In the summer of 2004, in between study sessions for the bar exam and taking care of my maternal grandmother, I would wander the shores of Big Detroit Lake in the overcast humid afternoons or the golden rays of midsummer sunsets. Long before the Great Recession and the subsequent surge of oil and development money filtered east from North Dakota, the lake was encircled primarily by second-generation family cabins. They were rustic places, like my grandmother’s two bedroom which she and my grandfather purchased in the 1950s, with few expansions or McMansions. It was a time like early spring, where the buzz of Moombas towing wakeboarders and swarms of jet skis were as infrequent as the first emerging mosquitoes of the year. The docks were wooden, the lifts were mostly hand-cranked and the fish that schooled around all of them were virtually untouched.
This weekend, while wading the same waters in the sun of early morning, I wandered down the old sandy path I had followed as a part of my daily ritual in that summer from a dozen years ago. Flicking my tube with a sidearm sling akin to that of mid-2000s Twins reliever Pat Neshek, it would skitter under the various docks and inevitably clank and bang against the posts and metal braces. Pulling a couple smaller bass from the three-boat complex just west of the inflowing creek and finding no more, I made my way further down the shoreline looking for the old wooden dock where I would trade stories with the older gentleman who owned the small cabin just beyond the overhanging willow tree.
In that summer, his white wood-and-water-pipe dock harbored three huge largemouth bass, one of nearly 19 inches which I nicknamed Dotty for the large black spot that stood out on her green back just behind her dorsal fin. When he’d spot me wading along the shoreline in my board shorts and pocket full of plastics and bullet weights, he’d stop me and we’d chat about the status of his three pet bass.
“I put a few branches under the dock to keep them there,” he’d say with a laugh, “besides me, I think you’re the only one who knows they’re under it,” he’d say to start the conversation on a number of occasions when I’d tangle with one or all three of his fish.
As I approached the old willow tree, I noticed that the branches had been trimmed back and there was no overhang to walk out into the water to get around anymore. No yellow fingers with green nails gently stirred the surface of the lake, providing shade and cover for yearling perch and bluegills. But beyond that, where the dock dropped in between the slight rise in the shoreline and the trunk of the old tree, there was nothing, save for a few field rocks and a mess of golden straw.
Caught off guard at the absence of the dock that I had hoped would hold as many fish today as it held memories in the past, I followed the path of black dirt that had blown into the shallows from a recent rainstorm up into the yard where the cabin was…gone. Had there not been a line of hay bales in the low area where the structure had been razed and removed, it would have been like the summer place had never existed. Posted in the window of the structure next door was a building permit, blazing bright orange in declaration of the consolidated lots and the construction of the next chapter in the shoreline’s history.
Dejected, I ventured no further. I slipped the offset worm hook in the holder near the cork handle of my rod and followed my footsteps back through the sand, across the cool waters of the inflowing creek and back to the family cabin, which had also undergone improvements since that summer I suddenly couldn’t get out of my mind. Those thoughts were tempered by the additional bedroom added on to grandma’s place, where I could hear the conversation of my wife and two young sons getting ready for the day. I looked up at the expanded deck which served not only as a makeshift play pen for my kids, but also as a kennel where my brother’s yellow lab greeted my appearance with a wary bark and, once he had made positive identification, a happy tail wag.
“Be right up, Jake,” I called to him as I smiled at the screech and giggle of my son A.J. carrying out through the screen window, “just give me a couple casts,” I continued as I unhooked the tube, loaded the rod and flicked my wrist toward the lake.
I’d only need one as the telltale thump and pull signaled a dandy largemouth was on the line shortly after I skipped my lure under our weathered boatlift. I battled the bass to hand, knelt on the faded white aluminum and lifted the emerald-sided fish into the air.
“Some things never change,” I thought aloud as I unhooked and slipped the four-pounder back into the water and headed back up to the house for breakfast, knowing that despite some things being different, if we look for them, great opportunities still remain…in our outdoors.