Baudette, MN — June 16, 2012
“But have you seen the boat!” Bog Man shouted. “It’s seventeen feet!”
“I saw it,” Brian said, nodding toward the fence in Neal’s yard that I’d stashed the boat behind. “Yep, but what about those rapids up the river?”
Bog Man looked at Brian then exclaimed with sudden enthusiasm, “he’s got to go up ’em! Can he go up ’em?”
Their eyes settled on me for a moment. I wondered if they were thinking the same thing I was: the boat can make it, not so sure about the person inside.
“You’ll figure something out” Bog Man roared, leaning back in his chair with a huge smile on his face. “You’re like a voyageur! Actually doing it! Actually doing it! Actually doing it!”
His voice got louder each time he said “Actually doing it!” Neal tried to quiet him down, but he’d known Bog Man long enough to know it was a futile attempt. Bog Man only has two volumes: shouting and off. When he heard I was going all the way to Key West, there wasn’t much off.
“We could throw the boat in the back of the truck and drive you down to the Mississippi,” Brian offered. “Itasca’s just down the road.”
I smiled and shook my head. The Mississippi felt too far to think about. I only barely know I will be on it one day. The offer was genuine though, he would have driven me down there the next morning if I needed it.
“No, no!” Bog Man yelled. “He’s going clear to Lake Superior like a voyageur! Then down! That’s unga munga!”
I wasn’t certain what “unga munga” meant, but it followed Bog Man’s sentences like punctuation and Neal assured me it was a good thing.
“He just started saying it one day,” Neal said.
Neal, Brian, and Bog Man have been friends for years. Neal even gave Bog Man his nickname when they were twelve.
“He was talking about being a mountain man, but we don’t have any mountains around here,” Neal told me. “So I said he should be a bog man instead and he’s been Bog Man since.”
A great roar went up when I revealed that I didn’t plan to fish. Brian looked off into the distance like it was a near mortal sin. Bog Man’s discomfort could not be contained in a chair. He stood up and paced. Neal rummaged in his workshop for a few minutes and came out with a small rod and a bag of tackle. He handed it to me and tensions eased. All was right in the world again.
“Flip the line eight times around and then right through,” Neal explained, showing me how to tie on a hook.
You can learn a lot sitting at the table in Neal and Janet’s garden for a few days. I sat and soaked it in, letting my muscles recover from the Lake of the Woods and prepare for the push up the Rainy River to International Falls.
I watched a thick cut of beef transform to jerky in a smoker Neal built out of a gas station awning. I sewed a tear in my sleeping bag and listened to blues around midnight in Neal’s garage. And I drank a beer and listened to Bog Man, Brian, and Neal laugh into the night.
The three of us talked (and Bog Man shouted) about every lake on the route, every river, and all the portages until they felt satisfied that I had a faint clue where I was headed.
They laughed about making it out of Minnesota before winter, joked about bears gnawing my legs off, and said I needed a bigger knife. They even made that offer of a ride down to the Mississippi more than once, but I could tell they wanted me to make it. That spark of a kid with a map still shone in their eyes as they spoke and I felt like I carried a bit of their dreams on top of my own, like they found some comfort knowing that someone was out there doing it, pointing at a map and going.