Once Upon a Time

By Lee Modder

Dear Dad,

            As you know, I just wrote a Memorial to Mom. She left us two years ago — God Rest Her Soul!

            Now I’m sending my love to you on your Birthday.

            Long, long ago when I was maybe eleven and Bill was nine, you took us on a Great Adventure in the North Woods. We had a great, green sixteen-foot canoe you bought used from a friend. A wooden Thompson made in Peshtigo in 1941, the year I was born.

            Now we had to test it out, dontcha know. Well, Bill and I did use it once to camp out overnight on the Big Island in our lake. But that was too tame for mighty voyageurs like us. We could see our cabin from there, and worse, sometimes Girl Scouts camped there!

            So … us macho men sought out a real trip in the Wild. Dad said we’ll paddle up the Indian River to Widewaters. Yes! Alls we need is our tent, fishing poles, and a can of good ol’ Crisco to fry freshly-caught filets, and our taters.

            Up early, we paddled the whole length of Straits Lake til we reached the channel that leads to the swift and at times shallow current of the Indian River. I was in the prow with a light paddle, Ballast Bill sat low in the middle, and Dad manned that indestructible hickory paddle that pushed us upstream for the distance, maybe seven miles or so.

            But how can you measure a woman’s love? I mean a winding River which ebbs and flows with every rainfall, twists and turns and changes its course and overflows its banks and doubles back on itself and is finally unknowable.

            We are in High Spirits that warm Summer morning. For a change, Dad is not criticizing our every move. Not a word of discouragement the whole trip. We are all so happy we make jokes about the light rain and drizzle that dogs us all day.

            Billy-Goat Bill (it’s a long story) was his usual cheerful self even though the bottom of the boat was getting soggy. We were mostly silent and never met another living soul the whole two days we were on the river.

            As we splashed upstream, the wildlife took warning. But our hearts beat faster the next day on our return trip. Quietly riding the current downstream, we drifted around a bend and came upon a large doe up to her knees in cool water, her summer coat shining in the sun like burnished copper. She held her haughty head high to avoid embarrassment and slowly ambled off into the woods. We spoiled her toilette, no doubt, and perhaps a soiree.

            “Look! There on the bottom is a smooth log as thick as a telephone pole! And it’s been cut evenly on both ends!”

            “Did Lumberjacks dam up the Indian River for a log drive? And was this log left behind?”

            Quick as a shot we went from being French Voyageurs hauling beaver pelts in enormous canoes halfway across the continent over Canada’s Boundary Waters to fearless Jacks jumping on a log jam, wearing our caulked boots with only a trusty peavey to loosen the jam!

            To be young and full of dreams.

            By late afternoon of the first day, the river widened and we pitched our tent on the first island we came to. It had stopped raining but the skies were gray and overcast.

            “This is good weather for fishing, “ we said, more than once.

            And what fish to catch! Walleye, Northern Pike, Largemouth Bass, Smallies, Trout galore:  brookies, rainbows, brown trout, Lake Trout — plus Whitefish and spawning Salmon. On Straits Lake once I saw a five-foot Sturgeon sunning himself next to a pier.

            Crappies, panfish of every kind:  perch, bluegills, sunfish, pumpkinseed, rock bass, white bass, plus catfish and dogfish, which you will never find in the same spot.

            Buttered baked potatoes would go good with our filets. So before setting out to fish, we formed a fire pit circled with stones on the sand beach. When the driftwood burned down to red-hot coals, we carefully placed our foil-wrapped potatoes in among them. The mild breeze had died down and this was perfectly safe. The water seemed almost still.

            While we dried off by the blazing fire, I think it was Bill who asked, “What if Bears rummage through camp at midnight drawn by the hot smell of fried fish and all they find is a greasy pan to lick? In their anger and frustration won’t they tear up our flimsy WWII issue pup tent and devour us? Shouldn’t we leave the lantern on at least? Maybe they’ll think we’re playing cards.”

            “It’s Summer,” Dad said. “They’re not hungry now like in the Fall. Besides, they can’t eat all of us. Light from the lantern will only help them find us. And the mosquitoes will be layin’ for us in the morning.”

            Uncle Vilas’ Bear Stories came next as the fire died down. About how at first light he opened the cabin door to get water from the pump and was greeted by a HUGE BLACK BEAR who had the same idea.

            With his earnest, deadpan delivery, Uncle Vilas told tales of the North Woods even better than Dad, who often punctuated his stories with a twinkle in his eye.

            We were just kids. Whatever Vilas said was Gospel. Besides, he lived with Aunt Edna who never smiled as far as I could tell. Vilas wouldn’t dare lie in front of her.

            He worked for the Highway Department, grading back roads all day, plowing, hauling gravel. He would recite the name of every tree we passed as we rode along. As friendly as a puppy.

            Vilas told us that as a rule, if a Bear even hears you coming, he’ll make tracks the other way. But it’s the exception that can get you killed.

            “A Bear may maim you and/or drown you by accident without meaning to,” Vilas said. “If a bear is swimming across the lake and your boat somehow gets in his way, he will capsize it and swim right over you without seeming to notice because his eyes are focussed on the tree he was swimming toward on the other side of the lake.”

            I warned Dad, “We aren’t safe from Bears even on this island ‘cause they will tip over our canoe if we make a run for it.”

            “Bears don’t swim at night,” Dad said. “And you’ve always got your jackknife.”

            Believe it or not, some hunters don’t even know enough to stay away from Black Bear Cubs, be they in a tree or otherwise. Bears can climb faster than you. They can run faster than you. You NEVER mess with a cub ‘cause Mama’s nearby and she’s gonna mess with you!

            So many stories, gruesome tales that need not be repeated, like babies in the cradle being stolen off the porch, etc. Some are cartoonish.

            Back in the Roaring 20’s, Uncle Lonzo captured some bear cubs. He was driving off with his prize when furious Mama Bear caught up to him, ripped off the top of his flivver, and rescued her babies!

            All this talk about Bears made Bill and me as fearful as two long-tailed cats in a room full of rockers. We couldn’t help it!

            Then other Dangers we might face in the Wild:  Timber Wolves live here. I saw one close up as handsome as a Husky but much larger. Packs of ravenous coyotes and wolverines will chew your bones until there is nothing left for the Buzzards.

            Whatever you call them:  cougars, catamounts, wildcats, puma, lynx, I’ve seen them, too. Just a brown blur racing after its prey.


            Bandit Raccoons that will eat anything:  night crawlers from my bait can; they dug up fish offal I didn’t bury deep enough. An epicure among them stole my stringer of bluegills hung up by my open screen door while I was in the cabin! Then this robber dragged the stringer full of fish down to the lake to wash off before dining, politely leaving the stringer behind for me to find on the weedy shore.

            The arrogant porcupine. Ever see one swagger down a back road like he owns it? The fisher kills ‘em but he can’t get them all. Dad had to take our poor, suffering dog, Duke, to the vet in Munising to painfully remove the quills from his muzzle. And the next year, Duke was in terrible pain again! You’d think he’d learn. But either his hunting dog instincts overrode his memory or he was so happy to be roaming free in the woods that he just didn’t give a damn!

            Mineral-starved porcupines can leave you “up the creek without a paddle.” They will gnaw off the tops of your oars and paddles for the minerals and salts deposited there over the years by sweaty hands.

            Someone told me that porcupines can be lethal to humans during the Harvest Moon. A  hard Winter coming? No one knows why but they will leap from tall Hemlocks and turn you into a pincushion slowly bleeding your life away.

            We spied one high in a hemlock by our cabin just above my little sister feeding the chipmunks. Uncle Vilas dispatched him with one shot from his 30-30.

            Also, Snappers grow up here as big as a wheel. They’ll corner you, then destroy you digit by digit, starting with the toes so you can’t run away.

            Not to mention the rattlers who like to curl up in your warm boot at night and surprise you in the morning.

            To defend ourselves we had no weapons but our hatchet and jackknife. Us wily woodsmen of the North must live by our wits. A mere weapon will not save you from a Black Widow Spider hiding in the outhouse.

            Time to launch the canoe and catch our Supper! After some time we paddled back in the twilight with empty stringers. But baked potatoes await us!

            The wind has died down and the air is very still. So still that the wonderful sweet aroma of those tubers has concentrated, has wafted over the water at full strength to us sojourners a long ways away.

            “Mmm! Slathered in butter,” we say as we near the island. We are salivating like hounds at a cookout.

            At last we pulled the taters from the coals. They were fragrant all right but they seemed a little light. Unwrap the foil. Nothing but black cinders inside.

            We swallowed our disappointment, smiled because the joke was on us, and rolled into our sleeping bags.

            That was long ago. And I remember after I was able to visit you those last few times, Dad, I was barely able to drive back home to Milwaukee for the tears.

            Now I can visit both You and Mom at the same Time.

            And sometimes I feel once again, I can almost smell once again, the Joy emanating once again from the scent of those burnt potatoes of long summers ago who gave us their all, just as you did, Dad.