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Legends of the North

Legends of the North is a collection of short stories about people that I have met throughout the years. Most of these are people I have met through hunting, but not all of them. These are people who have had an impact on my life one way or another. These people are giants, not only because they hunt or hunted as the case may be, but because they were giants in the way they conducted and lived their lives. These are the Legends of the North. Enjoy.

Up North

What is Up North? To many, Up North is home. Up North is a place of peace and solitude, a place that no matter where you go it’s always great to come home to. To many more, it’s an unattainable dream. Up North is the someday that never comes. Up North doesn’t get under your skin, it becomes embedded in soul. It never leaves you. No matter where you go, no matter how far you travel you can never escape it, you can never run away from it. You are haunted by the north. Up North becomes something you crave. You dream about being Up North, you can smell the pines, the fresh grass, the dampness and you can see and feel the snow on your face. You can’t run away from it. The longer you stay away, the more you can feel your heart being torn from your chest. In times of great stress, you go away in your mind and you’re there. Up North is a fabled place, it’s magic.

Up North is the land of Friday Night Fish Fry and Saturday Night Steak Fry. It is the land of deer, black bear and walleye. Up North is what is greatest about this nation. The lakes, the forest, the people all come about as if they were the only thing the God put on earth that turned out the way he wanted it to.

My first trip Up North came right after Thanksgiving Dinner when I was sixteen. My step-father’s brother Art was over for dinner and afterwards he was headed to Ely Minnesota to go snowmobiling and asked if I wanted to come. The snowmobiles were provided for us by Ski Doo. Art owned a local newspaper and he was going to do a story on them. (This became a life long addiction, i.e. reporting on manufacturers to get free stuff).

"Yeah." It was the only answer a sixteen year old kid would give. Art suffered more from wanderlust than any man I had met or have met in the forty plus years since then.

We left right after dinner for my first real adventure and my first trip Up North. First stop, Janesville Wisconsin to top off the gas tank and get a cup coffee. The stories that Art told sounded great. I was most interested in the bridge that went over Lake Superior that connected Superior Wisconsin and Duluth Minnesota; Art claimed it was the coldest place on earth.

We drove through a snow storm I slept through most of the way. (A habit I still have to this day, if I’m not driving I fall asleep immediately). I was awakened from my sleep when I felt as if I had just been thrown in icy water. I looked at Art and asked if we were on the bridge. He wasn’t kidding, it was freezing over the bridge, a warm car turned ice cold and the windows iced up. When we got off the bridge, we were in Minnesota, Ely just a few more hours away.

We were feted by the Ely Chamber of Commerce. I got to hang out with some kids from the local college and I was given a Ski Doo Élan to use. It was decided that while the rest of our party would go to Canada through the Boundary Water, I didn’t have enough experience on a snow mobile to make that kind of trip. I was left to my own devices and my Ski Doo Élan. I was off on my own adventure.

All went pretty well until I found a series of clear hills, not a tree in sight. After struggling through the woods and getting the hang of the Élan, these hills were a welcome sight. So, off I go, the Élan opened full blast giving all she had and me going up and down the hills. All was going great.

The thing you should know about clear hills in the middle of a northern forest is that they are not a natural occurrence. This was something that had escaped my sixteen year old pea size brain. Well, while going up a set of these beautiful hills going full throttle, a group of down hill skiers had the audacity to be using my new found private playground. Well, the results were not quite as comical then as they are now forty some years later (I hope the statute of limitations has expired). I made a clumsy maneuver turning to the right and the entire line of fledgling skiers all hit the snow. You can only imagine the foul mouths these skiers had; they would have made a drunken sailor blush.

What a trip. I was totally free for the first time in my life. I got to become good friends with Point Beer and the local college crowd and Art met his second wife. Ah, it was great!

Well, we stop off at a cheese factory on the way home. I was forever hooked on Up North. In March, we took the entire family back to Ely to do some snowmobiling in the heavy spring snow. I got my first look at a deer yard on that trip. A few years later my step-father, Art and I went on another post-Thanksgiving trip to Ely. This time it was a muzzleloader deer hunt just south of the Red Lake Indian Reservation. About that same time, I took a trip to Lakeland Wisconsin. We ate at a place called Paul Bunyan’s and I had discovered Minocqua. It would be two decades before I returned, but the place never left me. It stayed with me forever.

In the 90’s, I became a regular to Minocqua. I hunted and spent time each year at a family reunion and toward the end, I was Up North once a month. These trips Up North were fabled. What a time.

I guess the best part about Up North, and this is saying a lot, there is just so much about Up North, is the people. The people there carry the warmth and honesty you find throughout the Mid-West. You will spend most of your life sorting through small, petty, jealous people. I guess I would have to say my biggest disappointments in life are the people I have met. I really prefer dogs, particularly Golden Retrievers. The people Up North also carry a strength about them that so few others have. It comes, I believe, from the fact that they have to be more self reliant, it’s the winters that give them their strength and appreciation of what God has given them.

In “The Legends of the North”, the giants you will read about are mostly people from Up North. Knowing these people has made me better than I would have been without them. Finally, after many years and some rough scrapes along the way, when it was time for me to get back on track, it took a recent trip back Up North to get me setup right again.

The sights, the smells, the food are all the same. Yes, there were some changes, some new businesses, some more people, however the essence was the same. It’s as if the entire place had been frozen in time. People who were just small children are now adults and it is now their time. Yes, there are some small changes, but basically the stories remain the same. Tales of deer and bear hunts (you can now throw turkey into the mix) and tales of the latest Packer happenings. A new generation is taking the lead. In this place however, unlike many places you hear about where the new generation is unlike the old, the essence of the place stays the same. You have the same values, the same beliefs. Life goes on and, at least for another generation, the lifestyle is saved.

I remember talking to another guy from Chicago over twenty years ago. He stated that he moved Up North so that his kids would have a better place to live. Today he has a son, the son hunts, and a daughter who is married to a soldier, who is now overseas.

A new generation has arrived. A generation that will make their own mark on this world, but their values have been instilled. A better job was done here than in most areas across the country, where you find it so hard to recognize one generation from the next. Perhaps it’s the winters, perhaps it’s the semi-isolation, maybe it’s just a stronger family bond that is so common here and in other rural areas. Never the less, the beliefs and moral values still are here.

It is hard to answer the question, what is Up North. It is so many different things and as such it means different things to different people. Whatever your reasons are for your attachment to Up North or Welcome to the Lake, I hope you enjoy reading these short stories and I hope you enjoy the recipes.

Finally, you can know that there is such a place that you and your ideas still fit in. In a nation in which so much has changed that your world seems to be shrinking, there is still Up North. It carries with it all the magic of the old movie Brigadoon.


The Last Pivo

Throughout the course of our lives we meet or get to know many people. Most of these people are only acquaintances. Most people you meet as an adult rarely become friends. They are associates you meet either through work, play, politics or church. We build relationships for one reason or another, when that part of our life is done these relationships die a slow quiet death. They just fade into our past.

Sometimes though we meet people that may be in our lives for a very short time, they however leave a profound impact on us. Some for the good, some for the bad, how we deal with these people dictate the type and quality of the life we live. Wenzel was that type of person.

Wenzel was a working class man who lived in the same house in Rhinelander Wisconsin all his adult live. In that house he stayed married to the same woman, until she died of cancer. They raised four children, attended their local Catholic Church every Sunday. All of this was financed from the same job at the mill that he worked all of his adult life.

Wenzel loved his family, deer hunting, Friday night fish fry, Saturday night steak fry, he enjoyed walleye, a good Old Fashion and the occasional beer. You know Wenzel, he’s the guy who lived next door to you, your best friend’s father or grandfather.

Wenzel carried himself with a class and dignity that was common among his WWII generation. These people where giants not small petty people like so many people you meet today. Wenzel may have worked in a mill but when he went out or to church he dressed impeccably. He looked a lot like film director Otto Preminger and carried himself with that type of class.

The story goes that Wenzel and his wife hung out with three other couples. In their forties the men decided to stop smoking, they all lived into their 80s. The women all kept smoking and all four women died in their 50s. Wenzel had to sit helplessly as his wife and love of his life died the terrible death of cancer. He got to know first-hand the ravages of cancer.

Like so many of that heroic generation Wenzel recovered. He kept his house neat and clean. He kept himself well groomed and well dressed, the complete picture of class and dignity. He always kept plenty of dessert and coffee on hand. “Coffee and” was a big part of that generation. Even though Wenzel was now a widower there would be no slipping in the protocol of his life. All would continue on as they did before, as they should. After some years Wenzel had a lady friend who stayed with him until his death. He lived in his house, she lived in her house. Appearances and protocol always the hallmark of his life.

In all things Wenzel was a joy to be around. He was the type of man that we would all do well to emulate. His life was full, but it was a simple life. He lived a good life.

My lesson from Wenzel was in his death. I was in Minocqua deer hunting on Thanksgiving when we received a call that Wenzel was in the hospital with some type of stomach ailment. We went to visit him and with his family around him, he told us that the doctors wanted him to transfer to a larger hospital on Monday for more tests.

At that hospital the doctors diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer. Wenzel never broke stride he handled this problem with the same dignity that he had conducted his entire life. He asked the doctors if there was anything that they could do for him, or was he just going to die like his wife did. The doctors were honest with him. They told him he was terminal.

Wenzel's response was simple and straight forward. He was going home. He had a little money and his house. What he had he had worked hard to get and he was not going to give it to the doctors, Wenzel has going to give it intact to his children.

So started the visitation of Wenzel; we traveled from Chicago’s southern suburbs every other weekend to Rhinelander. The last weekend I saw Wenzel was the weekend before Palm Sunday. He seemed more chipper then he had been, he wanted to stay up and see and take in everything. I was drinking Leinenkugel Red and talking with Wenzel, he seemed mesmerized by the beer and finally said “God that looks good” and finally asked if he could have a drink. I said sure let me get you one. “Oh no I couldn’t drink a whole one just go get me a juice glass from the cabinet and let me have a little”.

I got the juice glass and filled it up with the Leinies. He held it up to the light and checked the beers color and clarity. He smelled the beer and took a small sip and swished it around in his mouth like many people do a fine wine or brandy. Then he smiled and said “God that’s good”. He continued to sip the beer and began to tell me about his grandfather.

His grandfather came to Wisconsin in the late 1800s from Czechoslovakia and really enjoyed his pivo. Unlike most Europeans, Wenzel's grandfather liked his pivo cold. He had built a cabin on an underground stone foundation, giving him a basement. On his property was a stream which he had dug a trench from to his foundation. He laid a pipe through the foundation, built a trough around the basement walls and the water from the stream ran around the trough and back out another pipe. This kept his pivo, meat, cheese and other perishables cold.

As Wenzel finished the story he held his glass of beer back up to the light for one last final look, swirled it around one more time and than drink the rest of the beer, “ah good cold pivo”.

I asked Wenzel if he wanted another beer and he said “no that little bit of beer made him light headed and he didn’t want to fall asleep”. In spite of his wanting to stay out of bed a little longer he decided the pivo had got the best of him and he needed to take a nap.

On Sunday we left to go back to Chicago and made plans to come back on Easter that never happened. The following Saturday night had been a bad night for Wenzel. He died late Saturday or early Palm Sunday morning.

Wenzel died as he lived, on his own terms, in his own bed, in his own house. A death befitting the good life that he had lived.

Some time later I moved to Las Vegas and in those years you couldn’t get Leinies in Vegas. As the years went by I went back to Wisconsin to deer hunt with Wenzel’s son-in-law. I flew into Minneapolis, rented a car to drive to Wausau. I waited until I crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin and stopped by a small restaurant. I order a brat with kraut and a Leinies Red and I cheered Wenzel.