The following article was originally published by Raven Words Press in the 1997 Ely Summer Times.
Helen opened her eyes. Morning. Letting sleep slide away, she listened to the sounds of guests gathering in the lodge for breakfast. The talk centered mostly on bait, weather, and how many days of fishing were left before the plane would fly them back to Ely. Helen sighed. She had the whole summer left before she’d go back to Ely. It would be the first day of sixth grade before she could see her friends again. Then suddenly she remembered — today she was going to meet the governor of Minnesota! Right here at Crooked Lake Fishing Camp!!
She jumped up, dressed quickly, and made her bed. She put her current Nancy Drew mystery back on the shelf of books she had brought for summer reading, folded her sweater, and lined up her shoes under her dresser. It wouldn’t do to have the little dormitory-style room she shared with her mother be messy with the governor arriving. And she would have to look neat, too, so Mother came up and brushed and braided her long hair. Then down the stairs she bounced.
Smokey, Helen’s black lab and primary playmate, greeted her with his never-failing enthusiasm. Together they walked down to the big dock where the guides were making final preparations for a day on the lake. Rods, reels, and tackle were in the boats; the minnows seined from nearby Bart Lake looked capable of tempting some sizable walleyes; the shore lunch provisions were packed — just needing some fresh fish to complete the meal; the motors were tuned up and the gas tanks were full.
The three men from Indiana were always the first done with breakfast and anxious to get out on the water. Bob, the tall one, sometimes even fished off the dock while he waited for the others. Bob was one of Helen’s favorite guests because some evenings he would play Chinese Checkers with her and tell her about his little girl at home. How Helen wished he would bring her someday so she could have a playmate at the lake even for a few days. But children seldom came to the fishing camp, and she had to be content with an occasional trip eight miles down the lake to Curtain Falls.
There the Zupancich family spent summers at the only other private land on the lake — also a fishing resort . As an only child, Helen enjoyed visiting with their three children near her age. The mothers and children would go on day-long blueberry picking expeditions, collecting enough berries to make pies for all the guests. It was hot and buggy, but at least there was someone to play with. Helen preferred the days that they drove the boats to Lower Basswood Falls and relaxed — fishing, swimming, and enjoying shore picnic.
Bob and his friends were exchanging the details of yesterday’s catch with a honeymoon couple from St. Paul. Helen waited politely until a lull in the conversation, then said excitedly, “Governor Youngdahl is coming today!” “Well, well,” chuckled Bob. “Are you going to teach him how to fish?” Helen blushed a little. “Dad will be taking him out,” she said, but inside she felt proud to think she probably could teach the governor something about fishing. She’d spent summers at the camp since her father opened it in 1946. Her old bamboo fishing pole had seen many days of fishing off the dock, along the shore, from a canoe, and on the special days when her father wasn’t too busy, even from the motor boat. By now, she instinctively knew where to drop her line, which bait to use, and how to move her pole to entice a fish to bite. Her father had promised that when she was 12, she could take the motor boat out by herself.
When most of the guests had headed out on the lake, Helen and Smokey went up to the main lodge to have breakfast with the work crew in the kitchen. Then it was time for her chores. She wiped the dishes, filled the salt shakers on the dining room tables, and helped out with laundry. The shadowy interior of the ice house beckoned her to cool down for a few minutes. She loved to stand in the cold, damp gloom and be amazed that with just a good layer of sawdust, this ice had avoided melting since her father and his helpers hauled it out of the lake last February.
She played paper dolls for a while. Then, impatient for the arrival of their prestigious guest, Helen called Smokey and headed down to the lake. Walking on the rocks along the shore always made the time go by quickly. She looked for pretty rocks, watched crayfish darting backwards to escape from Smokey’s prancing feet, gazed at the clouds until she could see the hidden pictures in them, and had long talks with her “buddy” — an imaginary friend that was exceptionally good company.
At last she heard the distant drone of Mr. West’s plane, and she and Smokey ran back to the dock so as not to miss a minute of the big event. She spotted the West’s Flying Service Norseman at the south end of Friday Bay, and soon it touched the big floats to the surface of the lake and skimmed along towards her. Then it slowed and sank back in the water, approaching like a miniature storm with its own wind and waves and noise. At last Mr. West cut the engines, and Helen felt very important as she helped catch the pontoon and secure it to the dock.
A distinguished gentleman and pretty lady followed Mr. West out of the plane and down the dock, and although Helen knew this was the Governor and his wife, she was a little surprised they seemed so ordinary. Other planes arrived, bringing an impressive entourage including the governor’s personal friends from St. Paul, Ely’s mayor — Dr. J.P. Grahek and his wife, — and Ely’s Chief of Police. Her father came from town in his own plane. He worked weekdays at Forest Chevrolet, his business in town, and was always delighted to get back to the lake on weekends.
With the guests who were out on the lake today, there were about 50 visitors, filling all 14 cabins for the weekend. The governor’s party headed off to get settled, and soon the other guests began returning from their day of fishing. Helen liked to catch their boats at the dock and see the fish they brought in, and today she could tell them that the governor had arrived. After the guides had cleaned all the fish, she and Smokey hauled the remains down to Seagull Point, then ran back to join the guides and workers in the kitchen for dinner. She wished she was old enough to waitress tonight, so someday she could say she’d waited on the governor. But that would have to wait a few more years. Oh well, at least she was allowed to spend the evening with him.
Instead of her usual evening of a card game with her mother, reading a Cherry Ames novel, and listening to Inner Sanctum on the radio, Helen stayed in the lodge basking in the presence of the distinguished company. She and her mother and father even had a special photograph taken with Governor and Mrs. Youngdahl. Boy, this would be something to tell her friends when she finally returned to Ely.
Bedtime came too soon for Helen. As she lay in bed, she thought about tomorrow. Saturday meant the sauna would be stoked up in the evening. Just down the shore from the cabins, it overlooked a little beach where she loved to wade and swim, but only on Saturdays did they take a sauna. Sitting in the steamy little room and swimming in the cold lake water always made her feel fresh and clean. Some of the guests would join them occasionally, but mostly it was used by the staff. Helen yawned. She wondered if governors ever took saunas, and with that thought, she fell asleep.
Joe Perko, built Crooked Lake Fishing Camp in 1946. It operated on Friday Bay of Crooked Lake until 1954 when the ban on flying made access too difficult for most customers. Helen lived there every summer from the last day of school in May until the first day of school in August, from age 7 to 15. As a teenager, she didn’t like it much, but now she says she “would give her eye teeth to spend a summer like that.” Besides imparting such northwoods skills as paddling and fishing, Helen believes those summers taught her to enjoy solitude, appreciate the wilderness, and be self-sufficient.
Helen Perko Koski still lives in Ely. Luckily, she managed to keep her dental condition intact and return to Crooked Lake. For her 80th birthday her children arranged a trip to Zup’s Resort on Lac La Croix, which included a boat ride to Bottle Portage. She hiked across, then paddled to Curtain Falls. Although she didn’t go all the way to Friday Bay, the site of her childhood summer home, just getting to Crooked Lake was a treat, bringing back many fond memories.
Ten years earlier, she and her kids paddled to the former fishing camp site from Basswood. She could still remember the way, guiding her children through the complex lakescape using some navigational memory from childhood. The berm from the main building was still visible, and she stood on the lakeshore at the very spot where she used to welcome the planes bringing anglers and occasionally some cousins for playmates.
If Crooked Lake is one of your special wild places, we hope you can return there when you’re 80. If you’ve never been there, it’s time to go. Some of the best walleye fishing awaits, along with picturesque islands, granite-edged campsites with perfect swimming spots, and loons to serenade you through the evening.
Campsite at Crooked Lake was submitted by Layne Kennedy and featured in the month of November in the 2019 Boundary Waters & Quetico Calendar. Order your copy of the 2021 Boundary Waters & Quetico Calendar today!
This Raven Words Press blog post was made possible, in part, by the sponsorship of Adventure Inn, which offers clean, comfy, and eco-friendly lodging.