Saturday, April 4, 2015

A Monster Called Jingle Bells

Up in northern Wisconsin there is a respectable sized puddle of water named Birch Lake, near the sleepy little lumber town of Laona.  It's where my folks grew up, and eventually married.  Back then dad was a businessman and mom taught high school English.  I was but three years old when dad's career relocated the family to the southwest.

I might have grown up thinking that city life was normal except for the fact that family ties took us back to spend most of every summer on Birch lake.  It was my annual reboot from nature, and I looked forward to it more than anything else. 

Birch lake was my training ground for learning how to get on out in the quiet places, and unlike most kids learning those skills, the lessons came from my mom.  A tomboy from the start, she could identify every species of tree that grew in such abundance surrounding the lake, and every creature living there.  She taught me wood lore, and how to respect nature, and the forest.  While mom's skill set made her the quintessential woods person, her first love was fishing; and every summer we'd spend countless hours of the day and night dragging fishing lures around that lake.

Now as one might expect; growing up in a family oriented to the outdoors, there was no shortage of campfire stories.  We of course heard about such legendary creatures as the Hodag, and side-hill gulger which were standard fare for those parts back in the day.  There were also the much more intriguing family stories told every summer, and of these, none were more appealing to me than the lake monster called Jingle Bells

Fishermen on Birch lake primarily fished for walleye pike, and northern pike which were plentiful, and some bass as well if you knew just where to look for them.  Although some disputed it at the time, many claimed there were also a few Muskellunge or Muskies, (the largest and most aggressive species of pike), living in the lake.  Over the years the legend grew of a fish in Birch lake that could not be caught.  Plenty of people had hooked this wily fish, including mom, but nobody had ever landed him.  In fact, mom claimed to have hooked him on no less than three occasions over the years.  As the story went, this fish had been hooked so many times there were numerous lures still hanging from his mouth, and when he shook his head violently to escape, they sounded like sleigh bells, so the locals took to calling him Jingle Bells.

Other members of the family had also seen the monster fish hooked, only to escape yet again.  Fishermen would come from all over to get a shot at Jingle Bells, and even though some very nice walleyes & northerns were pulled from Birch lake, nobody ever landed a monster muskie with a tackle box full of lures in its mouth.  The legend grew.

By the time I was twelve or so I'd actually grown tired of hearing about the mythical muskie, and even doubted it could still be alive after all these years.  However, I never grew tired of fishing with mom, so I learned to suspend disbelief, at least for the duration of the fishing trip.  I didn't even mind that she allowed no motors on her boat, because she always insisted on rowing.  She said there was a skill to rowing the boat without announcing your presence to the fish.  She was right, of course; so I watched, and learned.  I did get a few fishing trips in with dad, but mostly he hung out with kids his own age, the good old boys club and all that.  He liked to entertain business partners & clients during much of his annual vacation; offspring not invited.

It was June of 1963, my fourteenth summer at birch lake and the family had long understood that I was going to follow in mom's footsteps.  When I wasn't out on the lake I was up in the woods somewhere.  Although open to public fishing, the property surrounding the lake was owned by my grandfather and his brothers, so only family members owned parcels and cabins on the lake shore.  It was like having my very own wilderness paradise; what kid wouldn't just love that?

I was especially looking forward to this summer, having been told I was getting my own boat for my birthday.  It was supposed to be dad's secret gift, but mom clued me in for some reason, which in no way diminished the cool factor.  It was also the summer I'd chosen to duplicate one of mom's famous feats from the past; swimming the measured mile distance from the dock, out to the island.  Yes, this was going to be a summer to remember.  

As was the custom, other members of the extended family also dropped by every summer as they were able, so there was nearly always a full house.  In the evenings gramps would have a game of bridge going on near the crackling fire in the stone fireplace; as his various grandchildren would busy themselves with games and such.  Other family members would spread out around the place, engaged in one activity or another.  All of the activity would occasionally be punctuated by the popping of sap in the fire, or the snapping of mousetraps going off somewhere unseen.

There was no such thing as a video game back then, and TV not permitted in the cabin didn't prevent us from enjoying ourselves.  My cousins and I could spend hours trying to swing a wire loop on a string, onto a hook nailed to the wall.  Sounds easy until you try it!

Hours after sunset as everyone was settling in, the evening bite was on, so mom and I went fishing cause there were many mouths to feed, that they couldn't all fit in the boat was a double blessing!  Mom's boat was easily the oldest craft on the lake; a 16 foot wood rowboat.  The thing was big, and heavy for a smaller boat, and although it readily cried out for a motor, none was ever attached.  The oars were long & heavy as well.

Moving away from the dock with all our gear aboard, the boat was lethargic at first; but after a dozen powerful strokes it was soon gliding across the moonlit lake with purpose.  I think rowing that boat was moms therapy because she never tired of it, or shared it.  If she was in the boat she was rowing because nobody knew Birch lake like my mom.  In our first hour on the lake we picked up two nice Walleyes and a small northern pike we had to release for being undersize. 

Mom never used rod holders, preferring to pin the end of her rod to the bottom of the boat with her right foot.  She claimed doing it that way gave her more of a feel for what was going on.  When she hooked a fish we'd trade seats and I'd take over rowing.  When moms leg got tired from holding the rod down, she's reel in her lure and I'd send my line out. 
By the time the evening chill was setting into our bones we'd picked up a third walleye and were close to being ready to call it a night.  I had my line out, trolling a fancy new artificial frog lure I'd bought in town.  Mom scoffed when I rigged it up, showing her the swimming action of the rubber legs.  She probably hadn't bought a new lure in years, preferring to stick with what she knew worked.  She was fond of saying that fishing lures were made to catch fishermen, not fish.   Undaunted, I was putting my hopes on the sexy frog lure.

We'd decided to troll the deepest area of the lake a few times, then call it a night.  We talked of this and that in whispers, as we fished, being that voices carry on the water, and aren't a natural lake sound.  Mom always said if you want to catch the big fish, you have to think like one.  On our third pass my line suddenly began speeding off the reel into the water.  "Mom, stop rowing, I just snagged the bottom" I said, almost bored.  Shaking her head; mom says "Start reeling, its a sandy bottom here, nothing down there to snag, it's a fish!"

Very soon the line was tight, and still felt like a snag, except there was some give to the thing.  Convinced I'd snagged a waterlogged piece of sunken driftwood, my level of excitement was accordingly low.  I kept reeling as my arm muscle began burning against the dead weight on the end of my line.  Suddenly the driftwood on my rod took back about ten yards of line, and I was now playing tug-of-war with something quite powerful.  With my excitement level appropriately raised, I braced myself, and leaned into the fight.

Being no stranger to fishing this lake, I'd had my share of good sized fish, but not even the biggest fought anything close to what I had on my line.  Determined to land this fish I set the drag all the way tight so I could wear him down.  Mom saw me set the drag and just nodded, with a really huge grin on her face.  With my right arm feeling like it was on fire, I could see that I'd recovered most of my line: whatever I had; was just below the boat. 

Mom popped the oars out and stowed them up front, then reached for the flashlight as I wrestled my unseen opponent closer to the surface.  She was actually laughing when I heard her ask, "Still think you've got a snag?"  I was too busy proving myself a fisherman to come up with a snappy reply, I think I just grunted "Nope."  After cranking in a couple more yards of line everything just went slack, no resistance.  I was thinking I'd lost the fish when he slapped his enormous tail up alongside the boat as he broke the surface. 
Mom shined the spotlight over the left side of the boat, revealing the tail end of this fish.  Moving the light to the other side we were looking the monster called Jingle Bells right in the face.  For those who've never fished for pike, they are a long, slender fish with a mouth full of very sharp teeth.  Think fresh water barracuda!  Now in the commotion I don't recall hearing the famous sound associated with the legend, but with no less than six old fishing lures hanging from his mouth, and the tangles of broken lines looking like deformed whiskers, there could be no doubt this was the infamous muskie.

So, here I am, nearly exhausted, holding onto my fishing rod for dear life with Jaws trying to pull me out of the boat and I hear mom laughing again: "You still think Jingle Bells is dead son?"  My immediate dilemma prevented me from grasping the humor at the moment.  All that was left was to land this monster fish.  Not so easy if you're fishing on moms boat because she's something of a purist; who doesn't believe in using nets or gaff hooks.  Swell, just great.  With this fish starting to act like he was getting his second wind, we had to figure out how to get him on that boat without getting ripped to shreds by those teeth.  Then with a graceful flick of her fillet knife mom cut the line.  As Jingle Bells slid back into the black depths of the lake beyond the power of the spotlight, mom very matter-of-factly says: "Guess your sexy frog worked after all."

With that she replaced the oars, pointed the boat for the dock and began rowing us back  home.  We sat there just looking at one another, smiling in silence over the little adventure we'd just shared.  It wasn't a time for words.  Some things are just beyond simple language.  I looked around the lake all peaceful and serene again after the battle, noticed my hands were still shaking, and not from the chilled night air.  I couldn't shake the image of that monstrous face full of teeth or the enormity of that fish from my mind.  Fish like that just aren't supposed to exist!

The warm lights from the cabin were inviting as we neared the dock.  Still not exactly sure why mom had cut the line, I asked her what she was gonna tell everyone.  "Why, I'm going to tell them you caught Jingle Bells, but he got away the same way as always."  It took me a few seconds to catch her exact meaning, but I wanted to be sure, so I asked, "Do you mean you cut him loose three times before?"  She paused a moment as if re-living a poignant memory, then softly said, "Twice, I cut him loose twice before tonight, the first time he broke my line."

After my own experience with this legendary fish I found myself in agreement with mom: Yes he might look great mounted on the wall as a trophy, but I liked him better right where he was, knowing the rubber frog hanging from his mouth is mine!  He knows I caught him, that's all that really matters. 

Over the following years whenever the stresses of the material world sent me scurrying for my happy place invariably that place would be memories of Birch lake.  When times were really harsh, and I needed something more, I'd find myself back in that rowboat, talking with mom.  Always seemed to clear the skies of dark clouds. 

Mom passed away the year before I moved to Alaska.  She never pushed me to become a doctor or lawyer because she knew the world has plenty of those.  Instead she always told me to just follow my heart, so that's what I did.  A few years later I was certain I could feel mom smiling down on me when she saw that I was living with my family in the wilderness and teaching my daughter wood lore. 

Full circle.

Of course when my daughter was born I couldn't wait to send photos to my father, and sister, so they could update their family photo albums.  It was a couple of weeks later when I received a letter back from my sister.  The envelope was fat with a handful of old photos...really old, from the 1920's.  A brief note accompanied the photos: "After seeing pictures of your new daughter, I think you should have these old photos of mom at about the same age.  Grampa sent them to me when mom passed away, they are yours now."

In my hand were eight photos of my mom taken when she was just under a year old. 
I laid them all on the table in a row, then got the photos sent to my sister & laid them alongside.  

Except for the clothing, it looked like the same exact baby in both sets of pictures!

I'm not talking slight resemblance here, more like Xerox copy.

Not just an uncanny resemblance, a downright spooky one!

Most astounding of all, I'd sent my sister a
picture of my daughter sitting with our black cat:
She sent me one of mom sitting with a white cat!

Mom always did have a well developed sense of humor.

© 2015 full re-post with permission only

May the Source be with You

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  1. Thank you for the beautiful story.. First smile I have had all day!

  2. Thanks for your great and beautiful story.

    With love.

  3. lovely story brother, thanks for sharing

  4. wonderful story...a great fish tale, as it were!

    1. Thanks, and I was waiting for that one, :-)

  5. What an amazing story. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for the feedback ... all of you!!
      I have enough fond memories of Birch Lake
      I could create another blog just for that place.

      Peaceful Blessings to all...
      (not 1 human excluded)