Isaac Novak faced a dilemma. He’d just finished his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, studying physical education and wrestling for the Eagles. A family relative offered him a job, maintaining apartment buildings near school.
Was it time for Novak, who turned 20 Wednesday, to spend his first summer away from his home near Aitkin?
The answer came quickly. A no-brainer, really. Why would he give up another idyllic summer Up North to pay rent 300 miles south in La Crosse?
“There’s not a day I don’t go swimming, wakeboarding or mountain biking,” he said with a shrug.
Don’t get the wrong idea. He’s no slacker. He works weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., fixing boat engines and keeping the watercraft floating on the countless pine-rimmed lakes sprinkled around Brainerd and Crosby.
To make extra money, he sells wood and worms. The firewood business started five years ago when a chimney fire damaged the fireplace at his family’s home, six miles south of Aitkin on Hwy. 169.
With the fireplace on the fritz, they started selling the wood they cut on their 40 acres and no longer needed. But at $3 a bundle, with a can for the money by the highway, they weren’t pulling in enough profits.
“I told him, if you were really ambitious, you’d start selling night crawlers,” said his father, Bernie Novak, the superintendent of schools in Aitkin.
When Bernie was in college at the University of Minnesota-Morris in the early ’80s, he and his buddies picked worms, storing them in their little dirt-filled fridge.
Now, when June rain starts to fall, father and son will be found in the ditches along Hwy. 169 from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., plucking night crawlers delicately between their thumbs and index fingers.
“The sheriff usually pulls over, shines a light down in the ditches and asks what we’re doing,” Bernie said. “ ‘Just collecting night crawlers.’ ”
They sell them for $2 a dozen by the woodpile along the highway at their driveway’s end. “Cheapest place around,” Isaac said. “Some places ask $3.50 for a dozen.”
He said they have a friendly father-son competition to see who can hook the most “doubles,” interlocked worms gently drawn to the surface with the subtle pull of the fingertips.
When his dad first suggested selling worms, Isaac scratched his head.
“That’s crazy. I’d rather sleep.”
But after three summers picking worms from the rain-soaked ditches at midnight with his dad, well, it sure beats managing rental property in Wisconsin.