Big Lake Effect
by: Carah Thomas-Maskell
I grew up in a small northern Minnesota town that was a little rough around the edges. Even in the 1960’s, in my earliest memories, the town had a kind of frontier feel about it, with loggers and fishermen, trappers and American Indians, and the descendants of Scandinavian immigrants, all part of its colorful fabric.
The town I’m talking about is Grand Marais; a harbor town on the shore of Lake Superior in far northeastern Minnesota. French voyageurs named the place, back in the 1700’s when it was a fur trading post in the wilderness, probably referring to the sheltered, safe harbor it offered.
My parents moved to Grand Marais in 1958, along with my two older siblings. They came because my Dad was hired to coach basketball and teach history at the small high school. And because they were charmed by the town, rough edges and all, and thought it would be a great place to raise a family. I was born a few years later.
I have to say, lucky me. I’m grateful it worked out that way. Grand Marais was really a child’s paradise back then. Kids and dogs roamed free. We played outside most days. Hours and hours spent outdoors. Running around. Riding bikes. Inventing games. We knew the best apple trees, and where the fattest, ripest raspberries hung over the backyard fences in which alleyways. We knew the secret trails through patches of little woods that dotted the town. And we knew about Lake Superior. Beautiful, but cold and dangerous. Be careful. Don’t play in the waves. Don’t fall in. Don’t play on the log booms in the harbor.
Most kids in Grand Marais grow up with a healthy respect for the big lake. You just don’t play around on Lake Superior. My dad wasn’t a boater (or a hunter or fisherman), so we admired Lake Superior from the shore. Looking back, some of my earliest and fondest recollections are of beach and river outings with my family. And I can’t help but smile to think of those summer days on the rocky beaches east of town, when the lake has that baby blue calm stillness. I can still feel the cold water numbing my skin, and the sensation of lying face down on the sun-warmed beach rocks. I can still hear the quiet, whispering sound of the waves, washing gently back and forth. And I can still see and hear the gulls, floating on the water, bobbing up and down, snow white against that deep, eternal blue.
When I was 15, a friend told me I could earn a little money on weekends working for a local commercial fisherman during the smelt run. I’d be part of a crew boxing up fish at his warehouse, possibly late at night, whenever the truck came in. As a teenager, the late night part of it really appealed to me. Going to work Mom! Not sure when I’ll be home! Don’t wait up! Plus, the crew I’d be working with included several of my older (early 20’s) friends, including my boyfriend.
I think that’s when I became aware of commercial fishing on the North Shore of Lake Superior. When I really took notice. And it’s when I started to learn something about the tradition and history. I’d been eating herring and lake trout from the big lake all my life, but I never really thought about who was catching it, or how. Now that it was on my radar, I was intrigued. This is cool. I wanted to learn more. And I wanted to be part of it.
I’m not talking about smelt here. Not at all. Smelt were (and are) an invasive species in the Great Lakes. They were around for awhile, clogging up the river mouths along the shore, but not for long. Not in big numbers anyway. What I’m talking about is the small scale commercial fishing brought to the North Shore by Norwegian and Swedish immigrants in the mid to late 1800’s, after the Lake Superior Chippewa tribes signed the 1854 Treaty, ceding ownership of the territory to the U.S. Government. That’s when Northeastern Minnesota was opened up to settlement for the first time. Scandinavian immigrants came and settled on parcels of land all along the North Shore, choosing sheltered places that were good for launching boats. They built boats, boathouses, homes, and communities. There was no road along the shore then. Highway 61 wasn’t built until 1930. So the lake was how you traveled from place to place. By steamship and rowboat.
For a good hundred years, the peoples along the North Shore survived because of Lake Superior’s bounty. With the big lake’s help, they were able to gain a foothold in what was then a very difficult and unforgiving place to live. They survived, in part because there were fish in the big lake and they knew how to catch them. It usually involved one man in a small boat, sometimes with his wife or a son or daughter, setting gill nets and heading out every morning before sunrise to pick the fish. They mostly fished for lake trout, whitefish, and herring, which is actually not a herring at all, but a species of cisco. They came looking for new opportunities and found familiarity: it looked a lot like home. A lot like Scandinavia. And like home, there were fish to be caught.
Tommy Eckel was a second generation North Shore commercial fisherman. It was in his warehouse on the edge of town that I found myself boxing up fish at 3:00 a.m. in the morning with a crew of my friends, and Linda Rondstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel” blaring from someone’s car speakers.
Tommy had an infectious grin and loved being around us young people. Looking back he was probably no more than 50 at the time, but so young at heart and so much fun. With my boyfriend’s urging, I asked Tommy if I could go out on the lake with him sometime. He said sure. Come down to the fish house on the harbor in Grand Marais some morning and you’re welcome to come along. And so it began.
I think he was a little surprised, and pleased, when I showed up at the fish house one early morning not long after that. It was still dark out, and chilly. And here’s a 15 year old girl waiting at the fish house door on a Saturday morning. In the beginning, I just went along for the ride. He didn’t really need the help. He had me dress in rubber clothes, like him, with the boots, overalls, raincoat, and rubber gloves, mainly to keep me dry and warm I guess.
So at first I was an observer, and that was great. Tommy was a storyteller. Everything reminded him of a story. Everything. And he loved to laugh. I remember thinking at the time that I was getting to experience something very special. It felt like I was taking part in a living history exhibit or something, and I knew that I was lucky. There weren’t many fishermen left on the North Shore doing what Tommy did. It was dying out, I guess because it’s a tough life and you don’t make much money at it.
This may sound odd, or farfetched, but from that very first morning, it felt like I belonged there. I have Swedish ancestry on my mother’s side, and it was as if my DNA remembered. I take after my Swedish grandma, that is I’m tall, big boned, and strong. There was something in the experience that resonated with that part of my heritage. It felt good standing in the boat next to Tommy as we motored past the lighthouses, the outboard motor humming, the boat picking up speed, the sun peeking over the horizon, and the herring gulls screeching overhead. Somehow, it just felt right.
So I kept showing up at the fish house at the crack of dawn, on weekends, during school vacations, whenever I could. And little by little, I began taking on some of the work. We’d pull the nets together. He showed me how to pick fish. I’d help clean fish when we got off the lake.
One morning the weather was pretty rough. Really windy, with heavy seas crashing over the harbor breakwalls. I started pulling on my gear, but Tommy said wait, let’s go check it out. I wasn’t sure what he meant. We got in his truck and went over to the west side of the harbor, where you can look out at at the lake and see what’s happening. We stood there in the half light, peering out at the churning waves. It was rough, no doubt. He turned to me and asked what I thought. Should we go out? Is it too rough? What do you think? I remember kind of laughing, thinking to myself, is he really asking me this? What do I know? I’m just a kid. So I said, it’s up to you Tommy, you’re the expert. But he was having none of that. No, no, he said. We both decide. What do you think?
I remember that moment vividly. And how it felt. I looked out at the lake again, and said something like, well, I’m game if you are Tommy. He just nodded, and we headed back to the fish house. We put on our gear, got in the boat, and motored out into open water. It was bumpy, to put it mildly, but we got the nets picked. And I remember coming back feeling totally exhilarated. I had this feeling of empowerment. I saw myself as strong, capable, brave, and even daring. I felt that. I believed that. At 15.
So I continued tagging along with Tommy, helping him on the lake whenever I could, until I graduated high school and headed to Alaska for a gap year, as it wasn’t called then. I worked that summer at a cannery on the Homer Spit. And in the fall I signed on as a crew member on the NOAA Ship Fairweather, a hydrographic survey vessel based in Homer over the summer. The ship was soon bound for Hawaii, via Seattle, to survey the coastal waters of the big island. Bring it on, I thought. I’m ready. I’m strong, capable, brave, and yes, daring. I knew that. At 18.