Into the Whiteshell, Part 2


A painting by my daughter Hannah, based on a photo of Grandpa and me from a fishing trip in Canada.

Our trips to Whiteshell Provincial Park typically lasted seven or eight days, including travel time. Having five days in camp allowed us to explore the lake, trying out old fishing holes from Grandpa’s earlier trips and some new spots. Back in the 1950s and 60s Grandpa and his friends mainly fished for big northern pike, and occasionally got into some good walleye fishing. By the time I got to go, Echo Lake had developed an excellent walleye fishery.

My first year up, Dad brought along a 69-cent, hot pink lure with white feathers. Grandpa gave him some grief over it, but Dad tied in on anyway. For whatever reason, that lure was irresistible to walleyes.  By mid-day, the feathers were gone and by the end of the day the lure barely had any paint left on it! Grandpa tore through his tackle box, looking for anything with pink on it. Even though Dad had the hot hand that day, we all caught fish.

To keep under the possession limit at the time, we ate fish everyday. Sometimes Grandpa threw a frying pan, some lard and salt and pepper in the boat so we could a have a shore lunch, just like those fancy guided fishermen from the resorts. Grandpa did all the cooking on those trips and I did the dishes. The menu was never fancy but we ate like kings.

While we enjoyed catching walleyes, for real excitement we went after big pike.We checked out a spot on the lake Grandpa called Meat Market Falls. Located somewhere along the western shore of the lake, a creek tumbled down the rocks. It was a spawning stream for suckers, a favorite food of northerns in the spring.  Grandpa once caught a 28-lb. pike there years before. I remember admiring the big fish hanging on the wall in Grandpa and Grandma’s basement, its belly sagging below the edge of the mounting board. But we found the creek had been dammed up by beavers, so we landed the boat, hiked up the slope and inspected the dam.  It was the tallest beaver dam I had ever seen, over 10 ft at the centerline. Behind it was a pond of crystal-clear water where we tried a few casts but had no luck.

At the end of my first trip up, we stopped at a rock outcrop on the way back to the portage. Another sucker creek poured into the lake right next to the outcrop. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were in no hurry to leave. We cast spoons off the rock and hooked several nice northerns. Grandpa rigged up a frozen smelt on the end of his line and cast it out to sink about 6 ft below a big wooden bobber. When the bobber went down he told me to set the hook and start reeling. I fought the fish at least 20 minutes before Dad was able to get the landing net under it and haul it in. I had my first trophy northern pike, 42 inches long and about 18-20 lbs.

Grandpa was even more excited than I was and he and Dad decided right on the spot to have the fish mounted by a taxidermist for me. We carefully slit the belly on one side to clean it and packed it in ice. We brought the frozen fish to the taxidermist a few days after getting home. I remember the wait for the taxidermist to finish as excruciating – I couldn’t wait to see my trophy! Finally, after some months, we brought the mount home. Grandpa insisted my parents hang the thing in their living room where everyone to could see it. When I became an adult with a job and a house some years later my parents allowed me to take possession. The old mount has survived a half-dozen moves mostly intact, and hangs in our cabin to this day.

When we were not fishing or lolling around camp, we did some exploring. We hiked to nearby Forbes Lake, checked out islands for potential future campsites, and watched moose swimming across the lake. Grandpa always stopped to watch wildlife, whether beavers or bears or bald eagles.  Even though Grandpa lived to fish, he took the time to enjoy the beauty around him and enjoyed sharing the experience with me. Through him I gained a deep appreciation for the natural world and for quiet places. This is his greatest gift to me.






He Painted It Silver

Grandpa was a creative guy in his own way. His creativity came out of his experience growing up on a farm during the Great Depression. He learned to make do with what he had on hand, to fix things whether he knew how or not and to make use of every scrap of useful material.

Grandpa’s choice of media was scrap metal. He did not make abstract sculptures, although sometimes the odds and ends I found around his shop approached art. He made practical things, usually inspired by an ad or story he saw about some new gadget. For example, he made his own wall-mounted can crusher when recycling aluminum cans caught on. When the Club was advertised as the answer to auto thefts, he built his own version.  His “Club” consisted of angle iron and iron pipe welded together in a configuration that could be padlocked. Although I do not remember exactly how it worked, I do recall that part of his device was permanently bolted to the dash of his pickup truck. The finishing touch: a couple coats of silver spray paint.

The silver spray paint was Grandpa’s signature. He used it to cover up scorch marks and welds and to give his contraptions a shiny, new appearance. I suppose he thought it approximated the look of chrome. But the silver paint did not hide the fact that the object was homemade. That was made clear by the cutting torch edges, rough grinder marks and odd holes or bends from whatever use the scrap had in a previous life.  Anyway, appearance was not that important to him; what mattered was the device worked.

Grandpa was all about solving problems. When he and Grandma began traveling to Texas in the winter, they had to pack as much stuff as they could in their 4-door sedan. Of course, when one fills the trunk for a long trip one hopes they do not have a flat tire. No one likes to unload their car on the side of the road to get at the spare. Grandpa came up with a workaround to this problem. He would take the spare “donut” tire out of its place in the trunk, fill that space with stuff, and then bolt the spare to the top of the trunk lid.  When he first tried this concept he had an older car and probably did not diminish its value much. But a few years later he bought a brand new car – and immediately mounted the spare on top of the trunk. My dad called it “Ray’s Lincoln Continental Kit.”

When I was in grad school in Bozeman, Montana, my grandparents came to visit and meet their first great-grandson. Grandpa and I tried our hand at trout fishing on the Gallatin River, even though we were not particularly fond of eating trout.  We talked about trying them smoked, but did not have a smoker. The next time they came out, Grandpa brought me his latest creation: a contraption that would convert our little Weber grill into a fish smoker.

The device consists of a cut-off 30-gallon steel barrel with a rod welded across the middle. On this rod is balanced a piece of grill cut and welded to fit in the barrel. Attached to the welded grill are two racks that support the second grill, which is the one that came with the Weber. To smoke fish, one lights a charcoal fire and dumps wood chips on it to create smoke. Grandpa said it took about 8 hours to completely smoke a batch of fish. I have hauled it around through 6 states over the last 30 years , but never got around to using it.

Not sure I ever will use it, but I will always keep it. After all, Grandpa made it for me.

Maybe I’ll paint it silver.


What Grandpa Said

Grandpa liked to talk. He was not one to blather on about himself; he did not talk to hear himself talk. But he enjoyed a good conversation, and you could be sure he would do his part to keep that conversation lively. Grandpa’s language was usually colorful and plenty salty but never vulgar. Listening to Grandpa talk was fun because of the things he said.

Grandpa Ray was a master of metaphors and aphorisms, even if he didn’t know what those were. His eighth-grade education did not provide him with much sophistication, but his hardscrabble farmboy upbringing gave him a unique perspective on life and living.

Just as he enjoyed good conversation, he loved eating, and talking about eating.  Coming in from a long day in the fields or woods Grandpa usually had built up a good appetite, often saying “I’m so hungry my stomach thinks my throat is cut.” After enjoying a big meal or an especially good piece of cake or pie, he would say “I wish I was bigger so I could eat more.”

Grandpa always had a colorful way of describing certain events, people or things.  An icy sidewalk was “slicker than snot on a doorknob.” Something moving very fast through or past an obstacle was “like s**t through a long-necked goose.” A guy who told tall tales or talked a lot about himself was “so full of s**t his eyes were turning brown.” Such a man may also qualify for the application of another of Grandpa’s sayings: “he don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.” He did tend toward the scatological.  When he needed a beer it was because he was “drier than a fart in a windstorm.”

Another phrase he borrowed from Grandma. Whenever she talked about something she didn’t like or didn’t understand she would use the term “ferluvnermunny”.  For example, when talking about traveling to or in the Twin Cities she would say, “why, the traffic down there is just crazy. Cars coming at you from all directions. I wouldn’t live down there ferluvnermunny.” Translation: for love nor money. It kind sounds like she considers these equivalent, but I don’t think that’s what she means. Even today Grandma often evokes Grandpa: “I know Raymond always used to say…”

A lifelong Democrat, Grandpa was not above talking politics.  A favorite saying he borrowed from his dad, a farmer, went as follows: “Never trust a man in a suit. He may be a banker or a lawyer or a revenuer. But you can be damn sure he’s a Republican.” I never thought of Grandpa as a racist, but he would occasionally say things that made me wince. Southern Minnesota farm country in the 1920s and 30s was not a place you where you would learn about racial justice. Grandpa was a product of his time.

One of the funniest things I ever heard Grandpa say happened on a fishing trip in Canada. This story requires a little background, but I’ll write more about our Canadian adventures in a future post.  On my third trip there, when I was about 15, I was lucky enough to hook what was probably the biggest pike I’ve ever seen.  I fought it for about 20 minutes, trying to get it close to the boat so Dan, the guy sitting in the bow, could net it.  Finally, I got it within three feet of the gunwale and Dan reached out with the net. He got the fish just out of the water; I remember it barely folding up in the net. Then the big pike straightened out and the next thing we heard was a big SPLASH! The fish was gone. The double-hooked smelt rig I had on was mangled, the hooks almost straightened back into wire. The pike had torn a gaping hole in the net. (It turns out Grandpa packed an old, rotting landing net instead of a new one he’d bought for the trip.) I turned to Grandpa who was manning the motor and said, “I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.”

When we got back to our fish camp that afternoon, the story was told and retold to the guys in the other boat, who had gone a different direction that day.  As the beer flowed and the whisky bottle made its way around the campfire, the one that got away got bigger and bigger.  Apparently, it was the biggest fish Dan had ever seen too.  He couldn’t stop talking about it. Finally, Grandpa got tired of hearing him talk about it and said so. Then he said:

“Your mouth is flapping like a whippoorwill’s ass during chokecherry season.”

The little fish camp erupted with laughter. We were literally rolling on the ground with tears in our eyes. They could probably hear us in Winnipeg that night.

Grandpa was never a rich man, but he knew how fortunate he was. When he was relaxing in a boat or a lawn chair or driving through the countryside just enjoying the day, he would say “I wonder what the poor (or rich) people are doing today.” He wasn’t a snob, but he felt rich.

This is what I take away from my experiences with Grandpa Ray. Anyone who enjoys life as he did is rich indeed.

Deer Camp

Grandpa Ray and Grandma Arleen made deer camp a very special experience for their grandsons. They passed on to us a hunting heritage that will, hopefully, continue in our family for years to come. Grandma was the “voman in the voods” as one old Norwegian who encountered her in the woods put it. Indeed, a woman hunting back in the 50s and 60s was almost unheard of. But Grandma was out there, along with her daughters – even when they were pregnant. Grandma was a crack shot and brought many deer down with her lever-action .32 Winchester. She was also a wonderful camp cook who had us looking forward to every meal.

Grandpa was just as excited as us kids to go to camp. He started preparing sometimes as early as September, shopping for the best bargain beer he could find. It had to be cheap because he bought a lot of it – 25 cases or more each year. That is a lot of beer but we usually could count on a lot of visitors to our camp deep in the Beltrami Island State Forest near Roseau. There were the Weber cousins who camped a few mile south of us, the Hoaglund crew who had a cabin nearby, the McCleods from back home, and others who would stop by our camp to inquire about our hunt and drink a beer or three. That is when the stories came out.

Deer camp stories, whether told around a campfire or around the table in the cook shack, were the highlight of every evening. The storytelling was always a raucous affair, the storyteller getting louder with every round of beer. It was as if we were making up for all the quiet stillness we practiced during our morning hunts. Sometimes that was practiced stealth, and sometimes it was just trying to avoid any loud noise because we were hung over from the previous evening’s festivities.

Beltrami camp

Grandpa Ray (lower right) and crew in camp, mid-1980s

While Grandpa loved a good party in camp, he was serious about getting as much venison as we could. He put as many if not more hours in the deer stand as any of us. Grandpa was especially focused when it came to conducting drives. Both the drivers and the standers were given explicit instructions. Whether we got a deer or not, we could count on an extensive postmortem from Grandpa on what went right or wrong.

Grandpa was also adamant that we get everything out of the deer we could. All the bragging we wanted to do about our latest kill was usually stopped short when he asked if we remembered to harvest the tongue, the liver and especially the heart. Per Grandpa, these delicacies were not to be wasted. Grandma often made pickled heart right in camp, and sometimes fried up fresh liver for dinner (both acquired tastes as far as I was concerned).

Grandpa liked securing some “camp meat” too. This usually involved cutting up a fawn or small doe and consuming it all during the week of camp. The way Grandpa saw it, nothing was better than fresh venison and there was no sense in wasting a tag on a small deer. That being said, Grandpa usually asked one of his sons-in-law secure the deer in an out-of-the-way place and butcher it there so as to avoid incriminating himself.

Occasionally, over after-dinner drinks, Grandpa would wax philosophical.  He talked about how lucky we were to be able to hunt, to have public land to hunt.  He talked about how public land was not available in many other states he had visited.  He thoroughly enjoyed being out in the woods in a make-shift shack on wheels, eating simple but hearty meals, and sharing the experience with family. He was right; we were very fortunate.

When I got my first full-time job after college, I made sure I saved enough vacation time to go to deer camp. We encountered tough hunting conditions that year and for this and other reasons we decided to pull camp early in the week. Grandpa felt bad I had taken all my vacation time, so he and I hunted around his place. Later in the week, we checked out a place in the White Earth State Forest that Grandpa used to lease from the county for grouse and duck hunting. I shot a forkhorn buck that day and eventually we found a new place for our camp for the following year.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, that next year was the last time I got to hunt with Grandpa in Minnesota. The following year my career took our family further west, too far to come home for hunting. It would be another 11 years before I would be back for the Minnesota deer season.

Now, almost 30 years later, we are still hunting from the same camp. My dad is now the Grand Old Man of deer camp and my mom is now the cook. I still hunt with my brothers and cousins and now, our kids, maintaining the traditions we learned from Grandpa Ray.

We just don’t drink as much beer.

Better than Christmas

March and April seemed to last forever when I was a kid. Nothing to do but watch the snow melt and the mud dry. This was also the Lenten season, when I gave up cookies or chocolate for 40 days. Easter Sunday couldn’t come soon enough. My birthday during the first week of April was a bit of a reprieve, unless it fell during Lent, then no chocolate cake for me.

But the hardest part of waiting out March and April was anticipating the opening of fishing season the second Saturday in May. This was the most exciting day of the year for me, bigger than my birthday or Easter Sunday or maybe even Christmas. Fishing Opener meant spending the weekend with my grandparents at Island Lake.

Leading up to the big day, I would go through my tackle box, making sure I had enough hooks, sinkers, leaders and swivels. I carefully untangled the Daredevil spoons and sorted them by color and size. By late April, most of the snow had melted and formed small ponds in the fields surrounding our home. These made perfect locations for casting practice. Having had to slog through the muck a few times to retrieve a lure hung up on some stubble or a rock, I learned to take the treble hooks off and practice with a blank lure.

On the Friday before Opener, my grandparents would pick me up after school on their way to the lake. I don’t think I learned much in school on those Fridays; the anticipation was so hard to contain. Grandpa would have his 14′ Lund loaded in the back of the pickup, inverted with the bow above the cab, and the Hiawatha camper hitched up. I imagined how jealous my classmates were as they watched me climb in.

I always thought the drive to Island Lake, along Minnesota 34, was beautiful, no matter the weather. The scenery heading east from Detroit Lakes transitions from scattered oak stands in fields to dense hardwoods and then to a mix of hardwoods and pine in the hills further east. Having grown up surrounded by farmland, I’ve always been attracted to the beauty and mystery of the Minnesota northwoods. Spotting the first majestic white pine along the highway, somewhere around Toad Lake, was always a highlight for me.

The only part of the drive I didn’t like was the annual stop at Hanson’s Flyway on Height-of-Land Lake. Lawrence Hanson ran a small bar and gas station along the highway, and loved to tell stories to anyone who would listen. As I learned growing up, Grandpa loved to stop at small roadside joints for a beer or two and a story or three. So I would get a candy bar and bottle of pop and sit and wait, spinning on a bar stool until it was finally time to go.

Island Lake lies northeast of Height-of-Land in eastern Becker County. In addition to several islands, the lake features an assortment of points, bars and other structures, which make for excellent walleye habitat. The fishing was great, as well as I can remember, in my early years. Like with most lakes that receive a lot of fishing pressure, fishing at Island seemed to decline over time. But that didn’t discourage us from coming back every year.

After setting up the camper and unloading the boat, Grandpa and I would sit down and go through our tackle to plot our strategy. We’d check the rods and reels, changing line if necessary. Grandpa taught me how to tie knots, pick sinker weights and put together the best presentation to fool the wily walleye. For me, the anticipation continued to build. I couldn’t wait for Opening morning.

We usually headed out just after daybreak, with Grandpa at the helm, Grandma on the middle bench and me at the bow. We had our favorite spots: the Moosehead, the Sunken Island, Barrel Bay (“like catching fish in a barrel”), and others. Grandma would hand out the minnows, but she would not touch the leeches. We would fish until mid-morning, come in for lunch, and then head out again in the late afternoon and fish until dark.

I always liked fishing in the evening the best, enjoying the colors of sunset, the silhouettes of the pine trees along the shore and the calls of the loons. According one of Grandpa’s favorite stories, I didn’t always like the loons. One evening when I was probably 7 or 8, I said “I wish those loons would quit making all that noise.” Apparently, it was affecting my concentration!

Most years we were joined at Island Lake by Uncle Dewey and Aunt Elsie from Brooklyn Center. Uncle Dewey was Grandma’s only brother and a World War II vet who fought all the way across Europe. Being really into all things WWII, I was fascinated by him. Dewey wasn’t one to tell a lot of stories, but once in a while he would talk about his experiences and answer my questions. Aunt Elsie always brought really decadent treats to share and had an infectious laugh.

Uncle Dewey drove a fancy Buick Electra, the first car I ever saw with electric windows and air conditioning. He had a contraption mounted on top that would allow him to load and unload the boat by himself. Grandpa gave him a hard time about living in the lap of luxury. Grandpa would also grumble about Mitzi, the little poodle that went everywhere with Elsie.

When I was little, I thought I would always want to be with Granydpa and Grandma at Island Lake. But that changed when I got to high school. It so happened that the high school prom fell on the same weekend as the Opener. Although I didn’t have a girlfriend, I still asked a girl to prom, because that’s what everybody did. Grandpa and Grandma seemed to understand. Looking back now, I would rather have gone fishing.