Doug Lewandowski column: A trip on the big lake with a true fisherman

A traumatic brain injury years ago doesn't stop a love of travel and sport.

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From left: Captain Paul Morris, Joe Minter and Jason Greatfinger display an afternoon's catch from Lake Superior on Sept. 6. (Doug Lewandowski / For the News Tribune)

I have always wanted to fish Lake Superior for salmon and trout, but have a limited knowledge of how to approach it. So when I had the good fortune of reserving a charter boat to go fishing with relatives, I contacted “Happy Hookers,” who connected me with Paul Morris and his boat “Freedom II,” docked at the Minnesota Slip in Canal Park. The fishing was fun, and it led me to Joe Minter a week later. Joe is one of those folks who “lives around the corner and down the street.”

Joe likes to fish. Paul told me that he was taking him out on a charter and wondered if I would be interested in going along and hearing his story. Joe’s life to date has been remarkable through challenges I can only imagine.

On the day we took to the big lake, the weather was warm with the kind of blue sky we residents of Duluth appreciate; it’s not always like this. This day, the lake with its varying moods shone with gentle rollers left over from an east wind the day before. Before we left the dock, introductions were made all around. Kevin Anderson, Joe’s personal care attendant for the past 10 years, goes with Joe on many of his outings. Paul had two deckhands assisting us on the trip: Jason Greatsinger and Birch Hilgers.

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Joe Minter holds up one of the catches of the day this summer. (Submitted photo)


Joe has difficulty speaking, a result of a car accident in 1990 when he was a sophomore at East High School. But he does have a lot to say. He has an Accent keyboard upon which he types messages that are then spoken by the device. His first communication with me was, “Are you the new Sam Cook?”

Stunned, I hooted out a laugh and said, “Joe, I don’t EVEN think so. He’s in another league!” This sly, good-natured ribbing happened even before we left the slip.

Joe is the middle child of Marilyn and Bill Minter. He has an older sister who lives in California and a brother three years younger. He went to Cobb Elementary School on Red Wing Street in Duluth’s Woodland neighborhood, which is now Many Rivers Montessori School. Following that, he went to Woodland Middle School, which was razed in 2014 to make way for small businesses and apartments.

His life changed radically the Halloween night of 1990. That night, Joe left his house and caught a ride with some friends to get some pop from a convenience store. As their vehicle was driving down Woodland Avenue, the driver swerved to avoid what he thought was a bear in the street. The bear ended up being some sod rolls. The oncoming car thought the driver would correct, but didn’t, and there was a crash.

All his companions were restrained by seat belts, but Joe said his broke, and he was thrown into the back of the front seat of the car, where he struck his head. He sustained no spinal injuries but had a serious traumatic brain injury that left him in a coma-like state for more than six months. The injury resulted in brain shear, which comes from the bruising and tearing of brain tissue and blood vessels inside the skull. Shearing rips the brain’s long connecting nerve fibers as it shifts and rotates inside the skull. This usually causes a coma and injury to many different parts of the brain.

Joe spent time at St. Luke’s and Miller-Dwan in rehab and continues these appointments two or three times a week now. Even with his physical limitations, he maintains an active social life. He has friends who get him around to different appointments and events. His long-term memory was not affected by the injury. He sometimes can be found playing blackjack at local casinos — and winning. A few years back, he made it to Las Vegas. He goes out to lunch at the Pickwick frequently, sees movies, and is a Starbuck’s regular.

Joe designed his house, where he lives with his parents. It is built to accommodate a person with his physical challenges. The hallways and shared space are wide open, with easy access. Joe has a lift that he can use when he wants to shift himself out of his wheelchair. The family also has a Toyota van that has been modified to accommodate him.


Birch Hilgers hands off the reel to Joe Minter to land another laker on Sept. 6 as Kevin Anderson watches. (Doug Lewandowski / For the News Tribune)

For a time, Joe had a motorized wheelchair that he’d use around the neighborhood until his inclinations toward a NASCAR driving style made it a problem. There was a need for speed.

Joe’s greatest love is the outdoors, especially fishing. When he was younger, he enjoyed deer hunting. Before the car crash, he once had surgery on a leg. He’d go to Lester River and navigate the shoreline on crutches to fish salmon. Following this passion, he has been to Alaska three times fishing for salmon and halibut, and made trips to Sportsman’s Lodge in Ely.

Family outings with his parents have taken him to New Orleans, Cozumel in Mexico, and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. An ocean cruise and a visit to Universal Studios, Disney World and Disneyland have been part of his travel experiences. The adaptations many of these places have made over the years have made it much easier to get around and enjoy them. Air travel makes all these destinations accessible.

The day of the Lake Superior fishing adventure, the crew of the Freedom II had to devise their own transfer procedures since a lift was not available. Captain Paul and his crew were assisted by some friends with strong backs who lifted Joe from his wheelchair over the gunnels of the boat and set him up in the wheelchair in back of the boat. He and Paul talked about the people they know in common — it was a long list.

Joe is an enthusiastic fisherman. When a fish hit one of the downrigger lines, the reel was passed to him. He cranked on the line with power to spare. After the first fish was netted, an appropriate beverage from a local brewery was handed him in celebration. What he caught that day would easily provide good eating for a hungry family.

Several times in our conversations, Joe pointed to his head and communicated to me that he has a lot of things in there he would like to tell, starting with a biography. From the little time I spent with him, I believe his story would be one of optimism and enjoyment of the life you are given.

Doug Lewandowski is a retired counselor, educator and licensed psychologist. Write to him at


Doug Lewandowski
Doug Lewandowski

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