Hackensack, MN Art and Book Fair 2016

Hackensack, MN Art and Book Fair 2016

Before we left home, the shit literally hit the fan. Rene’ and I were due to leave the house early on Friday morning. I had plans to load the car, tuck away the dogs (our son Matt had agreed to feed, water, and exercise our Lab and Dachshund), and hear the hum of rubber on asphalt before 8:00am. Didn’t happen that way. Here’s why.

First, I woke up sicker than a dog. Headache. Upset stomach. Body aching all over and unable to decide whether it should puke or let loose from the other end.

“Maybe we should stay home,” my wife of 38 years thoughtfully suggested.

“Can’t do it,” I replied, dragging my way out of bed and towards the shower. “Gotta set up early tomorrow. Besides, we’re supposed to be at Halvorsons’ tonight for dinner.”

Bob and Dode Halvorson are friends from law school. Bob was a year behind me at William Mitchell, someone I played intramural softball and football with and shared cheap beer in the Irish bars of St. Paul. Dodie is his wife. They invited us to meet up with three other couples with ties to the Dorsey Law Firm, the place I spent two of my four years working my way through night law school. The Floms, good friends from Moorhead, and the Liesches and the Buckvolds, who hail from the Twin Cities, were to meet up and spend some time together at the Halvorson cottage on Fish Hook Lake near Park Rapids. The other folks have gathered annually since our days together at Dorsey. We were late invitees, the result of another of the couples we spent considerable time with, Mark and Debbie Ginder, passing away in the past year. I didn’t want to miss the chance to reconnect with people who helped define me as a person and a lawyer, whose support was essential to completing four years of night school while juggling a full time job, marriage, fatherhood, and working as a caretaker at a Wilder Foundation high rise.

The warmth of the shower did little to curb my aches and pains. I dressed, ate some half-toasted wheat bread slathered with peanut butter, woke Jack (our 18 year old son), let the dogs out to do their business, packed a suitcase with clothing for two days and nights away from home, and started lugging boxes of books out to Rene’s Nissan Rogue.

“Damn kids,” I muttered as I passed Jack on his way upstairs to get a towel.

“What?”

“Not you. Matt’s boys. Daycare bug. It got me…”

“Oh.”

Rene’ repeated that I should get back into bed and call off the trip.

I need to get out and get Boomtown moving, I thought, highlighting that the Northwoods Art and Book Festival, a neat little gathering in a tiny tourist hamlet a half hour south of Park Rapids, has always been a great place to sell my books. Plus we need to make our commitment to the Halvorsons and the others. Who knows. We miss this invite and, well, we just might not get invited again.

“No, I need to do this.”

“Fine.”

“Can you drive?” I asked as I watched Jack drive away in his blue Matrix.

Then, I heard water running in the basement. I tumbled down the stairs towards Jack’s bathroom. What I found wasn’t pretty.

The lower level of our home has a bathroom that sits slightly up slope from our septic system. Whenever the baffle in the solids tank is clogged (usually with toilet paper), the sewage and gray water reverses course. The noise coming from the basement bath? It was the toilet overflowing with foul water and bits of toilet paper. But that wasn’t all. The tub was half-filled with the same disgusting mess. The words that came out of my mouth, uttered like the wail of a father over a fallen child, can’t be printed here in a family-friendly blog.

I’ll spare you the details. But I did learn something new. We’ve been in our house for 16 years. By the time the septic guy arrived, I’d managed to get the sewage flowing again. The alarm in the house was blaring but the poop water was diminishing.

“Here’s another thing,” the kid said, pulling on a white handle fitted between the solid and the liquid tanks in our front yard. “Your filter’s clogged.”

“Didn’t even know there was a filter between the tanks,” I said, my head pounding, my legs shaking from the bug.

“Well, now you do. Needs to be cleaned at least once a year.”

I slept the entire four hour drive to the Super 8 in Park Rapids. By the time we arrived, though I wasn’t fit as a fiddle, my headache had ebbed and my guts had calmed to the point where we could register at the motel and head out to the Halvorsons’ for dinner. Despite the anxiety of the shit storm and the resulting cleanup (I did as much as I could but knew that a more concentrated, more thorough scrubbing of the bathroom, tub, and sump room awaited) the dinner of salad and steak, prepared by Bob and Rita Buckvold and their daughter, was wonderful. The company? With old friends, the stories get retold, the love is rekindled, and the years seem to melt away.

Sunset on Fish Hook Lake, Park Rapids.

Sunset on Fish Hook Lake, Park Rapids.

Saturday morning. Rene’ made arrangements with Joe and Marcia Liesch to get a ride from the motel out to the Halvorson place on Fish Hook Lake. She was fast asleep when I pulled away from the Super 8 in her Rogue, headed south on the backroads for Hackensack. I’d gulped down a cup of motel coffee, eaten a hardboiled egg and some yogurt, but still felt the affects of the bug as I meandered towards the art festival. By the time I pulled up to the Hackensack Community Center where my rented table was waiting for me, the illness had run its course.

You might be asking why, given I was nearly at death’s door (OK, that’s a huge exaggeration but damn it, I did feel like crap!), would I drag my sick body and my long-suffering wife all the way across

Another view of Fish Hook Lake.

Another view of Fish Hook Lake.

Minnesota to sit in a hard metal chair behind a rented folding table selling books to strangers? Well, the simple answer is, of all the events I’ve done over the years, the Northwoods Art and Book event is on that I can always count on.

“Oh, I just loved _____ (fill in the blank). Do you have anything new?” is a common comment and question from readers. 20 or more authors set up shop in the UCC Church across the street from the community center. I choose to pay a little higher fee to be isolated from my brother and sister authors. Why? Less competition, pure and simple. If I’m one of only a few, rather than one of many, trying to foist my words on strangers, odds are, I’ll sell better. This year was no exception.

Art and Book Fesatival, 2016.

Art and Book Fesatival, 2016.

The rewarding thing about these events is that time and time again, kind folks who’ve purchased a book in the past stop by and buy another Munger read. In the 16 years I have been selling words to strangers, I’ve only heard a handful of negative comments. I accept them, as I accept praise, reminding myself of Hemingway’s admonition that, if you revel in the glory of the critics, you must accept their condemnation as well. Boomtown, my as-yet-to-be-launched murder mystery/legal thriller sold well. At the close of the festival, I said my goodbyes, packed up my boxes, and hit the road. Within an hour, I was back at the Halvorson cottage, a Bent Paddle Black in hand, floating on the calm waters of the prairie lake. The Floms joined us and, as we sat down for dinner with friends, joined by the Halvorson’s daughter Zoe and her boyfriend, the old stories flowed. I’m sure the twenty-something child who grew up with most of these folks had heard every tale from our law school days. And yet, she pretended to listen…

Sunday morning. We were back on the road, headed south. The last leg of our trip took us to Target Field to watch a Twins game with my friends, Judge John DeSanto, and former Chief Public Defender, Fred Friedman. We set up this event months ago. Originally our wives were to join us. A week ago, Fred stopped in at my office to reveal that Mrs. Friedman and Mrs. DeSanto would not be attending. I kept this bit of news to myself, disclosing it only as we drew closer to the Twin Cities. My wife wasn’t particularly pleased to learn the other ladies had bowed out. But she’s a good sport and after letting off a bit of steam, she quieted down and accepted that she was the only girl in the group.

It was a great day for a ballgame. I was hoping that the resurgent Twins would make a showing. When Dozier hit a bomb to left to tie the game, I thought, Damn, this is gonna be fun. But by the time we shuffled out of the ballpark later that afternoon, the Twinks had been on the receiving end of a 11-4 shellacking. The bumbling hometown favorites had nearly as many hits (6) as they had errors (4). But again, sitting with two mentors who I admire a great deal, trading stories, talking law and baseball and families, well, it really didn’t matter what the score was.

After a pit stop in Forest Lake at Famous Dave’s, we roared onto the freeway and were home slightly after eight Sunday night. It had been a grueling, tiring, exhausting yet delightful weekend. I wasn’t even pissed off or upset when I grabbed my scrub bucket, cleaning supplies, paper towels, and made my way into the basement bathroom to begin the process of scouring.

Peace.

Mark

Target Field

Target Field

Three old guys at the game.

Three old guys at the game.

 

The only girl at the game...

The only girl at the game…

Dinner at Bight with Charles Murto, Finland's Ambassador to Canada.

Dinner at Bight with Charles Murto, Finland’s Ambassador to Canada.

You’ll need to enlarge the photo above to see everyone clearly. The picture was taken on Anni Stahle’s phone. Anni is the Head of Public Diplomacy for the Finnish Embassy to Canada. She’s the lovely lady in white. Across from Anni, in the vibrant red hair, is Sari Lietsala, Counsul, 2nd Secretary in the embassy. Next to Sari is my host and tour guide, Dr. Ron Harpelle, Chair of the History Department at Lakehead University. His wife Kelly Saxberg, a documentary filmmaker and Finnish Canadian (who invited me to speak at Finn Fest) is across the table from Ron. Next to her, and directly across from me (I’m wearing the green hula shirt) is Ritva Murto, the ambassador’s wife. Seated next to Ritva is Ambassador Charles Murto and to his right is Laura McSwiggan, Honorary Vice Consul in Ottawa. The last member of the group, seated to my right, is Margaret Wanlin-Hyer, Thunder Bay business consultant and wife of former MP (member of parliament), Bruce Hyer. There. Now you who I had dinner with at Thunder Bay’s trendiest restaurant on June 24th. Just how did I end up in such esteemed company you ask? Hold on a second and I’ll tell you.

It’s no secret that, as my second son Dylan once remarked, I’m (paraphrasing) “semi-famous in Canada.” Back in 2000, after my first novel, The Legacy was published, I took a chance. I was looking for places to promote my book: bookstores, civic groups, arts and crafts shows, and libraries were all targets of my less-than-sophisticated marketing strategy. Many times, emails and letters and promotional packets I sent out were ignored, discarded, or relegated to the slush pile. But when Barb Philp, head of Adult Services of the Thunder Bay Public Library system replied to my email and invited me to come up to Thunder Bay to read from The Legacy, I made the trip north on Highway 61 to Thunder Bay. Reading for the first time in front of a room full of strangers, I was mortified. Oh sure, I’d done a reading at my book launch at the Amazing Grace Bakery and another at the local Barnes and Noble store. But those events were held in my own backyard, attended by friends and family. I had no idea what awaited me in old Fort William that wintery night in 2000. Turns out, I had nothing to worry about.

In fact the experience at the Brodie Library compelled me to so something out of my comfort zone: I joined a writing group, the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop (NOWW). Through NOWW I participated in the annual book sale at the Waverly library, Finn Fling at Lakehead University, book signings at the local Chapters Bookstore, a conference at the Prince Arthur Hotel regarding Karelian Fever (the reverse migration of Finns from the US and Canada back to Soviet Karelia), the Sleeping Giant Writers Conference, readings at other branches of the Thunder Bay library, and a workshop discussing the perils and rewards of self-publishing. All this because one nice lady, Ms. Phelp, took the time to invite me up.

The tori (market) at Finn Fest 2016.

The tori (market) at Finn Fest 2016.

So here I am. It’s early Saturday morning. I’m at the Finnish Labour Temple on Bay Street. I’m crammed into a room with ten or so other vendors on the third floor of the building, selling my books to Finns attending Finn Fest. When I saw that the festival was scheduled for late June, I emailed Kelly Saxberg, who I’d met at a brunch following the debut of her film, Under the Red Star. That chance meeting, brought about because my novel, Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh, portrays the lives of Finns who settled around Lake Superior, propelled my work-in-progress, Sukulaiset: The Kindred (a story of Karelian fever) forward. 16 years after I first made my way north to Thunder Bay as an author, I find myself back in this lovely harbor city shadowed by mountains, talking to Canadians about Finns and hawking books to strangers.

 

Hall, Finnish Labour Temple, Thunder Bay.

Hall, Finnish Labour Temple, Thunder Bay.

My time here is limited. I have to leave the festival early to be in Two Harbors where I am slatted to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of my Uncle Wayne.

I arrived in Thunder Bay on Thursday evening. After settling into my room at the Prince Arthur Hotel, I strolled the town’s resurgent waterfront. I stopped to admire kids playing in a fountain, skaters doing tricks on concrete ramps, billowing sails of boats plying the bay inside the breakwater, and locals and tourists walking through the park on a beautiful summer evening. I found a pub, had a local brew, and set off to find something to eat. My favorite restaurant in town, Armando’s, closed. I wandered Port Arthur’s downtown until I found a pub serving food but I was disappointed to learn that the kitchen was closed, leaving a meat and cheese appetizer tray as my supper. I drank a Sleeping Giant lager, listened to two local boys emulating Neil Young, watched the crowd, and marveled at the lengthy journey I’d made in pursuit of fame.

On Friday, Ron Harpelle (Kelly’s husband) met me in the hotel lobby. We found a local haunt and over steaming cups of java, we talked politics, family, projects, films, and books for the better part of an hour. Ron was charged with meeting Ambassador Charles Murto and his wife Ritva at the airport. With time to kill, we piled into Ron’s van for an impromptu tour of the city. We visited Lakehead’s new law school and met the dean before heading to Chapters. I was bound and determined to buy a copy of Charlie Wilkins’s memoir, Circus at the Edge of the Earth. I’ve met Charlie, who came to Thunder Bay decades ago as the library’s writer in residence, a number of times, including at my first reading at the Brodie Library all those many years ago. He’s a well known essayist and writer with a national audience and a pretty neat guy. I own several of his books. I’ve always wanted to read Circus. Chapters is Canada’s equivalent to Barnes and Noble: a chain bookstore that believes bigger is better. Unfortunately, when I checked Chapters’ computer and the shelves, no Circus. In fact, no Charlie Wilkins whatsoever.

“We can order you a copy,” a helpful young female clerk suggested.

“I’m American,” I replied. “I don’t think that’ll work.”

I was buying a copy of Such a Long Journey by Canadian author, Rohinton Mistry just as Ron sauntered up.

“No Circus?” Ron asked.

“No Wilkins. Period.”

I paid for the book. We walked to the car.

“I really wanted that book,” I lamented.

My talk at the library went well. The audience listened intently as I explained researching and writing my two Finnish flavored books. Folks asked questions. I sold and signed books before making my way to the Labour Temple for the festival’s opening ceremony. I took a seat and watched an itinerary splash across the big screen in the crowded hall. Covers of my Finn books appeared. I smiled. Member of Parliament, Patty Hajdu, the Ambassador, and other dignitaries were introduced in English and Finnish. Several Finnish groups and musicians performed between brief speeches. And then, the festival was officially “open for business.”

Our dinner Friday night at Bight Restaurant was filled with political discussion, talk of the cultural differences between our nations, and consideration of just how The Donald was going to build a wall along the American/Canadian border.

“Is he going to float the thing in the middle of the Great Lakes?” I asked aloud. Given that Ambassador Murto, his wife, and staff were in attendance for casual dining, I’ll not repeat their responses here. Lets just say that the world is wondering just what the United States is thinking. Our meals were great. The wine was tasty. I avoided desert.

Saturday morning. I rose, packed, checked out, and drove the short distance to the Labour Temple for breakfast at Hoito (another of Charlie’s books, Breakfast at Hoito is one I have read and cherish). The restaurant in the basement of the old union hall wasn’t open. I walked across the street to Scandia and found the same Finnish pancakes I was craving. After eating and reading the Chronicle Journal, I set up my table in the tori (market) and waited for customers. Outside, the sky was darkening. Before long the clouds let loose, drenching vendors set up in the parking lot.

Storm brewing over the hall.

Storm brewing over the hall.

As I sit in my chair and watch Finns wander about, I consider the fact that I’ll likely outsell Thunder Bay’s most famous author because, inexplicably, the largest bookstore in town doesn’t carry his titles. Kelly arrives to say goodbye. She hands me a copy of The Big Blue, a documentary she directed about Wilkins and 15 other folks, mostly Canadians, who rowed from Africa to America. No sails. No motors. Just the power of their arms and legs propelling a catamaran across the Atlantic. I thank Kelly for her and Ron’s hospitality. Shortly after she leaves, I pack up and make my way back to the States.

I jet down Highway 61, and make my uncle’s funeral just in the nick of time. Later, after unpacking at home, I pop the DVD into the player. I watch and listen as my Canadian friend contemplates a journey that he, at 63 years old, seems ill equipped to make. And yet, despite the odds, he does what he sets out to do and then writes a book about the experience.

Blue

They aren’t even stocking his books in his adopted hometown’s biggest bookstore and yet, he soldiers on.

There’s a lesson in this tale for those of us who aspire to write something folks want to read.

Peace.

Mark

PS You can find copies of Charlie’s books (including his account of his Atlantic crossing, Little Ship of Fools) online if not on the shelves of your local bookstore!

Blue2

 

 

IMG_2992

Both sides of my family once worked the land. On my paternal side, my grandfather, Harry Munger, Sr. came from a farming family. His father, Lyman Munger was one of the earliest homesteaders in Otter Tail County. But despite Lyman’s attempts at being a philosopher/farmer, his legacy, at least the one that survives, is that of being more philosopher than farmer. His son, Grandpa Harry, spent most of his life working jobs that didn’t involve tilling the earth, planting seeds, and harvesting. However, Grandpa could not entirely escape the enticement of dirt. As a small child, I spent many an afternoon walking with Grandpa Harry through the narrow rows of his unkempt vegetable plot behind an equally unkempt two-story house in Duluth’s Riverside neighborhood. I remember weeds. I remember tangle. I remember raspberries and little else actually being harvested from that garden. My own father, Harry, Jr., has expressed agricultural aspirations but that’s where his involvement with the soil ends. But on the Zuehlsdorf side of my father’s heritage, the maternal side, there’s a history of industrious husbandry and cultivation. My grandmother’s father was a master farmer who owned four working farms outside Fergus Falls, Minnesota. And then there is my mother’s side of things. Her father, a Slovenian immigrant, wasn’t interested in the soil. Grandpa Jack was many things: outdoorsman; resort builder; miner; salesman; and Mason. But he wasn’t, so far as I can recall, a gardener. His youngest sibling, Steve “Stutz” Kobe, on the other hand, loved to work dirt.

Great Uncle Stutz lived his whole life in Aurora, Minnesota. A quiet, single man who, according to family lore, lost his one and only true love to parental objection, Stutz worked not in the iron mines of the Mesabi Range but as a trackman for the DM&IR, the short haul line that served the mines of NE Minnesota. Stutz lived the majority of his adult life with Great Aunt Ann, my grandpa’s younger sister, a woman of kind heart, small stature, and big emotions. She was widowed early in her marriage and, with Stutz’s help raised two dark eyed, dark haired sons in a little white frame house a few feet away from the DM&IR tracks that Stutz repaired.

Last Saturday, as I planned my vegetable garden, first tilling the sandy soil, and then, slowly, methodically placing stakes in the ground to prescribe each row, I thought of Uncle Stutz and how, more than anyone in my family, his love of gardening compels me to fight off age and competing interests to work the soil. He’s been gone at least fifteen years but as I crawled through the dirt, poking holes in the loam with my index finger, laying in seeds, and tapping loose earth to cover my plantings I smiled at the thought that somewhere, in some other realm, Stutz was watching with approval.

Stutz Kobe wasn’t especially intelligent or ambitious or worldly. He was just one of those older relatives who expressed his love of family in very simple and straightforward ways. When I was working on a log cabin that my buddies and me were building in the wood lot of the old Tynjala farm in nearby Makinen, I’d drive over to Aurora, stop in, and see Ann and Stutz. I’d saunter up to the front door, knock, and invariably, Stutz, who was retired, would answer. His greeting was always the same:

“Markie, Markie! Come on in and have a beer.” Then he’d turn and holler: “Ann, Markie’s here. Fix him a sandwich, will you?”

We’d sit in the enclosed front porch, the windows open to summer heat, the screens keeping the flies and mosquitoes at bay, talk baseball and politics, eat our sandwiches, and sip Grain Belt. One time, when I was single-handily adding a loft to the cabin, I showed up at Ann’s for supper, a hot bath, the obligatory cold beer, and a good night’s sleep in Ann’s extra bedroom.

When I’d visit during the summer, Stutz would pridefully show me his carefully plotted, diligently weeded vegetable garden. Over the noise of passing ore trains rumbling behind the house, I’d study the man’s handiwork and admire his fortitude. I can’t say I consciously knew during those brief moments that I’d someday try to emulate Stutz’s green thumb. But later on, after Rene’ and I married and we moved to the country and inherited an already existing vegetable plot, when I came in contact with Stutz at funerals, weddings, visits, or Kobe family reunions, my great uncle always asked: “How’s your garden?” In truth, while I’ve tried hard to replicate the diligence that Stutz injected into his cucumbers and potatoes and tomatoes and sweet peas and pumpkins and assorted other crops, I’m more Munger than Zuelsdorf when it comes to working the land. Still, Stutz’s quiet, steadfast example manifests every summer as I weed raspberries, hill squash, or pick ears of sweet corn under August’s swelter.

I’ve been blessed with many mentors in my life. Some of those folks were college educated. Others, like Stutz, were quiet, hardworking people whose advice was based, not upon great intellect or learning, but upon finding and accepting life’s simple pleasures. I thought about the lessons Great Uncle Stutz gifted to me last Saturday afternoon as I put away the tiller, dusted off my jeans and scrutinized my newly planted garden.

Peace.

MarkIMG_2991

Poncho readies the boat.

Poncho readies the boat.

Minnesota’s Fishing Opener. The Mungers and the Scotts. Used to be the Mungers, the Scotts, the Tessiers, the Nelsons, the Lundeens, and the Listons. It’s a tradition at the Scott place that began 49 years ago by the six fathers. Now there’s only one of the original dads left: Harry Munger, who’s in Florida and won’t be making his way north until the end of May. Used to be, in addition to the six dads, later five (tabbed “The Iron Five” when Jim Liston, Sr. dropped out) we had upwards of twenty boys and men crowding the Scott cabin on Whiteface Lake north of Duluth. This year, there’s an even dozen, including Patrick “Poncho” Scott, Tim “Scurvy” Scott, myself, my brother Dave, and assorted other Scotts and Mungers. Three of my four sons made the trip even though the weather forecast for NE Minnesota calls for it to be cold, windy, and snowy. This is one year the weather prognosticators are spot on.

Thing is, no matter the fishing, no matter the weather, so long as the Scotts invite us, the Mungers show up. Sometimes it feels like we’re intruding on a family outing. That feeling lasts for about a beer or so. Then, as we start catching up on family news and as the old stories start being retold, the warm glow of a half-century of friendship exudes itself and any angst or trepidation about being at Pat Scott’s lovely home, tromping through her kitchen and taking over her place, dissipates.

The Mungers arrive with two boats in tow; Matt’s new pickup towing my Crestliner; and my tired Pacifica pulling my dad’s old Cadillac open fishing boat. Matt and Chris launch the Crestliner at the public landing. I clamber aboard, turn the key, and the 4 stroke Mercury 60 horse purrs like a kitten. In minutes, I’m down the lake, beaching the boat at the Scotts. Chris and Matt and Jack launch the Cadillac and Chris pilots the old aluminum boat across open water, the cranky two stroke Evinrude unwilling to draw gas from the tank, requiring my third son to resort to putt-putting into shore with the four stroke Honda trolling motor. Later, I’ll take the Cadillac out and get the Evinrude roaring, discovering that the line from the gas tank to the motor wasn’t quite snug. Once on shore, I trundle over to the Nickila place, John Nickila being related by marriage to the Scotts, and ask permission to tie up at the his dock. After a brief chat, I move my boat and secure it for the night. Or so I think.

Food is never an issue at Opener. In year’s past, the eldest Scott, John, and his younger brother Tim, had coordinated the menu. My job? Bring the minnows, which I order in bulk from the Fredenberg Minno-ette. Last year, fishing was so good at the Opener, we nearly ran out of minnows but that’s a rarity. Usually, we dump dozens of extra chubs and shiners behind the Scott garage, fertilizing Cabin Circle’s majestic white and red pines. After a hearty meal of barbecue chicken and Pat Scott’s secret recipe hotdish, it’s more conversation, more beer, and a few games of smear. I get Jack to sit in and learn the game. Or at least, he begins to understand the nuances of trump, tricks, and the like.

Saturday morning. I awake to find that the stern line on the Crestliner came loose and that the boat has turned in the wind. My Boy Scout knot tying obviously failed. Chris turns the boat around and re-secures it to the Nickila dock. No damage is done.

The photo above says it all. There’s a couple inches of new snow blanketing the landscape and our boats. Tim and John’s eldest, Joe, take the grandkids up-river in hopes of surprising walleye. The Mungers are content to sleep in. The past two years, we’ve done well on Whiteface, better than any other two-year stretch since the Scott’s began inviting folks up in 1967. This year? Not so much. The Scotts roar back to the dock after an hour and a half of fruitless fishing. Breakfast is gobbled. Dishes are done. And then Matt and Jack and I gather up winter clothes, minnows, fishing gear, and head out in the Crestliner. Chris mans the Cadillac and guides for his cousin Jon and Poncho’s son Christopher. The other boats go back out as well.

Matt trying to stay warm.

Matt trying to stay warm.

It’s cold and windy but, praise the Lord, at least it’s not snowing or raining. Fishing is slow. Matt catches two keeper walleye. I pull in a perch and a pike. Jack remains a Whiteface virgin. The other boats don’t do much better.

Jack seems to lack intensity.

Jack seems to lack intensity.

Steaks on the grill, coleslaw, bread, and hash browns precede another furious round of smear, political discourse, and lamenting the Twins. Tim, the former AD and baseball coach at Hibbing High School, uses some colorful language to describe our beloved major league baseball team, all of us offering helpful suggestions as to how the Twinks can turn things around. Outside, the little kids poke sticks in a roaring fire. The snow is gone but not the cold. All told, our dozen fishermen hauled in a dozen fish, few of which are keepers. But catching fish, the few years we’ve managed to do so at Whiteface, is ancillary to the Opener. Disappointment regarding our collective catch isn’t an issue. After a sauna with my brother Dave and a few cold adult beverages, Jack and I take on Dave and Poncho in a round of smear. Jack makes some rookie mistakes and given that this is Whiteface, no quarter is given. We get trounced.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever beaten you at smear,” Poncho announces, placing the cards in the center of the table as he smiles. “It feels pretty damn good.”

Sunday morning. In the old days, Bob Scott would drive to a nearby Catholic church for Saturday or Sunday Mass with his three sons. Tim and I talk about that tradition, trying to determine when it ended, but the conversation morphs into a discussion about deer camp, another shared experience from our youth. Ken Hubert, a friend of the Scotts and mine (we were in each others’ weddings) wanders over to check on how we’re doing. Ken is newly retired, the former AD and girls’ swim coach at Faribault High School. His mom and stepdad have a cabin a few doors’ down. I envy Tim and Ken and the missing John Scott. They’re all retired and free, so long as the money holds out, to pursue their dreams. I try to keep my envy in check but it’s a tall order. As always, after a hearty breakfast of Bob Scott recipe pancakes, the boats are back on the water. The snow is gone. Sunshine toys with us into early afternoon. Jack catches a snaky pike, breaking his fishless weekend. But the walleye don’t cooperate.

The boats are trailered. Joe Scott cooks hamburgers and hotdogs on the gas grill. Everyone stuffs themselves. Tim tallies the ledger and we all chip in our share. As the Scotts and the Mungers pack up their gear, Tim is already working on next year, creating a menu for the 50th Anniversary of the Scott Fishing Opener. Hopefully, John Scott, the patriarch of the family, can break away from his retirement travels and show up. But even if John is off gallivanting the globe, if the Mungers are invited, we’ll be at the Opener at Pat Scott’s place, fish or no fish.

Peace.

Mark

 

The vegetable garden.

The vegetable garden.

Saturday. I’m up at the crack of dawn. There’s a big pile of cow and pig poop waiting for me to move, shovel by bitter shovel, from ground to wheelbarrow and then back to the earth. The Larsons, the folks who mow and bale hay from the field surrounding our home on the Cloquet River, dropped off a mountain of aged shit for me to consider. Free of charge. Sustenance for the soil as payment for feed for their cattle. I stand in the cool early morning air sipping coffee, thinking of how many wheelbarrows of decaying dung it will take to cover my modest vegetable plot. Steam rises from the cup. I spray myself with DEET and fill up the Troy Bilt’s tiny tank with gasoline. I shove the throttle to “fast”, push the choke to “full”, and yank the starter rope. The old tiller coughs, then dies. Another pull and the eight horse idles like brand new.

I till the sandy, largely inert topsoil of the land that I call home, working furrows into the hard, sandy loam. A flock of twenty mergansers, the males green headed, the females-dusky red, scuttles along the black surface of the river, heading downstream. The cause of the ducks’ retreat? Our nearly three-year-old black Labrador, Kena (pronounced “Keena”; Celtic for “the greatest champion”), is prancing along the top of the riverbank, searching for a tennis ball. She finds a dirty, torn up old specimen and, when I take a break from tilling, the sweat already streaking my face, she follows me, ball in mouth, insistent that I throw the disgusting sphere. I do, and, instantly realize my mistake. Labradors are notoriously persistent. I have started a game that will endure longer than my patience.

I approach my blue Pacifica, intent on unloading dog food, bird food, and assorted sundries from the van. But I’d left the ignition key in the “on” position overnight and the battery is deader than a fence post. I wander into the garage, find the battery charger and attempt to charge the Pacifica. There’s so much oxidation built up on the terminals, the battery won’t accept a charge. I unhook the battery, removed the bolts and nuts that retain the cables and bring them into the house for cleaning. There’s no baking soda to be found, the cure for oxidation, one of the few mechanical tips passed down to me by my very non-mechanical father. Rene’ will pick up soda at Super One and later in the afternoon, I’ll clean the parts, clean the terminals, and successfully start the Pacifica. But now, as cool morning air gives way to swelter, I’m content to hook up the charger. I unload the van through the passenger doors, which, thankfully given the locks are electric, were unlocked. Kena nudges my thigh, ball clenched in mouth, as I climb a ladder and fill a bird feeder with seed. I toss the ball and try to finish my chore before the Lab returns. The feeders have already attracted a purple finch, a pair of goldfinches, assorted wrens, sparrows, blue jays, bluebirds and other birds. I’m hoping for more; perhaps the return of that solitary indigo bunting we saw a few years’ back, the most beautiful bird I’ve ever seen in real life. He was here just the one time and hasn’t returned. But one can always hope.

The plot completely tilled, I begin moving the poop. It’s then I realize that I’ve made my job incrementally harder. Damn, I think, struggling to push a loaded wheelbarrow through loose soil, I should have waited until after I’d moved the shit to till.

The heat intensifies. There are no clouds. Birdsong fills the air. Horse flies and deer flies have not yet hatched and it’s too warm for mosquitoes to pester me as I stagger through the swelter. Load by load, my ruined knees bearing the weight, I push through the loamy earth, stop and toss shovel after shovel of rotting excrement onto exhausted soil. I’ve been at this for 33 summers; first at the garden we inherited from the former owners of this land, the Drews, and for the past 17 years, here, working new ground I tilled up with the Troy Bilt on the site of our new home. A pair of sandhills cranks away, too high and too distant to for me to see. A bald eagle drifts above the river, scanning for fish. A pair of mallards bursts from forest, leaving a small seasonal pond behind, a tiny bowl of water that once hosted our young sons and their friends on ice skates. Boys. There are none left around here to help move poop. The three oldest are living lives with partners other than their parents. Jack is away at Camp Ripley, participating in Army drill weekend. Truth be told, none of the boys ever really helped all that much in the vegetable garden. Fertilizing, planting, weeding, and harvesting, with rare exception, have always been the province of Rene’ and me. I break for lunch, my arms tired, my knee braces; the one on the left protecting a bone on bone joint that needs replacing; the one on the right bracing a torn meniscus that needs surgery; and fill a water bottle with ice and tap water. Kena sits on the front porch, ball in mouth. Waiting.

Rene’ is otherwise occupied, cleaning out the rock garden that defines our front yard. She’s hard at it, laying down a new pond liner in one of the fountain pools and patching the other pond basin with concrete. Back at the poop pile, the Labrador insists on another toss. I chuck the ball from the top of the brambled riverbank, the pitch so steep, a man can’t climb it without grasping the shoots of aspen, pine, birch, and balsam that hold the slope together. Kena pounces through thicket and plows into the cold, black water. Once. Twice. Three times I toss the ball and still, she appears at my feet, eyes expectant, ball waiting on the ground between her paws, eager for another go.

By dinnertime, the pile of shit is nearly gone. The garden has been revitalized. Rene’ calls The Eagle’s Nest and orders burgers. I shower and, with the Pacifica’s battery reconnected, drive to Fish Lake to pick up our food. While the cook finishes up, I sit at the bar sipping ice cold tap beer and wonder how many years my body will let me garden.

Peace.

Mark

IMG_2964

One Man, One River

 When great men or women die, the passage of time acts like rust working on iron: as years roll by, the societal remembrance of the departed slowly dissipates until there is only a vague recollection, a caricature of sorts, of the deceased left for consideration. Many of you have no idea who Willard Munger was or how his story is interwoven with that of the modern St. Louis River. Hopefully, this short essay will recall his fight to clean up and preserve the estuary that is the birthing place of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest repository of fresh water.

Willard was born on a farm in Otter Tail County, Minnesota on January 20, 1911, the son of an impoverished farmer and a homemaker of limited education. After a bout of illness, Munger graduated from Fergus Falls High School in 1932 and began working a series of jobs that eventually took him from northwestern Minnesota to Duluth. Other than a few marine drafting courses taken at UMD to secure a job in the shipyards of Duluth and Superior during WW II, Munger’s formal education ended with high school. However, despite this limited exposure to schooling, Willard Munger was steeped in the conservation ethic of his paternal grandfather, a man who, though a poor farmer, was a firm believer in the power of the political process to preserve the land and water for future generations. Lyman Munger exposed his grandson to the forests, marshes, rivers, and beauty of the natural world to be found in rural Otter Tail County, imprinting upon his young grandson a land ethic akin to that later immortalized by Wisconsin’s Aldo Leopold. Willard carried a vague and half-formed appreciation for the natural world with him when he arrived in the Twin Ports in 1935. Settling in Duluth, Munger’s imprecise and somewhat naive understanding of the environment and man’s ability to adversely “soil his own nest” collided with the reality of the tragedy occurring along the banks of the St. Louis River.

Willard Munger settled in northeastern Minnesota at the height of the Great Depression. His first reaction to the sewer laden, foul smelling, toxic waters of the great waterway dividing the industrial cities of Duluth and Superior was disgust. But, with a child on the way and a young wife at home, Munger reconciled the river’s ugliness with society’s need for economic progress and his own need to find work. It wasn’t until Reserve Mining proposed (in 1948) to obtain a permit from the State of Minnesota to dump waste from its taconite processing operation into the pristine waters of Lake Superior and Willard joined the United Northern Sportsmen of Duluth, that Willard came to realize the wrong headedness of what was happening to the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. It was then that the young liberal politician, steeped in the socialism of the Nonpartisan League and Farmer Labor Party of his grandfather and his parents, decided “enough is enough” and began to work against those in power who saw the St. Louis River as an open sewer and Lake Superior as an inexhaustible holding pond for industrial and municipal waste. Though the United Northern Sportsmen’s efforts to stop Reserve Mining’s plan to dump taconite tailings into the lake failed, that effort gave Munger confidence to run for public office. He’d run unsuccessfully, on an economic platform of reform rooted in his ancestor’s socialism, for the State Legislature in Otter Tail County as a twenty-one year old Farmer Laborite in 1934. He lost. He ran again for a position in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1952 under the banner of the newly minted Democratic Farmer Labor Party, placing his passionate love for the St. Louis River estuary, and the need to regulate the waste being dumped into that delicate ecosystem, front and center in his campaign message. He lost again.

Rethinking his strategy, Munger came to realize that he was, in many ways, ahead of his time and his would-be constituents in the blue-collar neighborhoods of West Duluth that he proposed to represent. The environment, the cleaning up of the St. Louis River, was not high on the list of priorities for local voters. Jobs. Taxes. Preservation of social security and pensions. These were issues that galvanized Munger’s fellow West Duluthians, issues that Munger adopted as his own when he won a House seat in 1954. But the fact that Willard publically pivoted away from his dream of cleaning up the St. Louis River did not equate to an abandonment of principle. In 1955, as he took his seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives (a seat he held until his death in 1999) the very first piece of legislation Willard Munger sponsored was a bill seeking $25,000 to study the idea of treating industrial and municipal sewage through regional waste treatment districts. His request was promptly rejected by the conservative forces in control of the House. Undaunted, Munger brought the bill back during the next legislative session. Money was allocated in 1957 to study whether or not all of Minnesota’s rivers, not just Munger’s beloved St. Louis, were in need of rejuvenation. It took Willard Munger the next fifteen years to convince his brother and sister legislators that Minnesota’s shameful abuse of its rivers and streams needed corrective action.

Willard Munger’s foresight led to the creation of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, the WLSSD, a regional waste treatment facility that, along with a myriad of other conservation and environmental legislation Munger passed over a laudatory and lengthy political career, made Minnesota’s waterways cleaner. When Munger began his efforts to revitalize and reclaim the river, human feces floated in St. Louis Bay. The ancient fishery, one that boasted bountiful populations of walleye, pike, sturgeon, bass, and other game fish, was dead. The few walleye that managed to spawn in the turbid, toxic waters of the St. Louis were inedible. The sturgeon were gone, killed off by progress. The pike tended to stay out by the cooler, less polluted waters of the Big Lake. Today, on any given summer afternoon, one can look out across the flat, broad waters of the St. Louis River and see countless fishing boats bobbing at anchor or trolling the repatriated weed beds of a healthy ecosystem. Willard Munger’s persistence, his refusal to accept “no” for an answer, is a big reason why the folks in those boats are enjoying themselves.

As Willard’s staff assistant Ann Glumac once said, “I’ve known many famous, important men in my lifetime but I’ve only known one great man. That man was Willard Munger.” Indeed. Representative Munger’s life should not be forgotten but remembered by posterity as an example that even ordinary men can do extraordinary things.

Happy Earth Day 2016!

Mark

(This essay was originally written for the One River, Many Voices project regarding the history and importance of the St. Louis River. It was not chosen for airing on Wisconsin Public Radio but another of my essays, “Ducks”, was. Stay tuned!)

 

 

Ann Glumac and Rep. Munger

Ann Glumac and Rep. Munger

 

AuthorDM

 

Someday, I’m gonna sit down, open my old files, and figure out how many book signings, library talks, book festivals, craft fairs, and book clubs I’ve attended over the twenty-five years I’ve been writing. In summary fashion, I can safely say that I’ve been as far west as Calgary, Alberta, as far east as Youngstown, Ohio, as far north as Winnipeg, Manitoba, and as far south as Council Bluffs, Iowa. I’d like to think that these bits and pieces of my writerly journey from considering writing a book to actually writing novels chronicles my progress as an author, but I’m not sure anyone would be interested.

I started writing seriously in 1990. My first novel took three years of sweat, blood, and tears to hammer into shape. After a decade of shopping that first effort (The Legacy) to agents and publishers, Savage Press accepted the book for publication. Mike Savage taught me the ropes of book publishing, marketing, and distribution and, in the end, after the book’s regional bestseller status began to wane, with no literary agents knocking down the door to represent my work (a necessity in attracting large, New York publishing houses—every author’s dream), and being impatient by nature, I chose to go it alone. I formed Cloquet River Press, found a printer, established a relationship with a distributor, and started churning out books. I find myself decades later with my tenth book—seventh novel—meandering towards birth having achieved little recognition for my effort.

There was a time when I submitted work I’d written, novels that had achieved acclaim from national and even international reviewers, to writing contests in hopes of winning at least an honorable mention; something, anything to set my work above the crowd of self-published authors. I know, I know. Seeking such vindication is akin to trying to win the Powerball. I understand that I should be satisfied that folks generally appreciate my work. I know this because they come back for another Munger “read” or send me kind emails praising my stories and characters. And to be fair, a couple of my short stories have won recognition in local writing contests. Such small, sweet victories raise my spirits and make me smile. For a few weeks. And then, it’s back to reality. I remain, despite serious and consistent effort at craft, virtually unknown as a writer in my own hometown. Rejection is something every writer, poet, musician, or artist must face and, having experienced such disdain by the public, ignore. I understand this delicate dance with ego. I’ve repeatedly submitted my work to the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award and the Minnesota Book Award only to watch folks, talented to be sure but having only the most tangential connections to my backyard, win year in and year out. I’ve talked to folks “in the know” and asked “why?” only to receive blank stares and the admonition to “try, try again”. Once, in answer to such an inquiry, a female judge in a local writing contest confided, “I was on the committee and thought your book (Suomalaiset) was the best of the lot.” And yet, that novel, a broad, sweeping historical look at the lynching of a Finnish dockworker in Duluth, didn’t make the cut. Despite such heartbreak, I continue to put my shoulder to the wheel of words. I cannot not write—even when my head hurts from decades of pounding it against the wall of anonymity.

Sometime this year, Boomtown, a legal thriller set in Ely and Grand Marais, will be released. I’m trying something new: I’m asking readers who’ve enjoyed my work to pre-order the novel to assist in funding its publication. I plan on releasing the book in September. So far, the response has been tepid even though Boomtown has a timely plot and reprises many characters from The Legacy, Pigs, and Laman’s River; books that have done well with readers. Resurrecting beloved characters is my way of saying “thank you” to folks who’ve read my work and told me to keep at it. But whether Boomtown is the end of my efforts to become an established author or a new beginning remains an unanswered question.

 

You can pre-order Boomtown at www.cloquetriverpress.com. Click on “Buy Books Direct” and scroll down to the book cover for Boomtown. Click on the book cover and follow the instructions. A version of this essay was first published on 03/06/2016 in the
Duluth News Tribune.

First run after the ambulance ride.

First run after the ambulance ride.

Every year, the Ski Hut in Duluth, a local ski and bike shop owned by the Neustel family, organizes a family oriented trip to Bozeman, Montana. My mom and stepdad have been going out there with their skiing friends for the better part of two decades. My own immediate family, including all four sons and their significant others, have made the trip. This year, it was just Rene’ and I, along with our friends Jan and Bruce Larson, who made the trek from Minnesota to Montana. My mom and stepdad drove out for the Tuesday buffet to visit with folks in attendance but, as both of them are over the age of eighty, they no longer ski. Rene’ and I always make the drive out to Bozeman, usually stopping in Bismarck or Dickinson, North Dakota and spending the night. My mom and stepdad also drove despite their advanced ages. It’s a long ride through western Minnesota, all of North Dakota, and most of Montana from Duluth to Bozeman but, with the exception of the stretch from Fargo to Teddy Roosevelt National Park in far western North Dakota, the ride is fairly scenic. This year, we saw pheasants and wild turkey and a large herd of pronghorn on the way west. In the past, we encountered a moose standing in a cornfield just outside Fargo, a setting for that big creature that made no sense.The Larsons avoided the boredom of driving across North Dakota by flying from Minneapolis to Bozeman.

Monday. First day. I don’t remember much about President’s Day. In fact, when questioned in the ski patrol room, ambulance, and Bozeman Deaconess Hospital about the day and date, I couldn’t remember that it was Monday, that is was February 15th or that it was President’s Day. Ambulance ride? you ask. Si! Sometime between leaving my wife early on Monday morning to ski the black diamond runs off the Bridger lift and finding myself in the ski patrol room at the base of Bridger Bowl, something happened to my noggin’. The what is elusive. No one was with me so no one can attest to whether my complete loss of three hours’ time was due to a catastrophic fall, oxygen depletion, dehydration, or a combination of all three. I don’t remember making my way to the Deer Park chalet for cocoa with Rene’, Jan, and Bruce. I don’t remember repeating the same question to my wife eight times in a minute’s span. I don’t remember being confused as to where I’d left my skis. Or that I couldn’t remember the make or color of my skis. And I don’t remember taking six runs with the Larsons. It’s all gone. Completely wiped from my mind.

Rene' skiing Bridger Bowl.

Rene’ skiing Bridger Bowl.

Apparently, my friends and my wife determined that something was very wrong with my mental status while we ate lunch. Lunch? I don’t remember it at all. I do remember being ushered by Bruce to the ski patrol room and meeting with a patroler and an orthopedic surgeon from New Zealand as they provided an assessment and care for my disorientation. But I don’t recall our conversations, or the tests they ran, or my responses to their questions. Their diagnosis was “altered mental state possibly related to a fall” and Rene’ was advised that I should be taken by ambulance to the local hospital for further evaluation.

The young female EMT who rode with me in the back of the ambulance down the mountain was cute with dyed red hair, scandalously cool tats, and an even manner. When I complained that my bladder was full, she gave me a portable urinal and moved to the front of the rig to give me privacy and talk to Rene’. Ever tried peeing while lying down and strapped to a gurney? Doesn’t work, at least not for this 61-year-old man. The first thing I did when I was brought into Bozeman Deaconess was to ask for privacy to go. And I did. Then it was off to the CT scanner. My blood, drawn by the EMT in the ambulance, was analyzed. My vitals were checked. My blood pressure, which is normally on the low side,

Bruce and Rene', Bridger chalet.

Bruce and Rene’, Bridger chalet.

was high. My oxygen was slightly depleted. The scan appeared, according to the doctor and the nice PA who worked on me, normal. “Did anyone see him fall?” the PA asked Bruce, Jan, and Rene’. The answer was of course, a resounding “No.”

Bruce and Jan Larson, Bridger Bowl.

Bruce and Jan Larson, Bridger Bowl.

“How about his helmet?” the PA asked. “It’s in the car,” Bruce replied. “I’ll go get it.” We’d all arrived at the hill in my blue Pacifica. After my momentary lapse of reason, Rene’ rode shotgun in the ambulance. The Larsons, after collecting all our gear, had followed in the Chrysler. When Bruce returned with my helmet, it was pockmarked with new scrapes and dents and dings. It certainly looked like I’d fallen. And yet, the truth remains elusive as I have no recollection of the incident, if there was one.

I took the next day off on doctor’s orders. I sat in the Bridger chalet, reading The Confabulist (see review elsewhere on this blog), sipping coffee and lamenting that I’d cost my wife and my friends half a day of skiing. Rene’ and the Larsons were out, doing what I wanted to be doing, gliding down the slopes. But the doctor had given me strict orders not so ski for the rest of the week. I figured one day off and I’d be good to go. I can be a stubborn old cuss at times.

Moonlight Basin at Big Sky.

Moonlight Basin at Big Sky.

After attending the Ski Hut banquet on Tuesday night, where copies of my books were given away as door prizes, and after Potter Neustel pointed to me as he was giving away a ski helmet and quipped “Just ask Judge Munger the value of a helmet…”, and of course, after explaining what I knew (or didn’t know) about what had happened to me, I skied Bridger on Wednesday and Big Sky/Moonlight on Thursday. Rene’ took two days off, Wednesday to simply rest her sore feet (she had new ski boots and they were causing blisters) and Thursday to visit the Spa in Big Sky, using a gift certificate I’d given to her at Christmas. The Larsons kept me by their side, making sure that I didn’t over exert myself or end up in the trees. On Thursday, strong winds at Big Sky, along with thunder and lightening, shut down the hill for a time. When we finally got back to it, Jan, Bruce, and I were pelleted by sleet sharp enough to make skin bleed.

A highlight of the trip was taking Eagle Scout and Hermantown kid, Rudy Hummel, out for pizza at McKenzie River Pizza in downtown Bozeman. You might remember Rudy. He’s the young lad who slept outside for 365 straight days, making national news for his effort. He’s now attending Montana State and, given that we’re Face Book friends, I had messenged him and offered to treat him to pizza. He obliged and regaled the Larsons, Rene’, and my mom and stepdad with his remarkable story.

Of course, being that my own tale was circulating amongst Duluthians occupying the Comfort Inn, I was asked to retell my story, or non-story, many times over the succeeding days. During that time, the fogginess I’d experienced subsided. I recovered sufficiently to take a final plunge down a double black off the North Bowl traverse. Despite my forgotten Monday, I ended the trip breathless  and wanting more.

“How was your last run?” Jan asked as I clambered into the chalet to meet my party for a beer. “I think you must have snuck in an extra run somehow,” she added. “I did.” “So…?” Bruce asked, “how was it?” “It was legendary,” I replied. And it was.

The Larsons and the Mungers, Bridger Bowl.

The Larsons and the Mungers, Bridger Bowl.

But that’s not the end of this story. After a fifteen hour drive, Rene’ and I tumbled into our own bed, exhausted, leaving the Pacifica full of our gear. Sunday afternoon, I unloaded the van. I was unaware that it had rained during our absence, leaving treacherous black ice beneath an inch of new powder. As I took a step towards the garage door, my right foot slipped and I tumbled. My right leg bent behind me, resulting in a very painful impression of a human pretzel. Thankfully, I didn’t hit my head. But when I tried to stand, I knew I’d done serious damage to my right knee, my good knee. The left? It’s slated for partial knee replacement after years of running, skiing, football, softball, and assorted other outdoor activities. My right knee? Up until that moment, it was without pain. As I type this piece three days’ after my fall on ice, my right knee is swollen and sore. I have trouble standing up from a chair. I can’t put weight on it. I see my doctor tomorrow to fulfill the old adage, “You should have your head examined!” I’ll have to tell Dr. Knutson my story, including the last little bit because he’ll also need to examine my right knee. When I explain what happened in Montana, and then later, in Duluth, I hope it’s the last time I have to repeat my story, a story I really don’t know.

Moonlight Basin at Big Sky

Moonlight Basin at Big Sky

Peace.

Mark

Last day on the mountain.

Last day on the mountain.

 

Cold Afternoon on the Cloquet

Cold Afternoon on the Cloquet

The past twelve months have been hard. Good friends lost battles with insidious diseases or were struck down in the prime of life through no fault of their own. Another close friend slipped further into dementia. Two family dogs passed on. For the first time in my 17 years as a judge, the job, the day-to-day grind, is wearing me down. Rene’ went through foot surgery and then, after devoting 16 years to helping kids as a mental health therapist in the public schools, after 12 years working in Proctor, saw her position with Bayview Elementary eliminated with not so much as a “thank you.”  I found out my left knee is bone on bone, requiring at the very least, a partial knee replacement. I discovered black mold behind the walls of our garage. Water from the garage also leaked into the house and damaged drywall in the basement. The hot tub sprang a leak and, once the leak was repaired, the motor died. OK. I’ll grant you that last item doesn’t really deserve to be on the list. But the cumulative effect of it all is what’s so hard to wrangle, to come to grips with. I’ve told Rene’ that, after inventoring the woes of the past twelve months, this year has been absent joy. But that’s not entirely true.

There have been glorious moments I’ve experienced over the past year. Like the birth of Avery, our second grandchild, Jack’s graduation from Army basic training, Rene’ being hired as a Guardian ad Litem by the State of Minnesota, time spent with my boys hunting and fishing, holidays and other occasions spent with good friends and extended family, dates with my sweetie, trips to Montana and Florida and North Dakota and South Carolina, and the announcement of another grandchild on the way. However, behind the good times and moments of expressive joy, there still lurks a foreboding, a darkness that, well, for the first time in my life, I have felt incapable of overcoming. I know the funk I’m experiencing is what everyone who lives to my age encounters: a feeling of being “in between” the past (for those of us whose parents, thankfully, remain in good health), the present (as manifested by our children), and the future (as engendered in our grandchildren). I get it. I get that things change and I must endeavor to change as well. The first step, I think, is to vow, bad knee or not, to engage in physical activity, to set the pulse a racing, the breathing a gasping, and the muscles to aching. When I’m active, while the black clouds don’t disappear, they do seem far distant and not nearly as ominous as when I sit moping in my easy chair, staring out a window. And so, with our young Labrador Kena leading the way, I’ve made the conscious effort to get off my tired old duff, dress for the below zero days we’re experiencing,  wax up my skis, and lose myself in forest.

Kena on the River Trail.

Kena on the River Trail.

Looking north.

Looking north.

“Kena is a good girl”. That’s a phrase my son Chris invokes when talking about our dogs. Chris is spot on when it comes to our energetic two-year old pup. Oh, she’s not perfect. Yesterday, she managed to get hold of Rene’s stocking cap and destroy the tassel. But such incidents are few and far between. And Kena loves the trail, loves romping ahead of her human companion as we make our way through the aspen, maple, balsam, birch, and pine woods surrounding our house. This time of year, with the sun bright, the mercury below zero, and the air as still as a deep freeze, there’s not much wildlife to see. But on one of our recent treks, a ruffed grouse, concealed beneath snow, burst into the sunshine as we passed its hiding place. Kena, who has a pretty good nose, didn’t have a clue. The explosion of wings set my heart to racing but barely garnered a glance from the Lab. Also, despite an abundance of whitetails around our place, I rarely see deer out and about in such cold and, on our most recent below-zero ski, even their tracks proved scarce.

There’s a flock of Goldeneyes that, like clockwork, arrives on the Cloquet River in front of our house every November. The ducks time their descent from Canada to coincide with the expiration of waterfowl hunting. I have no idea how Manitoba ducks know when the season ends, but they do! Sometimes, as Kena and I make our way onto the stretch of ski trail that hugs the east bank of the river, twenty or so Goldeneyes will rise as one, whistling as they depart. Then too, a resident pair of bald eagles will often soar above the river, searching diligently for fish, their feathered majesties unaffected by cold. But on these January treks, it’s usually just Kena and me. And it’s while poling and gliding and huffing and puffing over new snow that I catalog the losses and the gains of the past year, my OCD mind creating a ledger of the good and the bad, an internal balance sheet that, in the end, favors the positive.

What do folks who live in town do when the weight of life, the passing of time and friends and family, and creeping despondency invade their spirits? I’m not certain. But I hope they have some place, like the trails behind my house on the Cloquet, where they can find renewal. Maybe its a city park or a local skating rink or a state ski trail or the slopes of Spirit Mountain or Mont du Lac or Lutsen or their church or mosque or synagogue or the public library that allows them to rekindle the flame. One thing is for certain: Life doesn’t get easier. Winter in Minnesota and the attendant seasonal malaise don’t help. But despite it all, there’s a chance for all of us to start anew, to forge ahead, putting one foot ahead of the other. I’m working on it. I hope you are too.

Peace.

Mark

The good girl.

The good girl.

 

 

Hunting the prairie.

Hunting the prairie.

It is indeed too damn nice. We’re stalking pheasants on the prairie outside Ashley, North Dakota and the sun is high, the air still, and the honking of geese, cranking of sandhills, and quacking of ducks in migration creates a cacophony of noise. I have come to North Dakota on my annual hunting trip with my 88 year old father Harry, my sons Matt, Chris, and Jack, and Matt’s high school friend, Reid Amborn, to escape the worries and troubles of the courtroom and my unproductivity as a real estate novelist. We’re here, occupying a house in downtown Ashley as our base of operations, for what I believe is my  tenth year on the Great Plains chasing ringnecks. Matt did yeoman’s work reserving the house, creating a menu, and buying supplies. But because someone else had rented the house for the non-resident opener, we’re here a week later than usual. As a consequence, I packed winter clothing, knowing full well from past trips that winter can roar into Ashley with brutal surprise. Our Eagle Scout preparedness (Reid is also an Eagle) turns out to be mostly overreaction. The weather is more like May than November.

We have, for three years, settled into a routine of hunting CRP land; land set aside by private owners under various federal and state conservation programs to allow hunters access to native grassland, bottomland, treelines, and sloughs. But, like so many things in America today, the opportunity to hunt CRP is diminishing. Corn prices, escalated by the demand for ethanol, have turned many CRP plots into cornfields. You can’t blame farmers. If a landowner can make more money planting crops than leaving his or her land idle for public use, how is that his or her fault? As we start our our first day hunting (missing sunrise, our appointed starting time by a good hour), we walk familiar land, a large plot of CRP that’s harbored birds in the past. Matt’s rusty red Labrador, Lexie, and Jack’s little two-year old black Lab, Kena, work well together, weaving in and out of the tall prairie grass and brush. We flush a hen or two but no shootable roosters as we make our way towards open water where rafts of waterfowl, including several thousand snow geese, float. The geese are safe from us. We aren’t hunting waterfowl, only pheasants and partridge and grouse. As we work a section of lowland, cattails slapping our faces, the dogs pushing through chin high cover, pheasants, including a few roosters, scatter before us, catching us unaware. The shots we throw after the birds are ineffective. We push on, following the fleeing pheasants towards water’s edge.

First bird.

First bird.

“Rooster!” A big emerald and scarlet headed male jumps up. Shots echo. The bird flies on. Chris takes one last shot in desperation and the bird tumbles to the ground. The dogs bolt towards the downed bird and arrive simultaneously at the stricken rooster. “Kena!” Jack shouts, calling his dog off the bird. Lexie retrieves the pheasant and delivers it to Matt.

We stop for lunch, our shirts wringing wet, our long johns soaked, meeting up with my dad who’s been driving around in Chris’s Nissan Xterra scouting out

Lunchtime.

Lunchtime.

potential hunting spots. I sense my old man is frustrated by age and his inability to join us in the field. He has the gumption to do it all right. Just not the legs or endurance. I try to cut him some slack as he makes suggestions of places to hunt, places we’ve either scouted as a group and decided against or driven past and deemed unlikely prospects. Still, we humor him and, after lunch, try a couple of the places he’s viewed. We see few birds, mostly hens, and shoot none.

Days two and three in the field aren’t much better. Weary after tromping through swamp, brush, grass, and cattails eight hours a day, I’m pretty depressed, as is Chris, about the whole experience. “I don’t know that it’s worth it to come back to Ashley,” Chris laments. I tend to agree with the sentiment but, having tried my hand at finding other places in North Dakota to hunt and having failed at the task, I offer no ready remedies for our misery. At least, given Matt’s superior abilities as a quartermaster and chef, we eat well. After three days of hunting, we have two birds, both shot by Christian.

Day four. The weather changes. It’s cold, cloudy, and windy. The fog is so thick at sunrise, well, there isn’t one. The sky threatens rain, sleet, or snow.

I’ve fired four shots at fleeing roosters in three days. I’ve missed some easy ones. I even double-clutched once, missing a golden opportunity to bag a resplendent rooster that burst out of sawgrass just a few feet in front of me as we worked a big piece of CRP near Hague, a tiny hamlet forty miles east of Ashley. Kena was ahead of me, sniffling thick cover, her constant grunting a reminder of another Lab I once owned. Then, I lost sight of the dog. Only Kena’s rigid tail was visible. I should have known the dog was on point, that she had her nose up against the butt end of a pheasant that had decided, unlike most of the birds we encountered, to sit tight. When a big, beautiful rooster busted out of the cattails all I could do was marvel at the creature as it flew away. I didn’t shoot. I didn’t call out “Rooster” so someone else could take the bird. I simply stood silent, ineffective and stunned.

On Day four, words are exchanged between father and son concerning whether or not a location scouted by my old man is worthy of consideration. As Chris drives alongside a fence line scouting terrain rolling from hillside to marsh, we see birds, hens and roosters kicking out of the grass, gliding towards thicker cover. We stop and decide to try Grandpa’s spot. We are not disappointed.

As noted, Chris is the only hunter who’s hit birds up to this point in the story. Two birds in fact. His second rooster had dropped like a stone but started running when it hit the ground. Kena was on that bird and scooped it up before the rooster had a chance to hide. With the bird clawing and flapping in the young pup’s mouth, the young Lab danced her way back to me, rooster intact, her trainer proud that hours of training had paid off.

Kena.

Kena.

The tract Harry suggests turns out to be loaded with pheasants. A big rooster gets up in front of Reid. He fires and misses. But instead of heading over the hill, the bird beats a path into the gauntlet. Matt fires. A miss. Jack fires. A miss. Chris unloads. The bird flies on. By the time the rooster passes me, it’s a forty yards out. I fire once. The rooster doesn’t crumple but glides headfirst into the side of a distant hill. There’s something about the landing that makes me think I got lucky.

“I think that bird’s hit.”

“We can check for it on the way back,” Chris replies with lack of enthusiasm. “We’ll work that hillside into the wind.”

Another rooster gets up. Again, it’s a long shot. Again my 12 gauge barks. Twice. The first shot misses. The second one doesn’t. Lexie is on the bird and retrieves it. The bird is stone dead. I let out a whoop. I’m unable to control my joy after three and half days of being snake bitten. Jack takes exception to my display. Words are said. Tempers flare. Jack is ready to join Grandpa Harry in the car. Things get smoothed over and we walk on.

Kena and birds.

Kena and birds.

“What the hell?” Chris says as Kena shoves her nose into thick grass right beneath Chris’s feet.

The dog pulls out the rooster I’d hit from across the valley. It’s stone dead, likely due to a single lucky pellet to the head that caused it to glide on pheasant auto-pilot.

“Good girl,” Chris says, admiring the bird as Kena holds the rooster in her mouth. Chris puts the bird in my game pouch.

We cover the shoreline of the big lake Harry thought would hold birds. I hit another rooster rising out of thick cattails. After ten minutes of Kena chasing the wounded bird through impassable cover, I’m ready to give up when she trots back to me with a wing shot rooster in her mouth. I wring the bird’s neck. I have my limit. I am redeemed.

Reid, Matt, and Jack all hit birds. We lose a couple of roosters that appeared to be dead in flight. The pheasants hit the ground running and disappear in cover. Lexie limps along, her heart in the game but her body saying, “Put me in the kennel.” Matt does just that. Kena bounds on. The discord between Grandpa and me and Jack and me has settled. Jack and I are teased when we engage in what Jack calls a “bro hug”. As dusk approaches, Reid sets his phone to sound an alarm at sunset. We find a beautiful piece of land; a big marsh at the bottom of a steep hill surrounded by harvested cropland. We walk a fence line. Hens erupt. We see no roosters. Kena retrieves a dead rooser that another hunting party shot. The Lab is unwilling to slow down. She locks up on a clump of grass surrounded by dry mud. The patch of grass is no bigger than a loaf of bread. Kena holds point, one leg in the air in the classic pose, her tail straight and rigid.

“Fetch!”

The dog bounds forward. A hen busts out of hiding.

“Good girl, Kena.”

 

As the clock inches towards 5:13, Harry turns on the headlights of Chris’s SUV. He clearly believes we’re hunting illegally. We’re not. Reid’s watch will tell us when it’s time to stop. A big rooster explodes next to Jack. The bird flies over an oily puddle of marsh water. It’s a good sixty yards out when Jack shoots. The rooster tumbles and starts to run.

“Get the bird!” Jack yells.

Kena is following a rooster Chris missed but darts back towards Jack when she hears the command.

“Where’d it go down?” I ask.

“To your right,” Jack says.

I walk into ugly scum up to my shins. My newly waterproofed hunting boots stay dry but my long johns wick water. Kena can’t find the bird.

“Straight ahead,” Jack calls out.

“”5:13,” Reid announces. Hunters unload guns. I’m knee deep in quagmire. Kena snuffles. With daylight waning, I finally spy the bird: only its head and beak protrude from the cesspool I’m walking through. The rooster blinks as we make eye contact.

“Get the bird!”

The Lab shoves her head into the water and emerges with a ringneck. I take the rooster from the dog and hold it aloft.

“Better thank dad,” Matt says to Jack. “He saved your bird.”

“Thanks,” Jack says flatly as I tuck the rooster into his game pouch.

In the end, we down ten birds over our four days. Not a great hunt but one, because it marks Kena’s coronation as a diligent hunter and retriever, that’s memorable nonetheless.

“I think we need to reconsider giving up on Ashley,” I say to Chris as we drive back to the little frame house in town.

“Maybe,” is his only reply.

Peace.

Mark

Jack and a rooster.

Jack and a rooster.

 

Follow Us

Events Calendar
August  2017
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
   
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 31