When I was a young lad heading into eighth grade, my father took a June fishing trip to the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan — a vast system of finger lakes and tributaries in one of the most remote and pristine angling outposts in North America.
Every year when Father’s Day approaches, I remember that trip with equal parts nostalgia and pain. Nostalgia, because it’s one of the most enduring and truly happy memories I have of my father. Pain, because in a few short weeks upon his return our lives would change forever and radically so.
My father was not an easy man to understand or love. He seemed to sprint through life with the baton of peace just beyond his grasp, a man in search of something or someone he could neither catch nor find. When life seemed to prey upon his soul, as it often did, a lava of anger would mysteriously bubble to the surface and scorch everything — and everyone — around him.
But he absolutely loved to fish, and when he did, he seemed to transform into the person he always wanted to be: peaceful, happy, confident. A man completely comfortable in his own skin. A good father.
My father grew up along the Minnesota River in Belle Plaine, where he taught me to fish. Like many sons, I would do anything to please my father. He rose early. Therefore I did, too. He taught me to split wood, to clean the garage and to, with any luck, fish. I happily got up and did what I was told to do.
Some Sunday mornings we’d shore-fish the Minnesota, typically after making a cameo appearance at Mass, which my grandmother, a devout Catholic, expected her eldest son to attend without fail. Once she made eye contact with him, and well before the homily, we’d sneak out the side door to wet a line. My father would wink at me and put his index finger to his lips. Grandma Alice was never the wiser.
Still other times we’d take trips with my father’s best friend. One spring trip to Waterville, Minn., for bullheads is etched in memory. I was only 6 or 7, and it was my first trip fishing from a boat. Always the taskmaster, my father had one rule for his son: No whining or shows of impatience, regardless of how long we fished. If I flashed my age in any way, I would be quickly dispatched to shore.
I never was. My patience was rewarded with a $5 bill and learning how to clean spring bullheads, which my father loved to eat. He’d dust the firm, snowy-white fillets in seasoned flour and fry them in lard. He’d eat them with gusto, washing them down with three fingers of brown liquor and a splash of water. Few things satisfied him more.
“You can’t eat bullheads in the summer,” he’d say. “They get mushy and taste like mud.”
As his Canadian fishing trip approached, my father left no detail undone. He bought a new rod and reel and an assortment of fishing tackle. He meticulously inventoried all his gear. His T-shirts and socks were folded perfectly and tucked in Ziploc bags. He left nothing to chance.
Though I didn’t go with him, I had read about such remote Canadian fly-in trips in “Field & Stream” magazine and other outdoors periodicals. In my boyish imagination, all fishing was an adventure. But his trip was an exotic adventure, like hunting the Serengeti. I could see sky-blue waters, pine-studded shorelines, Cree Indian guides and my father in a titanic struggle with a sharklike northern pike — his favorite game fish.
I couldn’t wait for him to get home. When he did, my father seemed to float above the Earth, as happy and content as I had ever seen him. He caught walleyes and pike by the dozens — his hands, full of tiny lacerations, providing confirmation.
“If you keep your grades up, I’ll take you next year,” he said. “It’s up to you.”
But it wasn’t up to me. Six weeks later, my father had a freak accident. He dove in a pool, hit his head and severed his spine. When his doctor told me that he’d never walk again or have use of his hands, it didn’t register. I assured the doctor we had a fishing trip planned for next summer. It would take months before reality set in: My father would be confined to a wheelchair and would never fish again.
In subsequent years, my father lived vicariously through me — the son, in effect, becoming the father. It was a heavy burden. After every fishing or hunting trip I took, he wanted to hear about it in great detail. More often than not, and before I could finish, his volcanic temper would mysteriously erupt. His darkened heart had room only for this anger and his anguished existence as a quadriplegic. It drove a wedge between us, and I pulled away for months at a time.
That I had formed my own outdoors life and had become my own man was akin to severing — forever — what we once shared in the outdoors before his accident. Ironically, I found peace doing what he had taught me: The fine art of fishing.
At few months before he died in 1995, my father and I brokered a personal détente, a peace agreement that came way too late in our game. After years of suffering, my father seemed to take inventory not of his gear, but his life. We talked openly and happily and without rancor, even about his one glorious fishing trip to the hinterlands of Canada and my plans to do the same. I have yet to make it, but I will.
My father will always be a mystery to me, and today I’m still left to wonder if a son can love his father completely without complete understanding. What I do know for certain is that I’m grateful for my father’s tutelage. He instilled in me the virtue of patience and the sublime rewards of fishing long and hard.
In this boy’s life, that’s no small thing.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at email@example.com.