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Paul Smith: A rough Saturday in the woods


I love to go in the woods, but hey, that’s why I write this column each and every week of the year, and I’m pretty sure most of you readers have figured that out by now. I take my time outside extremely seriously. There are folks who have definitely spent less time under a solid roof than I. That I am sure, because I am only a weekend woods warrior. Under a measure of duress, I have earned my adult living in a centrally heating building.

As a kid I fished commercially and did outside construction work. But I think there are few who have logged more hours afield in combination with an inside career than I. For sure I’m at least in that extreme tail of the bell curve. 

Baked beans after a day in the woods is heaven.
Baked beans after a day in the woods is heaven.

My work year ran from September through until June. There are years I missed zero weekends, yes, not even for torrential downpours. With the addition of holidays and a full summer of trouting, salmon angling, and cod fishing, I spent my fair share of time under the clouds in open air. I admit to being a tad on the extreme and obsessed side. Some say this woods fever is a true illness. I’ll tell you a tale from my youth to prove my point. And this goes way beyond hunting and fishing in the rain. That’s par for the course in our world of addicted outdoor aficionados. We all have raincoats and snow pants and use them.

I used to be a beaver trapper. I’m not sure if I’ve talked much about my fur trapping days. It is in this context that I remember sucking it up the most for a day in the woods. It was November of 1987 and I had a line of 100 rabbit snares to tend, in addition to a half dozen or so beaver sets and probably twenty fox snares. I was working the old weekday 9-5 and did my trapping duties early mornings, and weekends. At night I would skin and prepare pelts in my backyard shed. It was a good life for a young man. I had no need of a gym. I logged hundreds of miles a season paddling my canoe and hiking on snowshoes.

On this particular Saturday morning I woke at daybreak feeling quite sick, nausea and a pounding headache. Was it something I ate, the flu, I had no idea. Cold rain pelted on the kitchen window, driven by a fierce northeast wind. The house was cold, and I shivered. Goldie and Megan were snuggled down in bed. Megan was three I think, so I tried not to wake her. I always made my splits for our wood furnace the evening before. Pounding axes tend to wake sleeping kids.

I descended light-footed into the basement of our bungalow. The smell of spruce made me feel a little better.  Sitting on an old wooden chair in front of the open furnace door, I felt the intense heat of crackling bone-dry fir splits. I ceased shivering. Maybe I could do it, suck up my mojo, and check my traps and snares. I had been tempted to just give up and sleep till noon. I had been up every morning that week at 4 a.m., and skinned beavers each evening. I was tired, but Sunday was sleep morning, not my sacred Saturday. I stoked the furnace with hefty logs of black spruce and knotty juniper. I waited with the door open and full draft flowing until the lower logs lit ablaze. That would hold the fire until Goldie and Megan woke up to a warm cozy house. I sucked it up and prepared my pack.

My God, it was cold riding inland on the old dirt road in the rain on my Yamaha three-wheeler. I must have been quite the sight, thinking back on it. I was fully rigged in a two-piece suit of that old green rubber fishing clothes. I had no fancy lightweight super this or that gear in those days. I most certainly had on that old brown Scandinavian wool sweater that my mother knit for me in my teenage years. She endlessly worried about me being cold or lost. She died in 1986 and I may indeed have been thinking of her that morning. She would have been ripping mad at me for going in the woods sick on a wet cold autumn day. I gave her a lot of worry that way. Anyway, with that old canvas pack and a Remington pump over my shoulder I cut a fine figure… I suppose.

The warmth of the fire was long gone and I was bloody well coming down with a flu bug of some sort. I checked 50 slips and had three or four rabbits in my pack. Luckily the rain had stopped, and the sun peeked intermittently through the puffy white clouds racing across the sea blue fall sky. It was now a typical windy cold November mid-morning. This was more than 30 years ago and I recall the day so well, and the sky, but no wonder. I’d check a few snares and then lie flat on my back looking up at the sky. I was so sick. I’d stay there gazing at the clouds and swaying spruce until the wave of nausea would pass, nursed by the earthy feel and smell of soft green moss. Then I’d get up and go at it again, then back to the clouds to recover. Looking back, I was absolutely crazy. I should have been home in bed under warm wool blankets. But it was Saturday.

I think the gods decided I deserved mercy. Around noon I lit a fire and drank strong black tea boiled in a blackened copper kettle. I ate a sandwich and got to feeling much better. I paddled my canoe across Fourth Pond and took a nice beaver from a trap. At the end of Third Pond I caught another. It was a good day. I recall so vividly paddling back against the wind, my muscles pushing their best, feeling one with the water, trees and Earth. The beavers lay still in my canoe. There would knife work to do. I’d have a late night in the shed. I stowed my canoe in the trees and hiked under a heavy pack to where I had parked the Yamaha. Now it was near dark.

On the ride home under the stars my sickness returned. I was damp from the heavy-laden hike and the cold pierced into my bones. I shivered my way home. I opened the door and met the wonderful smell of baked beans and fresh bread. I love baked beans. But I couldn’t eat my supper. I left the beavers to skin on Sunday. I told Goldie how I’d been sick and was going straight to bed.

“There’s something definitely wrong with you”, she said. She wasn’t talking about stomach flu. I suppose she was absolutely right. But you know, she still brought me ginger ale to sip.

It’s crazy, but I have no regrets, not doing it again though.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com  or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock

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