TWENTY-THREE hundred miles after putting the key in the ignition in Baltimore, we're finally back in the Free State. The idea was to find out what makes men around the world save their pennies to visit a bug-infested river in upstate New York to catch a fish that doesn't even taste good.
"We're crazy," said Tommy Robinson of Baltimore, one of the 200 fishermen competing in the World Carp Championship.
They didn't smell too good, either, but you don't tell that to a crazy man. The championship was not for the faint of heart or olfactory nerves. On top of not sleeping for the better part of five days, these fishermen didn't bathe, either. I've heard of sight fishing, but you could have targeted this subspecies with one whiff.
The odor thing wouldn't have been a problem except for the fact that the temperature was intense enough to reduce Fudgy the Whale to a guppy inside of five seconds. Apparently, a Bermuda high beats an Alberta clipper, hands down.
Maryland's representatives, Robinson and partner Mark Metzger of Silver Spring, got skunked, mostly because their luck-of-the-draw fishing spot - while picturesque - was as dead as a character in a Stephen King novel.
The good news is that they had a beautiful camping spot on an island in the St. Lawrence River, with views of pastoral Canada. What's not to like, eh?
Despite it all, the carpers were an enthusiastic, wacky bunch who - fishing secrets and language barriers aside - would have made an entertaining reality show. Turns out these fellows aren't wired any differently from fishermen who target other species. Carpe carpio, indeed.
Last week's journey also included stops in Vermont and Maine for stories we'll roll out over the coming weeks.
After careful review of notes scribbled on the margins of maps, fast-food bags and expense account receipts while driving at 75 mph and 20 mph on interstates and back roads, here's what we've learned about the great outdoors beyond the Land of Pleasant Living:
With each of the 100 two-man teams baiting the river for five days with hundreds of pounds of corn- and dough-based baits, local officials might have to put the St. Lawrence on a low-carb diet. Think of it, 35 miles of river bottom lined in dough.
Speaking of dough, those Russian anglers are tough cookies. One of the combatants was hauled to the emergency room over his protests when he became the favorite meal of St. Lawrence River mosquitoes. Those who tended to the human pin cushion counted 150 bites around his ankles and lower legs (I guess it beat anything on TV). After patching him up, he went back to his fishing spot to see what else was biting.
Translators were at a premium at the championship, a problem as local organizers and volunteers tried to get supplies to the foreigners who flew in and didn't have time to stock up on supplies. On one run, a Russian fisherman and volunteer had this exchange:
"What would you like for dinner?" asked the volunteer, pantomiming the act of moving a fork from plate to mouth.
"Ssssssssss," replied the fisherman, making a sizzling sound and holding his hands in an oval shape.
"Steak?" the volunteer correctly guessed. "What else?"
"Whiskey. Red label," he answered, smiling broadly and handing her a $100 bill.
Several hours later, the boat delivered steaks and two bottles of Johnny Walker Red. The angler, a good host, insisted that the volunteer join him in a toast.
By the time the tournament ended, the local liquor store had been cleaned out of the hard stuff and the Wal-Mart was out of high-end beer, bringing new meaning to the old fishing salutation, "Tight lines."
You haven't lived until you've heard the folks on National Public Radio wax poetic, trademark sound effects and all, about a fishing tournament. Those guys have got to get out in the real world more often.
The best name for a gear shop? The "Outdoor Toy Store" in Pulaski, N.Y. Talk about truth in advertising.
If you have to have a flat tire, make sure it's at the Preble rest area on Interstate 81, between Syracuse and Binghamton, N.Y. The folks at Walburgers Garage put on the mini-spare, followed me back to their shop, patched the regular tire and got things back to normal inside of 45 minutes. We're talking pit crew efficiency, folks.
Favorite sign: On Route 37 between Waddington and Ogdensburg, N.Y., a directional advisory that says, "Bridge to Canada/Psychiatric Center."
Over in Maine, frugal fishermen have found their own way of dealing with the high price and low quality of bloodworms. But sandworms, as I found, have a tendency to fall apart like wet toilet paper. Luckily, a lobsterman and superb salmon flytier who lives along the Narraguagus River came to my rescue.
"They're wicked fragile," agreed Danny Brooks in his Downeast Maine accent. "You take your hook and start behind the head. Cover the entire hook and leave the point sticking out through the head. You'll lose some tail, but it doesn't matter. I get more stripers on sandworms than bloodworms."
To make bloodworms go farther, Brooks suggested cutting up a large worm and putting it and the blood in a plastic bag with thin strips of squid to marinate for one hour. The "faux" worm pieces worked just as well.
Every place I stopped in the north country, at least one angler would ask if the Chesapeake Bay stripers are as big as they'd heard. It was fun to confirm the stories by turning on my laptop and showing them some of the pictures you've e-mailed me. Envy Green ought to be a Sherwin-Williams color.
Locations in northern Maine are so sparsely populated that they don't even bother with real names. It's common to see a sign that tells you that you've entered "TWP-30." Makes you wonder what they call the high school football team. The Digits?
Sometimes redemption is everlasting and sometimes it's just a nickel. Along a short stretch of Maine road in TWP-28 or TWP-22 (I always get them mixed up) are two buildings with the label of redemption center: one is a Methodist church and the other a place to return bottles and cans for a deposit.