By Nick Simonson
Somewhere between the black screen report of a low battery drained by the cold morning of fishing, and the loading of the boat with a near limit of walleyes in the livewell at the wind-swept launch an hour or two later, it vanished from the shallow pocket of the borrowed camouflage coat I had grabbed from the cabin closet before heading out in the chill and mist of the unofficial and underwhelming first day of summer. After checking the time on the boat’s GPS monitor, I pumped the power button in annoyance once more on my phone, before stashing it again in the right-hand pocket. After that, the disappearance of the smartphone with the spider-webbed screen cracked by wear and two years of time outdoors remains a mystery.
I searched the cabin high and low, tearing apart my day pack and suitcase twice before turning the truck upside down for my silent screen, all while retracing my steps from the dock to the truck and back to the launch, presuming that in my jog between watercraft and F150, it slipped from its place and either met Davey Jones or found a silent resting spot along the walking path between the pier and the parking area.
With everything packed, and my continued mental reassurances that it would turn up as I got ready to hit the road, it became apparent it would not. My wife attempted to ping the mini-monolith with an application on her device, but with no power, it would not sound or provide any information to her phone. With departure drawing near and the majority of a week’s vacation and a trip through the trees of northeastern Minnesota ahead of me, there was a certain terror that the loss of a technological tether brings to mind. In this era, the smartphone has become the last generation’s Swiss Army knife. It is first and foremost a communication device. I can call in my proof-of-life to family and friends from the field, snap pictures of fish and game for a column, check regulations from the water, get a look at the upcoming weather trends and post my status to Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat with the push of the center button. It’s a compass, map and GPS to help find the nearest boat launch or a tackleshop in unfamiliar territory.
Beyond those items there’s an app for everything: cooking, weight loss, exercise tracking, sports, games and more. With all of those hyperbolical blades, corkscrews and paper-package carriers (you know, that little hook no one ever uses on the Swiss Army Knife) stashed into one location, it has become essential to life as we know it – even life in the outdoors.
However, all those blades are double-edged, as the smartphone also remains a link to the world we attempt to leave behind and is a symbolic rope that binds us to the fact that only very rarely are we ever truly on vacation. A buzz at four in the morning signals an email from the boss about an upcoming project. A ding in the twilight of a text received around a campfire reconnects the wild brain with the office version that suddenly barges its way in front of the more primordial psyche which was searching for and maybe finding peace along the water’s edge. The repeated rattling and the scrolling of an unfamiliar area code lets one know that no matter how far into the north woods a person may venture, we are now like deer at the mercy of the wolfpack of telemarketers that lurk in the far-stretching shadows of the forest of modern communication systems.
For all of its little benefits which pile into a mountain of convenience and reassurance which few in this day would give up willingly, the smartphone has some incredible and often unrecognized drawbacks. Especially for those trying to get away from the glow of screens and flicker of the office incandescence, the smartphone, at the right point in midlife can symbolize the soul-sucking nature of our modern world; the proverbial lamprey stuck to the struggling, withering lake trout.
There’s a cutoff line in Detroit Lakes at the junction of Highways 59 and 34. To the west of the blacktop cross, the prairie rolls out into North Dakota, and to the east the forest rises to the shores of Lake Superior and up to the Canadian border. While familiar with the two-lane roads leading from lake country to the Iron Range, there’s always the idea that being in the woods means being lost in the woods, and without a phone it feels like being up a certain creek without a paddle. As we made our way, with my buddy Einar in the jump seat next to me, the phantom limb pains of the lost phone began to disappear. We spent much of the trip chatting about life, angling and hunting while counting the turkeys, swans and turtles along the highway that wound its way into the northern forest. While I reached a handful of times for the spot between the pop bottles and sunflower seeds where my phone normally resided on any given drive and came up empty each time, the phenomenon slowly faded.
The next morning as we got set to intercept the rising bass on a favorite clearwater lake, I kissed my wife goodbye and told her we should be in around noon. The bulk of a handheld camera in my pocket replaced my phone and we found the small green male fish with the blackened springtime stripes climbing out of the depths and onto the undeveloped reed edges where they would prepare their nests for the arrival of the larger females. Having hit several favorite spots with varying degrees of success, and returning to a couple of them as the sun reached its apex, I wondered aloud what time it was, before clicking the depth finder to see we had a half-hour left of fishing before our lunch appointment back at my mother-in-law’s house. My biological timepiece had taken the lead in absence of the pacemaker Apple had provided.
Catching a quick weather report on the TV over lunch, I reshuffled our plans, shifting our trolling days on Lake Vermilion to the warmer and calmer Tuesday and Wednesday, and set up a real “North Shore day” of fishing, with windy, wet and cold conditions forecasted for Memorial Day on the rocky edge of the big lake. In an almost panicked state at the preparations laying before me without my phone, I grabbed the platbook and set of old printed maps and traced my finger from Townline Road to Lake County 11 to Old 61 across the page, winding my way through memories from a decade ago when I made the jaunt with regularity for steelhead each spring. In the cold and rain, with five-weights in tow, we made the trip to Tettegouche State Park and I introduced my friend to north shore stream fishing.
Hoping to just tangle with the smaller rainbows and brook trout in the Baptism River, I was quickly reminded that spring had really just begun in the region and that the monster steelhead were still in the streams on some part of their spawning run, most likely their descent from the barrier falls a few miles up. I halfwayed a hookset through cold fingers and watched as a thrashing buck steelhead in all his rainbow-painted glory rose violently and turned the surface of the tannin water into a washing machine for a couple of seconds before he broke the tiny tippet and disappeared with my black woolly bugger as a medal for his efforts. On the way upstream, Einar landed his first brook trout. While I gladly deployed the waterproof blue camera in lieu of the missing phone and captured the moment, it was an achievement which I envied, still being shut out on the Salvelinus fontinalis front in all of my fly fishing efforts. We admired its bright red dots ringed in light blue, and its voracious appetite evidenced in the hand-sized fish’s slamming of the large woolly bugger, before it was released into the shallow rocky stretch of the Baptism.
As we made our way back to the truck for an afternoon on another stream, I suggested the Sucker River south of Two Harbors. As we cruised down the highway through tunnels and rock cut-outs south of Beaver Bay and Castle Danger, a solid line of red lights appeared about seven miles north of the small city. Without Siri providing direction and advice on alternate routes and what caused the traffic back-up, I surmised it could have been a car accident, but then realized it was one in the afternoon on the last day of the three-day weekend. I whipped a U-turn on a worn blacktop road and hightailed it back north, adjusting our plans on the fly and picking the Split Rock River as our last destination for the day.
At the barrier falls of the flow, we’d watch an angler land a ten-pound hen steelhead and we’d cast after rising and splashing fish in our own pool just a riffle and run downstream from the upper terminus; whipping the surface into a froth with our flyrods for an hour after getting excited by the silver-sided behemoth caught-and-released above us. I couldn’t figure out what I was more impressed by, the fact that the fishing was so good so late in the season – to hook, see and land trout, including steelhead, on this cold day was a win – or that I had found and re-navigated my way to some favorite old fishing haunts without the help of my phone, a task that ten years ago without the digital guide was second-nature and didn’t seem so monumental.
With dinner looming and late afternoon upon us, we packed up and followed the road out of Silver Bay back through Superior National Forest and up Highway 53 toward Eveleth with the light green aspen leaves and dark triangles of pine along the road guiding us home and each swampy creek serving as a checkpoint in pace of the robotic voice that I would have undoubtedly relied upon to be certain I’d make it back in one piece. While I know I’ll replace the phone in the coming days, most likely the moment I get back from my time away, I’ll look back on this vacation as one of true reconnection with a world outside the digital universe untethered from the emails, posts and texts and tied closer to the things that matter.
Salve for the soul. A nice brook trout comes to hand during a cold and phoneless adventure on the North Shore. Simonson Photo.