My family has been making the annual trek up to Sunshine Lake for years. The appointed time is over October’s Columbus Day weekend. Three days of camping and fishing with friends and relatives. Over the years, there’s been a variety of family members who have taken this annual journey. One year, it was Grandpa and Grandma, Mom and Dad, and us three kids: Dale, David, and Dianne. I was 10, David, 8, and Dianne was 6. It was a special year because Dianne was old enough to actually go fishing instead of just pretending with a cane pole that had no hook.
Dad had the Galaxy 500 packed and ready to go. The luggage, Coleman stove, and food were stowed in the trunk. A big canvas tent was across the floor of the back seat, leveling the whole area. That gave us plenty of room to move around or lie down if we wanted to (there were no seat belt laws in those days).
We piled into the car early Saturday morning and drove into Smithfield to meet up with Grandma and Grandpa. They were ‘professional’ campers and had one of those rigs that sat in the bed of a pickup. Even though they must have made this trip 25 or 30 times, they were still looking forward to going. When we got to their house David, Dianne, and I got into a small war over which one was going to get to ride with the grandparents. Dad intervened before the United Nations was called in and decided that David would get to go first. It wasn’t long, and we were on the road again.
At that time, there were no interstate highways between here and there, so it was two-lane roads with lots to see. After we had gone about 60 miles, the Ford’s temperature light glared red. Dad pulled the car over to the side of the road, steam rolling out from under the hood. Dad lifted the hood as grandpa came over with his toolbox. Grandpa was a mechanic and the owner-operator of Joe’s Auto Repair – Smithfield, and he always had a toolbox with him. After letting the engine cool down a little he removed the faulty thermostat, added some water to the radiator, and we were ready to go again. “I’ll get a new thermostat on the way, but you’ll get there just fine,” grandpa reported.
The length of the drive to Sunshine Lake depended on how old you were; the younger you were the longer it took. In reality, it was a six-hour drive not counting bathroom, lunch, and gas stops. For those of us between the ages of 6 and 10, it seemed like it took about 8 hours. For those under six, it was a three-week ordeal. In order to make the time go faster, Mom would read to us from the Little House books until her voice grew hoarse.
When we finally we made it to Sunshine Lake, we piled out of the car and took our first look at the lake. It was beautiful. The weather was calm; there wasn’t a ripple on the lake. The water mirrored the blue sky and the brilliant colors of the changing leaves.
“Ok boys let’s get the tent set up,” Dad said. I was in my first year of Boy Scouts, so I knew how to set up a tent. David was in his third year of Cub Scouts, and he did not know how to set one up, at least that was my opinion. This was the first time we’d to set up this particular tent. It was a large one-room canvas cabin with 22 aluminum pole pieces. After unrolling the bundle, we stretched out the plastic ground cloth and laid the tent out while David drove in the tent pegs. Dad and I tried to make some sense out of the unmarked tent poles. It took us about 45 minutes to get the tent completely set up. A few years later during a trip through Colorado, we got it down to a science; our best time was twelve and a half minutes.
“Can we go fishing now?” David and I asked in unison.
“Get the air mattresses pumped up first,’’ Dad said.
“Oh Dad,” I replied. When Dad said to pump up the air mattresses, he meant for us to use one of two methods. Method one was good old lung power; it was like blowing up 30 balloons without a break. And on top of that, there was no fancy check valve like modern air mattresses have. If the blower needed to take a break they had to use their tongue to plug the hole to keep the air from coming back out. Method 2 was to use a foot pump; it took twice as long, but you didn’t get dizzy from the lack of oxygen. David and I had five mattresses to blow up. I chose lung power while David used the foot pump.
“Ok, we’re done. Can we go fishing now?” we pleaded.
Dad checked his watch. “Get some worms from Grandpa. Leave the fishing poles and tackle box in the boat when we call you for supper.” You didn’t have to tell us twice. We grabbed our fishing poles and tackle box and ran to Grandpa’s camper.
“Dad said we can go fishing and to ask you for some worms,” David said. On top of being the best mechanic, Grandpa also grew the best worms. He grabbed an empty tin can and put about a half dozen nightcrawlers in it. “Bring back what you don’t use,” he said. Off we went ‘lickety-split’ as Grandma would say. We each caught a few bluegills, but they were too little to keep. We managed to fish for almost an hour before being called back to the campsite to help make supper.
One of the gourmet Boy Scout meals I recently learned to cook was on tonight’s menu, hobo dinners. The recipe goes something like this: peel potatoes and carrots and slice thinly. Dice or slice some onion. After preparing the vegetables, the next step is to get a piece of foil, making sure that the shiny side of the foil is up, then place a glob of hamburger on the foil and flatten it out. The amount of hamburger and other ingredients can vary depending on who the meal is for. Then layer on the potatoes, carrots, and onions, and salt and pepper to taste. The last step before cooking is to fold the foil into a packet. It’s important that each person uses a unique design so the packets don’t get mixed up. Mine had two curly tails. Cook the packets directly on hot coals for about 20 minutes on each side. Remove from the coals, and supper is ready. David and I wolfed down the foil dinners, the fish were calling.
“Can we go fishing now?” David and I pleaded.
Dad said “ok.” Just before we made it out of camp Mom said, “Take Dianne with you.”
“Oh Mom, do we have to?” we replied.
“Yes, and Dale you make sure she doesn’t fall in,” she said.
“Ok,” I replied a little gloomily. Dianne grabbed her cane pole; this time it had a hook. When we got down to the lake shore, David threw his line in. I put a worm on Dianne’s hook, and she put her line in the water. I was just getting my fishing pole baited when someone yelled, “Got one.”
It was Dianne; she pulled back on the cane pole and out came a large bluegill. I took it off the hook and put it on the stringer. Re-baited her hook and she was ready to go again. In the meantime, Dave caught another little bluegill. I finally cast mine line out and sat down. “Got one!” It was Dianne again with another big bluegill. Keeping half an eye on my bobber I took the fish off and got her ready to go again. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my bobber twitch a little but not much more than a twitch.
“How’s it going?” Grandpa asked. He had walked down with his gear to join us. “David’s landed a couple of little ones, but look at these,” I said pulling up the stringer.
“Not bad, are they yours?” he asked.
“No Dianne’s,” I replied. We both looked, and she pulled in another keeper.
“Why don’t you fish while I keep an eye on her?” he said laughing. I reeled my line in, adjusted the worm, and cast it back out. By the time it was all said and done, Dianne had caught seven keepers; I caught one, and David caught three. I was ready to switch to a cane pole.
There are few things in life better than a cool evening and a warm fire. That evening the frogs were singing their lullaby while the crickets provided harmony. We roasted some marshmallows and enjoyed each others company. Dianne’s success with the cane pole was the talk of the evening. Soon Dad carried a sleeping Dianne to the tent. The fire burned low and so did the conversation. It was pleasant just sitting and watching the color of the coals shift with the breeze.
The sun was barely up the next morning when the three of us yelled, “Let’s go fishing.”
“After breakfast,’’ Mom said.
Mom scrambled the eggs while Grandma fried the bacon. Dad was in charge of the fried potatoes. Since it was a little chilly, I built the fire back up without a match. Another Boy Scout lesson I’d recently picked up.
“Now?” we asked as soon as breakfast was over. We were in a hurry,
“We’re going out in the boats as soon as we get the breakfast dishes cleaned up,” Mom said. “We’ll get there faster if you help,” Dad said. Seeing the wisdom in that request I washed, David dried, and Mom inspected, Unfortunately, my rewash rate was about one in three. I was in a hurry. When we were finally ready, Mom smeared us with sunscreen and gave us the expected warnings. We took all the gear and split up into two boats. Grandpa and Grandma took Dianne in one boat. Mom, Dad, David, and I went in the other boat. Once the gear was stowed and lifejackets put on the outboard motors were started and off we went across the lake.
Sunshine lake is smooth on top of the water but all snags underneath. The fish loved it. Grandpa had been fishing Sunshine Lake for 25 or 30 years, so he knew the best fishing spots. Based on wind direction, temperature, and a good guess, he carefully chose our first spot. We anchored about 15 feet from the shore and about twenty feet apart from each other. David and I had our lines in the water before the anchor hit the bottom of the lake. Dad was trying his hand at fly fishing with poppers; he’d been practicing in the backyard all last week. Mom had a line in, but I think she was having more fun watching us. David got the first hit, a big crappie; it was going to be a good day. Dad caught a big bluegill on the popper while I got a few nibbles. But the real action was in the other boat.
Grandpa decided to teach Dianne how to fish with a real fishing pole instead of the cane pole. He handed her a white pole with a black Zebco reel. I think we all started out with that pole. While David and I had been doing the breakfast dishes, Grandpa had taught her how to cast and let her practice with a lead weight on the end of the line. Grandpa put some worm on Dianne’s hook and pointed to where she should cast it. Dianne put a determined look on her face, her tongue stuck slightly out the left side of her mouth. She reached back and cast it forward. Somewhere during flight, the hook came into close proximity of Grandma’s straw fishing hat which promptly followed Dianne’s line into the water. Dianne reeled in the line back in while Grandpa netted Grandma’s hat. She put more into her second cast which went far enough to get snagged on a branch that grew over the lake. Grandpa pulled hard to try and free it. He almost joined Grandma’s hat for a swim when the line broke. Grandpa got the line ready again with a new hook, bobber, and bait. Dianne’s third cast actually hit the water with no additional items attached, including the worm. Somewhere in mid-flight, the worm decided he’d seen enough and jumped ship. Grandpa saw the worm escape and had Dianne reel back in. He baited the hook again, making sure that the worm was firmly skewered. Dianne’s fourth cast was perfect. After they had sat for about 10 minutes without a nibble, Grandpa told Dianne to reel in to so he could check the bait. When she tried to reel in, the pole bent over and the line wouldn’t come. Dianne got all excited thinking she’d hooked something huge. She had one of the underwater stumps. When Grandpa’s attempt to free the line had the same result as when she snagged the branch. By this time we’d been fishing for about two hours. In our boat, we had all caught a few keepers. In the other boat, Grandma did ok, but Grandpa had yet to wet his line. He didn’t seem to mind. He just kept patiently resetting Dianne’s line, replacing hooks, bobbers, and weights if needed. Many fish got a free meal that day.
Just before noon we weighed anchor and motored back towards the docks. After we tied up and everyone was walking towards camp, I had the bright idea to save what worm was left on my hook, it seemed to me that if I could keep the bait damp I’d be able to use it again after lunch. So I put the fishing line outside of the boat with the hook just barely in the water.
Over lunch, Grandpa and Dad decided to go out in one of the boats and do some more fishing. The rest of us were going to fish from the shore or do whatever else needed to be done around the camp. Dad told David and me that if we wanted to fish we’d need to get our gear out of the boats before they left. It didn’t take us very long to make that decision. As David and I approached the boats, we noticed a duck making a racket around the boats. There were white ducks all over the lake so I didn’t think much about it. When we got closer we saw what happened. We both turned and ran back up to the campsite.
“I caught a duck, I caught a duck,” I yelled.
“You caught what?” Dad asked.
“I caught a duck, a white duck,” I answered. I told Grandpa and Dad the whole story as we trooped down to the boat docks. It took all four of us to get that duck free from my hook.
Dad and Grandpa finally made it out that afternoon and fished for a couple of hours. Us kids fished from the boat dock. Dianne, with her cane pole, beat us again.
When we got up the next morning everything was cold and damp. The rain had started before we turned in and it rained all night. Somehow during the night some of the rain had made it inside the tent. We had about a two-inch puddle in one corner. For most of us that wasn’t so bad, but sometime during the night, David had rolled off of his air mattress and into the puddle. He woke up soaking wet.
“The forecast is for rain the rest of the weekend,” Grandpa informed us.
Mom and Dad thought about it and made the decision to pull out early. Taking down a wet tent wasn’t much fun, but we managed. Wet, cold, and tired we made our way home. Total take for the weekend was 21 bluegill, 13 crappies, one duck, and a straw hat. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.