Mr. Walter and Ryder Litman

At one time, there were four elder statesmen on this trip. This year, due to age, death, and maladies, only one of the gentlemen made it. Mr. Walter “Frtiz” Mondale was the lone representative of the Greatest Generation to make the long trek to Lake Elsie in the Ontario bush. There’s a sadness in that equation, likely related to the fact that one of the missing guys is my father, Harry, the man who invited me on this trip more me than a decade ago. Dad underwent quadruple bypass surgery in December of 2016 and spent three months in recovery, but still made the journey from Port Charlotte, Florida to Lake Elsie in June of 2017 despite just having had a serious medical intervention to his 89 year old body. When he passed last April, he was getting his fishing gear together for the 2018 trip, ready to teach Mondale how to catch walleye. But such was not to be.

Mr. Walter’s right hand man in all things outdoors, George Millard, is also missing in action this year due to complications of knee replacement surgery. Bruce Meyer, the caboose of the quartet (he’s the youngest, a few years short of 90) and Harry’s longtime fishing and hunting partner, had to stay home in Iowa due to his own health issues. That left just Mr. Walter to protect the good name of his generation and prove, in the spirit of the camp, that even Norwegian pastor’s sons can fish.

There’s privilege attached to being the guy who’s responsible for driving a former Minnesota Attorney General, U.S. Senator, Vice President, and Ambassador to Japan into a foreign country. On the Friday afternoon before our trip, I picked Mr. Walter up at the Duluth airport, drove him the Willard Munger Inn, and got him situated with the help of my cousin Jeff (he runs the joint). I returned later with René to pick up my mom (her townhouse is close to the Willard) and Mr. Walter. We met Barb and Tony Perella (Sammy Perrella’s wife and son) at Valentino’s where we had a fabulous meal and caught up with family news and all things political. After dinner, I dropped Mr. Walter off at the Willard, dropped my mom at her townhouse, and headed up the hill.

Sounds pretty routine, right? Well, stop and think about it. Here I am, a retired state court judge, ferrying around a man who broke bread with the rich and famous and powerful, a man who was a heart beat away from the presidency. Me, this lowly Denfeld and UMD grad, a guy who visited the principals’ or deans’ office in every school he ever attended, is charged with making sure Mr. Walter gets to Ignace for the flight to the Litman Camp. Who decided I was trustworthy enough for such an assignment? Just askin’!

I picked up my passenger at 6:30am from the Willard. Jeff provided us with coffee and then, we began the seven hour drive north. A couple hours into the trip, we met Tony and Sammy Perrella in at the Blue Water Café in Grand Marais. It’s part of our annual tradition that we break bread at the Blue Water. More political talk, discussions of Tony’s interest in attending law school (he recently graduated from St. Thomas undergrad), and random jabbering about family and friends followed as we ate hearty breakfasts. Sammy paid the bill and then, we were back on the road.

The Beaver at Lake Elsie

Along the way, we saw a huge bull moose, his antlers sprouting velvet, standing out in the open, on the railroad tracks that parallel the Queen’s Highway. An hour or so after the moose, we pulled into Upsala, a hamlet with one gas station/restaurant and not much else. It’s also tradition that we stop and buy an ice cream treat in Upsala, something my father started years ago, before I was nominated to join the group. There’s utility in my having been asked along: all of the guys were, when I first started coming on the trip, nearly eighty, not the age one wants to be driving on two-lanes along the North Shore and through northwestern Ontario. Didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t asked to tag along for my fishing ability. I’m OK with being charged with getting my passengers, in this case, passenger, safely to Ignace.

At the Pigeon River, I handed our passports to the Canadian customs officer, a very polite yet business-like fellow in his early forties. And this is something that has happened before: the officer knew instantly who Mr. Walter was. Apparently, according to Sammy Perrella who had to go inside the customs building to declare some items, the guy was totally excited about the encounter: regaling his fellow officers with his brush with fame. That sort of reaction has never happened when we stop at American customs on our return to the States. I think the fact a young Canadian knew who Mr. Walter was says something about how Canadians and Americans appreciate history and how they’re taught history and public affairs in their respective educational systems. Can you name the current Canadian Prime Minister? I can. But how many Americans can? Anyway.

New folks own Ignace Airways, the charter float plane service the Litmans use to access their camp on Lake Elsie. Understand: Elsie is a long and deep body of pristine water with only two camps on its shores. The other place on the lake is occupied by a widow, Ava, who usually times her visits so as to be able to fly in or out with folks coming and going from the Litman Camp. Other than seeing an occasional boat from Ava’s camp fishing the lake, the only other folks we see are canoeists using the lake as a link in longer paddles. It’s a quiet, peaceful place when the planes are gone and the camp’s generator isn’t running; The sort of place a man needs to clear his head, his heart, and his soul. We unloaded our vehicles near the scale. Tim, the pilot, weighed all our stuff, loaded it into a trailer, fired up a four wheeler, hauled our gear to the Beaver, loaded the plane (with our assistance), and invited us to find a seat. I claimed in the co-pilot’s seat, a vantage point that gives one a clear and unobstructed view of the Canadian landscape rolling beneath the seaplane.

We’re greeted at the dock by Ross and Jay Litman, two of the camp’s owners and guys who know their way around both a fishing rod and a hammer. Owning a fly-in bush camp is taxing. There’s constant work to such a remote Shangri-La. The Litmans are the perfect family to run such a place: they’re forever fixing, improving, changing, and adapting things to meet the needs of their family and their guests. Gary Litman-a cousin, Sam Litman-Jay’s son, Ryder-Sam’s son, and a friend of Sam’s were also in camp, making the group a four generation lineup that should frighten any walleye into submission.

Mark and Tony.
Sheriff Ross with a lake whitefish.

Saturday evening went well. I was assigned to captain a boat with Sammy and Tony as my crew. As the week progresses, we shifted boats depending upon the weather and who was interested in fishing and who would rather stay in camp and nap or read or prepare the next meal. There’s a lot of napping involved between rain storms and heavy meals and chores and the occasional adult beverage such that not everyone goes out to fish whenever boats leave the dock.

Ross, Sammy, Devin, and me (taking photo) chasing walleye.
Releasing a Lake Elsie walleye.
Captain Jay piloting the pontoon on the cusp of a storm.
Puppies need a nap now and then…

Gary Litman casting for lake trout from the dock.

Gary and Jay battled small mouth bass on their fly rods, spending time in back bays in search of gullible, ravenous fish ready to attack anything thrown their way. We caught our fair share of walleye-sometimes at will, other times, after much effort and searching- as well as lake trout, whitefish, smallies, and pike. Almost all of the fish we caught were returned to the lake. Ross and Jay and Sammy and Gary served up gourmet meals (including a fabulous fish fry) with Jay being the chief chef and meal planner. Ross guided Mr. Walter and ensured that Harry’s pal caught fish. But, overall, the fishing wasn’t as good as it’s been on past trips, likely because the lake remained very cold. Trust me when I tell you Elsie’s waters haven’t warmed up: I took sauna and dove into the lake twice and the shrinkage, to steal George Castanza’s line, was noticeable!

Laker ready for release.

A few days before the trip ended, a plane landed picked up Gary Litman and Sam’s friend, and their gear. Our nightly discussions of politics, life, and sports surely missed their contributions. Wednesday evening, our last night at the camp, we journeyed out on the pontoon. We found fish and I ended the trip with the battle of my lifetime. At first, I thought I had a snag. But then the tip of my rod started to twitch and dance. I’d switched from my medium light rod to a stiffer, shorter, medium weight rod but was still fishing with 6# test, a bare jig, and no leader. It became apparent, early on in the fight, that I’d latched onto a big fish, likely a pike, that didn’t want to be caught. The critter dragged me from the bow of the pontoon, to the stern, and then back to the bow, all the while trying to bite off that meager monofilament connection between fish and man. Eventually, Captain Ross made his way to the bow with the net. I let the fish tire herself out and reeled gingerly, hoping against hope I didn’t snap the line. Ross patiently planned the one and only dip of the net the big fish was going to allow, and in one motion, gathered in the giant. The fish was so big, only her head and one-third of her body fit in the net. We eyeballed the fish at 42″ or so and guessed the fish was somewhere between 16# and 20#. With little fanfare, I slipped the hook out of the pike’s mouth and slid her back into the lake.

The Loch Elsie Monster…

Thursday morning came and it was time to clear out our gear and get ready to leave. Everyone has a job before the Beaver or the Otter arrive to fly us out. My job, since I’ve been coming on the trip, is to sweep and mop the floors of the main cabin and the bunkhouse. Now that there’s an on-demand hot water heater on site, it’s not nearly as arduous a task as when we had to boil kettles of water on the stove. By ten, our gear was piled outside the cabins and all the chores were done. In the midst of clean-up, Ross motored down the lake, picked up Ava, and motored back. But the plane didn’t come at 10:30 as planned. Tim, the pilot, was tied up flying other fishermen to other camps and it wasn’t until early afternoon that our group was flown out in two shifts. I went with Mr. Walter, Ava, Jay, and the Perrellas. The camp dogs, Sam and his son Ryder, and Ross followed in a second flight.

Waiting to Board the Otter.
On the way home.

We waited at the seaplane base for the rest of our group and once the second plane arrived, loaded our gear into cars and a trailer, said goodbye to Ava and the folks from Ignace Air, and started the long drive back to Duluth. We met up one last time, at the Subway in Grand Marais, and then I drove Mr. Walter back to the Willard.

Friday, Sheriff Ross and Tony Perella picked Mr. Walter up at the Willard and drove him to the airport. Their route took them up Piedmont Avenue, a portion of which is designated “Mondale Drive”. The signage honoring Mr. Walter was always a bone of contention for my father: he went toe to toe with MNDOT over the diminutive nature of the placard. Mr. Walter, I believe, shares my late father’s view of things. That being said, I want our former Vice President to know that, despite the less-than-impressive signage posted along Piedmont Avenue in his honor, he’s huge in the hearts of his Lake Elsie fishing buddies. Thank you, Mr. Walter, for your service to Minnesota and America.

Peace.

(With apologies to the creator of Driving Miss Daisy)

Mark

The signage. You be the judge!

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