Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler

You can read the obituary in the Alexandria and Benson newspapers or online. But words are an imprecise means of describing the life force that was Susanne. Let’s take a step back and figure out who this tiny bundle of energy was, shall we?

            First off, she was the daughter of Jack, a Slovenian immigrant-miner-turned-coal-salesman who quit school in the 8th grade, and Marie, a Normal-school-educated teacher from Oak Park, Illinois who played piano at Zimmerman’s silent movie theater in Aurora, Minnesota. Such different, disparate backgrounds and yet, when Marie toured the mine where Jack worked at the time, it was love at first sight.

            Secondly, Susanne was a sister to Barbara Jean who was four years older. The petty snarking and disagreements that come from knowing your only sibling for over 80 years were never an impediment to Susanne’s love for Barb or Barb’s love for Susanne.

            Sukey was also a wife. You won’t read this in her obituary but I feel it’s important for you to know: Susanne was the survivor of domestic abuse. Now some might ask: “Mark why bring that up at your aunt’s memorial service?” Here’s the thing: You cannot understand, you cannot appreciate the toughness, the grit of that little woman unless you know the truth. And the simple truth is Susanne is a strong Christian woman who, with the help of her blessed Aunt Mary—Grandpa Jack’s younger sister—and Barbara and other friends and family, healed and moved on. She made a commitment: To not let one unhappy episode erode her faith in humanity. Which is how she was able to say “yes” to Paul Pederson when, after years of confirmed bachelorhood, the most eligible single man in tiny Benson, Minnesota fell hard for the little, dark-haired woman with the college degree over coffee in a small town café. In all ways that matter, Paul was Susanne’s first husband, the love of her life, and, as you are likely aware, the father of their two lovely daughters. One of my favorite people, Paul died far too young, leaving Susanne, as both Julie and Heidi attest, the single parent of two school-aged girls. Again, Sukey’s fiercely resilient heart led her to seek happiness and companionship, albeit of a different sort, with her second husband, Wayne Schuler. Together, Wayne and Susanne bought and renovated a home in East Duluth and a farmhouse near Two Harbors. It wasn’t easy at the end with Wayne living in an assisted living facility and Susanne tending to their rural home. But my auntie was up to the task until her own health concerns started to wear her down. It wasn’t long after Wayne passed that Susanne agreed (don’t get me wrong: it took a bit of persuading!) to move closer to her family.

            Of all the roles that Sukey filled, however, none made her as proud as that of mother. Julie and Heidi, know that, along with Susanne’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, you are the precious legacy of your mom’s love. I think she knew it was her time, and, having seen her loved ones over the holidays, and having fought heart and kidney maladies for so long, she decided “To heck with this. It’s time to see Paul, have a screwdriver, and see if I can get Paul and Harry to argue politics.” As an aside, your mom loved my old man. She never had a bad word to say about Harry, not even after he and mom divorced. He pitched in and helped Sukey solve some pretty thorny issues involving Paul’s estate. Picture the three of them, sitting around playing gin rummy, having a cocktail, your old man, the Republican from Swift County, having it out with my dad, the Liberal from Duluth. I’m hoping that they’ve all learned their lesson and aren’t smoking up there. But who knows? Anyway, it was in her role as mom, even when she had to parent alone, where Susanne truly shined.

            She was, of course, also an auntie to me and my siblings, Anne and Dave, and a dear friend to many people. There are so many stories I could tell but time is short and maybe, the best way to make you understand our relationship is by explaining how her beautiful little memoir, Back of Beyond, came to be.

            For years, Susanne talked about the manuscript she was working on; something to do with Buena Vista, the resort her parents owned. Given I’m an author I’d ask her, “Hey, when are you going to let me read your stories?” Year after year she’d put me off. Until finally, she didn’t. She’d had the manuscript typed but left it to me to upload her words into my computer and edit the work as best I could. When I handed her the edited version of her words, she didn’t complain or balk or object or argue. She cried. After we sat at her kitchen table, pouring over photos to insert in the book, she cried again. When she saw the cover my wife René created for Back of Beyond, still more tears. But she saved the biggest cry of all for when she held the completed book, all 154 pages of her life, her blood, her sweat, her family, in her hands fresh off the printing press. Being the person she is, she thanked me and René and my son Chris for all our help bringing her dream to fruition. But you wanna know the truth? Working with her on that project, it was she who gifted us with her trust and her grace and her steadfast belief in what we were trying to achieve.

            Once she had her stories in hand, she was, as in everything else, a whirlwind. She and Wayne and my mom and friends and relatives drove hither and yon, that little short Slovenian lady hiking up her skirt, grabbing a handful of books, and charging into every bookstore and gift shop in NE Minnesota. She sold out two printings, all by herself, her success resting upon an unrequited desire to tell the world what a blessed childhood she’d been granted. Her story and the story of Jack and Marie and Barbara Jean continues today. How so?

            Aunt Sukey lived long enough to see the Buena Vista Resort repurposed into a YMCA Family camp that serves inner city folks. Last summer, even though she was feeling poorly, Auntie made it to the dedication of the new camp and signed copies of her book for adoring fans. Daughter Julie and son-in-law Brad, along with Grandson Caleb and his husband, Nestor, made it happen. Despite her frailty, Susanne beamed at the attention she and her words received that day. I felt so honored to attend the dedication with my aunt, my mom, my son, my grandson, and my wife. It wouldn’t have happened, the Kobe family being remembered in such fashion, had Sukey not told her story.

            Did you know, Sukey was a television personality? It’s true. Her first job after graduating from the Villa (now St. Scholastica) was as an extension agent, which got her a gig on the locally produced, “Dottie Becker Show”, where she discussed nutrition, recipes, and other home economics topics. She also worked as a chemical dependency counselor at Project Turnabout in Granite Falls; was the manager of her church’s traveling youth choir in Benson (even going to Japan on tour!); worked hard for many charitable causes; was active in both ELCA and Episcopal churches in Benson, Duluth, Hermantown, and Knife River; and was a licensed lay preacher, giving sermons in the Episcopal church, many of which I heard as a member of the congregation. I relished her take on faith, not only because of her spirituality but because she valued brevity: Say what needs saying and get on with the service! She was a tireless supporter of the Friends of the Two Harbors Library and a lover of great books.

            When it became difficult for Wayne and Susan to make the long drives to spend holidays with Julie and Heidi and their families, Wayne and Susan spent many Thanksgivings and Christmases at my home in northern Minnesota. Again, it was my family; me, René, and our children who were gifted by the presence of Susanne at such gatherings. She was an intelligent, loving, kind, gal who didn’t put up with shenanigans or nonsense and could spot both at the drop of a pin. The hour is late. My time to talk has run its course. But before I go, let me share some final words, words written by Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler (Anna Marie in the excerpt), with you:

Years later, long after the resort was sold and her life had taken its course, Anna Marie was sitting at her kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee. Her house was silent. It was so quiet; you could hear the ticking of the grandfather clock in another room. Outside the kitchen windows stately birches bowed with the wind towards a stand of majestic pines. The woodsy setting in her own yard reminded her of the resort.

Old photographs and one of Mother’s old journals lay on the table next to her empty coffee cup. One by one Anna Marie picked up the pictures and studied them. The photographs had been removed from old albums because Anna needed to add names and dates to the back of each one. Mother’s journal had a black leather binding. The pages had yellowed over time. Leafing through the journal, she found a short lovely poem written in her mother’s hand, author, unknown. She read the words aloud:

                        Life

Each life is like a changing flower

Like petals pale or colored free

The years slip by drop

Softly hour by hour

And leave rich seeds of memory.

Anna Marie wondered, as she took up her pen to write her own words, her own story, if the act of writing down what she remembered would mean that the journey was finally completed.

Never, she thought. The journey will continue through the years, slowly, day by day. One memory will recall another, each memory precious, bittersweet, funny. Memories shared or kept private; memories of that special place, a place held close to my heart, the Back of Beyond.

(Excerpted from Back of Beyond, by Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler)

God bless you Auntie, I love you.

Thanks ever so much to Mimmu Salmela and Lisa Johnson at KUMD for making a dithering idiot sound, well, sort of smart! Log onto the link and listen to us talk about Kotimaa: Homeland. https://www.kumd.org/post/mn-reads-kotimaa-homeland-mark-munger.

Peace.

Mark

The Civil War (Vol. 1) by Shelby Foote (1986. Vintage. ISBN 978-0-394-74623-4)

The title is in reference to fellow Denfeld High School and UMD grad (and lifelong pal) Dave Michelson. Dave handed me this ginormous trilogy written by historian Shelby Foote, the basis for Ken Burn’s wonderful PBD documentary, and said: “You need to read this.” I took the ten pounds of books from Dave and, awhile back, started on volume 1. You know what? Dave was right.

Yes, there’s a lot of information in the first book of this set. Yes, at times, Mr. Foote brings a reader maybe too far into the weeds of policy and military strategy and politics on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. But all in all, his prose is innately readable, his research is impeccable, and his fairness, in critiquing the issue of slavery and his native South’s reliance upon it as the engine for its agrarian economy, is balanced. Foote makes no excuses for his Southern ancestors’ sins and casts no fault on Lincoln’s evolution from reluctant supporter of buying slaves from their masters to free them to full-on emancipator, the devil be damned. But because of his heritage, Foote does bring keen insight into how the leaders of the Confederacy, especially Jefferson Davis, viewed Lincoln, the abolitionists, the Republican Party, and the North as the two sides sent boys and men to their deaths to prove principles held dear to each side. For Lincoln, it wasn’t slavery that prompted him to act: It was the threatened dissolution of the union, caused by the continual disagreement over slavery, its existence and its expansion, the made him bring the terrible power of the North’s industrial base and its larger population to bear in a war between (literally, in many of the border states) brothers.

Foote’s use of extensive first-person accounts, excerpted from primary source materials, is reminiscent of the way I structured my one and only foray into this sort of nonfiction, Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story, a biography of my legislator uncle and mentor. Don’t get excited here, folks: I’m not equating my abilities as a researcher, historian, and interviewer to the great Mr. Foote. But I was struck, when reading this first installment, by the similarity of Mr. Foote’s approach with my own attempt to recount my uncle’s life. Granted, Shelby has sold a hell of a lot more copies of his books than I have of all of mine combined. Still, I think there is a connection in terms of style and reportage that can’t be ignored.

My only criticism of the book ( and I’ve heard the same said about Mr. Environment) is that the narrative, at times, suffers under the weight of detail. That said, I’m looking forward to cracking open volume 2 of this massive history in hopes of continuing to learn.

4 stars out of 5. A well-written and researched, fair-handed treatment of a conflict that still haunts us today.

Peace.

Mark

Making Sense of Scripture by David J. Lose (2009. Augsburg Fortress. ISBN 978-8066-9953-0)

What do I mean? Well, like most sentient human beings, I wonder about what it’s all about. Why do some dastardly folks escape pain and agony and an ugly death when good, faithful, loving folks suffer cancer and MS and ALS and any other host of maladies? I also ponder, when I have a moment in this fast-paced world, what the Bible means to me, what it holds for me, and how I should be reading it and understanding it. I’m a lifelong Christian and, now that I’m in my third read-through of the Good Book, I remain as puzzled as I was my first time through. What’s that, you say? A guy who’s taught or been involved with confirmation classes in both the Episcopal and ELCA churches for the better part of three decades still can’t figure it out? True, that. As an example, on my current read-through of the Bible (cover to cover) I came across this verse which, for the life of me, I can’t make hide nor hair of:

When the people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. The the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nephilim) were on the earth in those days-and also afterward-when the sons of God went to the daughters of the humans … (Genesis 6:4)

What the hell?

I picked up a copy Lose’s book at my church, Grace ELCA in Hermantown, hoping it might provide a key to deciphering this passage and others, both in the Old and New Testaments, that confound me. I’m happy to say that, while Lose provides no easy answers, he does set out a framework for analyzing and understanding the Good Book that relies upon faith, history, and prayer. In this way, the author separates himself from those literalists who insist that the words contained in the Bible are the inerrant words of God. I’ve previously read Roger Cragun’s masterful work on the origins of the Good Book, The Ultimate Heresy (see my review by clicking on the “Search” tab above and inserting the title), in which Cragun argues that the Word is not the words linked, one to another, in the Bible’s text, but rather, the Word is the personal story and dignity and divinity of Jesus. Jesus is the Word, not the words set about in print we rely upon every Sunday in church. David Lose rehashes, in less detail, some of what Roger was getting at but goes a stop further: He gives lay readers of the Bible a framework upon which to read, discuss, and understand the witness of the book, a means to explore everything from the difficult and seemingly outdated rules in Leviticus to the love expounded by John. His overarching thesis, one that makes abundant sense, it is that only through reading seemingly confusing passages from the Good Book and coming together to discuss those passages in community when we are able to understand.

Makes sense to me as I’ve always relied upon my priests and pastors to illuminate and explain the verses and scenes and passages from the Bible that are part of our Sunday morning and Wednesday evening services. But there needs to be more, according to Lose, more work done by faithful believers in ferreting out the basis of faith and truth as granted to us by God. The author carefully cautions us, as members of a system of belief, to understand the difference between analytical fact and a faith deeply held. That’s, in a nutshell, something that folks who view the Bible outside its history (and the genesis of the scriptures they hold so dear) , folks who believe every word and every passage in the Bible was personally inscribed by God (either in the hearts of men or on some stone tablet) don’t seem too eager to discuss. We should. Discuss such things, I think. So we better understand our shared faith and come to a mutual understanding of what it all means.

This is a slender, power-packed manual; a “how to” guide for reading scripture, with the ultimate goal of understanding Jesus’ life and mission. Well done, Mr. Lose, well done. Your work didn’t answer all my questions but it did lay out a path for me to seek out community and discuss my doubts with fellow believers.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Picasso by Patrick O’ Brian (2003. Harper Collins. ISBN 978007173570)


Newspaper men eating candy
Had to be held down by big police
But someday every thing’s gonna be different
When I paint that masterpiece

(Bob Dylan)

The point of O’ Brian’s massive and well-documented biography is not to cast Pablo Picasso as a great man. It seems the author, who is known primarily as the creator of the “Master and Commander” series of novels about the British Navy, did not set out to portray Picasso as a saint (or a complete sinner for that matter), but sought only to remind us of the man’s genius. In this task, O’ Brian succeeded. Fully and completely.

I bought this biography at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and was pleased to find that, towards the end of the book, the author discusses how that storied repository of Picassos came to be. Seems that the artist did not want the museum, as was first proposed, to be based in Màlaga, a location Picasso claimed “had no connection to me or my art”, but was happy to have his friend and confidant, Jaime Sabartés work with city officials in Barcelona to make the museum a reality. During their decades long friendship and relationship, Picasso paid Sabartés poorly for his work as his right-hand-man, but bestowed upon his fellow artist (Sabartés was a painter, poet, and writer of note before agreeing to become Picasso’s personal secretary and administrator) hundreds of pieces of art as additional compensation. All of Sabartés’s Picassos were given by Sabartés to the museum, a generous gift with a value (today) in the tens of millions of dollars.

O’ Brian deals with Picasso’s two marriages and various flirtations and adulteries, one of which produced two children, and the financial and relationship issues all his dalliances caused both his children and his grandchildren. He tackles such issues fairly and evenhandedly, all the while ensuring that the reader doesn’t miss the main point of the book: While Picasso could be a sonofabitch to family and friends, he was genuinely kind and generous and, above all, the 20th century’s most honored, prolific, and controversial artist. Pablo Picasso continued to be innovative and productive right up until his death at the age of 91. That alone is a significant achievement in a man’s life!

My only criticism of the book is that O’ Brian spends a great deal of time describing the masterpieces painted, sculpted, drawn, or created by Picasso. This leads the overall narrative to bog down and lose some of its steam. One wonders why illustrations of the great man’s works were not included. One would think that, for example, that the Barcelona Museum, which holds many early Picassos (gifted to the museum by the artist himself) would’ve been pleased to have such a positive book about its benefactor available to the world; especially given that the two biographies written by Picasso’s lovers during his life portray him as a devil and an antagonist. Not having visuals to coincide with the narrative descriptions of Pablo Picasso’s work is a major flaw in this book.

That having been said, I still agree with the front blurb by writer Kenneth Clark, who proclaimed O’ Brian’s book to be “Much the best biography of Picasso.” Why? While the author was a friend of the artist’s, a position that gave him direct witness to Picasso’s later life, O’ Brian is careful not to elegize or eulogize the man with grandiosity. He simply makes the point that Pablo Picasso was a flawed man who happened to be the most important and most prolific genius of the 20th century art world.

4 stars out of 5. A worthy effort indeed!

Peace. Mark

Deep River by Karl Marlantes (2019. Atlantic. ISBN 978-0-8021-2538-5)

I loved Marlantes’s debut novel, Matterhorn. Big, sprawling, filled with conflict and angst, it’s one of the best fiction books written about Vietnam. So when a friend sent me a FB message about Marlantes’s new novel, one based upon the author’s Finnish heritage, one that evoked an era and themes similar to those contained in my own Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh, well, I had to swallow my pride, put aside envy, and dig in.

Marlantes is a fine writer and chronicles the story of Finnish immigration to the forests of the Pacific Northwest with a deft hand. His characters are believable, folks we grow to like, admire, and cheer on, which is not an easy thing to accomplish when weaving multiple storylines and character histories into a seven hundred page tome. If a two book sample size is any indication, Marlantes writes long, complex, detailed tales chock-full of facts and history and depictions of landscape that ring true. But in that length and attention to the past, I found myself, when mired in detail after detail concerning logging in the early 20th century, drifting away from the guts and heart of the drama behind the story. That’s why the title evokes Moby Dick: Melville’s novel has always been championed as one fo the great novels of American writing. I don’t dispute that label given I am just a self-taught real estate novelist (sorry Billy Joel!) and not a PhD in Literature. But Deep River shares with Moby Dick this (at least to my eye) flaw: the consistent and constant detailing of the inner workings of logging get in the way of story just as the middle third of Melville’s classic becomes bogged down in the minutiae of whaling.

That said, I liked the story, finishing it on a cruise from Barcelona to Venice. I don’t agree that it is, as the back jacket proclaims, “a page-turner”. I do agree that it “draws you into its world” and makes you care about each fictional person you encounter along the winding and complex road Marlantes leads readers on in this epic novel.

In the end, it’s a book that should be read by Finns and non-Finns like interested in the immigrant experience, labor strife, and what life was once like for our forefathers and foremothers.

Four stars out of Five. A little less fact and a little more heart, and it would be a classic.

Peace.

Mark

Child of Teuva by Anni Korpi Putikka, Edited by Arlene Putikka Tucker, Translated by ivy Nevala (2018. ISBN 978-0-9890478-6-9)

Full disclosure. I go to the same ELCA church as Ms. Tucker, the daughter of the author and the editor of this collection. So take what I am about to say with a grain of salt.

Most, if not all, of these personal essays, reflections of a past way of life in Finland, were first printed in New World Finn, an English language newspaper that is sadly no longer with us. In these former newspaper columns, Ms. Putikka conveys a real sense of what life was like back in the Finland of her youth. There are tales of childish pranks, cooking traditional Finnish dishes, working the fields, and going to school. All of the stories are excellent in rendering a sense of a rugged, tough, difficult yet love-filled childhood. The only criticism I have is that because Ms. Tucker did not edit the content of the essays, sometimes there is a repetition of story or theme between the pieces. But that’s but a minor distraction, one that doesn’t detract significantly from the reading experience.

Overall, this is a nice memoir in snippets and yarns that anyone of Finnish heritiage or intereested in the old ways, will thoroughly enjoy. Four Stars out of Five.

Peace.

Mark

Title: Book Launch of Kotimaa: Homeland
Location: The Bookstore at Fitger’s, Fitger’s Complex Duluth, MN
Link out: Click here
Description: Join Mark, Fitger’s Bookstore, and Iron Range musician Karl Sundquist for a night of readings, an interview (by Jae Cornwell), audience questions, and sweet tunes from Karl. Free admission. Free appetizers. Cash bar. Books and CDs for sale at the event. Tell your friends!
Start Time: 20:30
Date: 2019-10-03
End Time: 22:30

Parent Lake from Our Campsite

It was my son Matt’s idea. The father of three, a guy who’s on the cusp of forty, Matt, along with his three younger brothers, grew up canoeing the BWCA with his mother and I as a family. Some of those trips were wonderful excursions into wilderness. A few, including the paddle where it rained two of the four days we spent on Sawbill Lake and then decided to switch to blizzard conditions, our K-Mart tents leaking like sieves, our sleeping bags sodden, were memorable but for the wrong reasons.

Our Tents at Our Campsite

Last year, Matt, me, and his eldest son Adrien canoed Brule Lake, the lake where I learned to paddle when I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 67 from Piedmont Heights. We had a pretty good family bonding experience last year on Brule despite no walleyes, high winds, big waves, and nearly constant drizzle. Adrien was a trouper in the canoe and caught his share of smallmouth bass so I wasn’t worried about taking him back into wilderness. But I suggested that Matt pull a permit for Hog Creek, which leads into Perent Lake, a reliable walleye lake, in hopes avoiding weather on big water. Matt agreed and pulled the permit. Then things got interesting.

“Avery wants to go with us,” Matt said over the phone a few weeks before our trip.

I thought about the problems taking a high-energy-four-year-old would mean. First, we couldn’t possible pack two adults and two kids into one canoe along with food, tents, fishing equipment, and gear for three nights and four days in the woods. Which meant either finding another adult to accompany us, trying out Adrien as the bow paddler in Matt’s canoe, with Avery duffing. But we were weeks away from the trip and there was no chance we’d find another canoeist to join us. Jack, my youngest son, an Eagle Scout and nearly 22, would have been the logical choice. Or my wife, René. But both of them are still working and weren’t available.

“I’ll have to kayak and you and Adrien and Avery can use the Old Town,” I said, thinking that the Coleman, our other paddling canoe, was too small for the gear we’d need if we added a kid.

“OK.”

The second problem was, well, pretty obvious. Like I said, Avery is high energy. Not that his older brother is lethargic. Adrien is plenty active in his own right. And the two of them together? They brawl and argue and carry on just like you’d expect from brothers three years apart. So I wasn’t concerned about having Avery join our little expedition simply due to his age. With his personality, I was worried he’d be bored silly while his brother and dad canoed Hog Creek’s winding, narrow course into Perent, a trip that usually takes two to three hours. There’s a ninety degree turn nearly every hundred yards, making Hog Creek laborious. And I was also concerned that the little guy would not take to sitting in the bottom of the Old Town as Matt and I paddled around the lake searching for walleye.

The third issue didn’t involve the kids or Matt directly. It was me. While I’ve kayaked on the Cloquet River, a wide, fairly flat, piece of water from my house to Bowman Lake, I’ve never taken a kayak into the BWCA. My skills in such a narrow, tippy, craft are rudimentary, which caused me brief concern.

What the hell, I thought. No time like retirement to learn something new.

I spent the better part of the Wednesday before we left packing our gear and food. On Monday, Adrien and I’d gone into town to shop from the menu I’d created. We picked up food and supplies at Gander Outdoors and Cub Foods. After we completed our mission, we came back to the house and sorted the food: nearly all dried and dehydrated with the exception of some organic mandarin oranges I’d added as fresh fruit. That turned out to be a mistake: the oranges didn’t last a day before they started to sprout mold. We never ate a one. Anyway. After Adrien and I separated the food into meals, I packed everything in black plastic garbage bags and stuffed my dad’s old Duluth Pack (the best inheritance a son could ever hope for!) with food. Then I wandered out to the garage and dug through our camping bin and on the shelves for all of the cooking and other items we’d need for our journey: my two-person Alps tent; headlamp; cook kit and folding frying pan and sporks and plastic utensil set; battery powered lantern; camping hatchet; para cord; and two-burner propane Coleman and LP fuel. All of that gear was stuffed into an old Army duffle given to me with a smile by some supply grunt at Ft. Dix back in 1981 when I enlisted. I also packed my own Duluth Pack (a Christmas gift from Dad three decades ago: they really are built to last a lifetime!) with my clothes, rain gear, my tent, ThermaRest pad, a couple issues of The Sun magazine and a Sam Cook essay collection. I would eventually read the magazines in my tent at night by the light of a headlamp suspended from the tent’s ceiling. But the Cook? Never got to it.

Wednesday after packing the duffle and Duluth Packs, I walked outside, the day waning, put the hitch on my Jeep Grand Cherokee, drove across the lawn, connected my aluminum trailer, drove to the canoe rack next to the river, loaded my 10′ piece of crap SunDolphin fishing kayak in the trailer, hoisted the way-too heavy 18′ Old Town Discovery onto the Jeep’s roof rack, fastened the canoe and kayak down, drove back across the lawn, and parked the Jeep next to the garage. I loaded the duffle. the packs, my soft-sided tackle box, rod tube, worm buckets, life jackets, and paddles into the rear of the Jeep, leaving the back rope holding the canoe loose to allow Matt to load his gear in the morning.

I’ll stop here to clear up the title of this essay. My wife loves that goofy app, JibJab, where you take head shots of yourself and others and add them to music to create a silly video. She’s infected all three of Matt’s kids, including Ari, the youngest and the only girl, with her nonsense. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve taken to calling Adrien and Avery “JibJabbers” for their antics. And when they are out of line, I’ll yell “Quit yer JibJabbing.” That’s what the title is trying to reflect: the likelihood our canoe trip would end up emulating those stupid videos. In some ways, it did …

Matt and the boys made it to the house on Thursday morning right on time. We loaded up and hit the road. After a brief stop in Two Harbors, we turned north on Highway No. 2, towards the Isabella Ranger Station to pick up our permit. Except …

“I thought the Ranger station was in this building.”

We made it to Isabella, after only a minor detour due to Grandfatherly misdirection, well before 1:00pm. My thought was, I wanted to be on Hog Creek no later than 1:30 or so, giving us plenty of daylight to negotiate that meander, get into Perent, find a campsite, and set up camp. Nice plan, right?

“It was,” Matt said.

We spent time driving around Isabella. Not a lot of time, you understand, since it’s just a hamlet in the middle of nowhere.

“What’s your receipt say as to where you’re supposed to pick up the permit?’

The Jeep grew quiet.

“Matt?”

“It says permit pick-up is at the Tofte Ranger station.”

Matt called Tofte and found out they were open until 4:30pm. We had plenty of time, given it was an hour drive and not yet two, to pick up the permit. Still. There was a lot of father son discussion about reading the fine print before setting out on a wild goose chase. But, we got to Tofte, watched the obligatory BWCA video with the boys, got our permit and directions how to access Hog Creek via the back roads.

Hog Creek Portage Pond
Matt and the Boys on Hog Creek.

We made it to the landing by 3:30. I was concerned we’d left ourselves precious little daylight to find a campsite, set up, and cook dinner. Turned out my assessment of the situation was correct. And that was before we encountered another unexpected delay.

“Matt, do you have your rods?” I asked as we paddled a wide stretch of the creek close to its confluence with Perent Lake.

“I thought you grabbed them,” Matt said.

“No, I’m not in charge of your shit, Matt,” I said, in a less than grandfatherly tone.

“You told me to move them, when they were resting next to the packs.”

“That’s because I didn’t want them to get busted. But I never loaded them in your canoe and they’re not in the kayak.”

Understand: by this time we’d climbed over three beaver dams and were two-thirds of the way down the creek. There was little choice: I had one extra rod in my tube. Fine for Matt but the kids wouldn’t be able to fish.

“I’ll go back. You keep paddling. Stay at the mouth when you hit the lake so I can find you.”

As I headed back upstream, the modest current a non-factor, I was pretty pissed off. The rods weren’t left at the portage, a short jaunt from the landing. They were all the way back at the landing, where we started. Which meant that, in addition to climbing over at least one of the three dams, I’d have to unload the gear in the kayak (Matt’s and the kids’ extra stuff), and portage not once, but twice. I’m never gonna do this again, I thought as my shoulders throbbed and my legs tightened when I pressed my feet into the SunDolphin’s foot pegs. But, despite adding at least another hour and a half to the journey (I paddled like mad), and making nearly three complete trips up and down Hog Creek, when I met up with my son and grandsons, the tempest had passed. Exhaustion will do that to a guy.

Things didn’t get easier.

“What about that campsite?” I asked as we paddled into the lake.

“No good. I let the kids out there to explore. It’s no good. All lilly pads. No place to swim.”

We pushed on, following the dots on my 1987 McKenzie Map (OK, I take responsibility for using a map older than three of my kids!), but finding every campsite either no longer in existence (happened once) or already taken (happened about a half-dozen times). It was after seven, the sun completely gone, night encroaching, when I finally had had enough: “Let’s go back to that first campsite and hope it’s not taken.”

Turns out, yes, there appeared to be no place for the kids to swim given the entrance to the site was clogged with weeds but, in fact, the campsite itself was perfect. Plenty of space for three or four tents. Ample firewood. Decent pit toilet. Fairly level rocks for cooking and storing pots and pans. “Matt, what is wrong with you?”

“What?”

“You said this campsite stunk. It’s perfect, except for the weeds. We paddled all the way around the lake when we could have been here, setting up, having dinner.”

“I only said there was no place for the kids to swim.”

“That’s not what you said..”

By the time our tents were pitched and camp was set up, it was too late for dinner so we gobbled some jerky, trail mix, and breakfast bars and called it a night.

Despite a few minor meltdowns by the littlest JibJabber, and a fright put into the older JibJabber when Matt and I insisted he turn off his headlamp to watch a satellite cross the starry night sky, the kids did swell over the span of four days in the forest. However, Avery did show the attention span of a typical four year old: “When are we going fishing?” he’d ask as we did dishes or made supper or whatever. Then, as soon as we were on the water, him not catching fish (you need to keep your line in the water to catch anything!), it was “This is boring. When are we going back to camp?” And so it went.

Adrien turned out to be our salvation. Oh, Matt and I caught small walleye and some small pike. I added a rock bass and a perch to the mix. None of them were big enough to keep for supper until Adrien brought in a nice 15″ walleye, followed by its smaller sister or brother. Matt then caught a couple about the same size, and we had fish for Saturday night supper!

Adrien accompanied me when I, very apologetically, filleted the four walleye we kept. Because we didn’t want to attract bears, we canoed a short distance away from camp, cleaned the fish, deposited the guts and leavings beneath leaves and branches, and brought back a zip lock of fairly boneless fillets. Given my meager fish cleaning skills, there were complaints about a bone or two being encountered during dinner. Not from my son, mind you, but from the JibJabbers.

Gramps and Adrien Coming Back with Fillets
Fishing Buddies
Fresh Walleye and Spanish Rice for Dinner
Nightfall in Camp

We never saw moose despite being in the most moosey of places. But there was ample evidence, in the form of old bones from what was likely an old wolf kill, that moose had been around. What we did witness, what thrilled the boys as we floated on the black water of Perent Lake in search of fish beneath a clear, though pre-autumnal, sky was a raft of red-headed mergansers-at least twenty strong, a chorus of loons, and most importantly, a host of bald eagles screaming and chirping from towering white pines next to our campsite.

One of Our Feathered Friends

The boys watched gape-mouthed as a brilliantly white headed raptor dove from the pinnacle of the sky, dipped its talons just below the lake’s rippling surface, snatched a fish, and found a tree in which to eat its lunch. It was a Marlin Perkins’ moment, one that Adrien, at seven, will always remember. One that, when he sees photos of the trip, Avery might also recall as he ages.

There was one night, when Matt and the boys were tucked in their sleeping bags in their tent, when the devil in the boy roared. Inexplicably, Avery decided that bedtime was as good as any for a meltdown. Man, the patience my son showed while Avery screamed and screamed and screamed, wailing as if somewhere had lit his socks on fire. I never had that measure of resolve when rearing my boys. If one of them engaged in such shenanigans, for better or for worse, he’d have been cuffed about the noggin’! Whether that worked, as parental redirection, any better than simply, as Matt did, waiting it out, well, I’ll leave it to Matt’s wife, the psychologist in the family! Besides, I’d been foresighted enough to pack earplugs in my ditty bag. So, when Avery’s nighttime opera began, I simply plugged in, read The Sun, and tuned out.

After our daily, morning fishing excursions (we ended up doing alright, boating somewhere around thirty fish, mostly walleye but none bigger than Adrien’s), we’d head back to camp, eat our PB& J pita sandwiches, jerky, trail mix, and breakfast bars, sip Kool Aid, and nap. My sons had all pitched in at Christmas and bought me a pretty neat Nest hammock, an offering from the National Parks Association (part of the purchase price goes to maintaining America’s “Best Idea”), which caused me, when I opened the package next to the tree, to say something like, “Oh, how nice.” And display a faux smile that would make a beauty pageant contestant proud. But you know what? I was wrong. What a wondrous nap one can take in a Nest, where you can draw loose fabric around you as if in a cocoon, and sleep the sleep of angels. Thanks, boys! And as you can see, Adrien also enjoyed the peace of swinging in the wilderness breeze to the sounds of loons trilling in the near distance.

Sunset on Perent

When we packed up Sunday morning, after a breakfast of stick-to-your-ribs maple and brown sugar steel-cut oatmeal (complete with sugar sprinkles because boys can always use more sugar!), I dreaded the trip back up Hog Creek. I was right to fret. I managed to flip my kayak trying to help the overloaded Discovery over the first dam. It wasn’t bad enough I flipped: I had an audience. I filled the SunDolphin from aft to bow with water and when the guys watching my antics from two canoes offered their assistance, I did what any red-blooded male would do: I declined. They pushed on and I lifted a boat heavy with several hundred pounds of water over my head and held it there, waiting for the water to drain. Matt had left me standing in waist deep water, struggling with the kayak. He apparently didn’t want to be associated with an idiot who can’t get out of a boat without tipping. But it got worse.

At the next dam, with Matt nowhere to be seen, but the same guys struggling over the second obstacle, I flipped ‘er again. This time, not much water got in but I was drenched: any part of me that had been dry after the first dunking, well, it was soaked. Luckily, my iPhone was in an Otter Box and secure from water. My wallet, however, was another matter. It was at the second dam that I made a discovery that really topped it all: I’d lost the tip to Avery’s Zebco rod back at the first beaver dam. I got back in the SunDolphin, not swearing but laughing like a fool at my stupidity, and paddled downstream. At the dam, I searched and searched until, just as I was ready to give up and leave, I spotted the teensiest bit of rod tip sitting upright in the cattails.

At the last dam, I flipped ‘er again. This time, two other guys, guys I’d not seen before, were at the dam, trying to coax their very expensive Kevlar Wenonah over the barrier. They too asked if they could help. I again declined.

I met up with Matt and the boys at the portage, which, given there were four other canoes vying for space, was pretty crowded. It was there that one of the guys who’d offered me aid at the last dam asked me, “Hey, aren’t you Mark?” Turns out my last debacle had been witnessed by friends of my son Chris: guys who’d taken my Old Town into the BWCA a time or two with my third son. Shit!

Thankfully I wasn’t alone in my ineptitude. After the other parties cleared the portage, we lugged our stuff across the trail for the final paddle. As Adrien and I moved packs into position to load the canoe, Matt brought the Old Town close to shore, and, alone in the canoe and on flat water, my son ended up taking a well-needed bath.

“Must be a Munger thing,” I said as Matt stood up, waist deep in cold water, the humor of the moment seemingly unappreciated.

Gramps and Adrien Mulling Over Life

Thing is, we all survived. Memories were made. And the JibJabbers? They learned a bit about why their grandfather isn’t a fan of copper being mined next door to God’s wilderness.

Mark

Peace.

Leaving Perent Lake but Ready for Another Paddling Adventure
Avery and the Jeep in Tofte on the Way Home.
A Tired JibJabber

Peace.

Mark

Harry gave me the fever that causes these nighttime visions. My father was the one who first interested me in stream trout fishing by taking me to the iconic fishery, the Brule in Wisconsin. I was five years old when he broke me out of nursery school to go with him across the old Interstate Bridge connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin. The dream didn’t die after that but was nurtured by me pedaling my Columbia one-speed to Engwall’s in Piedmont, or Miller Creek, or, later, when I had a five-speed Schwinn Varsity, to Keene’s Creek and the Midway up in Hermantown. I fished the way Harry taught me: with fly rod, hook, sinker, and worm. I caught a few, caught many more chubs than brook trout, the speckled denizens of those tiny waters, and on occasion, when the Minnesota DNR planted keeper sized German browns (8″ or better fish), I managed to catch one or two of those as well.

A brook trout in hand.

Over the years, my father introduced me to fishing the North Shore rivers, streams, and creeks for speckled trout: the Sucker, the Lester, the Manitou, the Temperance, and others. Though Dad owned a small collection of dry and wet flies, I never saw him use them when we fished. He was, like that drunk guy in a River Runs Through It a hook, sinker, and worm guy when it came to fishing brook trout. As a father myself, I introduced three of my four sons (sorry about that Dylan!) to the pleasures of stream fishing for brook trout.

During our family excursions up the Shore, we used my dad’s methodology. Somewhere along the way, Matt, the eldest, and Chris, my third son, developed an interest in tying and using flies. Though I inherited Dad’s flies and bought a few more on my own over the years, I remained a worm and hook guy. Why? Well, the few times I’d tried catching trout on a fly had been dismally disappointing. Since, during my working life, I managed maybe a trip up the Shore every two or three years, and since I love the taste of pan-fried speckled trout, I fished with what I knew would catch fish for dinner. This week, because it had been a good three years or better since I walked the slippery stones of a North Shore brook trout stream, I started to think that I needed time on the water in hip waders: just me, my fly rod, and wilderness. So when Rene’ announced she was spending Saturday with her pal Nancy picking blueberries in Bayfield, I told her I was going fishing.

My favorite stream.

I swore, as my Jeep bounded over boulders and fallen trees down the logging trail leading to the stream I’d spend the day on, I’d stick to flies for at least the first hour just to see whether I could master the four count rhythm and catch a brookie or two a dry fly. Here’s the thing though: with some rare exceptions, most of the streams of the North Shore are really no more than creeks. Except for their lower reaches, where the streams broaden a bit as they roar through canyons near their mouths before emptying into Lake Superior, the vast majority of the North Shore watercourses are narrow and boulder strewn, with much of their upper reaches clogged by overhanging black alders. The same brush that keeps their waters cold enough for brook trout makes it impossible to toss a fly in the traditional way.

A bit upstream from where I began, the alders take over.

As I worked upstream, I found a few spots where I could make a cast with a dry fly. But given it was late morning and a sunny day, I had no strikes. There were no trout rising to snatch natural bugs from the river’s surface, a bad sign for someone trying to emulate the natural food of the ecosystem. After an hour of fruitlessly trying to mimic Norman MacLean, I gave up. I’d told Chris during a call on my way up the Shore that I was going wormless. That was a lie. I had brought worms: not the dew worms I normally fished with but tiny angleworms. I slipped off the fly I was using, tied on a small florescent jig, pinched down the barb with a pliers, slid a worm on the small No. 8 hook, and went to work.

What a fisherman looks like after catching his first brookie of the day!

My plan was to work the upper reaches of the stream for a few hours, walk back to the Jeep, and motor down to the lower portion of the river, a place I’d fished with my old man and my sons, where I knew the trout to be bigger and the stream more forgiving. But I was catching trout where I was, albeit the biggest I actually landed was barely frying pan size at 7″. Though I missed a couple of bigger fish, getting them out of the water on the end of my jig but not into my hand, the majority of the fish I hooked and ended up releasing were between 4″-6″: too small, by my standards, to keep. A few of the brookies were tiny, maybe 3″ long. They too were carefully placed back in the cold waters of the river to grow.

“Just another pool,” I’d tell myself as I worked through the black alder in search of trouty places. I’d come to a spot that looked good, usually a whirling pool beneath low hanging cedars, confirm my instincts by catching a trout or two or three, and then, instead of turning around and heading back to the car, I kept going. It was so silent there, in the bosom of the river. There were no sounds of humanity, no car horns or train whistles or voices. Only the squawk of jays, the trilling of songbirds, and the occasional peeping of the bald eagle that flew above me, seemingly interested in my quest for trout, broke the silence of the valley. So I stayed, working upstream, until, pulling my FitBit out of my fishing vest, I noted it was five-thirty. I’d fished the river for six hours straight, hooked and landed two-dozen specs, used up all my worms, and lost a half-dozen flies and jigs to pines and cedars. It was time to head home.

The way back.

Easier said than done. I’d forgotten my walking stick, an essential for fishing streams like the one I was on, back at the house. Though my waders, inherited from Dad, had carpeting glued to the soles, making them less slippery than bare rubber, a walking stick for balance is pretty well standard equipment for trying to negotiate a river on the North Shore. I made do: I found a nicely peeled beaver chew that fit the bill. But that stick wasn’t the safeguard I thought it would be. I took three tumbles on the way downstream to the Jeep, banging both knees and eventually ending up on my ass in the current, my T-shirt soaked, water leaking over the tops of my waders. But beyond a few scrapes and scratches, I didn’t get hurt. Still, with my back aching and my body tired from crawling over old beaver dams and flotsam and alder limbs, I came to the realization that, at 64 years old, a man shouldn’t be doing what I was doing by myself. Sure, I had my cell phone with. But there was no service. If I broke an ankle trying to step through the slippery rocks, or broke a wrist trying to stop myself from falling, what then?

This is how an exhausted old trout fisherman looks when confronted by yet another obstacle.

I tried flies again in some of the wider spots as I made my way to the car. Nothing. I was ready to give up and just keep pushing through but when I came to the last bit of open water and saw trout feeding on small bugs on the surface, I had to give the dry fly on the end of my leader one last go.

The pool.

Success! After fifty-plus years of worm dunking, only occasionally tossing a dry fly at trout with no success, I managed to make a decent four count cast near where a brookie had surfaced, feel the strike, set the hook, and land the fish. It wasn’t a monster: just another 6″ speckled bit of God’s handiwork. But it was something.

The one.

Peace.

Mark

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