Nothing lights up a kid's face quite like landing their first fish. That dark pool they've been casting their Rapala into for the last half hour suddenly comes alive as their rod bends and their focus sharpens on the line darting across the water. Small veins pop and hands frantically spin around the reel, followed by a fish flopping to the surface, then calming down as it shows its bright belly to the sky. Young eyes shine and a smile a mile wide spreads across the face of the first-time fisher.
Next, comes something almost as great as the smile, and equally as predictable, "Now what?" I'm lucky enough to have watched this happen countless times during my last two summers as a canoeing and backpacking guide in Minnesota's own Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Most of my time there has been with YMCA Camp Menogyn, taking 12 to 18-year-old kids on treks across the endless Boreal wilderness on the northern edge of our state.
Dinners here are classic Boundary Waters fare, from heaping cups of mac and cheese to hearty chili after a long day of paddling. As often as I can, though, I make sure all of my campers eat an appetizer of freshly caught fish. I'm happy to oblige, but the experience is that much better when I get to see a camper reel in their own fish.
On most trips, there are one or two veteran fishermen (by the age of 12) that come prepared with a selection of rods, reels and a fully stocked tackle box. As soon as we get on the water, it's clear they're having the time of their lives paddling around and plopping lures wherever they please, and that enthusiasm flows through the group.
Once, while doubling-back on a portage, I kept expecting to run into one of the five 12-year olds I was guiding on their first trip through the Boundary Waters. There was no sign of any of them along the trail, so I picked up my pace, worried something might be wrong . When I reached the clearing at the end of the portage, I saw a scene straight from the pages of Huckleberry Finn.
I watched as two campers sat on a rock, one watching his bobber while the other waited for his turn. Two more stood pulling a line out of a nearby tree, and another sat on an overturned Duluth Pack, taking it all in. As soon as they saw me, one yelled, "We saw a fish that was bigger than the canoe!" Naturally, we weren't going anywhere. I settled in to watch my four-foot-tall camper work on landing a canoe-sized fish.
The chance to show the next generation that food comes from the soil, water, and the Earth they inherit is one of my favorite parts of guiding. I'm a firm believer that a meal earned by the patience of an afternoon in a canoe will taste better than anything frozen, pre-packaged and reheated.
We need to let kids learn to chase walleye in the deepest pockets of a glacial lake, to untangle the inevitable snarls of line they'll wrap themselves in, and to cook something caught and cleaned by their own hands. The Boundary Waters is the ideal backdrop for all of this to be taught, and to lose any part of this place to pollution would be a tragedy that would reverberate across generations.
Please take the time to sign the petition and speak loudly to protect generations of uncaught fish, untaught fishermen, and the wilderness that brings them together.
P.S. Keep your eyes peeled for that 16 and a half-foot fish on your next trip. We never did catch it.