I grew up in a small northern Minnesota town that was rough around the edges. Even in the 1960s, in my earliest memories, the town had a frontier feel about it. Loggers and fishermen, trappers and Native Indians, and the descendants of Scandinavian immigrants were part of its colorful fabric. I’m talking about Grand Marais — a harbor town on the shore of Lake Superior in far northeastern Minnesota. French voyageurs named the place, back in the 1600s when it was a fur trading post in the wilderness.
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 high school. 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, Grand Marais was a child’s paradise back then. We played outside most days for hours — running, riding bikes, inventing games. We knew the best apple trees, and where the fattest, ripest raspberries hung over the backyard fences in certain alleyways. We knew secret trails through patches of woods that dotted the town. We knew about Lake Superior: beautiful, cold, and dangerous.
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. Some of my fondest recollections are of beach and river outings with my family: cold water numbing my skin, lying face down on sun-warmed rocks, the whispering waves, snow white gulls bobbing in the water with a backdrop of eternal blue.\
When I was 15, a friend said I could earn 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!”
I became aware of commercial fishing on the North Shore of Lake Superior. I started to learn about the traditions and history. I’d been eating herring and lake trout from the Big Lake all my life, but previously I had never thought about who caught it, or how.
Tommy Eckel was about 50 — a second-generation North Shore commercial fisherman with an infectious grin. It was in his warehouse on the edge of town that I found myself boxing up fish at 3am with a crew of friends. I remember Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel” blaring from car speakers.
I asked if I could go out on the lake with him sometime. He said sure, but I think was surprised when he found me at the fish house — a 15-year-old girl waiting there early on a chilly, dark Saturday morning.
At first, I just went along for the ride. He didn’t need help. He had me dress in rubber clothes, like him, with boots, overalls, raincoat, and rubber gloves to keep me dry and warm.
Initially, I was an observer, and that was great. I remember thinking that I was getting to experience something very special. It felt like I was taking part in a living history exhibit. There weren’t many fishermen left on the North Shore. It is a tough life, and you don’t make much money at it.
It might sound odd, 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. It felt good standing in the boat as we motored past the lighthouses, the outboard motor humming, the boat picking up speed, the sun peeking over the horizon, and the gulls screeching overhead.
I kept showing up at the fish house at the crack of dawn, on weekends, during school vacations, whenever I could. Little by little, I began taking on some of the work. We would pull the nets together. I helped clean fish when we got off the lake.
One morning the weather was rough. Really windy, with heavy seas crashing over the harbor break walls. We went to the west side of the harbor, where you can look out at the lake and see what is happening. We stood there in the half light, peering out at the churning waves. Tommy turned to me and asked what I thought. Should we go out? Is it too rough? What do you think?
I remember laughing, thinking to myself, “What do I know? I’m just a kid.” I said, “You are the expert.”
He said, “No, we both decide. What do you think?”
I vividly remember that moment now, decades later. I looked out at the lake again, and said, “I’m game if you are.” He nodded, and we headed back to the fish house. We put on our gear, got in the boat, and motored into open water. It was bumpy, to put it mildly, but we got the nets picked.
I remember coming back feeling totally exhilarated. I had a feeling of empowerment. I saw myself as strong, capable, brave, and even daring. I believed that. At 15.
I continued tagging along with Tommy, helping him on the lake whenever I could, until I graduated from high school and headed to Alaska for a gap year. I worked that summer at a cannery. In the fall, I signed on as a crew member on a national weather ship. 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 daring. I knew that. At 18.
Carah Thomas-Maskell moved back to Grand Marais in 2004, following many years on sailing cruise ships in the Bahamas and Caribbean, and after a career as a photojournalist in Florida. She worked on Lake Superior alongside fisherman Tommy Eckel until his death in 2006. She plays and sings in the dance band Cook County’s Most Wanted, and is a jazz vocalist in the North Shore Swing Band. This is excerpted from an essay she wrote at blog.visitcookcounty.com