Ye Old Menogyn Guides
"Reminiscences of Camp Menogyn"  by Skip Fikkan, Guide, 1956-59
(1)  "The Start"
 


I got the job at Menogyn after visiting Phil Brain, who lived not far from us in Edina Minn. This was in 1956. I did not find out until later that this quiet man I was talking to had survived the Bataan Death March and was still suffering health-wise from his ordeal.

Originally, I was slated to be kitchen help, but somewhere along the line, one of the prospective guides dropped out and I was elevated to a guide. I had worked a previous summer as a water front instructor at a Boy Scout camp. This involved teaching canoeing, so at least I had a little skill in the canoeing department.

On the break-in trip, it became apparent to me that I was definitely the runt of the litter. At 16, I was on the scrawny side, sort of a hockey stick with hair. I was the youngest of the lot, still a high school student, while the rest of the guides were in college.

One thing I remember most clearly from my first break-in trip was Ole (Don Olson) catching a really whopping northern pike. We had no landing net, and there were guys jumping into the water trying to beach the monster. Ole made a mount for the fish’s head, and it wound up attached to a tree in camp. I also remember how impressed I was when for the first time I saw pie crust rolled out on an upturned canoe bottom.

Linc Ekman was the Kitchen Assistant in 1956. I don’t have any clear recollection of him that year, as he lived and worked in the lodge. Linc was an okay guy, but some of the senior guides thought he was a little too gung ho, and I vaguely recall that one day on the break-in trip they loaded some rocks into Linc’s back pack to slow him down.

Hunger was a problem for me. A seventeen-year-old doing a lot of portaging and double packing is like a marine worm when it comes to food consumption. After a few weeks I had toughed up enough that though I constantly dreamed of food, I got the job done.

Early on I was introduced to Davis Lake, which became one of my favorite layover lakes. The portages to access it were pretty healthy. Besides great fishing for northern pike, Davis had an old abandoned lumber camp at one end with a lot of split, dry cedar in the cookhouse. We would make camp at one end of the lake, take the empty canoes back to the lumber camp, and load up with wood. This was so great, as I did not have to cut and split wood for the layover. I also remembering finding an old West Clock Scotty pocket watch that someone had left in the bunkhouse and a pair of Malone wool pants that I took back to Menogyn. One of the guides chopped the legs off, and they became a wicked pair of shorts.

It turned out to be a great summer and an incredible maturing experience for me. Guiding a group of campers and cooking for them was a real learning experience.

(2)  "Cooking"

I remember the enjoyment of cooking for a group: the intricacies of setting up a cross bar and dingo chains over the fire and baking everything from pizza to cake in the reflector oven. I am sure now that a lot of people skip cooking over fires entirely in BWCA, even where fires are allowed.

In 1957, Linc Ekman returned to Menogyn with some responsibility for logistics. Linc decided we could live in the bush on the quantities shown on the food labels. These quantities were obviously not designed for young adults burning a lot of calories. It took a lot of convincing and behind-the-back maneuvers to augment our rations. At times on the trail I was so hungry that I would deliberately make pies or cakes that I knew were too large for the group. This would leave it up to you-know-who to finish them off.

One of our problems on the trail was that campers would often get constipated after the first couple of days. We cured this malady with the magical “thunder stew,” a delectable blend of stewed apples, apricots, pears and prunes. Taken in modest amounts, thunder stew guaranteed regularity. We were guiding at a time before freeze dried dinners were common. I felt our food was actually quite good. We had a lot of government surplus pork, cheese, instant potatoes, etc. It was my start towards high cholesterol. Oh, and who can forget the bags of white oleomargarine with the die bead you squeezed to make the stuff look yellow. I have many good remembrances of us gathered in the boat house at night, packing food and gear for the trips taking off next day. It was really difficult to lay off the German hard salami.
(3) "Mishaps on the Trail"
It was my first summer that I experienced my one and only capsize. Norm Dahl and I were taking a large group up north. We had holed up at the south end of Saganaga Lake, hoping that the wind would die down. We finally decided to make a run for it. I had in my canoe one of the group members, Danny, who probably weighed close to 300 pounds. Trying to position him in a canoe for an attempt at a windswept lake was nearly impossible. The other paddler in my canoe was even skinnier then me. If I put Danny in the stern, it would be impossible for the bowman to touch the water. Putting him in the bow would guarantee a submarine dive into the depths. We put him in the middle, with me in the stern.

We must have had about three inches of freeboard. When the big swells hit, we started taking water. Eventually we had about as much maneuverability as a large brick. We rolled over and were in the drink. Fortunately Norm was not far away, and he came to our rescue. We lashed the gear into the capsized canoe and hung on the gunwales of Norm’s canoe. It seemed like forever getting to shore, as Norm had to quarter the waves. We finally landed, very cold and extremely tired, though through the ordeal Danny seemed to be bobbing in the water like a happy walrus. We did not lose anything, but my down sleeping bag was never the same.

My one other accident was when one of my campers took a shallow dive from the shore and gashed his leg on a rock. We got him back to camp, into town to be sewn up, and finally back out on the trail for a limited trip. Once I had a close call with lightning. John Traver and I were on the trail in charge of a large group. John had been J. W. Brown’s kitchen help the year before, and now he was a guide. We had gotten into an electrical storm, and we took refuge on the nearest island. Unfortunately the island was small and rather isolated. Suddenly we were jolted by a bolt of lightening striking a nearby tree. I remember looking across at John, and his hair was standing straight up.

Occasionally someone out on the water fishing would snag a canoe mate while casting. This rarely occurred, but we were prepared. We all carried a pair of sturdy wire cutters for cutting off the barbed ends of hooks. The problem was that you had to push the hook on through the skin in order to expose the barbed end, cut it off, and back it out. To do this, you needed something like a potato to push the barb into so you did not tear the skin badly. I recall once being reminded of the dangers of fishing plugs when Rene Fournier came back early from a trip with a large treble hook in his cheek, courtesy of a cast from his bowman. It was serious enough that we brought Rene into town for repairs.

The only real tragedy during my years at Menogyn occurred my first summer, the summer of 1956. The camp outfitted a mixed party of adults for a trip without a guide. While at Winchell Lake, and perhaps after some drinking, one of the women paddled out onto the lake alone without her lifejacket and capsized. It was not till the next day that they found her body with grappling hooks. Needless to say, this put a stop at Menogyn to sponsoring unguided trips.
(4)  "Women in The Woods"
 
I had my first experience in guiding an all women’s group in 1956, when I took out four nursing students. They insisted on calling me “Chip” instead of “Skip.” In those days I was so tired at night that I could sleep on anything, and so with this group instead of pitching my tent I slept out. One night, while I was sleeping out on a rock, I was jolted awake by terrified screams of “Chip!, Chip!” coming from the girls’ tent. I sprang to attention, shot over to the tent, and flung open the tent flap. Just inside the entrance, the girls were poised with pocket knives drawn and threatening. They were sure a bear was trying to get into their tent. After assuring them that there were no bears in the vicinity, I returned to my Sealy PosturePedic rock.

In the summer of 1957, Menogyn was graced with a visit by a girls group from Evanston, Illinois. These ladies were definitely the precursors for the “Desperate Housewives.” Their guides were Norm Dahl and Jim Sudmeier, and the girls had boasted that they would have a guide in their sleeping bags before the trip was over. On returning to base camp, the guides took a lot of ribbing. I have a clear picture of Norm, sitting on a lower bunk bed at Hernando’s, being grilled by a panel of guides about what had transpired on the trail. Norm remained completely silent. He just smiled.
(5)  "Bears and Squirrels"

Bears were never too bad a problem out on the trail. Bears were rarely seen at campsites, and if one did appear, charging after it while rattling pots and pans was usually enough to keep it away. In only a few instances did guides report losing food to bears, in night raids or when the campsite was unattended.

At base camp the situation was quite different. Because we had a garbage pit, we were frequently visited by black bears. We also had our share of squirrels with designs on the food supplies kept in the boat house. To combat the myriad of squirrels attempting to get into the boat house, one of the guides or camp assistants rigged up a nifty blowgun. He was getting pretty proficient at ambushing the little critters as they rounded the corner of the boat house. The experiment came to a sudden halt when a black bear came around the corner rather than the expected squirrel. The ambusher nearly inhaled his blow gun. 
(6)  "Proper Attire and Gear"
During my first year ,it seemed that all the older guides, the cool guys, had Red Wing boots, that if oiled could keep out a lot of water. I had a pair of low cut work boots that obviously fell far short both on stylistic and practical grounds. I was also envious of the lederhosen and Tyrolean felt hat that Roger Strand brought back from a trip to Germany. I got my hands on similar items after the summer, and I was one of the few undergraduates at Colorado School of Mines who wore lederhosen regularly to class. Other guides were impressed by Roger’s lederhosen. Pete Nestande and his sidekick Rick Scott both showed up at Menogyn the next summer with lederhosen, which they wore to play horseshoes.

Our attire as guides was usually shorts, a work shirt, and some kind of distinctive hat. We all had some kind of heavy wool shirt or sweater to ward off the cold. I remember being given an old black sweater from Dave Fackler, that I wore until it practically fell off. Unlike some canoeists today, we did not use head nets or bug shirts. The year I started guiding, we still used the 6-12 mosquito repellant. It could best be described as frosting mix, and you were the cake. Just around that time, around 1956 or 1957, there was a revolution in mosquito repellents, when Deet became the active ingredient in the repellent OFF.

We had some old air mattresses in the boat house, but nobody wanted to use them as most of them leaked. Further, pure fatigue insured that you slept, even on bedrock. As far as sleeping bags were concerned, I remember Doug Klein had a nifty Eddie Baur down sleeping bag. At that time, Eddie Baur was one of the few sources of down bags. We may have had life jackets also but nobody used them. Our mantra was always stay with the canoe if you capsized.
(7)  "Around Camp"
After being chewed on by bugs for several days, plus being sweaty and dirty, guides and campers found the Finn bath to be a real joy. My only sauna mishap was diving into the lake with pores wide open once when the lake was covered with pollen. Something was immediately ingested into my pores, and I felt like I had hives.

The guides domicile, in our off hours, was Hernando’s. It provided a very snug shelter. It had bunks and open closets in the back, and a big table in front. We would sit around our Coleman lantern by the table and swap war stories. One year someone brought a battery powered record player to Hernie’s so we could listen to rock and roll. It was in Hernie’s one night that we got inspired to give each other haircuts. Norm wound up with a Mohawk. I got all the hair on the back of my head chopped off, a “Souk,s” as Norm put it. We were a real sensation the next morning at breakfast.
(8)  "A Winter Visit to Menogyn"
During a Christmas break from college, Norm Dahl, Jim Riley and another guide called to ask if I wanted to take a short winter trip to Menogyn. We got to the landing and snow-shoed down the lake to the camp. We were able to get into one cabin, got a fire going, and warmed up. The next day we headed out toward Stairway Portage. That night was about as cold a camp-out as I ever want to remember. Though we had a tent, we had no insulated pads to sleep on, inadequate sleeping bags, and a butane stove that failed to function. It got down to twenty-five degrees below zero.

Having fooled ourselves into thinking we had slept, we got up in the wee hours of the morning, put on our snowshoes, and headed rapidly back towards camp. The exertion on the snowshoes was a godsend, as it warmed us up. We went over to Billy Needham’s that night and enjoyed deer heart stew before heading back the next day to Minneapolis. I subsequently would spend time in the Antarctic and in northern Alaska, but that night at the foot of Stairway Portage was to me one of my coldest. I do remember however the northern lights and the sound of wolves howling in the distance at night, so it was worth it.
(9)  "The Beauty of the Wilderness"
Though I have canoed on other lakes and rivers in other parts of the country, I will never forget the haunting sound of loons on the lakes we visited. At the time we were at Menogyn, it was possible to go for days without seeing a soul. This was the beauty of the area where we guided. When I came back ten years later to do minerals exploration in the Lake Vermillion area, I found that scads of people had decided that BWCA was the place to be. We probably did not fully appreciate at the time that we were seeing the area at its best. Like the voyageurs before us, our era is now gone and past.
(10)  "Life After Menogyn "
I finished my undergraduate degree at Colorado School of Mines in 1962, and initially did oil exploration for Texaco in the four-corners area of Utah and in northwestern Colorado. In 1964, Uncle Sam took me away for two years in the army. After my service stint, I went to graduate school at the University of Wyoming, where I did a M.S. thesis on an area in Victoria Valley, Antarctica.

Little did I know that my canoeing experience would prompt Kennecott Exploration (Bear Creek Mining Co.) to hire me. They took me on as a summer hire in 1967 to go into the Lake Vermillion country and do follow up studies of geophysical anomalies acquired earlier from airborne surveys. Because of the bedded iron formation, compasses were near useless. We could, however, use the configuration of the lake shores to tell where we were on our topo maps. By dead reckoning we were then able to reach some anomalies with sort traverses from shore. Traveling by canoe worked well.

In 1968 I went to work full time for Kennecott. I spent the next thirty years as an exploration geologist in Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and British Columbia, looking for base and precious metals. I ran into Rene Fournier a number of times over the years, as he also went into economic geology. While working for Kennecott, I lived in Spokane, Anchorage, and Salt Lake City. For someone who loves the out of doors, it was a great job, but very tough on family life.

In 1976 I was away from my wife and year-old daughter for five months while working in the southern end of the Alaska Range. In 1998, I retired and moved from Salt Lake City to Cashmere, Washington, a little orchard town in the Wenatchee River Valley on the east flank of the Cascades. Up until this last summer I kept myself busy and out of my wife’s hair by working for the forest service and later doing contract work with the mining industry.

At age 70, I am still in good health. I enjoy skiing, hiking, fishing, backpacking, kayaking and tennis. I still enjoy canoeing and have done several trips on the Green River in Utah, and more recently on Lake Yellowstone. On one of my trips down the Green River into Canyon Lands National Park, I was with Doug Klein, a former Menogyn guide who went on to a career in geophysics. We were accompanied by his daughter Terri and her husband.

The only downside of living in the West is that our four daughters live in Boston, Atlanta, and Durham, N. C. This means long trips each year to see the four grandkids. My second wife, of 13 years, is a former nurse, heavy into blue grass music. The Wenatchee River Bluegrass Festival, which she organized in 2003, is in its seventh year. It is now acknowledged to be one of the premier blue grass events in the entire Northwest.