Somebody to lean on
GRAND RAPIDS -- The boys already are out on the ice. The fishing holes are drilled. The shelters are up.
Logan Nelson is 13. His brother, Jake, is 11. They know the routine.
Hunting, trapping, fishing, goose-calling -- these boys are all over it. They have been doing most of this "since they could breathe," says their dad, Roger Nelson of Cohasset.
Now, they're being called upon to do more than most kids their ages. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997, Roger Nelson is not as good on his feet as he once was.
Early on this February morning, he's making his way slowly down a snow-packed trail to one of his favorite trout lakes near Grand Rapids. It will take him 15 minutes and two rest stops to walk a couple of blocks to the fishing shelters.
The boys are an integral part of these outings.
"It's kind of a dependence," Roger says. "They depend on me to get where we're going to go. I depend on them to do everything we do. I wouldn't go out without them."
Nelson, 51, takes his time on the trail. He walks unsteadily, leaning on a diamond-willow hiking staff and a popple branch he found in the woods.
"I can walk," he says. "But uneven ground is hard."
The disease has robbed much of his balance, and moving his legs requires focused effort.
"It's like, if you were to have your legs go to sleep on you, and they never come out of it," Nelson says. "Each leg feels like it weighs 300 pounds."
In the pre-dawn twilight, a form comes across the lake toward Roger. It's Jake, coming back to help his dad. Now Logan is coming, too, and it's the broad-shouldered teenager whom Roger will lean on as he makes his deliberate trek to the first fish house.
As Jake and I go ahead to fire up a propane heater, I look back down the lake to see Roger, one arm on Logan's shoulder. Surely, Logan is hot to get at the rainbows and brook trout. But he seems completely unhurried, totally committed to getting his dad down the lake.
A pipefitter by trade, Nelson worked 17 years at Blandin Paper Co. in Grand Rapids and all over Minnesota for Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 589. He retired from the local a year and a half ago and is on Social Security for his disability.
Always an avid outdoorsman, Nelson has taken his boys nearly everywhere he went. In summer, they fish walleyes and trout around Grand Rapids. They hunt ducks and geese and shoot sporting clays.
"It's a frustration for them to see me in this state," he says. "They'd love it if I could go like I used to. But it's been a while, and they've grown up with it. They know what needs to be done."
Oh, they know what needs to be done.
Soon, the heaters are purring in the fishing shelters. Logan and his dad fish in one, Jake and I in the other. After a while, we switch off.
This is a "designated" trout lake, but it must remain nameless out of fairness to the fish and the Nelsons. Fishing in about eight feet of clear water, we watch our jigging spoons and waxworms, and we can see fish approach them.
"Oooh. There's a nice brook trout," Jake says. "He just went cruising on by."
In the other house, Roger catches several smaller rainbows and tosses them back.
Jake tells me about the trapping he and Logan did this past fall, their first year at it. They caught exactly 100 muskrats, which are in Canada awaiting a fur auction now.
During the day, the boys point out fisher, coyote and fox tracks. Clearly, they know how to read the land.
Logan has won awards for his goose-calling, which he does simply with his voice. Once during the day, he cuts loose with his honking. You'd have sworn some early migrants were flying low over the lake, looking for a place to set in.
As we fish, the pesky rainbows steal our waxworms. Logan comes to join me and suggests we move our shelter to shallower water. He drills two holes. We make the move. Soon after, Logan sees a nice brookie come in. It hits his white Mr. Twister, but he can't hook it.
He chatters away with the optimism and wonder of a 13-year-old as we munch on slices of venison summer sausage.
"I'd like to see one of those big brook trout follow it right into the hole and jump onto the ice," he says.
Jake comes by to check on us. He, too, has plenty to say. Including this tidbit: "I ate a waxworm on the bus one time. For $5."
The big brookie does not return for Logan's Twister.
After lunch, I join Roger in his shelter. The trout get active, and we watch many come and go, barely eyeing our baits. Then a dirigible passes beneath us.
"Oh. There's Mr. Big," Roger says.
It's a brook trout of immense proportions, at least a three-pounder. It makes two passes beneath each of us, turning grown men into 13-year-olds. We jig our spoons furtively, but Mr. Big won't eat our waxworms. Maybe we should have offered him five bucks.
Eventually, Roger coaxes a 13-inch rainbow up from the bottom. It's silvery-rose, wide-eyed and glittery in the sunlight. That will be our catch for the day.
When it's time to go, Roger grabs his walking sticks and prepares to get a head start. He turns to the boys.
"If you need me to stay and help, I'll help you," he says.
The boys are busy, gathering rods and heaters and gear.
"We got it, Dad," Jake says.
Roger becomes a smaller and smaller figure in the distance -- his thick form, his outstretched arms, the two walking sticks. He has almost reached the shore when the boys start towing their shelters, but they quickly catch up.
How Roger's multiple sclerosis will play out, how many more years they all have to fish and hunt and trap together, is beyond anyone's ability to predict.
"Nobody seems to know," Roger says. "I feel like it's in God's hands. Whatever he does with me, that's what he's going to do. I can fully accept that."