Smelt fishing was an annual event for our family, kind of like Christmas and the Fourth of July. If you have ever lived in the Northwoods you will know that that does not make us strange at all, it means we fit right in.
There was no question that on a Friday afternoon in April or May, Dad would pack us all in the camper as soon as he got home from work, and we’d head to Ashland.
Dad and his cronies from the paper mill would spend much of the night in the lake. Wearing chest-high waders, they would trudge with their nets into the freezing water of Lake Superior, then pull the nets back in full of hundreds of three to six inch fish, many of their undersides bulging with yellowish eggs. Or at least that’s what I pictured happening. Since this all went on after dark and it was cold out, Mom was reluctant to let us out of the camper. Someone usually lit a bonfire though, and occasionally Mom would let us out to bask in its heat.
The most vivid smelt-fishing incident involved chili and hot chocolate. Pat, the son of one of our neighbors, and I were sitting at the table in the camper sipping hot chocolate. Mom was at the stove heating up a big kettle of chili. The camper was parked in its usual spot, far from shore, when suddenly it started moving. Well, we were all stuck inside. Mom was understandably vexed, but she was willing to ride it out and see what Dad had in mind.
Then he drove over a set of railroad tracks. These were not ordinary railroad tracks you would find on a downtown city street. These were hideous tracks, compact-car-eating tracks.
Though we kids were tightly clutching our cups of cocoa, we could do nothing to prevent their contacts from making a quick exit and spilling all over the table. That, however, was nothing compared to what happened to the chili.
Tomatoes, ground beef, sauce sloshed all over the stove, the back wall, the ceiling, Mom. You name it, there was chili everywhere.
When the truck had come to a complete stop a short while later, Dad came around to the back door to sheepishly apologize. He had decided to drive down to the beach and hadn't realized that the railroad tracks were that rough.
I don’t remember what Mom said, maybe nothing. Or maybe it was one of those things so awful that our subconscious buries the memory so we won’t be haunted by it the rest of our lives.
It didn't matter what she said or did next; the fact is that she was wiping up tomato sauce for months afterward.