A 400-pound crocodile is glaring at me 15 feet away with its razor sharp teeth on display. A cunning predator, the crocodile has the strongest jaws on the planet with a biting force of 5,000 pounds per inch.
“Crocs can jump through the air faster than you can blink,” says my guide, Jim Willcox.
I am miles away from civilization, in the upper reaches of a narrow river channel winding through the jungle, as Willcox whispers these comforting words. Today I have spotted birds I never knew existed, and caught five types of fish I’ve never before seen.
Now I lock eyes with the crocodile and wonder, for the first time during this extreme fishing pursuit, if I am perhaps no longer the predator.
It feels as though I am in the Amazon, or maybe on the Nile River, fishing in a foreign world where crocodiles are kings––they have been known to attack great white sharks––and every cast holds the promise of catching something bizarre. Instead, I am only 80 miles south of Miami, fishing in the Florida Everglades with a man many say is the best guide in the business.
And while reaching Captain Jim Willcox was easy and inexpensive compared to the travel required for equal adventures in far-flung parts of the world, our journey since leaving the dock in Islamorada, Florida, has not been void of danger. “He died this spring,” Willcox says, nodding to a memorial photo pinned to a mangrove tree along the channel. “Lost control of his boat. They found his boat way up in the mangrove trees with the motor still running 90 minutes after the crash.”
We are lucky on this October morning. Calm wind makes it possible to run some 30 miles in Willcox’s 18-foot Action Craft boat to leave behind the Atlantic Ocean, cut through the Gulf of Mexico and sneak up into the bowels of the Everglades. At full throttle, Willcox’s 150-horsepower Yamaha propels his boat on plane so he can fly through water just 12 inches deep. Nonetheless, it is critical that we pay attention to the tide or we will get trapped up in a narrow channel that held water when initially motored through but recedes into a mud bank by the end of low tide.
“There’s no cell phone reception here,” Willcox says. “People get stuck and you’re not going anywhere until the next day.”
In a sense, Willcox has been trapped by the region for more than two decades. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, cheering for the Eagles and driving 90 minutes to the East Coast when he wanted to fish for marlin and tuna. He came to Bud N’ Mary’s marina in Islamorada one December with his dad and fell in love with fishing in the Keys.
For the next 12 years, Willcox came to Islamorada each December with his 13-foot Boston Whaler and fished every day for a month straight. The unique beauty and diverse fishery captivated him so intensely that he couldn’t leave, so Willcox made the leap to move 1,300 miles south to become a full-time fishing guide.
“I could never do a corporate job and work for some stiff in a suit,” said Willcox, now in his 15th year operating his Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. “I report to the Everglades now.”
It appears fishing and guiding is what Willcox was born to do. He has won numerous fishing tournaments, been featured in big-time publications ranging from The Washington Post to Field & Stream, and has starred in television shows on ESPN, Versus and The Weather Channel.
“Jim is a natural for TV,” said Terry Boeder, a producer for North American Fisherman-TV (NAF-TV) who has filmed numerous fishing shows with Willcox. “His excitement and enthusiasm for the keys is 100 percent authentic.”
This past summer, Boeder’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and he wanted to do something special for them. Try not to hate him for it, but Boeder gets to fish all over the country with the top guides while producing shows for NAF-TV. When it came time to decide who he should hire to take his parents out for a memorable anniversary, the decision was easy.
“I picked Islamorada for my parents’ 50th anniversary because of Jim,” Boeder said. “He introduced my parents to all the beautiful things the area has to offer. They had never been to the Keys, and because of Jim, they are making plans to come back.”
I can understand why Boeder picked Willcox. If I exclude a couple local guide-buddies from the equation to remove any biases, I have to say Willcox is hands-down the best guide I’ve ever fished with––and the most fun.
Incidentally, I first heard about Willcox during an episode of NAF-TV that Boeder filmed. In the show, Willcox and his guest boated a monstrous, 14-foot-long sawfish. The footage is incredible––watch the action on Willcox’s website and you’ll understand why ancient people believed in sea monsters.
“I fish 9 days a week,” Willcox quips, conservatively putting the estimate at 250 days a year. He’s mastered a 40-mile radius of ocean and Everglade water, and narrates every twist and turn so I can begin to appreciate this powerful environment.
He knows this water like the back of his hand. As soon as we reach our spot and start pitching jigs to mangrove trees we start catching fish. I’ve never before caught a redfish, but 30 seconds into fishing I’m reeling one in. My excitement grows as I cast back out and just as quickly get another bite, this time only to discover another new species for me: a snook.
From then on, the action was fast and furious with both quantity and quality fish. Big mangrove snappers, sheepshead, catfish, more snook and lots of bruiser redfish up to 14 pounds––fish that give a heck of a fight on 15-pound braided line. We also saw countless birds ranging from hawks to spoonbills, as well as sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, manatees and that up-close-and-personal crocodile.
In fact, it is the wildlife and the wild scenery that most amaze me on this adventure. Where else in the U.S. can you have an experience like this? No wonder Willcox’s clients rave about him.
“Jim can stop his boat in the middle of nowhere, drop in a few lines and pull out dozens of a specific type of fish,” says Matt Waddell, of White Plains, New York, who visits Islamorada annually for guided outings with Willcox. “Then he’ll motor for a while, stop somewhere else, and you start catching dozens of some totally different type of fish.”
Waddell brought his 12-year-old son out fishing with Willcox as a birthday present to the boy. After catching mackerel, blue fish, redfish, snapper, snook and trout, Waddell’s son caught a large shark.
“As a dad, there’s nothing like seeing the pure joy of your 12-year-old reeling in fish after fish and then catching this huge shark,” Waddell recalls. “Those trips are also a chance for me to bond with my sons with no video games, no phones and no TV. We just talk about what’s going on in life, but it’s not heavy or uncomfortable because they’re so excited about the fishing.”
“Jim is great with kids,” Waddell said. “He engages with them really well, and he subtly teaches them without patronizing them.”
Willcox gets to see childlike excitement from many of his clients throughout the day; it’s what he loves most about guiding.
“Guiding gives me a chance to spend every day in this wilderness,” he said. “And it’s awesome to introduce people to the Everglades and see them freak out. They get so excited by the entire experience––seeing that is a rush for me.”
Capt. Jim Willcox operates Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. His website is www.ultimatekeysfishing.com. To contact Jim, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305-393-1128.
You can still see the affects of Hurricane Wilma (2005) in much of the region. The two trees on the point in the photo below seem like the inspration for the song "Lean on Me." The Gulf of Mexico is in the background.
These two members of the Audobon Society were catching baitfish to gauge how the bird population would fare in the months ahead. Lots of bait means lots of birds.
Below, Capt. Jim Willcox noticed birds concentrated in this area, so we boated over and threw out a net, figuring the birds were hovering over baitfish.
The net was so heavy Willcox could barely haul it in. (I almost had to put down my camera and help). We used these pilchards for bait the rest of the day.
At the fish cleaning station back at the marina, dozens of tarpon gathered to snatch up our fish guts. Half a dozen sharks joined them. It's difficult to gauge the perspective in this photo because there are so many huge fish here, but the majority of these tarpon ranged from 25 to 75 pounds, with several over 100.
After our day in the Everglades, we stopped in the Atlantic Ocean for an hour and caught a ton of mangrove snappers, pictured above and below. Willcox directed us to a local restaurant that night that cooked our fillets in four different, delicious ways.
What a day! It had the perfect ending, fresh fish at a restaurant on the beach, and the perfect beginning: a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic, pictured below.
Sometimes Mother Nature surprises you. She displays herself in shapes and forms you didn’t think possible on this planet. Such was the case on the remote Isle of Skye, in the far highlands of Scotland where my wife and I discovered natural beauty in ways we never knew existed.
Our hiking excursion in this less-visited region of Scotland delighted us to the point of “stealing the show” as the final leg of our European excursion. We had toured the highlights of Ireland for a week, then jumped the pond to Scotland to see The Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle, then drove a half-day to reach this unusual expanse, and immediately realized the splendor of the Scottish highlands is truly unparalleled.
The base camp for our hiking adventure, Letterfinlay Lodge Hotel, turned out to be a hidden gem itself. It’s perched precariously on the banks of Loch Lochy, in the heart of the “outdoor capital of the U.K.” In fact, the tallest mountain on the British Isles, Ben Nevis, is just 12 miles from Letterfinlay, which opened as a hunting and fishing lodge in 1957.
Ian Smith bought the property five years ago and succeeded at upgrading the accommodations without losing any of the lodge’s original charm. In fact, while the magnificent view from the deck (pictured below) is my favorite physical feature of the lodge, its faint, old-school lodge smell is a close second.
“I love the feel of this place,” I said to my wife one evening as we enjoyed a pre-dinner drink on Letterfinlay’s panoramic Osprey sun deck. It was one of those vague statements you make when you’re charmed by the spirit of a quaint lodge but can’t quite find the words to express what you’re getting at.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Jodie responded immediately. “If we lived here [in Scotland], I could see us coming to this place every year for vacation.”
In fact, Letterfinlay does hold the distinction of being the secret little place where “the locals” go on their vacations.
“The hotel has an amazing setting on the banks of Loch Lochy surrounded by some of our country's stunning mountains,” said Claire, of Falkirk, Scotland, via TripAdvisor. “We ate in the hotel both nights and the food was perfect and the staff service was superb. This is a small hotel with a big heart. We really cannot recommend this gem highly enough and we look forward to getting the chance to go back!”
Letterfinlay features 14 rooms, a dining room and bar, and a comfortable lounge complete with a dart board and billiards table. A friendly atmosphere permeates all parts of the lodge (they even welcome dogs in select rooms) and we enjoyed walking the halls and gazing at trophy fish photos and mounted stags adorning the walls.
The staff is fantastic. Lindsey was our favorite, a local lassie in her young 20s who was full of energy and offered us practical tips on everything from what to order for breakfast (we liked how she called French toast “eggy bread”) and where to explore.
The staff also accommodates weddings, offering guests the chance to rent out the entire lodge and have a private party.
“Every couple wants their wedding to be perfect and ours was just that,” said Sam, of Edinburgh, Scotland, via TripAdvisor. “Letterfinlay, with its charm and character, was the ideal place for our wedding ceremony and photos. It was a delight to work with such a professional and courteous staff who was able to ensure that every detail was taken care of.”
The detail that drove us to stay at Letterfinlay is its unbeatable location. It’s a four hour drive from the nation’s famous capital city, Edinburgh, where the majority of tourists stay for their entire time in Scotland. From Letterfinlay, you’re then just two hours away from the mystical Isle of Skye.
Until recently the unspoiled island was only accessible by boat, but the construction of the Skye Bridge offers a lovely drive that will doubtlessly take you longer than MapQuest suggests, due to the frequent photo opportunities (such as the one pictured below) that demand you pull over.
We left Letterfinlay at 5:30 the morning of our Skye expedition and headed straight to The Old Man of Storr on the northern part of the island, known as the Trotternish Peninsula. The 19-mile long peninsula is the highest point of the island; The Old Man of Storr is a bizarre rock formation at the peninsula’s peak that stands 160-feet tall and towers over The Sound of Raasay.
Skye means “cloudy” in Old Norse, but we were blessed with a rain-free morning and made our ascent up the mountain-side with dry footing and relatively clear skies. The views were spectacular. Skye is sparsely populated––the 600-mile island is said to have more sheep than people––and our early start allowed us to have The Old Man to ourselves. We reached the summit without seeing another soul, hiking alone with the mountain goats.
Photos don’t do this natural treasure justice, but I had to try. At one point the wind nearly blew my tripod and camera over, and I leapt from my pose, several feet away, just in the nick of time to save my Nikon from a premature and rocky death.
As we were about to begin our descent I turned to my wife and said, “Wait. Let’s just stand here another few minutes in silence.”
I am so grateful we paused. Moments like that are hard to come. You only have so many instances in life when Earth’s rugged beauty knocks you over and leaves you gasping for air. When it happens, you want to soak up every ounce of it.
After conquering The Old Man of Storr, we made our way north to The Quiraing, stopping along the way at Kilt Rock waterfall. The 200-foot-tall sea cliff, so named due to its resemblance to a Scotsman’s tartan kilt, has a layer of volcanic rock with vertical lava columns that look like pleats.
The Quiraing presented us with a new hiking challenge, and while it was less vertically challenging than The Old Man of Storr, its views were equally stunning.
We peered down at the dramatic, jagged northern end of the Trotternish Peninsula and identified each of The Quiraing’s famous rock formations: The Table, The Prison and The Needle.
If I saw the terrain in a movie I’d think for sure it was made up for dramatic effect, but sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and Mother Nature surprises me in ways I didn’t think possible.
I love it when she does.
How beautiful is Letterfinlay Lodge and its surrounding area? Well, one evening we were driving back to the lodge from nearby Fort William and got a "wee bit" lost. Our GPS took us through some tiny dirt road barely wide enough for one car, nonetheless two-way traffic. Tourists would never drive on this road, intentionally. Sheep were running ahead of us as we passed the driveways and houses of several local farmers. Suddenly we came around a turn and saw this view:
We also enjoyed the drive back to Letterfinlay from the Island of Skye. To reach the island, we took the bridge, but on the return trip we took a different route via a ferry. The next two photos came in the parking lot while we were waiting for the ferry:
Of course, it is the views from The Old Man of Storr and The Quiraing that remain most vividly imprinted in my mind.
I am balancing on a 12-foot, wooden paddle board armed with an oversized kayak paddle I used to propel myself away from the jungle island and into the Atlantic Ocean when I notice a shark swimming 30 yards behind me. Ahead of me I see nothing but azure water so I do the only thing that comes to mind: I wobble down to my knees to untie the fishing pole I have strapped to my board and cast out in the direction of the unmistakable fin.
The shark is oblivious to my first two casts, but on the third cast she catches the scent of the shrimp I’m using for bait and charges after it. I wind faster. This angers her; she accelerates with remarkable speed to close the gap between her teeth, my bait and me.
I’m quickly running out of space––I have wound in nearly all my line and the chase is still on. I lower my rod tip into the water and whip it to the back of the board to keep my bait in motion when––BANG––the shark annihilates my bait 18 inches in front me! The shark strike creates a surface explosion like a cannonball hitting the water.
My pole is instantly doubled over from the weight of the sea creature, which spins 180 degrees with a splash of its tail and races off into the depths of the Atlantic with me now in tow behind her.
An Island Oasis
As thrilling as it was, the shark escapade was just one episode of a surreal sequence of adventures my wife and I experienced at Little Palm Island Resort & Spa near the Florida Keys, a private, 5-acre island resort miles off-shore from the southernmost tip of the United States.
At Little Palm Island, breathtaking moments seem as common as palm trees. Just 12 hours before the shark encounter, Jodie and I feasted on a tikki torch-lit, five-course dinner on the beach with a personalized menu congratulating us on our 4th wedding anniversary and a pianist playing in the background. Less than 90 minutes after the shark, we were pampered beyond belief for two hours with an ancient Indonesian ritual known as the Javanese Royal Treatment at Little Palm’s award-winning Spa Terre.
From the instant we arrived until the tragic moment when we had to leave paradise and return to the real world, it was abundantly clear why Little Palm Island is routinely named one of the best resorts on the planet.
We left our car and main-land mentality behind at Little Palm’s welcome station near Key West, then enjoyed a 15-minute cruise onboard a 1930s-style motor boat to reach the private island. We had taken no more than four steps on the landing dock when Renda, a blonde from Ohio who fell in love with the island a decade ago and is now a Little Palm Island manager, called out to us: “Welcome! You must be Tony and Jodie! The staff will take your bags. Come with me, I’ll give you a tour of the island.”
We smiled in awe of the path Renda led us down––a West-facing dining room on the edge of the beach; a sequestered pool shaded by giant palm trees next to an outdoor bar; a marina with kayaks, paddle boards and motorboats for us to use whenever we wanted; a rustic library with a take-a-book, leave-a-book policy as well as the only TV on the island; an over-size chess board beside the trail to a plush spa; a Zen garden and a gazebo overlooking the ocean; and, finally, at the far corner of the island, our romance suite: a thatched-roof bungalow on the water complete with our own fire-pit, deck, outdoor Jacuzzi and open-air bamboo shower.
We followed Renda into the suite. After we passed through the living room and bathroom (which also had an indoor shower and a soaking tub), we made our way into the master bedroom––featuring a curtained canopy bed and vaulted ceiling––and noticed our luggage tucked carefully in the closet. We had arrived more than 5 hours ahead of check-in time yet Little Palm was ready to welcome us into its island oasis.
In the weeks prior to our arrival, Little Palm Island––named the No. 1 beach resort in the U.S. by Travel & Leisure––had welcomed guests from England, France, Germany, Sweden and Dubai. The resort features 30 isolated bungalows, each designed for two guests.
“The reason we’re consistently voted one of the top hotels in the world is because we truly embrace our mantra, ‘Get Lost,’” said Matt Trahan, the regional managing director of Little Palm Island’s parent company, Noble House Hotels & Resorts. “Guests get to disconnect from the real world and re-connect with each other, and the island has a very peaceful vibe in the lap of luxury.”
It’s a vibe similar to that found in the South Pacific or West Indies, and as amazed as I am that such a luxurious, jungle-island paradise exists anywhere on earth, I am almost equally surprised that all I had to do to reach it was jump on a plane to Miami and drive a couple hours.
“Many people think that the serene ambiance of Little Palm can only be found thousands of miles away,” Trahan said. “With only 30 suites on a 5-acre island, privacy and solitude are definite. Of course, there are many activities to do, from deep-sea fishing to sea plane tours.”
Not only was the staff ready to welcome us to Little Palm Island, so, too, were the fish. After checking in, we immediately went to the beach and while Jodie laid down to soak up the sun, I grabbed a fishing pole and some shrimp from the dockhand and cast out. Ten seconds later, I had caught my first-ever saltwater fish, a jack.
The very next cast yielded another species I had never before seen or caught: a mackerel. Half an hour of such fast action inspired us to take out one of the Boston Whaler boats available for guests to use. Having never before fished in the ocean, it was exhilarating to cruise around by ourselves on an 85-degree sunny day and haul in fish after fish––mutton snapper, mackerel, grouper, snook, jack, yellow tail snapper, bluefish and mangrove snapper. The non-stop action, combined with the beauty of the island, made it easy to see why Little Palm Island was once a popular fishing camp for Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy.
Later in the day we tried paddle boarding for our first time ever and loved it. You stand aboard a thick, surfboard-esqe device and row yourself forward with an extra long kayak oar. It’s surprisingly easy to move fast on a paddle board, though we quickly discovered our preferred mode of transportation on a paddle board was to lie down on the board, look out at the horizon and let the wind blow.
The wind was also our fuel the next day for another unforgettable adventure at Little Palm Island: a day of private sailing aboard the LilyAnna, a beautiful, 38-foot Admirable-class Catamaran. Neither Jodie nor I had ever been sailing, and it turns out we picked a Rolls Royce for our first drive. The LilyAnna, built in Cape Town, South Africa, is sleek, smooth and superbly comfortable.
We sailed out to Hog Reef, arguably the top diving destination in the U.S., and snorkeled among hundreds of fish on a pristine reef in a protected sanctuary. We have snorkeled in hot-spots such as Cozumel and Hawaii, and this site blew both places out of the water.
Willie and Mike made the adventure even more fun. They’re the perfect companions for a day sail––quick to laugh, full of interesting sea stories, and eager to serve. “If you need anything don’t get up, just wave your hand in the air,” Mike instructed us as we laid at the front of the vessel polishing off our complimentary bottle of wine.
For the heck of it, we trolled a couple Rapala X-Rap Magnums on the way back to the island and promptly hooked a barracuda, a goliath grouper, and an enormous jack. I have to say, life is pretty good when you’re sailing on the Atlantic Ocean on a sunny afternoon with your beautiful wife on a beautiful ship, listening to Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry About a Thing.”
Dining in Paradise
While I was drawn to Little Palm Island for a Robinson Crusoe-style tropical adventure, I have to admit when it came to food I wasn’t exactly scouring through the jungle trying to live off the land. In fact, the resort's famous dining room was created by the award-winning Chef Luis Pous, who is widely admired for developing the island’s signature Pan-Latin cuisine.
His Cuban heritage and love of the Caribbean have inspired him to create unique dishes such as Foie Gras Cuban sandwiches and Key West lobster with apple, truffle, tarragon and Key Lime risotto. The food itself is delicious, but the restaurant’s setting makes everything taste that much better. Jodie and I sat mere feet from the ocean and enjoyed a perfect view of the sunset.
We opened the menu and, by the light of the tikki torches, saw a shocking headline at the top of the menu: “Happy 4th Anniversary Mr. and Mrs. Capecchi.” Back at Little Palm’s welcome station on the mainland, a greeter checking us in before the boat ride had asked if there was any special occasion that brought us to Little Palm. Jodie had responded casually: “No, not really, but we’re kind of celebrating our anniversary.”
Now, as a result of that one comment, here we were looking at a personalized menu! In fact, even the banana split I ordered for dessert was adorned with a chocolate “Happy Anniversary” wish.
With personal touches like that, it’s no wonder why guests return to Little Palm Island as if it’s a religious pilgrimage. One couple was married at Little Palm Island 17 years ago (the island offers a wedding coordinator among its 110-person staff and celebrates 30 weddings a year) and has returned every year since. In 2014, the couple plans to bring their twin daughters to celebrate their birthday with a Sweet Sixteen celebration on the beach.
I’d be remiss in discussing food at Little Palm without mentioning breakfast. It is an experience unto itself. The evening prior, you check what items you want on the menu, as well as what time you want your breakfast delivered. Then you place the menu in your bamboo mailbox outside your bungalow. While you’re sleeping, a staff member takes the menu and next thing you know there’s a knock at your door in the morning and breakfast is served on your private deck overlooking the water.
One morning while devouring French toast, eggs over easy, yogurt with granola and fresh fruit, Jodie and I saw two Key Deer swim over from a nearby island onto Little Palm and walk right in front of us. The endangered deer, which look like miniature whitetails, are very common at Little Palm Island. In fact, we saw multiple deer at close distances every day.
The Royal Treatment
It was about an hour after breakfast that I jumped on the paddle board that fateful morning and encountered my shark. The beast tired, eventually, after peeling out nearly all the line in my reel. It was quite an adrenaline rush to conquer the shark, and I won’t soon forget the view of its dorsal fin slowly sinking away after I released it.
Less than 90 minutes after that primitive adventure, I enjoyed another unique experience at the opposite end of the spectrum: a relaxing couple’s treatment at Little Palm Island’s Spa Terre. After checking in at the main spa center, we were led to an enormous, enclosed garden. We would have this entire, lush space to ourselves––along with our masseuses––for the next two hours.
We underwent Spa Terre’s signature Javanese Royal Treatment, an ancient tradition originating in the palaces of Java, Indonesia. It began with a Balinese massage using Jasmine scented flower oil and culminated with the application of warm yogurt, creating a strangely soothing sensation. We then took an outdoor shower and proceeded to soak in an exotic flower petal bath. It seemed we were in the Orient as we sipped on sweet tea and watched flower petals float around us.
Finally, we went back into the massage room and had Jasmine scented lotion applied to us by the skillful masseuses. For the first time in several days, I smelled like neither fish nor shrimp––a fact my wife greatly appreciated.
The aptly named treatment we received at the spa truly epitomized the royal treatment Little Palm Island lavished on us throughout our remarkable stay. Patricia Shultz spotlighted the resort in her New York Times best-seller, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” calling the island a place “where the first impression is exotic perfection.”
After spending several days at this one-of-a-kind paradise, I can now say that “exotic perfection” is indeed the first and final impression of Little Palm Island.
The website for Little Palm Island Resort and Spa is www.littlepalmisland.com. To contact Little Palm Island, call 800.343.8567 or email email@example.com.
Little Palm Island was named the No. 1 resort in Florida by Conde Naste Traveler.
Spencer, a 15-year-old heron, is the mayor of Little Palm Island. He has reigned over the island for years, and does not let other herons live at Little Palm. Whenever I'd catch a fish, Spencer would come running up to me for his snack. I'd hold out the fish, and Spencer would take it directly out of my hands.
We had a blast taking out the motorboats available for guests to use. Jodie was our fearless captain, and it was exciting to fish off the boat and catch all sorts of new species. I also discovered that fishing on a paddle board is one of the most intimate ways to interact with the ocean and its creatures.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, "There is no way in which a man can deserve a sunset." I have to agree.
Of all the ways to enjoy the great outdoors, running has always struck me as the most painful.
I love canoeing, kayaking, hiking and biking, but the mere thought of running leaves me gasping for air. Despite that, I will be outside running on Saturday, Oct. 12 and venture to say that you, dear reader, should do the same.
Allow me to explain.
My good friend, Matt Zechmann, 29, is battling an exceptionally rare, life-threatening form of cancer which has no known consistent cures. It’s called a Desmoid tumor, and because it is so rare––only two out of every million Americans are diagnosed with it each year––there is absolutely no government funding available to fund research for its cure.
Rather than idly accept his unfortunate fate, Matt decided to organize a fundraiser 5K Run/Walk to raise money to help Matt and others who share his frightening prognosis. The first-annual “Desmoid Dash” will take place at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights on Saturday, Oct. 12 at 9am.
I’m lucky to be a journalist. I talk with folks from all walks of life and in the course of doing so I meet some pretty remarkable people. But I don’t need to look any farther than my old high-school buddy Matt to be inspired.
Matt was diagnosed with a Desmoid tumor in 2009, after being violently ill off and on for roughly a year. Matt, who competes in national BBQ and rib competitions and had previously been a loyal friend to food of all sorts, suddenly couldn’t keep any food down. Doctors said it was digestive issues or acid reflux––one doctor saw the rapid weight loss and near-daily vomiting and wondered if Matt was bulimic. But his mother, Sue, knew it was something more severe and was relentless in pursuing the true answer.
Finally, the tumor was discovered, yet nothing could be done. The tumor was wrapped around critical organs in Matt’s abdomen, making surgery incredible risky. One well-respected doctor opened Matt up to attempt to remove the tumor, but quickly aborted surgery and regretfully told the Zechmanns they “would need a wizard” to do the surgery.
“A Desmoid is not hereditary and it is incredibly rare,” explained Matt’s mother, Sue, who has become a passionate advocate for those with Desmoids. “It’s difficult to understand why Matt has been touched by this disease, but we can do our best to help find good medical care for Matt and to advocate for others with Desmoids.”
Sue devoted herself to the cause and found a world-renowned surgeon at the Mayo Clinic––the “wizard” they needed for such an extremely risky operation––and Matt underwent successful surgery in 2010. A year later, however, the tumor returned, as happens with 25 to 40 percent of all Desmoid tumors. Matt has since undergone four rounds of chemotherapy, which have failed to shrink the tumor.
The chemo has done nothing, however, to shrink Matt’s incredibly positive attitude.
“I feel very lucky,” Matt said. “Even with taking chemo and all the negative effects of this tumor, I have many wonderful things going on in my life, including an amazing support system of family and friends.”
According to his family and friends though, Matt is the amazing one.
“Matt has truly made me a better person, and I feel really fortunate that he is my brother,” said his younger sister, Nicole, who is leading the volunteer committee of 20-somethings organizing the Desmoid Dash 5K. “He is an inspiration. I continue to be amazed by his positive attitude and outlook––I’ve always looked up to Matt, but the way he handles this situation has made me recognize even more so what an incredible person my brother is.”
Matt’s mother echoes Nicole’s sentiments.
“Matt doesn’t complain about his plight,” Sue said. “He continues to be himself: a gracious, generous, unassuming and funny guy.”
Putting Others First
A moment that epitomizes Matt's attitude occurred at our mutual friend’s wedding in 2011. Matt and I were sitting around at the groom’s dinner the night before and another good friend of ours asked Matt if everything was OK with his health since his last surgery. Matt lied to us and said yes, everything was good.
We gushed over how happy we were to hear that report; Matt smiled graciously and subtly changed the subject. A few days after the wedding, Matt called me and broke the news: Things were not good. The tumor had returned, and Matt would be forced to undergo chemotherapy.
In fact, Matt had received this devastating diagnosis just days before the wedding, but did not want to cast a shadow over our friend’s big day. Instead he lied and smiled and celebrated the joyous occasion of his friend’s wedding with laughter and dancing.
I am still blown away by how he does it.
Running For More Than Research
The stated goal of the inaugural “Running for Research: The Desmoid Dash” on Oct. 12 is to generate awareness and raise $25,000 to fund research for the disease. If just a few more people donate online or sign up for the 5K the group will hit that $25K goal, but in many ways this race has broader goals.
“At the point we decided to do the 5K, Matt’s health was relatively stable,” his sister Nicole said. “But shortly after we announced the event and began planning it his situation progressively got worse. This event has been a blessing because it gives Matt and me something positive to focus on. Matt was in the hospital the other week for testing, and when I’d go to visit him the first thing he’d ask is, ‘How many people have signed up for the run today?’”
To Matt, each registered runner means another person who cares. “I don’t know how somebody could deal with this disease without the support of the community,” he said.
Folks who love the outdoors will love the 5K’s course; the run will wind around Rogers Lake with fall colors on full display. Sports fans will also find the 5K interesting, with the event starting at St. Thomas Academy’s brand-new athletic center and finishing at the 50-yard-line of what some say is the state’s finest high school football field.
Of course, this 5K isn’t about running, the outdoors or sports.
It’s about helping to save the life of a guy who has already inspired so many others.
Participants can register in advance for the Desmoid Dash 5K at https://www.runtheday.com/registration/race_info/20482 for $25. Online donations can also be made at the website.
The race takes place at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights at 9am next Saturday, Oct. 12. Registration for the 5K is also available on-site prior to the run for $35.
To "Like" the Desmoid Dash Facebook page and show the Zechmanns your support, please visit https://www.facebook.com/DesmoidDash5K
A heart attack killed my grandpa before I was born. When he was among the living Grandpa took my mother, a teenager at the time, on a trip to Tofte to see Lake Superior. Ever since, Mom has considered the North Shore her spiritual birthplace.
So to celebrate my mom’s early retirement I took her back to Tofte to be reunited with Gitche Gumee’s majestic waters. Our home for the weekend was Bluefin Bay, and throughout our adventure we took to heart Bluefin’s motto: “Never miss a wave.”
“Guests are surprised how incredibly close our resort is to Lake Superior,” said Dennis Rysdahl, owner and general manager of Bluefin Bay. “People are stunned by these amazing views of the world’s largest freshwater lake––you can’t get closer to Superior than this.”
Missing a wave was not an option for us. Our beautiful condo sat mere feet from the lake. As soon as we arrived we dropped our bags in the living room and headed straight to our private deck to sit face-to-face with the inland ocean. The sinful 5-chocoloate pie we picked up at Betty’s Pies en route to Tofte tasted that much better with cool lake air rushing against us.
We savored each bite and ate slowly and carefully––it seemed a dropped crumb would fall directly into the lake below us. Had we really been in rush hour traffic in the heart of Minneapolis just four hours ago? If so, we entered a time-warp when we walked through the condo and out to the back deck. The rolling waves of Lake Superior pounding at our doorstep instantly washed away the busyness of the daily grind.
“You feel like you are worlds away,” Rysdahl said. “Bluefin Bay is the perfect antidote to life’s chaos and craziness.”
No wonder guests flock to Bluefin Bay from 47 different states, from Hawaii to Maine, from Florida to California. It is here that you can soak in aura of the world’s largest freshwater lake.
In truth, Mom and I would have been happy had we never strayed from our deck the entire weekend. But retirement doesn’t mean kicking back and relaxing to Mom. It means new adventures and discoveries, and we were in the perfect place for just that.
For the first-time ever, Mom went fishing on Lake Superior, kayaked on the big lake, hiked along Cascade River’s waterfalls, trekked along the Superior Hiking Trail, climbed Oberg Mountain and biked on Gitchi-Gami State Trail. And that was just Saturday alone!
Other days found us summiting Sawtooth Mountain’s Carlton Peak and Britton Peak, exploring for miles along the Temperance River, eating breakfast at sunrise on the rocks of Tofte Park, wading in chilly Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park and hiking at Palisade Head.
We had scoured Bluefin Bay’s website weeks in advance to create an agenda that maximized our time to enjoy the abundant outdoor activities. The resort, which opened in 1984 and hosts a variety of condos, studios and guest rooms, offers complementary shuttles to area trails, 50 road and mountain bikes, canoes, kayaks, guided hiking and biking trips, tennis courts, badminton, bocce ball and––during the winter––snowshoes, cross-country skis, ice skates and an outdoor rink.
Biking and sea kayaking are the two most popular summer and fall activities at Bluefin. Some 1,200 to 1,500 guests try their hand at sea kayaking every year. For Mom, who adores Lake Superior but has never before sat in a kayak, the challenge of kayaking Gitche Gumee was on her bucket list.
Originally, we had signed up for a 3:30 Saturday afternoon guided kayaking excursion knowing we'd be out and about until then. As it turned out, our early Saturday morning fishing excursion in Grand Marais was so successful we caught our keeper fish fast and actually quit several hours early, and after wading along the Cascade River waterfalls for an hour we returned to Bluefin ahead of schedule at 12:22pm.
There was a 12:30 guided kayaking session we switched to and joined at the last second, and we made it out while the lake was still relatively calm. It was a rush to kayak in the massive lake so famous for taking down enormous iron ore ships.
The 3:30 kayaking session we had originally signed up for ended up getting cancelled (well, moved to a smaller, in-land lake) because the wind had kicked up. By luck, we stumbled across the 12:30 session––when kayaking on the big lake was still an option–– with only minutes to spare. I was so grateful we made it out on this adventure because I knew kayaking on Superior was on Mom’s bucket list, and she had graciously gone fishing with me first thing in the morning (when the lake was glass) so I could accomplish a goal of mine: catching a salmon on Lake Superior.
With kayaking done by 3, we then had the rest of the afternoon free to hike Oberg Mountain and revel in her spectacular views. The unfolding of the day's activities epitomizes how serendipitously things worked out throughout our trip––and is also a reminder that on Superior’s shores you can make the best-laid plans but ultimately Mother Nature dictates your schedule as she sees fit.
Some More S’mores?
Before heading to Bluefin’s nightly bonfire on the beach, Mom and I went on a twilight bike ride along the lake that produced my favorite “what did we stumble across here” moment of the trip. We were the only ones on the shore, biking alongside classic rock formations, and the cooling evening air was alive and electric. My words won’t do it justice, but perhaps this photo will paint the picture some.
After dark, we followed our noses to the smell of the bonfire, though we could have just as easily followed our ears––Bluefun Bay hires evening musicians ranging from Bump Blomberg to Barbra Jeans to Bob Bingham (who played for Gordon Lightfoot) to entertain guests. That night a middle-aged musician sat by the fire strumming a guitar and singing soft lullabies to the lake while guests swapped stories of their day’s adventures and bonded over complimentary s’mores.
“Got room for some more s’more people?” asked Mike Storms, 53, as he approached the bonfire. Storms and his wife Kathy were there on their honeymoon. They had met online in what both had apparently vowed was their “last attempt” at online dating.
“We had a campfire and s’mores at our wedding reception,” Storms told the friendly group of fellow vacationers as he assessed his golden-brown marshmallow. “But this is quite the encore. What a setting!”
Indeed, it is a special setting for a wedding or a honeymoon––Bluefin Bay has been voted Best Honeymoon Resort by Minnesota Bride Magazine a staggering seven years in a row. Earlier in the afternoon, we saw a wedding photo shoot take place on the grounds. Bluefin Bay hosts 50 weddings per year; among its 150 staff members is an in-house wedding and event coordinator.
And those who complain that wedding food tends to run on the bland, predictable side (lukewarm chicken and mashed potatoes, anyone?) have obviously never dined at a Bluefin reception before. The resort offers three distinct dining options: Waves of Superior Café, Coho Café and Bakery and The Bluefine Grille, the latter of which offers an extensive wine list and live music.
“At Coho Café and Bakery we make everything from scratch without any preservatives added,” said Diani Dimitrova, Coho Café and Bakery Manager. “We buy local as much as we possibly can for fish, sausage and seasonal produce so everything’s as fresh as it can be.”
My two-cents? There’s a reason Coho Cafe’s homemade specialty pizzas win so many awards; order one and you won’t regret it.
Like Grandfather, Like Grandson
You feel a certain amount of responsibility when you plan a trip for a loved one. I distinctly remember feeling 2-feet tall when an arduous cliff-side mountain hike I took my wife on in Scotland got frightening for her and panic swept across her face.
On the flip side, I can still hear my dad saying, “This is even more beautiful than I thought it would be,” when I took him on the Canadian fly-in fishing adventure he’d always dreamed of going on “someday.”
As Mom and I sat on our private deck at Bluefin Bay one last time before check-out, it was obvious that her retirement trip couldn’t have gone any better. As we looked out at Lake Superior glistening in the sun, Mom told me something I hadn’t heard before: her dad, in the days prior to his sudden and unexpected death at age 46, was planning on taking his family back to Tofte.
Apparently after his death they had found the phone number to some cabin rentals in Tofte along with a few dates scribbled on a sheet of a paper in his briefcase. I never met my grandpa, but here I was taking his daughter on the trip he had planned.
The great lake, for her part, didn’t know that grandpa once walked the shores of Tofte––or even, for that matter, that Mom and I were there that very moment, ourselves irrelevant in the shadow of her 15,000 years.
But that’s OK. We knew.
Bluefin Bay's website is www.bluefinbay.com. For more information, call 1-800-Bluefin (258-3346).