Last week I lost my uncle, Winford Swaby. Winford was known for many things, but what he was known for more than anything, was his love of fishing. Winford, or Frog as he was also known, would take annual trips into the Canadian north woods for backcountry fishing. In June of 1999 I graduated high school, and as a token of the accomplishment, Winford took me to Canada with him.
While sitting at the funeral home and sharing stories with the family about fishing and life, the thought came to me about the people who have influenced my love of the outdoors. The ones whose kindness and enthusiasm moved me to experience new things. Experiences that have grown into a lifelong pursuit.
Some of my earliest memories are of my maternal grandfather, Vernon Burgess, and I fishing together at the pond on his property, the property that I now own. During the day, when Mom would be gone to work I never had to go to daycare or a babysitter. Rather, I was fortunate to spend all day, every day, with my grandparents. Out in the country, with acres to roam and fish to be caught I couldn't have imagined a more perfect childhood.
Vernon had recently retired from a career as manager at the Farm Bureau Co-op and as such had plenty of free time for his youngest of seven grandchildren. A typical day would start by sitting at his kitchen table, watching him drink instant coffee and eat a concoction of peanut butter and syrup slathered on white bread. A small red TV, displaying a black and white picture, one with the bunny ear antenna wrapped in aluminum foil would crackle out the morning news. Only after his morning ritual was complete would I work up the nerve to ask the question that he knew was inevitably coming. "Pap, will you take me fishing today?" More often than not the answer was yes.
The majority of our fishing excursions were close to home. Vernon was a product of "Great Depression America." Born in 1920, in Mitchell, he grew up poor. As a young boy I listened to him tell stories of his family being forced to eat opossum or go hungry. To hear him tell it opossum wasn't bad if seasoned with sassafras and cooked suspended from an oven rack so that the grease and fat would drip away. I've never been brave enough to try this particular dish, maybe one of these days, probably not. Being poor never dulled his outlook on life, instead it made him appreciate what he had, and allowed him to stay connected to the land around him.
The fishing that Vernon loved more than any other was to sit patiently along a river bank, waiting for whatever may bite. Many of my favorite memories of him are the friendly competitions we would have, sitting side by side, each hoping to catch the largest fish.
The summer of 2012, Vernon being 92 years old, saw his health start to slip dramatically. More than anything in the world I wanted to be able to experience that bond we once shared on the river bank so many years before. In June, on a day when the weather would be ideal for him, Nick Powell and I arranged to take him on one last river adventure. Nick was a longtime childhood friend who thought of Vernon as much of a grandpa as I. Determined to see him out-fish me one more time we catered to his every need. We picked a spot along the river where we could park the truck close enough that he could fish mere steps away. I baited his hook and cast his line for him, all he had to do was reel the fish in.
Soon after getting Vernon set up I moved down the shore to set up my own rod. Little did I know that he would hook into a fish almost as soon as he sat down. And so it went, he caught several fish that morning, the look on his face after each catch told the story of how happy he was to be on the river once again.
This was the last fishing trip he went on and I am proud to have been a part of it. June of the following year Vernon passed away. My favorite picture of him was taken on this last river trip. He is holding a freshwater drum and it's difficult to tell which is brighter, his gleaming smile or the sun shining just above him.
Whereas Vernon taught me an appreciation for everything Greene County had to offer, Uncle Winford opened my eyes to the joys of the traveling sportsman. I caught more fish on that trip to Canada than I had caught in any week of my life. I don't know how many northern trips Winford had taken prior to taking me, but I know that his love of the great north woods had never diminished. He made a point to show me all there was to see on the boat ride back to the lake.
As fate would have it my canoe partner for this trip never showed up the day of departure. Leaving us with an odd number of fisherman put me in the awkward position of third man in a canoe, between Winford and his son Scott. What at first seemed to be an inconvenience turned into a blessing as I was able to spend precious hours getting acquainted with my uncle and cousin. I can still hear Winford's voice as a musky exploded from the water, next to the boat, attempting to grab my lure. As the fish thrust itself free of the lake Winford was recoiling to the side saying "Get that toothy critter away from me!" Or the look on his face in camp when he realized he had stepped into someone's pile of excrement, I'll keep his sentiments to myself on this one.
I want to thank these men for sharing of themselves with me. Their passion and example set me up for a lifetime of fun that now I am able to pass on to my four children. Most of us with an outdoor passion were introduced to it from someone else. Whether it be family or friend doesn't matter. The most important thing to remember is the way these people helped shape us and to do the same for others.