Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A lake named Squirrel

By Star Lawrence

When I was about eight years old, a Squirrel bit me hard.

I don’t have a scar. It wasn’t even a real squirrel. It was Squirrel Lake outside Minocqua, Wisconsin.

How my parents learned of this lake is lost in the mists of time. All I knew was instead of the chaotic three-week car trips we had taken so many times in the 1950s, we were going to a “lodge.” Jansen’s Squirrel Lake Lodge, to be exact.

The little town of Minocqua, a knotty-pine, Native American strip mall, crept by the car windows and we soon wended into a piney woods. The large log lodge and half a dozen cabins nestled in a sea of pine needles and mossy rocks.

Beyond, down a hill, was Squirrel Lake, a large, undeveloped lake with only a few cabins, funneling into a water lily-clogged river leading to a dam. Actually, I believe the whole lake was a widened river of some sort and went on and on off to the right. You could hardly row a boat at our end because of the rubbery, cable-like lily stems.

Mrs. Jansen wore a bib apron and cooked the most incredible meals imaginable on a wood stove. Her husband had come from Norway, given her two sons and then had died, leaving her to forage. She called in some workmen, built the lodge and cabins, and started her business.

The lightly breaded fish, the garden-ripened tomato sandwiches, the teetering chocolate cakes, the fried chicken, the cloud-like mashed potatoes with good old Wisconsin butter. Three meals a day waited for the clang of the outdoor dinner bell to call the fishermen to the table.

Muskies were the draw at Squirrel Lake, that huge, mean customer with an underslung jaw and bad attitude. Muskelunge were also the sole topic of conversation. My father and brothers reveled.

You had, by law, to throw this monster of the depths back if it was less than 36 inches. This was a fish, babies! In 15 years, my father never caught a keeper. But, somehow, this was beside the point.

For us kids Squirrel also yielded up a rainbow of bluegills, sunnies, and perch. I remember Dad catching a Northern pike, which bit him and drew blood even though it was “dead.”

The days passed slowly, filled with the lake-smell, the gentle lapping, the buzzy insects, and the scorchy sunlight filtering through the pines. I curled in the lodge under the glare of stuffed deer and bears and devoured the novels in the bookcase. It was my sex education.

At night, the slightly damp sheets felt cold and as heavy as a lead X-ray protector and we snuggled down deep.

Squirrel bit me hard.

We went every summer for years. Then, we began to leave home for college and marriage and did not go back for more than a decade. I had a baby at age 38, and her father and I took my brother and his new wife to Jansen’s for their wedding present.

They say you can never go home again. I have always taken this as a warning—Don’t try it, you might lose your memories.

I called the number and Mrs. Jansen answered. We went.

Everything lay as if in a time warp, as if it were sealed in a snow globe, minus the snow. There were no more cabins on the lake than before. It smelled the same. The sunlight. The whispery waves. The meals were just as toothsome, even impressing my gourmet-cook partner. The same books were even in the bookshelves of the lodge.

My partner wanted to catch a muskie, he, a New York boy from 112th Street. He tried day after day, then one day, down below the dam, he did a doubletake as a duckling snapped underwater as if on a rubber band. Muskie! With the thing trapped in the pool, he fished and fished. Finally, he called in a helper from the bait store...

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