Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Birthday Fish Tale

My fortieth birthday dawned with grey and overcast skies in the Northwoods - just how I like it. After being shocked and delighted the day before with a surprise visit by my parents to celebrate with me, I woke up giddy to spend a day doing whatever I wanted. My list was simple:

1. See a musky,
2. Take a nap during the rainstorm, and
3. Enjoy a fabulous dinner out with my family.

So after breakfast Mr. Musky and I headed out to try our luck on Echo Lake. Storm clouds gathered so we stayed close to home just in case we had to dash back to get out of the rain. Based on the loon nest we saw in May, I brought along my camera in anticipation of seeing a new baby on our lake.

Meet the Echo Lake 2012 baby!

Once we were settled and began heaving our lures in an effort land a big one, we noticed a small boat off to the west of us. No less than five minutes into our angling effort my musky man commented, "Wow, Hon. He's got a fish on over there."

I immediately picked up my camera so I could get a better look, figuring I'd take a picture of his fish just in case I didn't "boat" (fish speak for 'catch') one of my own. He was definitely having a hard time, and he was solo.

I discreetly snapped a few photos of the gentleman, then put my camera down to catch Big Brother. I continued to furtively spy at the gent, marveling at his bravery and wondering how he planned on netting whatever beast was on the end of his line. I don't do dead animal clean up, I don't start campfires, and I definitely don't fish for the big ones alone.

Suddenly, we heard it. A feeble cry. Almost like an infant, but audibly intelligible. Desperate.

"Um...can you help me?"

With a giant sigh that probably woke our kids from their slumber back at the cabin, Mr. Musky put his rod down and started up the engine. "This is your deal," he grumbled. "It's your birthday, and you wanted a Musky. It's yours."

If you haven't read about it before, Mr. Musky has a thing about helping boaters in distress. But this was different. This was an angler with a potentially very large fish on his line. And he knew. That no matter what, in some sort of secret, hidden, fisherman brotherly code, that the fish would end up in that man's boat and there would be pictures to prove it.

As we approached the sweet elderly man, there were no introductions. There was no "howdy do" or "great day, eh?" exchanged. This was serious business. "I don't really know how we're going to do this," worried Mr. Musky aloud.

Grandpa was shaking in his shoes, weakened by the beastly struggle. The fish was taking out line, he was releasing line, reeling back in, fight-or-flighting. As we approached his boat, he asked the unthinkable. He asked me to get in the boat with him.

Say what??? Can't I just net it from the comfort of my own boat, thank you very much?

But I could tell that I was going to have to get in there and really get dirty with him and the fish. He had a giant on - we could tell by the bend in his rod. So I gracefully hopped into his boat, completed an arabesque and slid the net into the water to produce a marvelous giant musky for the man to cuddle and snuggle and hold forever.


I plopped into his Tuffy with a huge thud and found my balance as we rocked uncontrollably. I willed the boat to steady so we could continue on. He had a net, yes. A nylon net that was big, yes. But he didn't have a Frabill Cradle or a Big Kahuna or Kwik Kradle (no - I'm not joking - these items all exist) engineered with tangle-free material to prevent hooks from embedding in the net and to protect the fish from hurting itself. So I threw my hand out to Mr. Musky and demanded, "NET!" like a surgeon asking for her scalpel. Immediately a giant net capable of cradling toddlers to sleep was placed into my quivering hand.

"But I've got a net here...I've got a big net!" protested Grandpa.

"That's just focus," I replied in my most soothing and encouraging voice. "I've got this. I'm more comfortable with my own net."

Seriously. Am I having this conversation?

We finally got a glimpse of the water monster and I practically puked immediately all over the poor man. It was huge. Super-colossal. Positively gargantuan. The catch of this man's life that he would discuss over beers with his cronies at Johnny Nick's for the rest of his life struggled at the end of his line. The fate of his ability to land that sucker and immortalize the catch rested solely on me. And on Mr. Musky's ability to manage two boats at once in a driving windstorm with thunder and lightning threatening while changing the lens on my camera as I tried to calm this man's nerves.

The fish took line back because he kept giving it slack. "What test are you using?" questioned Mr. Musky.

"Fifty," replied Grandpa.

"Then reel it in. That fish is going nowhere. And it's tired. Get it in so we can give it a rest," Mr. Musky replied in his no nonsense voice. He meant business. And was worried about the managing two boats thing. Thank you God, for inspiring and encouraging my husband to go on week-long fishing trips with his buddies every fall so he knows what the hell to do. Because if it were up to me and Grandpa? We'd have chatted each other up about the storm clouds gathering and what's for dinner later.

So he steered his baby toward me, reminded me to net it head first (duh), and I committed the carnal sin of missing the fish. I thought Grandpa was going to cry on the spot. And hurl me out of the boat. And jump in and wrestle the brute himself. But he collected himself, and restarted the process of guiding the wriggling giant to a place it most certainly did not want to go.

Thankfully, the fish remained hooked so I could make another pass.

SUCCESS! I sank to my seat, loudly exhaled and wished for a jumbo dirty martini with blue cheese olives and oysters on the half shell to magically appear before me. My limbs were like jello and I continued to shake uncontrollably. So did Grandpa. But we fist pumped and high fived and jumped up and down while Mr. Musky gently suggested we return our focus to the cold-blooded aquatic vertebra in the net, who desperately needed to be returned to its natural habitat quickly or be converted into a mount for Grandpa's wall. In musky fishing the "release" is just as, if not more than, important as the "catch."

I looked up at the man of my dreams, successfully maneuvering two boats away from the shore and out of danger, batted my eyelashes, and implored him to jump in the boat and take over. Because I had a sneaking suspicion that Grandpa was going to need some assistance in getting the hooks out of his impressive catch.

"No way. Nuh uh. This is your deal, your birthday, your fish," he insisted.

"OK." I mustered. "I can do this, I am woman," I told myself.

I looked at Grandpa, and said, "OK buddy. You did it! Now get him off."

The kind old man looked at me with sparkling topaz eyes sized as quarters and simply said, "How?"

Jeez. OK. Here I go. My inner surgeon reappeared and thrusted her hand out to the general direction of the boat behind me. "PLIERS!" I commanded.

"Oh - um, I have a wrench here. Want that?" Grandpa pleasantly suggested.

A wrench. And what am I going to do with that? Mug the poor thing?

"No, thank you. I think I'll just use the tool that I'm used to."

Right. Because I spend all of my free time at the cabin releasing 40 plus inch muskies from treble hooks that are imbedded into their skeletal tissue. I'm a verifiable pro at this! No problem! You'll have your baby swooped into your arms for your future generations to gaze at forever in no time!

I plopped down on my knees (graceful ballet motions were now out of the question completely), prayed that a gust of wind wouldn't blow up my skirt to moon the poor man, and went to work on his day's achievement. I'd witnessed Mr. Musky do this several times, but nerves took over and my heart raced and fingers shook. I knew I needed to clamp the pliers onto the treble hook and shake the beast free - by pulling up on the pliers so the animal's weight would resist and remove the hooks from his jawbone. Easy, right?

"How many hooks are on your lure?" I questioned so I knew what I was looking for and dealing with.

I didn't get a straight answer. But Grandpa did remind me to be careful because the musky's teeth are very sharp. That was helpful information.

Luckily, the fish was suddenly free after one shake. Maybe from exhaustion, it helped me out. Thanks, fishy.

I knew what was next, and was grateful that my work was complete. "OK, dude. Picture time. Pick your fish up and pose!"

Grandpa just looked at me, dumbfounded. "But how am I going to do that?"

Arm thrust. "GLOVES!" my surgeon self proclaimed. They appeared.

"Here. Put these on - they will protect the fish and keep your hands from getting cut. Now pick it up."

Grandpa tried. He really did, but he jumped three feet back every time that fish thrashed in the net. At one point he suggested that maybe he could use the pliers to pick it up.


He finally looked up at me, batting his own eyelashes (swear) and sweetly asked me, "Do you think you could pick it up, and I'll take a picture of you with my fish?"

Good Lord. Chivalry, my friends, is officially dead.

So I did. By now every inch of me trembled madly because I knew that seconds counted in terms of keeping that fish alive, and when you have a 43 inch Esox in front of you the adrenaline just courses through your body. It's truly one of the greatest rushes ever, even if you didn't catch the darned thing yourself. I knew that I needed to grab it firmly under the jaw and hoist it up with two hands, holding it a bit away from me to keep the slime intact so it remained healthy. Holding the fish out in front of you also makes it look bigger for the photo.  We needed to work fast, and I had to keep the writhing, slippery, eel-like creature from bouncing out of my hands and breaking its back on the side of the boat.

Good grief, it was HEAVY! Like an awkward gyrating sack of twenty-five pounds of dead weight. So I did the only thing I could. I cradled it like a baby, and became one with fish slime. It covers those suckers in multiple layers. It stuck to my shirt, seeped through my bra, oozed all over my hair and dripped down to my waist, legs and into my shoes. Its wounded mouth bled all over my shoulder and into my hair. Meanwhile, I instructed Grandpa in a shaky voice to pick my camera up and take the picture. Fast.

I looked up and gave him the most dazzling, I-rock-the-fishing-world smile I could muster while also trying to look svelte and sexy and tough. I waited. And waited.

And waited.

Gramps finally spoke. "Like this?"

To my horror, he literally had my DSLR upside down and backwards with his fish-slimed thumb mucking up the lens. How do you do that? I can understand upside down, maybe, but backwards too? I knew that I was going to have to climb down from my anxiety tree to talk him through how to hold my camera, focus and shoot without dropping it into the lake. I could see him visibly shaking, to the point that any picture he managed to take would be so out of focus because of his nerves.

"OK, turn it. Turn it again, That's it - Great! Now, turn the entire thing around. No - not that way, turn it so the lens points at me, not you. Good Job! Now, there's a button at the top. Take a deep breath, peer into the little square window, then push down that button. No - not the button by your thumb on the back of the camera - that's ok, just relax and breathe - see the little button on top by your index finger. Your index finger, not your middle finger. It's by the power. It's ok - you'll get it - No - not the button that says AF-ON - by the power button. You know, the one that says on/off?"

SNAP! He got it!

Here's his fish photo:

At least my pliers coordinate with his flannel.

Exasperated beyond his limits, Mr. Musky finally interceded. "Hon, I got some on my phone." It's gonna rain, we need to release that fish and get outta here. Get it in the water, and he can work on ensuring it's revived and swims away."

Picture that subsequently went viral on Facebook with everyone thinking I landed the Neanderthal of the Sea on my Birthday. Note the hunched shoulders on both of us - sheer tension - and the coaching I'm giving on how to operate a Nikon D300s, secretly praying, "Please don't drop it. Please don't drop it." He was praying the same.
We were perilously approaching the shoreline, and Mr. Musky feared tangling up in the weeds or worse, ruining the prop on a log or rock. As I shifted positions to release the beast, it suddenly woke up, thrashing again in my arms and I almost dropped it in the boat. The chair in the above photo saved the fish, I regrouped, and heaved it up again into my arms, along with half my skirt and Grandpa's flannel. Look up mess in the dictionary, and you'd see me. Meanwhile, I instructed Grandpa to hand my beloved camera back to my betrothed so we could get out of there.

"Babe, Quick! Snap a few!" I insisted, hunched over trying to wrestle the fish back into an appropriate photo-taking position.

I knew that my camera would take superior pictures to the iPhone camera, and I just HAD to have a good shot of me and the Echo Lake Monster on my birthday.

So here...I give you...the greatest fish picture ever captured on the face of this earth.

Good gravy, I'm such a dork.

Grandpa's giant 43 inch musky was finally released on Echo Lake, and after thinking about it for a good 20 minutes, it eventually swam away so we can catch him again another day.

Note the slimed shirt and hair. Lovely.

And the musky blood on the shoulder of my shirt.
We continued on with our fishing adventure that morning, but alas, neither of us reeled in our own trophy. But it didn't matter. I was just happy to see a Musky, even if I didn't catch it myself. The glee on that man's face was simply priceless.

Mr. Musky was just happy that Grandpa didn't keel over from a heart attack, the way he was convulsing.

I simply can't end a post with such absurd photos of myself. Thankfully, my family obliged for some 40th birthday photos before dinner.

Slime free.

Happy Fishing, people. It's a rush.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

West Beach Day

Believe you me, I have a humdinger of a fish story to tell. I'm working on it. But I live with teenagers. And you know what teenagers are not?

Patient. Especially when it comes to seeing the photos I took of them yesterday. They want them posted to Facebook so they can all tag each other "like, last night." So instead they get a blog post. Like, today.

Yesterday we spent the warmest, almost longest day of summer at West Beach in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The morning dawned with the news that our driver blew out her tire the night before, so we immediately enacted plan B and I swapped out cars with Mr. Musky so we could fit all the little devils in the back of the truck, along with a couple of coolers filled with snacks and drinks and food. Because if I'm making the effort to go to the beach and am coping with sauna-like conditions and grainy, sticky sand that will fry my feet as I walk to the waters edge? I'm getting me a sunset, dangit. While I dream of snowmobiling across a frozen lake in January.

After wrestling with giant monster portable seats that do not easily fit into our Tahoe by a certain 40 year old woman who typically does not do seat insertion in 97 degree weather - especially when one of her rug rats approaches her with the delightful news that he just broke his sister's iPhone screen - we were off to a rocky start. We picked up my friend Kris, her daughter and another teenager and thanked the heavens that the expressway to the beach reopened after a brutal accident that morning which threatened to thwart our already tenuous plans.

Finally, we arrived. We channeled our inner pack mules and trudged coolers, beach chairs, an umbrella which proved entirely impractical in the 30mph wind and scores of blankets and towels to a spot near the water. After burning blisters onto my sandaled feet from the scorching sand, I flung myself into the shocking 68 degree lake. I do love swimming in the great lakes. It takes "refreshing" to an entirely new level. The girls lasted about 5 minutes before declaring they wanted to go for a walk along the lakeshore.

Which in girl speak is, "There are no cute boys near our beach spot. We're going to go see if any exist in Indiana."

We weren't born yesterday, girls. We get you.

Meanwhile, Kris suggested we go for a walk amongst the dunes. My inner crybaby raised her eyebrow. Walk? In that disgusting exfoliation matter which exceeds the boiling point? No, thank you. I'm hot. My feet are still on fire. A walk will guide me away from the quenching properties of Lake Michigan. I would rather sit and bask in the sun and cool off in the ice bath in front of me versus wandering away from the only reprieve available between my current position and the AC in the truck.

"Jake, do you want to go for a walk?" I asked.

"Sure," he readily agreed.


So they walked, and I hopped. From one shadowy spot to another. Which were few and far between at three o'clock along the Indiana lakeshore, despite the efforts of the Marram and Little Bluestem grasses to help me out.

The landscape though, I forced my inner crybaby to admit, was worth seeing. There's this thing? Called the Ice Age? It left behind some pretty remarkable stuff.
Like Cottonwood trees backdropped by Jack Pine trees...

...and Bearberry plants, dropped off this far south thanks to the glaciers that gave them a ride before receding to the north and east. Now these out-of-place vegetative species help hold the dunes together so packs of teenagers can go exploring.

Like this one.

"C'mon Mom! It's fun!"

Inner crybaby raised her other eyebrow. Umm...Ms. you know this is not easy? Climbing a 45 degree angled dune? Hello...does the term "lactic acid" mean anything to you? a card I received for my birthday so eloquently stated..."Forty is old enough to know better and young enough to do it anyway." So up the hill I climbed.

With a few stops for the inner crybaby to gnash her teeth. And bellyache. And catch her ever labored breath. And rest.

Mostly to rest. That hill's a mutha.

But look! Ms. Forty-year-old triumphed and squashed the inner crybaby! She made it to the top!

To take in a marvelous view.

And run back down with her baby.

Climbing sand dunes hurts. A lot. But the view at the top and the dash back down is worth it. Ask my friend Kris.

She loves sand dunes. Especially face plants in sand dunes.

Meanwhile, back at the beach, a certain trio of troublemakers commandeered the lifeguard stand.

The sunset finally delivered, and the kids delighted in creating some silhouettes.

Happy Summer Solstice, people. And thanks for reading.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Babies Babies Everywhere

Three weeks ago we spent another glorious Memorial Day weekend at the cabin. The sun winked its way through puffy, cumulous clouds and the occasional rain shower kept things cool and breezy, just the way we like it. Our 2012 inaugural boat ride did not disappoint. After packing beach bags with enough towels, snacks, and cocktails for the Russian army to join us, not to mention a deck of cards, sunscreen, bug spray, beach chairs, floaties and music speakers, I fulfilled the final boat excursion task - bloody marys for the adults. By the time I made my way through the backyard and down to the boat, the dog called me canine female names, the kids grew annoyingly restless and Mr. Musky blared the horn in a failed attempt to move me along. Upon leaving our dock, I collapsed onto the front seat, sucked down my cocktail and closed my eyes as we warmed the engine up over our serene little lake. With the crisp wind blowing through my hair and the freshwater lake smells carrying me off to my happy place, I dropped my shoulders a bit and felt myself truly relax. As we headed toward the channel to the next lake a "Loons Nesting" sign warned boaters to keep their distance. Mr. Musky commented, "That's new, isn't it?"

"Yes," I replied.

Less than a minute later we realized why the new sign was posted. And for once, the camera gods were with me. Normally when a photographic moment presents itself I am all limbs askew and hot mess defined as I barrel my way through multiple bags to locate the camera, usually tripping over the dog, stubbing a foot, breaking a toenail and spurting blood all over the boat in an effort to calmly capture the fleeting natural miracle.

But this time, perhaps because Mr. Musky saw a bear on his way into town the day before, I was prepared. I actually had my camera OUT and ON MY LAP outfitted with the ZOOM lens and I was ready.

As we turned the corner into the channel, we spied a loon sitting on its nest, just biding its time until the babies are born. While I'd love to say this is a mama, I can't. Papa loons share in the building of the nest and in the important 28 day job of incubation, so this could have been either parent.

We did respect the nester and kept our distance, but my 39th birthday present of a 300mm zoom lens proved very helpful to see this majestic bird up close.

We've always had a pair of loons on our lake, and ever since I was a child visiting my Grandma Kahling's place in northern Minnesota the Common Loon has been my favorite bird. Their haunting, magical call lulls me to sleep at night and stops me in my tracks mid-day. There's just no other sound on earth like their call to one another, communicating their whereabouts on opposite ends of the lake. Their defensive howl is the stuff horror films are made of, reserved for dangerous situations or when an interloper, or a lake-less loon, tries to invade the established pair's territory. Oftentimes I'll have just one more cup of coffee in the late morning on the dock in the hopes that they'll feed close to our shoreline so I can marvel in their graceful swimming and diving abilities, and maybe even catch them feeding their babies.

I can't wait to see the 2012 Echo Lake Baby Loons. Hopefully this weekend.

From Echo Lake, we have access to four other lakes. Chain Lake is to the Northeast on one side, and Stone Lake rests to the Southwest on the other side. From Stone Lake we can access Sand Lake and Dam Lake, the two largest bodies of water on the Sugar Camp Chain. We almost always go to Stone Lake on the pontoon boat, merely because the canine would cry real tears if we didn't stop at the Stone Lake Beach after riding through the first channel. He stands at the front, by the little door to allow him off the boat, and literally shakes with anticipation and excitement. He cannot contain his glee, knowing full well where we're headed. About halfway through the channel, he is overcome with anxiety and begins whining and yipping and scratching at the door, begging his humans to move faster through the shallow channel.

But unfortunately for him we had to slow our roll this time. Not just for the nesting loon, but for another majestic bird overhead. At first we thought it was an eagle, but it didn't possess the trademark white head, yellow beak and brown-black feathers. This guy was all brown spotted. He (she?) stopped for a bit on a treetop so I snapped some pics to practice shooting birds in flight (extraordinarily difficult) and to check it out later online to figure out what type of bird it was.

All that said, I apologize for the blurry shots here. But you get the idea.

The answer? After cocktailing on the deck and looking at all sorts of birds of prey, Mr. Musky figured it out. This one was an Immature Bald Eagle, thus the mottled brown and white feathers. In the ensuing Ornithology session, we learned that our neighborhood raptor will assume the characteristic white head and tail feathers when it becomes sexually mature, usually around five years of age.

Who knew? Probably tons of you out there, but not us.

Through the next channel on our way to Sand Lake, what do we see? Yet another loon, on its nest, waiting for another set of babies to enter the world. This one was on a little island in the channel, and will be residing on either Stone Lake or Sand Lake - it's nest is equidistant from the two.
And the biggest baby of them all? Loved his first swim at his beloved beach.

We are headed back up North this weekend for some celebrating. And I hope that celebrating includes some new babies that I can photograph and share with you next week.

Happy happy to all you Fathers out there on Sunday. You rock our worlds.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Our Recent Whirlwind

Think back, kids. To when you were fourteen and an endless summer stretched between one of the most exciting times in your short life - the start of High School. What was the most important thing going in your life then?

Sleeping in and staying up late had to be near the top of the list. Probably followed by a sport or two. Vacations? For sure. Certainly friends and acceptance by the challenging teenage peer group was prioritized somewhere in there. Maybe continuing to master a musical instrument or another extracurricular activity, such as drama or art. Filling days with activities to "keep you busy" - afternoons at the pool, hanging out with friends, outdoor barbecues, baseball games, and the occasional carnival or street fair.

Things have been busy around here lately. Really busy. We have a fourteen year old in our home, and her life's been a whirlwind the past few months.

Therefore, we've all had a whirlwind of a May and June.

It all started the first weekend in May with what they call "Spring Fling." I love this. It's a dress-up dance, but not on a Friday night requiring schlepping by the parents and overpriced meals at local restaurants. It's not a free-for-all at Great America where they run around like wild monkeys while you pray they don't get caught in gangbanger crossfire. It's in the middle of the school day, busses transport them to a local golf club for brunch and dancing, then they're deposited back at school in order to arrive home at the normal time. Perfect, and age-appropriate.

Dress shopping fulfilled what I'd hoped for someday when they told me in the hospital "It's a girl!" and I choked back a sob. While traipsing through dozens of stores and trying on scads of dresses, I relived so many exquisite moments with my own mother, but this time I enjoyed sitting back in wonder at this creation of mine as she searched for the perfect dress. It was with a grateful exhale that the uniform of jeans, solid colored t-shirt and hoodie of fifth and sixth grade morphed into a more sophisticated and (thank you, God) conservative slant toward fashion. And gratefully, it's a return to all things feminine and...

Her friends are adorable. Their words and actions are unfiltered around me, which is the greatest compliment a mother of a teenager can ever hope to achieve.
I love them like they are family, and tell them to grab a broom when they spill or break things. Which happens often. My own klutzy daughter attracts the same in her friends.

I'm growing accustomed to the challenges that living with a teenager brings. The eye rolls, the surly attitude, the exasperating sighs, the defensive posturing on my nearly forty years of life experience. I am truly learning the art of patience and battle choosing. Learning to give a little or a lot of latitude, depending on the importance of the issue. And in some cases? No latitude at all.

But despite the constant push/pull between mother and teenager, she talks to me. So far, about almost anything and everything. And I always answer honestly. To her, I will always Genuinely Speak.

And I'm grateful, and blessed, and confident that God has her heart. She was also confirmed in May.

We are not big on birthday parties around here. Or on 8th Grade "Promotion" parties. But on Confirmations? We go this huge.

Family and friends joined us to celebrate this amazing young woman as she pledged to have a lifelong relationship with Christ.

She may have perfected the art of eye rolling and mastered the skill of keeping a room messy,

but she also steals my heart every day and makes me very, very proud to call her Daughter.