Imp Lake: the stuff of paperback mysteries

by Leslie Allen

forest-56930_640As we drove down the two-track, scanning the woods for a dead tree, the mosquitoes lay in wait, huddling in the undergrowth, preparing to swarm.
“There’s one.”
“Too small.”
We traveled on, jostling gently back and forth over ruts and stones.
“There’s one over there…”
“No, it’s too far in. We don’t want to be doing all that work hauling it out.”
We weren’t thinking of mosquitoes, having been lulled, perhaps, by cooling breezes that had swept our campsite clear of the pests. We had pitched a tent that afternoon close to shore at Imp Lake in the Ottawa National Forest.
We laid and anchored a plastic Thanksgiving-themed tablecloth over a well-used picnic table, unloaded the stove, water, cooler, box of food, charcoal, utensils, pots and pans, personal gear, cribbage board, jug of iced tea.
Camping is all about preparation, it seems, and my friend had done most of it. I baked the cookies and forgot a lawn chair.
Once set up, we backtracked to the campground’s entrance to deposit $12 in a tube and went in search of wood.
When the two-track faded, we turned back, eventually settling on a leafless maple near enough to the road and just big enough to provide a full night’s campfire and then some. As we got out of the truck, 1,001 mosquitoes attacked. They swarmed our heads, buzzed our ears, found skin and mercilessly plunged stingers deep in search of blood.
My friend was saved somewhat by his baseball cap and work gloves; I had left mine at home. He yanked the chainsaw into action and began cutting into dead wood. The tree fell neatly across the road.
I admit I’m a “berry picker,” a person not too long living in the U.P. “Berry picker” is a term, I am told, used by U.P. natives, particularly in the west, to describe, perhaps a touch unkindly, a person from downstate or simply elsewhere.
The beauty of being a “berry picker” is all the learning that awaits one, such as the fact that for $20 one can get a permit to cut down and haul out dead wood from certain national forests, including the Ottawa, which covers most of the western U.P. from Lake Superior to Watton and Six-Mile Lake to Wisconsin, nearly a million acres of forest with 500 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers and streams, not to mention a few dead trees that with a little work will heat a home through the long winter months as my friend, who’s been making wood in the U.P. for a number of years, will attest.
For now, though, all we needed was a night’s worth of campfire. As he cut through the maple’s trunk and split the logs, I slapped mosquitoes and waited to do my part. I threw the split logs into the back of the truck.
Back at camp, the pleasures of a jump in the lake awaited. The water was clear, cool and calm. For the first few feet, the bottom was hard-packed sand, but that quickly gave way to something that looked like sand but felt like gritty muck sucking me down.
Dawdling was not an option, and relief came that much quicker. Just another blue lake, I thought, sparkling in the sun, fringed all around by the deep greens of pine and hemlock, an intriguing little island to my left, a dog barking somewhere, a boat bobbing along a far shore.
I had read that Imp Lake was deep—reaching down eighty-six feet at its greatest depth—and I thought about being a recent city girl out in the woods, a chainsaw, a lake so deep, the stuff of paperback mysteries.
Dinner was no mystery: barbecued chicken, potato salad, mixed greens, fruit and cookies. The day slowly faded into campfire, Boone’s Farm wine and hot tea.
Imp also is a trout lake, and as evening fell, the trout began to jump and kiss the underside of the water’s soft, lilac surface, creating dark rings that expanded and disappeared slowly.
We grabbed the canoe and headed out: time to go fishing. I took the rear and paddled as my friend baited his line with an artificial crawler and cast it into the water.
We drifted. I leaned back into the square end of the little boat and watched the sun slip behind a thin cloud before dropping below the trees—like bubbles popping, ringlets rippled across the lake as all around fish jumped and splashed. My friend switched to a rooster tail and continued to cast and wait, cast and wait.
Heading back to shore, we spotted a pair of loons heading out. Later that night, in the dark, these loons provided a soundtrack that started with quiet, then exploded into a chorus of howling, yipping and maniacal laughter. Coyotes? Loons?
Time after time, the eerie melody was the same: howls and yips segueing into a crazy giggling, a hair-raising yodeling, the song of the loon. So I wondered: Why the synchronicity? Are there really wild dogs out there or is it just the loons? Are loons the Rich Littles of the wild? Howling and yipping like coyotes for fun? It would stop suddenly; an explosion settling into quiet like drifting ash.
Over the course of the afternoon and evening, the weather had changed from breezy and clear to roiling clouds with gusts of wind, to clear, muggy and still, to overcast, and, finally, a drizzling off-and-on-again rain that would last through the night and next day as we headed into a different part of the forest, felled more trees, made more wood to haul home, this time protected by bug spray.
The mosquitoes had found us that night at the campground, sitting around a blazing fire. Although mostly covered with long sleeves, long pants, thick socks, and a T-shirt wrapped around my head, the mosquitoes buzzed my ears, announcing their presence with pesky determination. What choice did I have? I stared into the fire and smiled, figuring I already was halfway to heaven.

— Leslie Allen

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