Little by little, as snow disappears beneath the tall pines that encircle McArdle's Resort on Lake Winnibigoshish, ice on the big lake grows softer. Sometime later this month, the white sheet that has covered "Winnie'' since December will pull away from the lakeshore, water will reappear, and spring will have arrived.
This year when those changes occur, Craig Brown, who for 42 of his 57 years awaited those and other seasonal rotations with the eagerness of a schoolboy, will be present only in the memories of his wife, Paige, and other family members as they prepare McArdle's for another season of guests.
Craig Brown was killed in a vehicle accident March 9 in Mountain Home, Idaho.
Ironically, given the vast sheet of ice that still stretches across Winnie this cold, late winter, and the excellent fishing the lake provides, Brown was on an ice-fishing trip to Idaho with his son, Nate, and friends when the accident occurred.
Nate, 32, wasn't hurt, and others involved in the accident are doing OK.
The longtime owners of McArdle's, Craig and Paige Brown, who were married in 1984 and danced late into their wedding night to the wild rhythms of a band called LeRoy and the Minnows, bought the popular resort from his parents, who had purchased it in 1979.
Growing up, Paige started cleaning cabins at a resort near McArdle's on weekends when she was 10 years old. She and Craig met at school in ninth grade.
"We were high school sweethearts,'' Paige said the other day.
McArdle's had 22 cabins back then, and 23 today. Fewer guests owned their own boats at the time, so many rented 16-footers from McArdle's.
The resort's launch, which can carry a dozen or more anglers, was busy those many decades ago, and still is today. The dock then, as now, was a flurry of activity. And there was a restaurant on site that has since gone by the wayside.
Though not an easy life, running McArdle's was, and is, a good life. Paige always has been a hard worker, and in Craig she met her soul mate in that respect and many others. Craig might never have been happier than when dipping minnows for a guest or meeting a boatload of anglers at the McArdle's dock.
"Resort life isn't for everyone, but we've enjoyed it,'' Paige said. "We always arranged it so at least one of us could get away to attend our kids' sporting events and other school activities. It was a choice we made together, owning the resort, about how we were going to live our lives.''
That Craig was a natural-born fisherman made his career choice all the more fitting. In addition to running the resort's launch and guiding guests to walleyes, and hunting and fishing with his sons and brothers, he was a successful tournament angler. For Craig, the Idaho trip wasn't out of character. He'd go anywhere to fish, including Alaska, and only recently he and Paige had driven to Kentucky to buy a boat they had planned to use this month on a Florida vacation.
All of that changed when Paige's phone rang March 9.
What didn't change in this busiest of offseason times for resort owners is Paige's pre-opener workload.
On May 13, the day before walleye season opens, Minnesota's highways will be flush with trucks and SUVs pulling boats in all directions. Whatever the weather, with the arrival of those rigs at their destinations, including McArdle's, winter will have ended, and summer, or some semblance thereof, will have begun.
Before that time, Paige wanted to spruce up of the interiors of five cabins, a chore she planned to undertake after returning from a short vacation to Florida.
To Paige's delight, two of Craig's brothers and their buddies completed the painting while she was gone.
Thankfully, Nate and his wife, Tessa, are principals at the resort, and their contributions, along with those of Craig and Paige's other son, Matt, 33, and other family members and friends, will be critical to helping Paige get through the summer.
"As much as Craig enjoyed the resort, his first love was baseball,'' Paige said. "He played at Bemidji State and then transferred to Oklahoma [State] to play for the Cowboys. The Twins offered him a tryout, but he never went. By then he was working in Oklahoma. Ultimately, we decided to come back and work with his parents at the resort, and eventually buy it.''
Craig's funeral was expected to overflow the small Lutheran church he and Paige attended in nearby Cass Lake. So it was moved to a larger church in Bemidji.
Nearly 300 people attended, many of them resort guests who traveled from Wisconsin, Illinois and beyond.
"We have a crazy busy summer coming up, and I'm not planning to make any big changes,'' Paige said. "So far, I've just wanted to make sure I've had people around me. It's been good in recent weeks to have people telling funny stories about Craig. He would have liked that. We want to keep moving forward.''
At 9 o'clock on the evening before the opener, on the cusp of another summer fishing season, Paige, Matt and Nate will toast Craig and his memory, and she hopes his many friends around the country join them.
Then, sometime after their opening weekend guests head home, when the three of them and other family members, including Craig and Paige's three treasured grandchildren, have a moment, they'll motor onto Winnie and spread Craig's ashes at his favorite fishing spot — the same location where his dad's ashes were left a dozen years ago.
Then they'll get back to work.