Story & photos by Nina White-Brown
When I was young, my family spent a week or two every summer in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. No phone, no TV, just the five of us in a small cabin enjoying or enduring each other’s company and creating memories.
Most of these memories revolved around fishing. We were on a muskie hunt. A hunt for “Old Moss Back,” to be specific. This elusive creature lived in the depths of pristine waters surrounded by towering pines and miles of snowy white birch. We were on a mission fueled by a generation that understood that “vacation” meant fishing, and the Holy Grail of fishing was the muskie.
My brother, sister and I were strapped into orange straight jackets (aka life jackets), and we waved furiously to my smiling mother as the boat floated away from the pier. As the years passed and numerous walleye, northern, bass, perch and assorted pan fish were caught, measured, regaled and devoured, the muskie remained a myth.
My father taught me how to fish. He also taught me how to swear. With his patience being pushed to its limits after countless hours of untangling line, baiting hooks and retrieving the lures of his angling offspring, occasionally he would start “speaking in tongues.” Moreover, with one man and his three little kids in a very small boat with a rented outboard motor ... we all learned to row with power and precision at a very young age.
Over the bounding main and through the choking cabbage weed, we persevered in our quest for Moss Back, and year after year, we were denied the trip to the taxidermist. As time passed, my siblings gave up the hunt, but my father and I continued to rise before dawn or cast past sunset, but we were never to revel in the glory of “landing the big one.”
Instead, we had to settle for spending time together in the dim light of overcast mornings with a thermos of lukewarm coffee, or the brilliance of a summer sunset with a lukewarm beer. We talked about everything. But more often, we didn’t talk at all. My dad and I didn’t understand each other, but we understood fishing. We understood the peace it offers. We understood the quiet connection between father and daughter that can only be achieved when watching the slow circle of a bald eagle and listening to the distant cry of a loon.
This genetic disposition towards fishing was passed down to my children and now to my grandchildren – and the magic of the muskie, eagles and loons compelled me to buy my own piece of paradise. My husband joined my father and me in the hunt for Old Moss Back when we first married, but even his expertise was to no avail ... until last Wednesday.
At 6:00 a.m., I awoke to a call from my mother. My dad had passed away. My husband and I were 300 miles from home at our little cabin in the Northwoods. That afternoon at 3:00 p.m., my husband caught Old Moss Back. It was on his third cast, while standing on our pier in front of the cabin. He let me help land him. I took a few quick pictures, and we let him go. I lost sight of him as he slowly swam under the pier and out into deep water. It was the largest freshwater fish I have ever seen. When we catch the next muskie, we will have it mounted. But not this one. This way, there is something for my grandchildren to strive for.
On that warm sunny afternoon, I know my father was with me on that pier. He proved a myth ... and left us with a legend.
When it was time to say goodbye after six days, tears were shed knowing that it would be another year before everyone would be together for the next family reunion at the cottage.
EDITOR’S NOTE: It is always an honor to publish stories from our readers, especially so in this case. Anita White-Brown submitted the above story to our (no longer in print) magazine, Cabin Living, years ago, with this note: “This is the eulogy I gave at my father’s memorial service four years ago. My husband has been trying to convince me to submit it to Cabin Living ever since. Today would have been Dad’s 92nd birthday, and I’m finally ready to share it.”