NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art ~ Poems & Stories

Rite of Passage


Pierre Girard

Wednesday Pa came by - said he'd heard we we'd been ricing Silver Isle and said he and Uncle Jean were headed for the grandfather river, close by, in the morning to fish brookies - wondered if I wanted to come. I told him we weren't ricing until Friday. I called work and took a comp day - I knew this would be an opportunity I wouldn't want to pass up.

I was at Pa's place at 5:30 AM, we left Jean's at 6:00 AM and pulled into the landing at 7:30 AM. Jean and Pa strapped on creels that were old when they were born and attached their worm cans to their belts. I used a canvas shoulder bag and a birchbark worm "can" that grandfather had made for me. Jean and I each carried small Duluth packs.

We followed the hogsback ridge west, took a couple of jogs north and south through swamp, caught another hogsback ridge and came up on the river under the cedars about 9:00 AM.

We each picked a hazel switch for a pole, tied on ten or twelve feet of line and a #4 hook. We soon dug a dozen worms, or so, apiece and, throwing our shoes in our packs, waded into the water. My knee breeches seemed like about the right thing to wear as most places the water was only about knee deep, though I knew I'd be wet all over before the day was through. I started working the nearest pool, while Jean and Pa started off downstream.

I got action almost right away and soon had three 10 to 12 inchers out of the first pool. I worked upstream until I had eight, two of really decent size, stood stock still at the sight of a full antlered bull moose - who didn't seem to notice me, and began working back downstream to see how Jean and Pa were doing.

They'd worked down quite a ways, and I barked my shins a couple times catching up to them. The rocks hadn't gotten any smoother since the last time I was there and the cold rushing water numbed my legs.

Pa was having trouble with his hook, it had bent straight, and he felt his pole was too supple - not keeping tension on the fish and letting them spit out the hook. Jean had 21 already - he takes after grandfather that way.

We kept working our way downriver, first one of us - then the other working alone while the other two worked a pool together, talking in low murmers so as not to scare the fish. Two hawks flew by down the river at shoulder height, one to the right of me and one to the left - each so close I could have touched them.

I enjoy these outings with folks from the family who know the woods. They are the kind of people who can teach you much if you are listening close, but who swear they don't know a thing worth knowing if you ask them straight out. Ask Pa anything about the family or woodscraft and he gets an embarrassed grin. Jean is even worse. Work along side of them awhile though and their mind is on the moment doing the job, whatever it may be, and gems of wisdom, observation, and experience fall from their lips without conscious thought.

I missed Grandfather. I think we all did. So many times we'd trekked through the swamp with him - never leaving by the same route - never leaving a trail. "Think like a fish," he would say to me, "You must learn to think like a fish, Wagidy (little turtle)." He would work a pool for an hour after the rest of us had moved on, showing up later with brook trout larger than anyone would think possible out of such a diminutive stream.

I asked him once why he bothered with brook trout when he was able to get so much larger fish in lakes. He told me brook trout were to fish as diamonds were to stones - that he was a poor man, but not even a king in europe could eat as well as he, toasting brook trout over an open fire.

By 1:00 PM we'd worked our way to the beaver dams - where the bigger fish lay. Before getting into them, Jean suggested we eat. We sorted all the fish by size and I cleaned them while Jean went for moss and Pa built a fire. I cooked the fish while Jean returned with blueberries and moss and Pa buttered toast and made coffee. We laid out a blanket and ate 31 fish in almost less time than it takes to tell.

We worked north and west through the beaver dams as the afternoon progressed and each took a dunking once or twice. I marveled at Pa and uncle Jean's resilience.

I started to wonder, out loud, if we shouldn't be heading back. The two of them grinned at each other, like mischievous school boys, and uncle Jean said they'd been thinking about hiking through the woods to Silver Isle to see our rice camp. I was floored. I told uncle Jean, and Pa too, that they must be getting senile in their old age, that it must be ten miles through rough country and it would be getting dark before too long. They assured me they didn't intend to get there before dark - and kept grinning. I began to realize this felt just like another "rite of passage" such as I and my cousins had been subjected to when I was young. I laughed and told them that at almost 50 years of age I'd learned a few things about sleeping in the woods.

We left the river on the north bank and trudged through alder swamp and low lands for several miles. Pa kept looking at the sun and reminding us to keep it over our left shoulder. Jean advised me to keep an eye for a "Bull" pine (a large white pine standing all alone). When we reached it, we took a hard right into tamaracks, then gradually climbed into birch and popple. A bobcat hissed from about 25 feet and ran off. After another mile or two, as the sun was about to set, Jean said we should be seeing a low rock cliff extending from one side of the horizon to the other. When we reached it we walked along the base and Jean said we had to climb it at some big slash piles. We finally found the piles, almost by accident. They'd shrunk even with the surrounding terrain in the years since Jean had last been over this country. We climbed to the top of the rock and made our camp for the night.

We built a huge fire on the rock, where grandfather'd built many fires before, against a large "reflector" rock and dried our wet clothes. I stretched out my wool blanket in front of the fire, where it was soon steaming, and hung my shoes on pegs beside the fire. We gathered boughs and blankets of dry rock moss and leaves for a mattress. With two blankets for the three of us - we'd be sleeping spoon fashion tonight.

Uncle Jean began making fry bread in a pan over the fire and swore a long, thoughtful, and colorful oath when he realized he'd left all the large brookies behind at the river when he'd sorted them out. We only had 52 left, leaving just 22 to eat if we wished to come out with ten apiece, the legal limit.

We assured him it was no big deal, and it wasn't. We managed to fill up just fine on fry bread and the trout we had left. We set around the fire for several more hours becoming warmer and more lethargic as we fed the fire, told all the old tales, revisited the family history, and sang the old family songs, some of them hundreds of years old.

"Alas, my love you do me wrong
to cast me off discourageously.
For I have loved you oh so well
- delighting in thy company."

"I am a soujourner traveling around and round,
but not from town to town.
Travel the lakes and streams
- follow my distant dreams."

"There were prunes, plums, and cherries,
cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and berries
and the crust it was nailed on with glue
- t'would kill a man twice
after eating a slice
of Miss Fogarty's Christmas Cake."

It got me to thinking, as we set around the fire, this hadn't been a rite of passage for me - the way it was when I was young - it was a rite of passage for them, Pa and uncle Jean. At age 77 and 79, there won't be too many more trails like this ahead for them and they are out proving they still have what it takes to spend time in the woods. Or maybe they didn't have anything to prove - they just loved being out. Grandfather's last trip to the river had been at age 86, and that wasn't far off for Pa and Jean.

I slept like a dead man. I remember waking once to see Jean feeding the fire with wood he'd gathered the evening before, then I rolled over and woke just before dawn to see both of them up, tending the fire and giving me a hard time about sleeping in. Pa's gimp leg bothered him for a while until he'd worked the kinks out, but both of them insisted they'd slept fine and their smiles and jokes corresponded to their words.

Jean made more fry bread with lard and I produced a little bottle of maple syrup to sweeten it with. We soaked the fish and moss with water from the spring and knew they'd keep for at least two more days - long as we kept them wet.

We started up the rise above the cliff and, after an hour, Jean kept sniffing and looking around until I asked him what he was looking for. He said we should be more to the right and we all moved over a bit, though it took us down slope. He said we should move off a bit more and I soon came out on a grade. Jean and Pa stepped through the brush onto the grade, grinning, and Pa said, "It's the old Alger Grade - goes straight on through to Kinny's Crossing." I should have known they didn't expect to walk the whole way right through the brush. This would still be no picnic - the grade hadn't been in use since the 1930s, but at least we wouldn't be walking through swamps.

We kept up the pace as best we could - taking a detour on a stretch where balsam fir had taken hold of the right of way to such an extent you couldn't push through them, but otherwise sticking to the grade until about 10:30 AM Jean began sniffing and looking around and finally said we should take another right. We were on high ground now, and we hadn't walked more than a couple hundred yards before we could see the lake. Canny, how that man knows his way by sense of smell!

When we reached the reeds at the edge of the lake, we could see a canoe poling off a ways, and I recognized Matt poling the canoe. A couple of shouts and they were soon close to us. We were able to wade to the canoe as Silver Isle, unlike many rice lakes, has a fairly hard bottom.

They took us back to the rice camp and Jean and Pa and I riced out of my canoe for the rest of the day. We cut another set of knockers and together with Matt and his Pa, had 95 pounds by 3:00 PM when ricing closed.

Return to the Poems and Stories Menu

Text © 2002 Pierre Girard. E-mail:

Image credit: Photo of an Ojibwa man ricing from a canoe, by Frances Densmore, Smithsonian Institution.
(cover photo from "A dictionary of the Ojibway Language" by Frederic Baraga (1992), Minnesota Historical Soc. Press, St. Paul.

NativeTech Home Page

Web Design & Graphics © 1994-2002 Tara Prindle.