We were driving somewhere near Gheen, Minn., when it cycled through my iPod.
Both a raggedy and masterful ode to retrospection, The Faces’ “Ooh La La” this time carried more resonance than usual with its wistful refrain: “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.”
A few hours earlier, a shiny aluminum Twin Beech plane had picked up our party of six from a root beer-colored beauty of a lake scooped into the Canadian Shield northwest of Nestor Falls, Ontario. Now, I was staring south, my stomach filled with Tim Horton’s and my mind recalling four and a half days idly split between our island campsite and the 14-foot boats cached there. Also creeping in were the looming realities of a beige (or was it gray?) desk, e-mails and the city’s crush of humanity.
No doubt my 10-year-old son Leo’s own brain pan, tucked beneath a new Northwest Flying cap, entertained competing notions, too, most likely of fifth grade (just two weeks away) and the total awesomeness of bush pilots.
I inferred this from experience. My father and I had been to the same lake together on two previous occasions, the first 35 years earlier when I was Leo’s age. That time, I rode shotgun in a de Havilland Beaver floatplane, seated behind its deafening engine, while the pilot, a former Royal Canadian Air Force flier in a red flannel shirt, manipulated levers and knobs on the Deco-inspired dash, effortlessly guiding us to a speck of water amid an endless maze of blue channels and pine trees 2,000 feet below.
This time Leo had the honors, riding up front with Brett, a 30-something pilot who brought to mind a fit-and-trimmed Father John Misty more so than a clench-jawed bomber pilot duking it out with the Luftwaffe.
Watching Leo rubberneck over the dashboard, I calculated I was now 12 years older than Dad was on that first trip. Quite possibly, Dad was now older than that RCAF vet in 1980. Dad’s brothers from the same trip — hero outdoorsmen to my 10-year-old eyes — were at home, well into their 70s and 80s and battling ill health. My two brothers and brother-in-law now assumed their roles.
Every day Dad insisted on taking the helm for whomever happened to be fishing with him. As if by radar, he paralleled the rocky, lichen-covered shorelines, just as I remembered, twisting awkwardly to reel in a walleye while at the same time keeping the little six-horse motor on course and admiring nature’s own aviation show: the lonely pelican, two swans that performed occasional fly-bys, and a pair of bald eagles that sent a family of loons wailing and diving each time their shadows darkened the water.
Within an hour of arriving, Dad and my brother Jon had met their daily limit. “I’ve never seen Dad so happy,” Jon told me.
It was true. Dad showed a jokester side I hadn’t seen in years. Tickling the nose of my hammock-dozing brother Cody with a leafy birch twig. Guffawing through a 4 a.m. squall that threatened to turn our tents into box kites. Even chuckling when he realized Leo’s tumble into the lake wasn’t serious — on a fly-in, all tumbles are potentially serious — but in fact made comical by my son’s failed attempt to save the bag of sunflower seeds he was holding. (Thank you, Foss Swim School.)
But Dad could also express the glumness for which Finns can be famous. He rued the years he had let pass without revisiting this special place, mistakenly assuming the lake had been closed to overnights (its name had merely been changed). I reminded him he needs to come back in two years when my younger son, Gus, is 10.
When Brett arrived to fly us out, expertly taxiing to shore and to our mound of duffels and Rubbermaid totes, the question arose of who would ride in the cockpit. “I think I’m going to this time, Leo,” Dad said, somewhat apologetically. “Papa may never get back here again.”
A week after Leo and I returned home, in early August, the letter carrier delivered a manila envelope addressed to “Mr. Leo Pernu.” Inside was a stack of photographs, mostly of Leo. “Dear Leo,” Dad wrote in his distinctive hand. “I will always have good memories of our trip. You were a well-behaved boy.”
Dad’s stoic Finlander way of restating the hook of “Ooh La La”: “Poor young grandson, there’s nothing I can say/You’ll have to learn, just like me/And that’s the hardest way.”