The morning of the kids' fishing contest in Hastings, Minn.—one of the activities in that community's annual Rivertown Days celebration—dawned sunny, hot and also, I was certain, absolutely and positively fishless. Though I would not personally be participating, my very presence should have been enough to assure failure for my sons, Jamie, 12, and Chris, 9, who had entered the competition at Lake Rebecca on the northwest side of town. When I am in attendance at any alleged fishing hole, the entire fish population invariably takes the opportunity to relax, read the paper or do whatever fish do when they're not snapping at baited hooks, which is why I don't go fishing.
Yes, yes, fathers are supposed to take their sons fishing, particularly if their sons want to go, and mine do. Fred Mac-Murray, for example, was the kind of father who would take all three of his sons fishing, plus Ernie, plus ol' Bub if Bub were so inclined. But though I have nothing against tackling a fillet of pan-fried walleye, I simply don't like anything about the sport of fishing, and consequently had taken my sons on only two occasions, both with predictably discouraging results.
I saw in Rivertown Days—a festival of 43 sporting and cultural events celebrating life on the river—the chance to put a pole in my kids' hands. Then, too, the festival would be a way to get all of us out on the river—or rivers, because Hastings sits on the Mississippi and lies near the St. Croix, 20 miles southeast of St. Paul. Three decades ago I squandered the opportunity to become a full-fledged river rat. The Great Egg Harbor flows near my boyhood home in Mays Landing, N.J., but, preoccupied as I was with the "conventional" sports (baseball, basketball, football, golf, bowling and wasting time), I never did much fishing, waterskiing, boating or rafting. I've never missed any of them except waterskiing. From time to time a little voice inside me would suggest that I'd be a pretty good waterskier if I ever got around to it. I got around to it during Rivertown Days, and, evidently, the voice I was listening to was the voice of a fool. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
We had traveled 3,700 miles and had stayed in a dozen places in the West and Midwest by the time we arrived in Hastings on July 19. We checked into the Thorwood Inn, a pleasant bed-and-breakfast establishment on Pine Street, where my kids played ball with Gracie, the owners' springer spaniel.
August 6, 1989
For the fishing contest, the boys were put in the charge of one Bruce Reuter, a local fisherman of some renown. We were introduced, and Reuter pointed to a brown stucco house about a hundred yards from the banks of Lake Rebecca. "I was brought up in that house," he said. "My brothers and I fished this lake every day when I was growing up. I'm sure that we'll catch something." No you won't, I thought. Whatever your expertise is, Bruce, it definitely will be obliterated by the renowned McCallum fishing hex.
Promptly at 7:00 they set off in Reuter's boat. About 75 other young anglers took their places along Lake Rebecca. Only a couple of others fished from a boat, though it was entirely within the rules. Adults were allowed to fish alongside their offspring, but only fish caught by the kids, of course, would count.
If fishing as a participatory sport leaves me cold, you can imagine its appeal to me as a spectator sport. So it wasn't long before I wished I had volunteered to do laundry, as my wife Donna had. No one was catching anything, unless one counts the times that Jamie and Chris snagged a tree branch when they were casting. For reasons I couldn't begin to understand, Reuter insisted that they fish near the shore, among tangled trees and duckweed.
At 8:15 I left to gather our equipment for the Rivertown Days two-kilometer race at 9:30. We were all planning on running, and I figured the discouraged anglers would be more than glad to leave by then. Evidently, the fish got the word that I was leaving, because when I returned 45 minutes later it was to the news that Jamie had landed a 17½-inch, 3½-pound bass, a fighter that had dragged the boat around for five minutes before Jamie finally pulled it close enough for Reuter to net it. You couldn't get Jamie out of the lake now with an oil spill, so Chris and I left to run the race.
"Was Jamie excited when he got the fish?" I asked Chris.
"Yeah," said Chris, "but not as excited as Bruce."
After the race we returned to the lake. Jamie's catch was the grand prize, for which he won a tackle box, a bunch of sinkers and a fish basket, esoterica all, as far as I was concerned.
"See, the bass like it over there by shore." said Reuter, whose smile was as wide as Jamie's. Jamie then asked the inevitable question: "Do you think we can go fishing later, Dad?"
Fortunately, we were doing something else later—heading out for an afternoon on the river on a 19-foot Well-craft owned by Carla and Chuck Karpinske of Hastings.
Hastingsites agree that increasingly strict pollution controls have improved the Mighty Miss over the last decade, but the fact remains that most boaters seek their recreation on the Scenic St. Croix, as do the Karpinskes.
There was a lot of traffic on the river—some say that on weekends, Minnesota's rivers and lakes are more crowded than the interstates—but we had no trouble finding an open area to ski. My kids had tried skiing for the first time last summer, and they proceeded to repeat the pattern established then. Chris jumped in first, assumed a comfortable, professional-looking position, confidently gave the go-ahead signal and then, for some reason, couldn't quite make it up to the proper stance. Jamie, by contrast, looked awkward in the water, knees and elbows akimbo, yet clawed his way up and skied for quite a while, a triumph of will over form.
Clearly, though, I was the afternoon's main attraction. I skillfully slipped on the skis—it didn't take me more than an hour—and plopped into the water. I was nervous.
My first attempt was pathetic, my second only slightly less so. I wobbled to my feet on the third, but the bar slipped out of my hands and I fell. In the boat, Donna would tell me later, the kids were quietly cheerleading. "Come on Dad! Yes! He's got it...oh, shoot!" I was up for a short while again on my fourth try, but Carla, probably startled to see that I was vertical, eased off the throttle, and I fell. I was tired and discouraged, and my fifth attempt was terrible.
"One more try," I yelled, "then I'm history."
I sensed that the mood among the spectators in the boat had become heavy, almost funereal, as if they were being forced to watch a kid at a piano recital butcher Mountain Greenery time after time. The boat started for the sixth time. I stayed back and let it pull me up. I gradually stood and made it through that crucial first part—"the only tough part," as everyone kept telling me. I'm up! I'm up! I'm up! I'm...down. I had no idea why, but I pitched forward just when it looked as if I had it made.
I climbed into the boat, a whipped dog. Everyone clapped me on the back. After a while I asked my family how long I was up.
"I think about two hundred yards," said Jamie, applying balm to my dreary mood. Donna smiled kindly but shook her head no. Chris suggested one hundred yards. Donna smiled kindly but shook her head no. We might have been haggling over prices at a yard sale. SI photographer Carl Yarbrough, who would later follow my performance with a flawless round of slalom skiing—don't you just hate when that happens?—volunteered that I was up "for twelve frames," but politely refused to translate that into yards.
"Fifty?" I asked Donna hopefully.
"O.K.," she said.
The rest of the afternoon on the river was terrific, though. Donna and I found the perfect summertime sport—getting dragged along behind a boat in an inner tube. It was exciting but not terribly dangerous, and, best of all, it required absolutely no skill. Late in the afternoon we came upon the impossibly Huck Finnian sight of a group of kids swinging into the river from a rope tied to a tree on the rocky shore. The swingers included 15-year-old Chris Featherstone of Hastings, who made the swing about a month ago. He and his friends gladly accommodated Jamie and Chris in the batting order.
We finally headed back to the Hastings boat launch at about 6 p.m. Almost three hours had passed since my skiing failure, but I couldn't quite shake it.
"Come back and give it a try next time. Jack," said Chuck. "We'll get you up." I just might do that.
We enjoyed many other parts of Rivertown Days. I got my first ride in a hot-air balloon. Chris finished the 2K without stopping. We wasted money at a carnival. We watched, along with about 40,000 other spectators and just as many mayflies, Saturday night's Flotilla Frolic, a parade of boats decorated with lights, down the Mississippi, and the fireworks show that followed. We made several new friends.
But Jamie's—and Bruce's—fishing success was clearly the highlight. I asked Bruce if he wanted to come along with us for the rest of the summer, but he said he had other commitments, and so the job of fishing instructor for the McCallums is still open. Applicants who can also teach waterskiing will receive special consideration.