Loons & Finns
I wrote this article for Woods-N-Water News shortly after my great-uncle Walt died in 2017. My great-aunt Elaine, who I wrote about in this article, joined him last week. I'll miss her greatly. I've updated the article for this blog post with additional historical context, and it's certainly worth noting that I wouldn't have any of the family history and Finnish customs passed down to me if my Aunt Elaine hadn't preserved them for all of our family. This article was awarded an Award in Craft, 3rd Place in the Magazine/Open category in 2018 by the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers.
For the first time in 16 years, I dipped my paddle in the still waters of Chaney Lake in Gogebic County. I was returning from the week-long Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW) annual conference at Lake of the Woods, Minnesota, and had stayed the night before at my family’s cottage on Chaney Lake on my drive back home to Ann Arbor. A black protuberance on the flat water caused me to set down my kayak paddle on my lap and raise my binoculars, finding a loon through the glass.
I came up here every summer of my youth with my parents and brother to spend time with the Finnish side of my mom’s family, but somehow I haven’t found – or made – the time to visit since I was 21. In the middle of the last century, my great-grandpa William “Bill” Lantta bought an old deer camp on this small inland lake just above the Wisconsin border to convert to a summer cottage (“mӧkki” in Finnish) for his family. The first journal entry in the camp log from 1961 concludes with a postscript noting that “Grandpa Bill caught a beautiful 24 ½” northern.”
My great-uncles Bill and Walt used to take me fishing in the aluminum boat, though I don’t remember reeling in many fish myself; some things never change. What I do remember is hearing the loon’s call, a haunting wail providing the soundscape of the Northwoods. Cedars swoop before the enclosed cottage porch, and a few sentinel white pines rim the lake amidst oaks, maples, cedars, and birch. Before I knew their name, I thought of white pines as “eagle trees” due to the nest in one on the lake years ago.
Little has changed physically since I was last here: the same red log cabin and the sauna any self-respecting Finnish cottage must have. My dad and brother put in a new dock last summer, someone – likely my great-Uncle Bill – built a vestibule over the picnic table. It has indoor plumbing now, though I still insist on using the “huusika,” what you might call a “two-holer.” So much else has changed, though; Uncle Bill and his wife, my Aunt June, passed on a few years ago. Just over a month ago, my Uncle Walt passed away just before his 97th birthday, leaving my Aunt Elaine as the last of the greatest generation which filled this cottage with laughter, intellect, and love for over a half century.
The night before, I flipped through the photo albums and scrapbooks that didn’t interest me as much as a kid. There are pictures of my great-uncles teaching my younger cousins to clean fish in the years that I was somehow too busy to come up here. Then there’s my little brother and me in that boat, and my mom as a teenager with a string of walleye – I never knew she fished! Uncle Bill with a buck hanging from a pole in front of the cabin, which he sometimes used as a deer camp, too.
But then, there are older photos, much older. My grandma Ruth – who passed when my mom was a teenager – as a baby in 1924. My great-Grandpa Bill as a young man paddling a canoe, another of him holding a rabbit he’d hunted with a Michigan-made Marble Arms Game Getter out in Red Lodge, Montana. One was of the whole family after a day of fishing in the nineteen-teens with my great-great-grandpa John, who emigrated from Finland in 1887 to work as a teamster in Minnesota lumber camps and a miner in Ironwood before buying a farm in Iron Belt, Wisconsin.
In 1946, another Finnish immigrant to the Upper Peninsula – Frank Valin - told folk researcher Richard Dorson why many small farmers and sharecroppers emigrated during that time: “The food was always miserable; sour milk thinned with water, potatoes and herring, day in and day out while the tables of the landowners groaned with stews of beef, lamb and pork, and carrots and onions. The lakes were full of fish but we could not fish in them, neither could we hunt game, except by stealth, for the land was owned by our ‘betters.’ Is it a wonder that we left Finland to come here?”
Finns have long found both freedom and a living in the wilderness. My own great-great-grandfather John Lantta cut hemlock bark from the woods near his father Abraham's farm in western Finland, making it into tar and hauling it to Kokkola with a team of horses. And when he immigrated to America in 1887 to work as a teamster in Minnesota lumber camps it was to pay off the family's farm back in Finland. Still, he made time to take his family on the fishing expeditions in the photo album.
“Agriculture required labor only during the summer, while, during the spring and fall, the men went off on long expeditions into the wilderness to hunt and fish,” described Eino Jutikkala in A History of Finland about the country's pagan iron age. “The lake system of the Finnish interior made the going easy for such expeditions, since it was possible to row up the lakes for scores of miles, after which other waterways could be reached by dragging the boats across narrow necks of lands."
The Finns valued their eramaat, the "vast wilderness reserves which were exploited for fur trapping, hunting, and fishing, and which the yeomen claimed as their domain on the strength of immemorial prerogative," as described Jutikkala in reference to the later middle ages when they repelled attempts by the ruling Swedish king to settle them.
I thought of the concerted effort by some of today’s politicians to sell our public lands and I wondered if someday we would find ourselves unable to hunt and fish because all the land was owned by our “betters.” I wondered if that Finnish concept of wilderness was part of why my great-grandpa bought the cottage and continued ancient Finnish hunting and fishing traditions in America, if it was part of what drove me to pursue it as a career as a conservationist and outdoor writer.
That thought was interrupted by the wail of the loon, calling to locate its partner. Loons live for decades – up to thirty years – and some mate for life. They’re also territorial, and a lake the size of Chaney likely supports only one pair – they would defend their territory from other loons. When the pair becomes separated, they call to each other as this one was doing now, trying to locate its lost mate. I thought of my Aunt Elaine.
Cedars and birches rimmed the shore with the morning sun casting a glow over the trees on the opposite shore as I paddled down the lake, not wishing to disturb the loon. In the shadows of the faint ripples on the water, I almost missed seeing the other loon ahead of me, the lost mate. It called out, and its partner flew to it, spreading its wings out as it landed. Reunited, they floated and fished, one keeping a lookout while the other dove, then switching, making their way down the lake.
I turned the kayak around and paddled back to the cottage; I’d been away from for almost a week and I missed my wife. I packed my gear, made a cup of coffee and heated one of my mom’s homemade pasties for breakfast, then got back on the long road home to Ann Arbor. With the windows down and the moon roof back, a bald eagle flew overhead as Eddie Vedder and Beyonce sang Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” on satellite radio.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and a member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association.
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