This is an essay of a fishing trip on Leech Lake in Northern Minnesota where my parents owned an authentic log cabin nearby. Six people and a dog would cram into the one roomed, tiny cabin once a year for a week of fishing. This is not a great story. It is not an exhilarating read or filled with suspense. But it is not a bad story either. So why write it down at all? Because it happened, and then was forgotten, even by me.
I felt the cool breeze brush past my reddened cheeks as the early morning winds of the Northern Minnesota’s forest and lakes blew freshly by. The air hadn’t yet been warmed by the noonday sun as it was often 2pm before the temperature climbed to an acceptable summer level. I stood outside the log cabin with my eldest sister, in our winter hats, to ease the morning chill, waiting to load the car with our fishing poles and tackle. I do not remember the trip to Whipholt but I was grateful that Dad gave Launa, my sister 10 years my senior, the car keys. We would be on our own, free from the dictates and desires of our parents.
In town, we went to the dock on Leech Lake where we would meet our dad’s very own fishing guide, Marv Utkhe. He was an immense man, probably over 6 feet tall, with a good deal of padding around his middle. He was old with crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes and with a rather dull, grey, thick mane of hair on his head. But when he spoke, in a high pitched voice, atypical of adult human males, you immediately felt at ease. He was a gentle giant. He was hard working with a smile on his face and a promise of a good day’s catch. Though he fished 7 days a week, to add to his meager income, in the ice melted lake in front of his mobile home, you could still feel the excitement and anticipation of a successful fishing trip.
Launa and I climbed into the rowboat with it tilting heavily under the weight of our feet. Marv climbed in and we grabbed the gunnels fiercely, unsure of how safe we were in this small craft. We questioned our safety again against the high wave action of a large, shallow lake. One could not see the far distant shore on the horizon so big is this lake. Anyone, with half a care, could easily get lost, and could be prey to the wild elements. Marv pulled the ripcord on his Mercury motor. We spun around with the nose of the little boat slapping the lake. Spay hit us getting us partially wet, but then of course we were wearing winter coats, taking the abuse from the nose of the boat, while Marv sat comfortably dry in the stern. We disappeared from view as if we did not exist to Marv’s secret fishing holes. He knew where to go. We were free from competition from other anglers and fishing guides, although we had seen clumps of them on our way out, offshore from a small wooded island. We caught one fish after another although we did not benefit from a nice Tracker fishing boat, complete with a cushioned swivel chair and a freeze locker built into the hull. We had no radio nor fancy equipment. No way to contact anyone if we sunk from the weight of the Northern Pike or Walleye we caught steadily. We watched as Marv placed them on a simple, grey stringer...made of steel. We dragged them along with us as he motored to other fishing spots to ensure we would have plenty of action. It was a good deal of flesh, which would be soaked in brine, breaded with Marv’s own recipe, and seared on the grill. The entire catch would be eaten by us, after we gave Marv his share, before we would return home from our family vacation, from the little cabin in the woods that I so dearly loved. It would provide me with many happy memories of fishing with my father. The only memories of him, as I did not see him at home, with him saving the sick and the dying, through long and painful surgeries and with visits to the homes of the people of Monroe Wisconsin with
his leather, black doctor’s bag.
The ride home was dreary and depressing, returning to the dismal, mundane routine of ordinary life. We returned to a beautiful architectural home complete with steel reinforced walls. Walls that could withstand the blast from a nuclear bomb that drowned out the sound of anything alive or thriving on the outside; a mausoleum if it were. I yearned for the beauty of the coned pines whose silhouettes etched against the sunset of the sky, like inky quills piercing the veil of night. I wished I could return to the sparkling glass surface of Long Lake, where I spent 10 hours a day fishing with my father. “10 hours!” you exclaim, “How could anyone endure that being only a child?” My siblings and mother could not do so. But I could, with the intensity of my father during a surgery, without food and only 1 bathroom break, which I had to insist upon. I listened to him as he dissected every inch of the lake, calling out, “Here is the bay where the fish are hatching,” and “This is the walleye bar!” He never failed to mention his same observations of the lake, 10 hours a day, for 7 days. He loved the lake, but I doubted, not as much as I. So I boarded the boat not with the anticipation of catching fish, but with the anticipation of casting my many bright and colorful lures, placing them right on the edge of the weedbed. And for which, in the briefest and dullest of moments, I could feel, my dad’s approval.
I only saw Marv Utkhe, who was named “Marvel” by his mother, one more time when I was quite grown up, having ventured to the Northwood, quite on my own. Driving from Longville to Walker Minnesota I suddenly veered right at Whipholt, pulled up to his home, and knocked on the door. It felt reckless, brazen in fact, and I was uncomfortable with the whole ordeal, but not after his gracious wife opened the door and welcomed me. She knew my name to my surprise. I didn’t even know if Marv was still alive at that point. We turned a corner and there was Marv sitting at the only table in the house. His wife served me pie and coffee as if I were a foreign queen of some excotic tribe or as if I had noble blood. Marv and I talked of old times as if we had shared many memories together and as if I knew the people he talked about. He and his wife didn’t have much, but what they had, they shared. It was a pleasant visit that bespoke of a time long past when people loved other people, noble or not.
I had an intrinsic knowledge that I would never see Marv again, at least, on this earth. Sometimes I even think I will meet my loved ones and the ones I did not much like in a place called Heaven. Some days as I age, Heaven seems a real possibility. A better alternative to being left on this earth with thinning, dull, grey hair on my head, fat padding around my middle, and with wrinkles on my face; obscene cracks that look less human every day and more like fissures and craters that can be seen on the moon...a desolate, lonely rock. And with appendages, arms and legs with lines on the length of them resembling aerial pictures I have seen of ancient river beds, long since dried up. I see myself in the mirror like an apparition staring back at me who has a flesh-eating or wasting disease from a third world country. You may think that I am crazy, that I have finally crossed over into the world of dementia. I wish it were so, so that I could not feel the decay inflicted on me each 24 hours, on every turn of the mother earth on her axis. So I imagine being greeted at the gates of Heaven, shown my way
around, and even meeting my dad, who was my regular fishing partner, once a year on those outdated fishing vacations so long long ago. And it has been said, by more than one, that my dad was seen in the virgin forests and on the lakes of Northern Minnesota, as a blue heron, getting way too close and familiar with the fisherman’s boats as they bobbed up and down on Leech and Long Lakes.
But in this Heaven I do not see Marv. I have to search for him on those crystal clear, spring-fed lakes, teaming with bright, silvery fish, and merry, magical creatures. I ask him, “Do you want to drop a line or two?” He says, “Yes,” and I pay him the fee. He takes me to his secret fishing holes. We catch fish after fish of Northern Pike and Walleye with their wide, staring eyes. He places them on a simple, grey stringer...made of steel.
Janis L. Springer