This true story is circa 1980.
Grandpa Al’s Boat Ride
The Luders and Stratton families shared some of the best times of our lives on the shores of Lake Pepin in Lake City, MN. Bob, Cheryl, and their kids, Jeff, Jennifer, and Nick, had a camper at Suza’s point and later moved to Smitty’s Campground, and even later, they had a trailer on the north edge of Lake City. The Stratton’s, Gary, Maxine, Galen, Kim, Garrett, and Karmin, stayed across highway 61 at the Sunset Motel and Resort in one of the kitchenette cabins.
My boat, a 14 ft Sears and Roebuck, with a small 6 hp motor and a short freeboard, wasn’t big enough the waters of Lake Pepin so we used Bob’s bigger boat. Bob’s boat was an old Naden boat. It was a heavy and tough 14 ft boat that was built like a battleship. Bob and I had been in rough water with it and had no problems. The outboard was a 15 hp Spiegel, yes, the catalog company. That outboard showed a lot of wear and tear but it ran like a sewing machine; never mind the stove bolts and wires, readily visible, that held it together. It had never let us down.
On this particular outing, Bob’s folks, Al and Jo, were also camping and had set up their camper at Smitty’s campground. Bob’s dad, Grandpa Al, invited us over one afternoon so all of us gathered round the camp fire. As we got settled, Grandpa Al hauled out a case of beer. Now this was the old days, a case of beer came in a heavy cardboard box and when the top was lifted off, there set 12 brown glass bottles, neatly separated from each other by cardboard dividers. Everybody new what was coming. Grandpa Al had found a bargain on a case of beer. He was semi-famous for finding deals on beer.
Bob and I liked a good cold beer, and had drank our share, but we were always skeptical about Grandpa Al’s beer. Grandpa Al pulled two cold beers out of the case and gave them to Bob and me. We accepted the bottles of Western beer. Bob and I looked at each other with the same bewilderment, silently thinking, you ever heard of this stuff. We thanked Grandpa Al, and then Bob took the first swig from the neck of that brown bottle. His face turned funny shapes, like trying not to spit it out or choke, and he swallowed. I knew this was not going to be a good experience. If Bob made that kind of face over a swig of beer I was in big trouble because if he couldn’t handle it; I sure couldn’t.
I took a swig, knowing full well what was coming. That bottle of cheap Western beer was every bit as bad as Bob’s face had described. I swallowed, but the bad taste was still there as Grandpa Al asked, “What do you think?” Wanting to be polite and not offend Grandpa Al, Bob and I mustered up all the ability our traumatized voice boxes could muster and said, “It’s ok.”
In our glory days, it didn’t take Bob or me very long to put away a bottle of beer. On this day, I think we set a world record for how long it takes to down only the neck of a bottle of beer. My My…..that stuff was bad. Finally, it seemed like an eternity, Grandpa Al had to go into his camper to check on something. Immediately after Grandpa Al set foot in that camper, the grass under our chairs got watered with that bargain Western beer. The bottles went back in the box.
When Grandpa Al returned, he offered us another beer. We declined, telling him we had our own beer and we would let him enjoy the rest of his great bargain case of Western beer. He smiled. After that day, Bob and I drank only beer that came from bottles, cans, and kegs that were not labeled “Western”.
Bob and I did a lot of fishing on Lake Pepin, a wide and long section of the Mississippi river between Minnesota and Wisconsin with Lake City, MN located more or less at mid-lake. Crappie and walleye were our favorite targets but what ever was biting was okay also. In the hot and muggy days of summer, when fishing was slow, we watched the gulls. When they flocked together and descended near the water, they were after their own meal of stripers. We followed them up and down the lake chasing schools of stripers on feeding frenzies. On a feeding frenzy, the stripers bit anything you pitched at them, and as fast as you could pitch it. We didn’t even have time to swig a beer. That was some of the funnest fishing we did.
When we started fishing together I was a very inexperienced fisherman and had never fished from a boat in a river. A lake formed by a wide spot in the Mississippi River offered many educational opportunities and challenges. Bob taught me how to fish Lake Pepin, and I did well under his tutelage. Bob also taught me a lot about seamanship and how to understand the river currents and waves. Waves from the weather, river barges, power boaters, and idiot boaters. Lake Pepin could producwaves on windy days and during storms. The worst waves occurred when winds from the southwest blew hard. The combination of the strong current of the Mississippi river flowing south and a strong south wind blowing north could form significant waves on the lake, and they demanded your respect. On such days when we chose not to fish, we had seen waves break over the bows of big barges heading south on the lake.
I had been with Bob many times when the water on Lake Pepin was rough and choppy, but it was not bad enough to quit fishing or to be concerned about getting back to the campground. It was rough enough for me to get motion sickness but I never puked over the side of the boat. Bob was skilled at boatmanship and I learned a lot from him about how to navigate in rough water. One of his philosophies, that I used but never really came to embrace, was “go as fast as you can, then the boat stays on top of the choppy water and it’s a smoother ride.”
Most often this philosophy was used in the fall when he and I would spend a few days of late October or early November on the last fishing adventure of the season. In the Fall, the north winds could create really rough water but it was not dangerous like when the south wind blew in the summer. The waves from the north winds had a longer period and were more rolling. While they could be very rough, they were more predictable than the waves from the south. When the water was really choppy I would set in the bow of the boat, with my back to the north wind, to hold the bow down. It was a job for which I had adequate weight to accomplish the task as we made the run back north to the camper. When we made this run we often had a beer. One time, a few years later, Bob had his new yellow Mirrocraft boat and Mercury outboard running flat out on the really rough water as we bumped from the top of a wave to the top of the next wave. In my mind, the theory of a smoother ride was in great doubt. I started yelling at him to slow down. He replied, “I can’t, it’ll be too rough.” Holding onto the gunnel with one hand, I held out my half can of beer with my right hand. As me and the bow of the boat bounce around like a ping pong ball in a tornado, my beer can spewed forth foam like the Old Faithful Geyser. Bob held up his beer, in the smoother riding rear of the boat, and no foam. He just smiled and gave the throttle handle a twist to make sure it was full open. I sucked on the foam, and eventually we arrived safely at the beach. After that I saved my beer until we got back to the beach; you’re never too old to learn new tricks, and Bob was a good teacher. This was a day memories were born. Some day when I get old, I hope memories like this will be the ones that float back to the surface. Even later, Maxine, Bob, Cheryl, and I are going to sit around heaven telling stories about the days at Lake Pepin.
In spite of the Western beer experience we still took Grandpa Al fishing with us when he wanted to go. One morning the three of us headed out in the that good old Naden boat, with the Spiegel catalog store outboard, and made our way across the lake to the Wisconsin shoreline. We started fishing a rocky bank area a little up river from Stockholm, Wisconsin. This was a shoreline area on the Wisconsin side that was one of our favorite crappie spots. It was an area where Bob taught me “if you are not losing tackle you’re not in the right spot.” I hated losing tackle, but I soon learned he was right. As Bob worked the boat up and down the shoreline we were catching a few crappies but fishing was not great. We did notice some clouds starting to darken far off on the southwest horizon, but we didn’t pay close attention. Storms in that area usually moved away from us and we turned our attention to fishing and story telling.
In the midst of concentrating on the telltale peck of a crappie bite, we felt a sudden cool breeze pick up and looked back over our shoulders. The clouds were darkening and moving toward us, and the breeze turned to a wind. That cool wind was coming from the cold rain of a fast approaching thunderstorm. This was not good. The waves picked up and were quickly increasing in size. All three of us quickly reeled in, and Bob turned the boat around and pointed the bow into the waves. These waves were getting serious as we looked at each other. We couldn’t stay where we were at because we might get bashed into the rocky shoreline. Bob and I looked at each other and quickly decided we need to make a run back to the Minnesota side and the campground. If we tried to ride out the storm out on the lake, Cheryl, Maxine, and Jo, would be a nervous wreck. Not a good thing.
Bob and I both knew the urgency to do something; basically get the hell out of here and get back to the campground. This storm was going to get worse. We compared thoughts and made a plan. When Bob and I made plans together we were never in doubt. On rare occasions we might have been, maybe, a little wrong, but never in doubt about the success of the plan. If we were wrong, it was mostly about where the big fish would be biting today. The boat would handle the growing waves, now about 3 feet high, and we would have to run down river, into the waves, quartering the waves to keep from capsizing the boat. It would be a long run before we could turn ninety degrees and quarter with following waves and run up river toward the beach. It would be a rough ride. Grandpa Al listened to our discussion. As we put our life jackets on, we could tell he was not as optimistic about our chance of success was we were.
Bob had Grandpa Al sit on the floor in the middle of the boat and hold on to both sides. This would lower our center of gravity for better stability. I sat in the front of the boat for ballast to keep the bow from jumping up as we hit the on coming waves and so the wind would not flip us over backwards. Bob would use all of his boatmanship skills to handle the rough water. With a plan and everybody in position, we started our run. As Bob swung the boat around, I could see the wire and stove bolts holding that Spiegel outboard together. Denial about what might happen seemed the best choice.
The wind and waves were still picking up, and the lake was boiling in foamy water. We hit the first two waves, and Bob made some adjustments in angle and power. We hit the third wave and we traversed it well. Bob had it figured out, and we continued. All we had to do was keep our wits about us and not make any mistakes. We were young and had all the confidence young men have in themselves before they reach that age where realize they are not invincible. Bob and I weren’t there yet. Grandpa Al never said a word, but the knuckles on his hands were starting to get white.
It was a rough pounding ride, and the thud of each wave hitting the bow didn’t help increase our feeling of wellbeing. All three of us were getting wet. The wind was blowing spray from the whitecaps of the waves and strings of spray were hitting me in the face, and it stung. The wind drove the bow splash from the waves right at Grandpa Al, and he was soaked to the skin in no time at all. Bob was getting wet from the splash that missed Grandpa Al and the spray blown off the waves. The water was warm; we were getting wet but we were not taking on much water; we were successfully transversing every wave; and the boat was stable, so to speak. The plan was working.
It seemed like forever as we hit wave after wave after wave until we reached the turn point. Bob and I eyeballed the point on the beach where we needed to land. We told thoroughly soaked Grandpa Al what was going to happen and to hold on tight. I think the white knuckles and fingers told us he was already doing that.
Bob was watching the waves to time the turn just right so we wouldn’t capsize, and then he shouted out, “Here we go.” His timing was perfect, and we made the turn, textbook. Bob started adjusting the speed to get us in sync with the waves so we wouldn’t take a big wave over the stern and sink the boat. Quickly Bob got us in phase with the waves, and it seemed like the worst was behind us. The spray that was soaking Grandpa Al was greatly diminished, but his white knuckles and fingers did not reflect the improvement.
Now that the worst of the journey seemed to be over we turned our attention to the beach. By now we could see Cheryl and Maxine on the beach. They did not look happy. While Bob and I had been fully focused on each wave, the girls must have been watching us make the run down river into the waves. From their looks, I don’t think they had the same confidence in our success as we did. As we continued to run with the waves, which were still running 3 to 4 feet, we needed another “never in doubt” plan on what to do when we hit the beach because it would be a rough landing.
Bob and I decided Grandpa Al would stay in the bottom of the boat holding on to both sides. Bob would time the waves so we would hit the beach in the trough of a wave. To secure the boat from the back wash of the waves, Bob and I would jump out of the boat and grab it. Bob would cut the motor and jump out of the starboard side of the boat. I would jump out on the port side of the boat. Both of us would grab the boat in the middle by Grandpa Al and sling the boat as far up on the sand beach as we could. We had a plan, and our confidence was high.
Bob got the timing just right, and we jumped out of the boat just as Murphy, of Murphy’s Law, showed up. Back in those days Bob and I were still pretty quick, but we weren’t quicker than the period between waves. Just as we got a good grip on the boat, a big wave showed up. It lifted the boat very high with Bob and me holding on tight, our arms extended above out heads, hoping our feet didn’t come off the bottom of the beach. As the boat started back down, our big eyeballs caught each other and together we slung the boat up the beach. The big wave helped us get the boat further up the beach.
So there we were, standing firmly on the sand beach of Suza’s campground, three almost drown fishermen looking at two very unhappy wives. We got Grandpa Al’s fingers pried from the side of the boat and got him out of the boat. He turned to Bob and me and said he would never going fishing with us again and headed off to find Grandma Jo. Well, after a while he changed his mind and went fishing with us.
Dealing with Grandpa Al was a lot easier than dealing with Cheryl and Maxine. They thought we might have capsized and drowned trying to make it to the campground. Well maybe…… but we had a plan. “Why didn’t you go to the Stockholm pier and stay there,” they asked. “Well, you girls would have been worried, we said, and besides, we didn’t think of it.” The look on the girl’s faces and the sound of their eyes rolling around cannot be described in words, but Bob and I had seen it before. It’s the look and sound that is not complimentary to the male gender.
As we drank a beer, Bob and I agreed with Cheryl and Maxine that next time the boat would go to the Stockholm pier and that Grandpa Al, Bob, and I would be in the Stockholm tavern. The girls could call to see if we were there; otherwise, they could worry.
Now for our grandkids, remember this was 25 years before smart phones. The girls would have to walk about a quarter mile to the Casey’s gas station. They would be using the pay phone in the telephone booth outside the Casey’s store. Then using change from their purse, they would insert a dime in the phone, put their finger in the 0 and spin the dial to call the operator. They would tell the operator they wanted to make a long distance call to the Stockholm Tavern in Stockholm, Wisconsin. The operator would tell them how much the three minute long distance call would cost. The girls would dig the coins out of their purses and drop them into the coin slots in the pay phone. When the correct amount was reached, the operator would dial the number. If the phone line was busy, they had to start all over. If your three minutes were about up, the operator would tell you to insert more coins. If you didn’t the operator disconnected the line, and you had to start over.
As fate would have it, Bob, Grandpa Al, and I were never on the lake again when a surprise storm caught us before we could get off the lake, so our plan to spend an extended time marooned a the Stockholm Tavern was never implemented. Too bad, what could go wrong with a “never in doubt” plan like that?