HUMOR: A Fine and Pleasant Misery*It’s getting to be that time of year. Soon, smelt will be running and I will be unable to resist the urge to go outdoors and suffer.
By: Mike Savage, The Daily Telegram
It’s getting to be that time of year. Soon, smelt will be running and I will be unable to resist the urge to go outdoors and suffer. One great benefit of being a “Northlander” is knowing the innate goodness of embracing the hardy “northern lifestyle” that is excellent at building character and increasing the tensile strength of one’s moral fiber.
One such beautific outdoor experience that truly inculcates moral fiber into the soul of all participants is the annual right of passage known locally as smelting.
Outside of the region, stalking the small silvery “fishette” is called insanity. But, what do people from the Sin Twitties know anyway? We’re rugged Northlanders up this-a-way, and we march to the beat of a different drummer, especially in April when the smelt are running.
I was introduced to the sublime sport of smelting when I was but a guileless lad. My mother uprooted three-fourths of our family and fled under cover of darkness to Cornucopia on the pristine south shore of Lake Superior.
“It’s beautiful up there. You’ll love it,” she assured those of us kids who were included in the escape from Iron River.
That Ma, always a trickster.
One of the first things we did upon landing in the Twilight Zone on the South Shore was to go smelting. It was scary walking through the cold misty night toward a gaggle of strangers standing around a bonfire blazing on the sandy beach just below town. Everyone held beer cans or quart jars of a clear liquid. There was a goodly amount of burping.
Far out in the shallow waters of Siskiwit Bay, vague globs of shadows grunted and cursed and seemed to be reaching into the deeps with sticks. As the misshapen hulks neared shore, they transmogrified into hulking men emerging from the gloom dragging long bulging seines filled to overflowing with thousands of small shimmering fish the size of pocket combs that were catapulting themselves wildly in a frenzy to escape. Their sheer silver tumult was mesmerizing to behold.
Inspired by the fish, the crowd around the bonfire commenced its own frenzy by dropping their beverage containers, grabbing up galvanized buckets and joining the fray. It was hypnotic to behold.
I did have a few adjustment issues integrating the entirety of the smelting concept into my new “robust” lifestyle.
No. 1, I was freezing. Being too young to benefit from the numbing effect of alcohol, and weighing all of 70 pounds even when fully clothed in 15 layers of hand-me-downs, I felt like an ice cube in a freezer.
Secondly, watching the fine upstanding citizens of Cornucopia biting the heads off live smelt and swallowing whole fishes haphazardly was mildly repulsive. But, being eager to please, when thrust into the spotlight of the crowd, to be initiated into the smelting fraternity, I plucked up a flopping fish and neatly severed the head from the body with one fell chomp. One thing nobody bothered to tell me about this initiation right was that it was bad form to chew.
“HE’S CHEWING IT!” Ma’s voice screeched. This was the same voice that admonished me to chew my food. How was it that now she was aghast at my due diligence?
“My God I’m going to be sick,” a man’s voice echoed from the back of the crowd.
“Don’t chew! Just swallow!” Someone choked out.
I was happy to obey. Chewing a smelt head is fraught with conflict. It is both crunchy and squishy simultaneously. Eventually I learned to pretend to bite the head off, then let that live smelt wiggle a little in my mouth and slide down my throat. The burping only lasts a couple days.
The payoff comes when everyone watching slaps you on the back and welcomes you into the fold of their cozy fish-centric society.
Those humble smelty beginnings lead to grand adventures. How fondly I recall the time dip netting in the rushing waters of Saxine Creek when my borrowed hip boots filled with water. There is nothing so exhilarating as freezing cold water suddenly filling up hot rubber hip boots. Your legs instantly go from warm and dry to feeling like Popsicle sticks in a Frigidaire.
And, you know what? Hip boots filled with water tend to go with the flow. The swift spring run-off current carried me at least a half a mile into the ice floes of Mawike Bay. I learned to hop ice floes that night and I learned that hot urine does little to ease the pain of freezing cold water in hip boots. But eventually your legs warm up on the long squishy walk home.
And there was the time when we were all peering into the black swirling waters of Phoeb’s Creek looking for signs of a smelt run when, out of nowhere, Brian came mysteriously sailing through the night air, landing a gigantic belly flop right in the middle of the freezing cold pool of water. We were all drenched. What fun!
Who could forget camping out all night while gutting tiny fish with a dull jackknife, roasting them like marshmallows over a smoking balsam twig fire, eating half-cooked sushi-smelt and being kicked off the school bus the next morning for smelling badly? Sublime joy.
It’s that time of year. Anyone got waders I can borrow? I promise to control my bladder no matter what happens.
I’m Mike Savage, and I’m going smelting.
Mike Savage is a Superior-based author, publisher and radio commentator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or see his Web page, www.savpress.com.
*Thanks and a hat tip to Patrick F. McManus.