Corps of Discovery
Updated: Apr 11
Sweat from every pore of my body was dripping onto the cursed stationary bike when the text from my buddy Mark buzzed through.
"When we heading north for another cold weather streamer sesh?"
Like me, it seemed, Mark was entering that post-holiday funk and starting to climb the proverbial walls of Michigan's dark season – searching for some type of adventure.
Now, before I get too far ahead, there are a few things you need to know about the sender of this message, for the sake of context.
First, Mark has what I would describe as a mildly obsessive personality – when he goes after something, he really goes after it. I mean all in, no holds barred. And one of his "all-ins" is fly fishing.
Second, he has built a nice life that allows him and the family to spend almost half the year (essentially all the of the prime fishing season) on the backside of the Tetons; literally in the heart of the greatest fly fishing this country has to offer. So, fifteen or twenty-fish days are not as uncommon for him as they are for most. I'm not saying he's spoiled (actually, I am), just that his expectations run relatively high.
Last, Mark and I, along with our friend Josh, had been down the Michigan cold-weather-streamer-sesh road before, with results much as you'd expect – plenty of fun but zero fish.
So, I shot back a counter proposal. How about a winter float and camp – essentially an overnight camping trip bookended by fishing on either side at the end of February? My reasoning was fairly straightforward; I didn't hold high hopes for the fishing, but cocktails around a campfire sounded like a fun dark-season diversion and, if we couched the outing as camping with a side of fishing, we wouldn't feel quite so bad if the bite was slow. To add some sex appeal to my sales job I dubbed the whole thing "The Corps of Discovery" – albeit the two-day, not-needing-to-scale-the-Rockies or carve-our-own-canoe version. It sounded good to him, and we rounded up four other buddies that thought so too.
As departure day clicked closer and closer our gung-ho group of six slowly whittled its way down to two. Responsibilities, family obligations, work events, and the rest of life taking precedent over tough fishing and cold camping. That left just my good friend Ozzy and me – Lewis and Clark (or maybe more appropriately Mutt and Jeff). We were in, no matter what, we solemnly pledged.
After a couple quick conversations, we recruited two more hearty companions into the corps – folks who have rarely said no to my kooky ideas (or me to theirs) and, importantly, knew their way around drift boats and camp saws.
The first was my buddy Chris, or "Pickle Farmer Chris" as my family knows him. But that's a whole other story. Chris is an outdoorsman of the highest caliber - trad bow hunter, fly angler, caller, trapper, backcountry camper – you name it. He does it all and does it well. If you ever found yourself stranded in a survival type situation, Pickle Farmer Chris is the guy you'd want along. Besides that, he's just good people, whose company is always enjoyable. He's well read, knowledgeable on a myriad of topics, and a perpetual optimist.
The second was my older son, Kyle. At 22, Kyle is a damned impressive outdoorsman in his own right. He and his younger brother Blake have been banging around the woods with me since they could walk and, though I hate admitting it in writing, the kid can flat-out hunt, fish, hike, ski, and row much better than his old man. Having spent the last four years in the mountains and rivers of Montana has upped his game even further. And he's funny. Not as funny as he thinks he is, but funny enough. Plus, it never hurts to have some young muscle along for camp chores. Haha. Joke's on you, Junior.
It was a solid crew.
We rolled up to the landing in fluffy fresh snow and proceeded to wrestle the watercraft and manhandle the mounds of gear down to the water. While this was winter camping, there was no reason it had to be uncomfortable, and we would by no means be roughing it. Although the wall tent and wood stove didn't end up making the final cut despite our most creative efforts, numerous other creature comforts found spots in the sterns. It only needed to look like an episode of Alone in the pictures, we figured, as we packed the tents, stove, kitchen utensils, lanterns, camp chairs, piles of food, and other assorted accessories and accoutrements.
In my experience there are two key ingredients that make an adventure truly special. The first is setting. A spectacular setting cures a lot of other woes. Much like winning in professional sports can cause folks to look the other way regarding other franchise fiascos, the proper setting has the power to forgive a lot of other sins on these types of outings. And, fortunately for us, we had "setting" buttoned up nice and tight, floating one of the most beautiful, boundless, and wild pieces of water in lower Michigan.
While the route was selected more so for its scenery and solitude, the top end of the run, at least in the warmer months, can produce respectable numbers, and the middle and lower stretches hold some shockingly huge fish.
But, as expected, the fishing started slow, though we barely noticed because the landscape was luring, the coffee was warm, and the overcast day quiet in an almost reverent way. Just the oars dipping and pulling, dipping and pulling, the whisper of fly line punctuated by quiet conversations, and the occasional call of an eagle that we followed down the winding waterway.
"Ain't nothing like a boat to teach a man the worth of quiet contemplation," as Ruark so succinctly stated in The Old Man and the Boy. And quiet contemplation mixed with fresh air, pipe smoke, and good bourbon can often cause one to become suddenly philosophical, leading to the second and, for me, more important trip ingredient: the company.
You can visit some pretty darn spectacular places with bad company and be miserable. Conversely, having the right people alongside can turn a ho-hum location into an adventure you will talk about for the rest of your life, likely embellishing the story along the way from the fondness of the memory. Some of my most treasured times have sprung from downright desolate trips with good company.
More and more with whom I spend my time has become one of the most important decisions I make. In fact, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my nearly fifty years on Earth, it’s that a life worth living should be carried out in a way that is in accord with your nature – one of constant discovery and growth – and much of that depends on who you spend your time with.
When it comes to that squishy term “self-improvement” you’ll find piles of books, podcasts, videos, Ted talks, motivational speakers, and life coaches. It seems that we are, as a society, obsessed with it, or at least the idea of it.
I don’t have all the answers, hell, sometimes I don’t even have the questions, but my personal recipe calls for daily exercise of body and mind, time outdoors, and surrounding myself with the right people.
I'll spare you the whole “iron sharpens iron” cliche, but sharing time with folks that have similar passions, are willing to give it to you straight, cause you to think about things differently, challenge you to push further, and can be counted on even when the chips are down – those are the ones to hang on to.
They help you grow. They teach you things about the world, about life, and about yourself. They call your bullshit. They level set you. They support you. And that’s all damn important.
Without so much as a hook-up, nibble, or chase, our corps arrived at the planned campsite for the evening; a low, flat bank on a sunny inside bend, protected by high hills on nearly all sides. As the clouds cleared, we unloaded gear and then, like a well-oiled machine and without really needing to divvy things up, we began the chores. A few guys headed out to find firewood, another stayed back to build the fire ring and manage the splitting and cutting, and the last got the rest of camp settled – tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, and the cook area.
Many hands make light work, they say. Especially when everyone seems to know the program. With camp set and a substantial wood pile cut, split, and stacked, Chris and Kyle headed out with the rifle and call to see if they might trick a couple yotes, while Ozzy and I stayed back to "manage the fire."
It might sound simple, but the very important task of fire management involves several critical components. First you must make sure to get a good blaze going; a wimpy little fire while winter camping won't cut it. Second, you need to select a comfortable seat from which to observe this blaze, making sure to remain close enough to give it a poke, kick, or additional log as needed. Third, you are required to mix and consume strong cocktails in sizable quantities – in our case Ozzy's special concoction known as a Drunken Sapsucker. Fourth, it is your responsibility to get the pipes lit and properly functioning. And finally, and only in this order, you must summon the wisdom to solve all the world's problems.
I'm not sure we accomplished the last step, but we nailed the first four, managing to clean out the pipes and tie on a nice warm glow, while at least avoiding becoming the cause of any more of the world's problems, by the time the fellas got back from their hunt.
Before we go too much further, I need to come clean: the highlight of the weekend for me was always going to be the camping. Despite the sales pitch I delivered to prospective recruits, the fishing was merely a thin excuse to break out the tent and sleeping bag and spend some time out of doors.
And the central character in the whole camping show, as it is in most outings of this nature, was bound to be the bonfire. Eating and drinking around a glowing fire with friends is something particularly special, and damn near anything tastes better in the backcountry (that whole setting thing). Sure, when efficiency is at stake you can keep it simple with a variety of decent dinner-in-a-pouch options, but it's possible to take food to a whole new level on an outing like this, and we intended to.
Like slightly over salted popcorn, Ruark went a tad heavy with the machismo seasoning on this one. But, again like popcorn, it's Ruark, so salty or not it's always tasty. "I am talking of manhood, pure and simple, and the uncontrived joy that a man has derived from hunting and fishing and camping and firelight and good bourbon and a reeking pipe and a sound collection of poker players who also tell tremendous lies about past exploits which have become fact instead of fancy merely by the rubbing of frequent usage."
And so it was around our campfire, the warm gathering where we, in uncontrived joy, feasted on bear jerky, hard Parmesan cheese, peanuts in the shell, venison chili, homemade pickles (obviously), tenderloin charred rare in cast iron, chocolate chip cookies, and frozen Snickers bars.
Where we broke out cans of Busch Light, savored top-shelf Tequila, and polished off the last of the Drunken Sapsuckers before puffing pipes (and Marlboros), swapping bullshit stories, debating important topics (such as the musical merit or lack thereof of U2, maple syrup – love it or hate it, and Euro-nymphing – effective, stupid, or both), and brandishing bad fisherman jokes under a sky littered with a thousand stars. Like someone had tripped and inadvertently spilled a bag of glitter on a coal-black floor.
It probably wasn’t much different than campfires from generations past, which lent a bit of feral primacy to the moment, despite the relative comforts. A connection back to something long hard-wired into each of us but often overlooked. I was glad to have it back. If only for a brief time.
The coals eventually burned down, and the conversations quieted as we took in the crispness of the clear winter sky one last time before, one-by-one, heading off to our sleeping bags.
The morning dawned clear and frosty. We fixed a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, hash browns, and camp coffee while sitting around the fire thawing frozen boots and waders and stomping some feeling back into cold-numbed feet.
A warm February sun crested the opposing bluff just as we finished packing camp and shoved off, Chris and Ozzy out front.
I was content to run the sticks and let the warming rays kiss my face while Kyle fished. It was nice to simply have some quiet time together with my son and catch up in a way that only outings like this seem to provide these days.
Near the bottom third of the float, Kyle had a solid chase, our first of the trip, that got my blood up a little. But a quick false swipe was all that came of it, and I continued to row.
A few bends later we could hear Chris coaxing a wary follow and watched him hook up and land a nice little brown. We pulled up alongside and celebrated with a couple of drinks and the few remaining chocolate chip cookies, before Ozzy jumped up front for his turn.
Despite offering to switch me up, I stayed on the oars and enjoyed the float while Kyle alternated between fishing and sitting to just take in the sun and scenery.
And then, not long after, we heard more excitement downstream, pushed hard with the oars, and rounded the bend just in time to witness Ozzy hefting a heavy, brightly colored brown from the net. It was an unexpected grand finale, on an already grand weekend.
While we may not have broken that first route to the Pacific, I believe we discovered something equally essential: the mystical je ne sais quois that only moments in the outdoors, under the stars, on quiet floats, or around campfires within the camaraderie of close friends and family afford.
I couldn’t have been happier. For the time. For the place. For the people. For the sun on my face and a break from routine that was desperately needed. For this corps of cherished companions and the discoveries we made together on a winter river in Michigan.