The Lake View Inn is surviving the COVID-19 thing, as are its loyal customers. Wally has the business advantage of owning the building and living in the apartment upstairs, and after the first month of closure, he was allowed to sell takeout food. That period of social isolation also highlighted how much time we were actually spending at the Lake View. So, maybe the break was good for our health in more ways than one.
But beer and stimulating conversation are essential North Woods life forces, and Friday evenings found us gathering in the Lake View parking lot to pick up a takeout fish fry, which led to some lingering conversation, which eventually turned into our “COVID circle”: five trucks parked in a ring in the far corner of the parking lot with five friends seated on facing tailgates, eating perch from white foam boxes and catching up on the week past—stories of fish caught and propellers bent and such. Social distancing is rigorously observed because three of us live with registered nurses who enforce the rules with some militancy.
One evening, my good friend Chuck Larson opined that sitting in a circle would be more enjoyable if we were around a campfire, and by the next week, Wally had placed an iron ring and a stack of split oak on the grass. A campfire inspires storytelling, and with Chuck’s prompting, I recounted the tall tale my scoutmaster father used to tell our Troop 28 around a fire at the lake.
“I was about your age, and fishing by myself right off the point,” my dad would start, pointing out toward the lake. He felt a powerful tug on his line, and his rod bowed to the water. “I knew that I had hooked a mighty muskie!” he exclaimed, a fish so powerful it snapped his rod. In a move straight out of Hemingway, he snatched the line and wrapped it around his bare hand, determined to fight the fish. But the boy was no match for this muskellunge. It dived for the bottom, and pulled my dad right over the side and down, down, down into the cold water until he blacked out.
“I came to, right here on the beach, and I was naked,” he continued, “and standing over me was a beautiful American Indian girl.” This made the boys very uncomfortable. He realized that he had somehow been transported back in time; it was the same lake but hundreds of years ago. The Potawatomi nursed him back to health—there were many details about the lodge and eating pemmican—and my dad resigned himself to this new reality. A year passed, and one day he was on the lake fishing with a hand line from a birch bark canoe…
“And the same muskie pulls him overboard!” exclaimed Chuck, who was totally into the story by now, “and he wakes up naked on the beach again, only this time the neighbor girl finds him.” Groans all around the circle.
“I heard a guy from Illinois caught that fish in 1996,” Wally said with a wink. “It had two hooks in its mouth, and one was carved out of bone.”
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Chuck was incredulous. “Why is it always someone from Illinois catching the trophy!”
Wally kept a straight face. “Have another beer, Chuck. You’ll get over it.”