soon. Another flash of lightning and immediate, ear-splitting thunder. Even the ground seems to tremble. Are we going to get hit? Joy suggests pulling out the tent poles to reduce our profile, and we try it. Bad idea—rainwater floods into the tent within seconds and soaks our sleeping bags. The thunder booms. Again and again.

Okay. We’re only a mile from the car. I suggest walking the woods to the boat launch and coming back for our stuff in the morning. With limited options we quickly decide on that plan—there’s no way we’re getting any sleep here. We put our soggy shoes back on and run to the cover of the trees.

It doesn’t take me long, wearing shorts, to realize that the forest understory is blanketed in wood nettle. We don’t see any trail through it and the streambank this side of the river is steep and muddy, dropping off quickly into deep water choked with fallen trees. At this point, our best option is to press on through the wet woods, in the dark, storm raging on overhead. Every step brings a blaze of shooting pain across the skin of our legs, followed by intense itchiness that only accumulates as we proceed. The wood nettle is interrupted, ungraciously, only by sporadic patches of raspberry vines chock full of sharp little thorns that scrape and scratch and slow our progress. I curse and squeal aloud as Joy forges ahead in tight-lipped misery. Finally, we reach the point where we can’t take it any longer and we scramble down the muddy bank to wade through the water, desperate to escape the painful plants and no longer fully giving a damn if we do or don’t die by electrocution.

After perhaps thirty minutes and more than a mile later we finally emerge, completely disheveled, at the boat launch. I joke that I forgot the car keys in the tent. The look on Joy’s face is an unspoken “Open the ******* door. Now!” Without further delay, I open the door. The car starts. When we reach the dry, calm atmosphere of my grandma’s house we finally relax and laugh. We are soaking wet and covered in scratches, rashes, and stick-a-burrs but a hot shower and a comfortable, dry place to sleep certainly helps expunge the horrors of “the death march.”

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In the morning, we enjoy a leisurely breakfast before returning to the boat launch. The sun shines through a blue mid-morning sky. In jeans, the walk seems so much shorter and easier. We pack up our campsite and paddle our gear back to the car. As the canoe glides silently on the water I again imagine the big catfish that must be lurking under each log jam. Already I am mentally planning our next trip to this spot. But that probably won’t be tonight.