Saturday, May 5, 2012

King of the spring fish feed

Having two small kids gave family vacations a more local twist for a time. 

One year we visited Paul Bunyan at the theme park in Brainerd.

This trip is remembered because Paul the mighty woodsman spooked one of our children. The statue talked.

Every summer in those years of modest vacations we went home to see Al's parents. 

My folks lived closer. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we got there without a stop for a diaper change.

The visits home were appreciated both for a chance to be together and for our two to substitute their grandparents for us for awhile.

An opportunity to accompany Al to Duluth when he had some conference to attend was therefore, with big vacations on hold, a considerable treat. 

A change of place, a change of pace is my motto. I'll gladly take any new mileu and Duluth, if you're from Minnesota, is like a fast trip to San Francisco.

We had a motel near Miller Hill Mall. Our daughter, fourteen months old, was still taking naps. While the mall could be seen from the motel room, as a good mom I sat with my magazines in an easy chair while she had her afternoon snooze.

Shopping with young ones, I already had learned, isn't so easy. I enjoyed my own sunny corner of the room as she got her sleep and my son played quietly with matchbox cars on the floor.

Our daughter hadn't reached the walking stage. She was still crawling. She took some preliminary steps in the motel room that day which earned her hand claps and encouraged her to more.

That evening, with Al done with his part of the day, we drove to the Lester River. The river, in the north part of town, is one of the North Shore rivers that are so pretty in the Duluth area.

It was the time of the smelt run. We went to watch the smelters with their buckets and long-handled nets at the mouth of the river.

The rivers dropping from the hills to the Lake Superior shore are cold and swift in spring in most years after typical snowfall. The volume and speed of water going by was part of the excitement as we walked over to stand near the smelting activity.

These several years later I don't remember if the evening was mild or chilly. I hadn't packed for the kids to be outside. This was a spontaneous decision to drive over and see the smelters at work.

We didn't stand on the river bank for long. We were out long enough to feel the combination party atmosphere and concerted effort put into catching the smelt as dusk deepened to darkness.

Of the night I recall flashlights. Possibly it was the opening and closing of many car doors that makes this memory of light. It could have been interior dome lights coming on as the curious like us and smelters arrived and left.

There was a sense of adventure observing and, dare I imply, participating in the annual smelting rite.

As a girl my hometown had a smelt fry at the Armory every spring. We looked forward to it. Like the circus and 4th of July parades that perk up small towns, annual events are the community glue.

Men in white aprons, laughing and gesticulating, worked behind a counter. I don't recall if they were the cook crew or the staff who helped dish up the lines that came through.

We held them in awe. They were the ones connected to the smelt that came from the cold country up north. 

These guys were directly linked to the fish which were caught so differently from our local catches reeled in on rods using live bait or lures.

We loved the crisp bites of the smelts, deep fried in coconut oil I imagine, and disappearing fast off our plates. Potato chips and possibly cole slaw and buns were the sides. 

We got up from the table replete. We patted our stomachs and sighed in deep satisfaction. It was quite a meal.

The heavy oil smell clung to our outer wear announcing to everyone for at least the next day or two where we ate.

The night at Lester River connected me to the Armory smelt feeds of my past. We were at the spot where the smelt runs actually happen.

In those prior days the vision of smelts in their silvery, flashing numbers in cold rivers and lakes was as much a part of the Minnesota story as Paul Bunyan, about whom every student in our grade school knew by sixth grade, the year Minnesota history was studied.

While Paul Bunyan was noted by our teachers as Minnesota legend, smelt is something we had to discover on our own. 

Some of us knew smelt from eating it. Some had visited the northeast portion of the state from which smelt comes. But overall smelt wasn't of our world.

It took being there, absorbing the vigor of it, for me to thoroughly appreciate it as sport and tradition.

It becomes real as experienced, as can be said of our children's unforgettable visit with Paul Bunyan.

Ro Giencke - May 5, 2012

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