East of Ely - The Joe Meany Breakfast

by Dave Krikorian

The year I turned twenty-one, a friend and I paddled the entire route connecting the lakes and rivers of the Hunter’s Island escarpment. Our canoe was a heavy aluminum Grumman. Our food was a combination of freeze-dried dinners, pasta noodles, powdered eggs and any other lightweight stuff we could easily portage.
We planned to be out for over two weeks. Weight was an issue.
I’d lost a few pounds by the time we reached Lac La Croix, dead tired and in need of a quick place to camp. A thunderstorm was closing fast from the southwest.
The pines have grown much taller since that day at the Quetico Provincial Park Ranger Station, when a man standing at the dock waved us in.
The lean fellow in a dark green jacket with a cigarette dangling of the corner of his mouth was the ranger, Joe Meany, who ushered us out from the lightning into his cabin.
He invited us into the living room back behind the station’s business counter and handed us a couple of beers just as the rain came pouring down. Sitting in a cushy chair after eleven days of tenting felt like heaven.
Joe Meany looked out a window, shaking his head. He said that ours was a beast of a canoe that we should scrap the instant we got home.
He later went on to tell us about his canoe racing days, his winning of the cross-Quetico Ely to Atikokan (and back) race, about earning the title of the Canadian pro canoe championship, and the time he kayaked in a forty-day trek from Edmonton to Montreal to commemorate Canada’s one hundredth birthday.
Joe explained how people like Ralph Sawyer and Gene Jensen were bringing new breath to canoe designs, using ultra light construction materials. That day I also had my first glimpse at a bent-shaft paddle, one he and his brother, Don had recently built. He explained a new more-effective method of paddling that enabled the new V-hulled canoes to glide over water twice as fast as we could make our bathtub Grumman go.
He told us to pitch tent on the adjacent beach and then invited us to breakfast the next morning.
At sunrise I could hear footsteps banging across his cabin’s floor, as I breathed in the scent of real food cooking.
We sat down with Joe and his wife, Vera at their table packed with platefuls of food: Back bacon, garlic sausage, thick toast, whipped butter, honey, jam, fried eggs and potatoes. The Meany’s laughed at the way we pounded down their food.
Then Joe told us that we had it all backwards. To get with a lighter, faster canoe, and to only carry genuine food like whole potatoes no matter how much it weighed. He carried over a hundred pounds in his Paul Bunyan Duluth Pack and would have it no other way.
“It’s the way you feel after a great meal at the end of the day,” he said. “Cuss all you want about your food pack on the portages, but your stomachs could care less. That’s what counts.”
From time to time, folks around Ely have told me about everything from Joe’s removal of paddlers’ fishhooks to helping countless numbers of park visitors, and how Joe and Vera Meany were a treasured part of their trips. Sadly, Joe Meany passed on two years ago.
I’ve heeded his sage advice about food ever since the time he fed me breakfast, passing on this wisdom to many others.
One last thing: As we were preparing to leave that morning, Joe asked if we had seen the northern lights on our trip. We had. He nodded at the cabin and explained how it was impossible to see the aurora from this location.
He went on to tell us about his Army years when he was stationed in the Yukon, and how he had heard the northern lights crackle in the quiet of the Arctic north.
Some scientists tell us hearing such a sound is impossible. Others disagree.
Yet since that day, I’ve never stopped listening whenever the aurora appears outside our Snowbank Lake cabin.