LARRY Connie Pike

Retired basketball coach Connie Inman continues to answer call of the wild.

WOODY’S WOODS & WATERS -

Drive 1,400 miles due north till the road runs out, hop on a bush plane and keep going, and you’ll eventually arrive at Little Vermillion Lake, so far back in the Canadian wilderness even the bears get lost.

On the shore juts a granite outcropping christened Crow Rock. There, later this month, retired Tennessee Tech basketball coach Connie Inman will celebrate his 88th birthday, substituting a cake and candles with fresh-fried walleye.

It’s a long way from Cookeville to Crow Rock, but Connie, who has been making the pilgrimage since 1959, says it’s worth it.

“I enjoy it more every year,” he says. “It doesn’t get old – it gets better.”

I was part of the group for some thirty years, and stored up a lifetime of adventures and campfire stories.

One of my favorites is the time Connie and I decided to run up a rapids to fish an adjoining lake. As we ploughed through the churning current, Connie struggled to control the boat. It kept jerking and jolting, the motor screaming and smoking.

We finally made it to the top. Connie, exhausted, said he had run the rapids dozens of times and never had so much trouble.

That’s when we noticed I’d forgotten to lift the anchor.

One morning I snapped a photo of Connie in mid-cannonball as he plunged into the ice-rimmed lake, lathered up for his semi-weekly bath. He confiscated the film.

Our first night in camp, Connie and his prankster brother Jim joined our motley crew at the supper table sporting neckties. They said gentlemen always dress for dinner.

Connie once fought a giant Northern pike up to the boat and told Jim to hand-land it. (He disdained a net because it might scrape off the fish’s protective slime.) When Jim reached down, the thrashing pike caught his hand in its massive jaws filled with buzz-saw teeth. Jim was flown to a hospital for stiches.

He bought his brother a landing net for Christmas.

One morning Connie reeled in a big walleye. He slipped it back in the water, still on his line. Then he reeled it in again. And again. Over and over he “caught” the same splashing fish – as surrounding boats inched closer and closer.

On one drive up, we spent the night in a ramshackle Canadian hotel. In our second-floor room a rope was coiled beside the window, one end tied to the radiator. The desk clerk said it was the fire escape.

During Connie’s coaching days at Tech, MTSU rival Jimmy Earle said he was the toughest coach he played against. He’s an equally tenacious fisherman.

It’s not just the spectacular Canadian fishing that beckons. It’s watching bears, moose and eagles, the howl of wolves in the distance, the lonesome, plaintive cry of loons.

It’s old friends re-telling old yarns around flickering campfires as Northern lights dance across a diamond-speckled midnight sky. It’s breath-taking sunrises and water-color sunsets. It’s the call of the wild.

Happy 88th, Connie.