Each year, we send out fewer and fewer Christmas cards. One we always have sent out with great joy is to our favorite North Woods people: Bud (who departed this world in 2004) and Gladys. Just after Thanksgiving, I sent out the cards. The other day, however, I received a sad Christmas card from Eagle River from the children of Bud and Gladys informing us that Gladys passed away last February after a long, courageous bout with cancer. Thus ends an era for our family and a great one at that. Bud and Gladys, caretakers for an Eagle River compound, would seem to most to be the least likely candidates to be of great influence to a family from the northern suburbs of Illinois. Nothing could be further from the truth. After a brief explanation of the vacation spot, I will attempt to explain why.
In 1989, our family started a tradition of a summer vacation that is iconic for the Koerners. We found out about Gino the upholstery guy who had a place in Highland Park from our neighbor down the street. Gino is one of those outdoor guys who had just the type of place to rent for a vacation that was just our style: a summer house on a private lake in Eagle River, Wisconsin. The lake was a good size, but not too big and only had the over 100 year old house that we usually stayed in, a smaller cabin within walking distance which was available for rental, Gino’s newer cabin (which wasn’t there when we initially went), and, way across the lake on the other side, a trailer supposedly owned by a Chicago policeman who never seemed to show up. Gino owns about 75% of the land surrounding the lake, which generally made for a very private family vacation.
The beauty of it is that the minute we would drive up the long half mile or so drive, we would immediately begin to relax. The kitchen of the house is somewhat primitive, but has a stove and a refrigerator and is supplied with dishes, silverware, pots and pans, and the house is able to sleep about ten or so. There is only one bathroom, but that never seemed to bother us. It has a small porch on the back entryway and a large one facing the lake. Both are screened in.
The lake is a short distance from the house, just a quick walk down a small slope and some steps. The walkway also leads to the upper level of the boathouse; the steps lead down to the platform dock. The lake is suitable for boating, swimming (although it is not a sand bottom lake), and fishing. There is a trail going around the lake through the woods in a very North Woodsy type of setting. There is usually at least one loon and virtually every type of wildlife imaginable. Essentially heaven for outdoor boys and during our stays there we had no access to television and rarely listened to the radio. We would play games in the dining room or in the screened in room over the boathouse and do puzzles and such.
We always felt that the activities we had at this place were ideal to test women for suitability for the Koerner boys when they grew up. Not just anyone could deal being this far from “civilization.” We always brought lots of books to read, crafts to do, and the like.
It never seemed to matter what the weather was like, we always had something to do and the things we learned there were amazing. The sky at night was amazing because the stars were so much brighter and seemingly numerous far from city lights. I shall never forget the time that I had jogged in Winnetka one day in t-shirt and shorts only to experience snow in Eagle River the same day and the northern lights as well!
As mentioned, we had found out about this wonderful place from our neighbor down the street. Her extended family used to rent both the large house and the cabin every year and go up and spend time together. The odd thing, we found out very early on, is that Jan and family knew nothing of the caretaker and his wife. They were essentially invisible. They were always there for us, however.
The moment we arrived on scene, when we pulled up in our heavily laden Chevy Celebrity wagon with our kids and supplies, Gladys would show up, sometimes with Bud, sometimes not. Or she might have been there finishing up the cleaning since we had a habit of getting there early. I remember seeing her Toyota sedan that she had full of cleaning supplies. Gladys gave us the “skinny” on what to do, what to avoid and always lots of fishing info. It turns out that she was the one who really enjoyed fishing although both of them pretty much always knew what was going on in the lake and its surrounding forest.. They knew when there were issues with a snapping turtle who was creating havoc with the ecosystem, if the loon was around, what kinds of fish were being caught in the current year, and if the squirrels were going crazy and being destructive. Gladys totally ingratiated herself to our family. She and Bud were good friends to Gino and his wife and always talked about going to the Casino with them and doing other things together.
I need to express here that our family has always searched out people like Bud and Gladys; they fascinate us because they represent experiences and thoughts that we are not always able to connect with where we live. Their knowledge base is oh so different and oh so enriching to us. Gladys used to tell us as well about her experiences at the Vilas County Fair with the different things she entered into the competitions. She did all kinds of jellies, sometimes pickles, and the like. As Mary Kay just stated to me, Gladys had a PhD in life. When she talked to you, she always made you feel comfortable, respected, and interested.
Bud was a former lumberjack who walked around the land with the command of someone who seemed to know what every blade of grass was doing. Bud and Gladys were diminutive in size but impressive in their command of their surroundings. Bud hunted and spoke with great respect for nature and the animals that he killed and he did not just do it for sport. He did it because of the overabundance of the deer or because there was a beaver that was destroying whole groves of trees to the point of decimating the forest. He did not take the killing lightly and he explained his philosophy in great detail, as would a teacher, when he spoke to us and the boys.
When things needed attention, we would call Bud and/or Gladys and they would oh so willingly come over and “shoot the breeze” with us and take care of the issues at hand. I remember fondly the excitement of the boys when either one of the caretakers visited. We bombarded them with questions about all sorts of things, from the sounds we heard in the evenings to plant life we found on the edge of the paths.
Gladys showed us the wintergreen that grows in the forest and the little Princess Pine plants that she used to tie together to make Christmas wreaths. There wasn’t a year that we went up that we didn’t learn something new from either of them.
Bud was the first to take my boys and show them how to shoot. Mary Kay and I had always frowned upon the usage of guns, knowing full well of the abuses that occur in our society with firearms. We had even decided not to purchase toy guns for the boys, something we tried oh so hard to enforce and finally gave in when one of our older boys ate his morning toast into the shape of a gun and “shot” his brother at the breakfast table. Bud, very respectfully, took me aside one day and asked if he could show the boys how to shoot, well aware of how I might react. I was much complimented and told him that I completely trusted him because I knew that he would go about teaching with a full dose of nature and the realities and safety of firearm handling. He did exactly that and to this day all three of my sons, responsible hunters, will be heard spouting the advice of that great, reserved, wise man of the North Woods.
A few years ago, we were up once again at the compound and Bud, who was ailing once again from a cancer that he had courageously fought off for a time, stopped by to visit. He made sure to see us that first evening, forcing himself to come over. Little did we know that evening that that would be our last time with Bud, the next day we discovered that he had passed away during the night. We were devastated, but thankful that we had had that last moment with him.
Gladys lived a few years beyond Bud. In the succeeding years, it has been harder and harder for us as a family to get, as we call it, an “Eagle River Fix.” We always talk about it fondly, we remember the way our dog Freckles used to go crazy with delight up there and how she spent her last year up there trying to fend off our Border collie puppy and even train her in some ways. We remember the special time when Bud and Gladys and Gino and his wife invited us to have freshly harvested potatoes and homemade sausage. We also remember the time that Bud and Gladys invited us to their Eagle River home and showed us the antlers from deer Bud had shot and folksy things that Gladys had made by hand. We remember the year that we were up there with some family friends and experienced the trauma of a major accident in the other family. Upon the return from the hospital days later by me and our friend Gail after overseeing a quick operation in Wausau we experienced a microburst on our way back from getting pizza. It forced us to leave our car on the driveway and crawl under trees to feed our children. The next day Bud came, equipped with his chainsaw and took care of the damage. We keep wondering when and if we can get a chance, as a family to visit Eagle River. Although Bud and Gladys are both gone, the knowledge and the wisdom they possessed is in the hands of some unlikely people in the Chicago area. It is also in the land and the area that they lived in.
We have been touched in a major way and we shall never be the same because of them and the great influence they have had in our lives.