EVERY GREAT JOURNEY starts with an idea, eventually this idea begets the journey itself, and somewhere down the road, down the trail, or down the lake, the journey ends. Occasionally, one isn’t sure when it ever even ended. When I state that I am not sure why I did my epic big year, that was true…for a time. When I imply that I’m not exactly sure, besides some sort of genetic predilection, of why I hunt for giant northern pike, that is also true… for a time.
Every journey must have an ending, even my 2016 big year which although I thought it ended in December 2017, and on December 31, 2016 before that, I was wrong yet again. Another big year birder emailed me recently that a storm-petrel, a small 2016-split seabird she had seen on a private pelagic with Debi Shearwater had been passed around for fifteen months and finally someone had said it was a Townsend’s storm-petrel, yet another bird for her and whomever else had seen it. I emailed back “cool for you.” That journey, it seems, is never ending. For me, I saw two very suspicious storm-petrels and one I photographed quite well, but I need to be able to identify it within a few weeks or I won’t count the bird and I like to identify tough birds myself. I could have sent the one storm-petrel out and even had it on my provisional list for a time, those in the boat wouldn’t commit but I pulled it in the summer because by then I realized that it wasn’t the number that mattered, it was the journey.
I thought my big year journey officially ended on 11:15, February 28, 2018, at of all times and in the unlikely spot of Roatan, one of the Bay Islands off Honduras, but I was wrong again, it last 5 more days. I traveled to that veritable secluded Garden of Eden to find myself at this spa and yoga retreat, literally, I needed to find myself. Here, the Trail of Zen leads to the Beach of Bliss, and eventually walking past many Mayan totems, a center of Earth’s energy (located in a crack in the lava rock), you can find yourself beneath the Harmony Tree. What really is bliss? What is harmony? What truly defines, Zen?
This false end of that journey was not due to seeing or counting (or not counting) any bird, and I did not add anything to my yearly numbers. It didn’t end with a phone call. In fact, no one ever called me about it except a German man from Der Speigel. No, my year ended by me reading a book.
Sean Prentiss is a professor at Norwich University, in Vermont, and he wrote Finding Abbey, in 2015. This is a story of his journey to find the grave of author and environmentalist, Edward Abbey, the writer of Desert Solitaire, which, in my opinion, is one of the best 20th century pieces of outdoor literature, and along with Hemmingway, one of the most influential outdoor writers of the modern era.
Abbey was an enigma, and he died in 1990 from esophageal varices and bleeding. Four friends buried him secretly in the desert and vowed to never disclose the location to anyone but his family. Prentiss describes his journey about learning more about his literary hero and chapter by chapter retraced Abbey’s life. By the end, at least for me, and I think him, finding the grave, was more of an afterthought. It was the journey that made him who he was. His journey helped Mr. Prentiss find himself. Finding the grave was not the end of his quest, it was the finding of something as mundane as a concept of home. From Finding Abbey:
After I have search far. After I have ventured deep. After I have journeyed far. After I have found exactly what I searched for. After I have learned much from my travels. And once all of those lessons lead me to this new home, to this new love, to this new peace, they allow me to quit searching for something else and someone else and somewhere else. They allow me to begin a new search, a new journey into the secrets and the mysteries of this one place.
…it is a place the author calls…home and it could surmise my big year or pike fishing, or my life.
So here on a little-known island settled by pirates located on the western edge of the Caribbean Sea, I learned that what is important in life is not another bird nor a bigger fish. What is important is my wife, Silja, and my children: Allwin, Tyko, and Lauren Elizabeth. It is my cats, my dog, and, in a sense, where we live that is important. At least for me, home is not my house but where I feel most comfortable—most at peace. I’m not sure why it took my 45 years of fishing and twelve crazy months of birding to learn that.
Life is tenuous and fleeting. We don’t know if the next moment will bring death or opportunity. Suddenly, around a corner, maybe the next cast, a monster pike or a rare bird will appear, unknown to you just a moment earlier. Sometimes, they get away, but other times…
As I initially wrote this, my beloved Grandmother, Lucille Danielson approached, her 93rd birthday. A tumor slowly grew in her abdomen and her heart pumped like the old leaky water pump in some forlorn cabin. It was better, I guess, than not pumping at all. Grandma had simple goals in her life recently. All she wants to do, I think, was to plant another garden and see her grandson, me. It is like the bonus time of a soccer match. The match can’t go on forever. She was in bonus time and at any moment, the referee will blow the whistle. That is the curse of life, that we all must deal with.
When we flew back from Honduras yesterday, we drove up and visited her for a few hours, as northern Wisconsin is Grandma Nan’s home and also my mother Sue’s home. The woods my Great-great grandfather bought and settled…is home. Grandma was weak but talkative but she was home.
It was a crisp March day in northern Wisconsin, the bears that plague us all were still safely tucked away for at least another month. I walked outside, fed her birds and counted the chickadees in her spruce tree. Somewhere above twenty, I lost count—I have always lost count. Unfortunately, after she told me she loved me and we left for home, grandma passed from this life. A few days later, still feeling a severe loss in my life, we will put her to rest next to my grandfather Allwin, nearby where I will eventually end up. Her funeral will end my big year. Afterwards, I will walk out on the ice on Big Wood Lake and just stare. Pike fishing is now closed until May. So, I will stare at the bleakness, the white and gray ice obscuring the hidden water, and think of the pike fishing of the future and the fishing of seasons past. Some of it was with Grandma and some of it was with my grandfather Allwin. Some of it was also alone, but I guess in the future they’ll always be with me.
Grief is a thing that is both terrible and good, forcing us to remember, both the good and the bad. She always ended her telephone calls the same, “call me sometime.” I should have called more. I should have not moved so far away. We should have gone fishing more. Should haves and could haves that will always haunt me due to my selfishness. I miss her and I miss home.
To Edward Abbey, home was where vultures and flickers flew by. Home had sunsets blanketing the great expanse of the American West in warm reds, oranges, and purples. Home was cacti, and red rock deserts. Home was benchrock, quail calling, and coyotes howling.
For me, home is spruce trees, chickadees, and ice-covered lakes. Home is potato sausage and Grandma’s cocoa cake—the last one I ate four weeks ago, gosh that was good. Home is anything served with her dry wit, feistiness, and stubborn pride. Home is also the cold crisp air of a long winter. Home are her deer hunting stories or encounters with bears.
I have seen many birds and caught many pike, but they are just numbers or ticks on a checklist—just a push on my fishing friend Greg’s counter or useless pieces of paper. I would trade them all to have another fishing outing with Grandma, or time with my children, or to go back in time. Life, however, doesn’t work that way.
Tomorrow, I will begin another journey, another adventure, but as of today, I’m not sure what it will be, where it will take place, or how long it will take. My heart broken, I also still have some tears to shed and memories to remember. Whatever I do, it will, however, involve being home and sharing it with those I love.
Lucille Mae Danielson “Nan”,
born March 14, 1925, Wolf Creek, Wisconsin, died March 5, 2018, Grantsburg, Wisconsin.
Her journey is now over.
To my beloved Grandmother. A world without you is a lonely and sad place.