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Local View: Connections rekindle at sacred piece of northwoods

From the column: "We suddenly felt part of a reunion much larger than we had planned."

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CONTRIBUTED / Summer Allen, 5, follows Grandpa (David McGrath) to Bluegill Lake.
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Our plan in July was to visit long-ago familiar places: The cottages near Hayward where we spent summers with the kids. The waterfall on the Brunet River where we used to cool off. Treeland's restaurant where we frequently dined and laughed with our friends Terry and Jane from Winter.

I was curious to see how the places had changed. And I looked forward to the memories they would trigger.

But something different happened on the day our grown children and our grandchild Summer joined Marianne and me on a visit to Trap ’N Fish Lodge on Fishtrap Lake.

Trap ’N Fish Lodge — or “the Trap,” as it is affectionately called — was just down the road from our first cabin on Bluegill Lake. Close enough, in fact, that you could holler, “Hey, Joe,” to the owner as he was opening up the doors in the morning, and Joe Donaghue would turn with a big smile and flash a thumbs-up sign.

We first met Joe, his wife Honey, and his kids Wendy, Randy, and Wanda, when we went out to dinner at The Trap in the spring of 1986. When I told them our plan to build a cabin down the road the following summer, Joe was delighted, and he found a house nearby that we could rent during the construction.

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That summer, Marianne, along with Mike, who was 11, Jackie, 9, and Janet, 4, would pass The Trap each day as they marched down Fishtrap Road to bring me lunch at the worksite. I’d climb down the ladder for a picnic down at the lake, trying not to show the worries I had as a schoolteacher trying to complete an 800-square-foot cabin that my family could safely inhabit.

Without being asked, the Donaghues assuaged my concerns. Both a small-business owner and a handyman extraordinaire, Joe had ready answers to my questions about carpentry, plumbing, and electricity and offered to lend me any tool I might need from his huge collection.

One night, in a rainstorm, he and son Randy left their busy bar and towed my work van out of the mud with one of their Army-surplus vehicles. And at summer’s end, when I feared not completing the cabin before having to return to school, Joe summoned Wendy’s husband Dave Shotliff to finish the roof. A local hunting guide, Dave also later helped us deal with a young bear habitually visiting our lot and rooting through our rowboat for nightcrawlers.

Once we moved in, we returned from town one day to find that Randy had delivered a load of sand for building castles, something our children had been clamoring for. And after field mice moved in when we did, Honey shared her secret strategy to evict them.

During our 10 years at Bluegill Lake, it became clear how much Joe loved his children, his grandchildren, and the remote woods and waters of the Chequamegon forest. So much love that he had enough to spare for a new family that had become his neighbors.

We weren’t the only ones. When Joe Donaghue died in 2014, all those whose lives he had touched felt a familial loss. The Trap eventually closed. The music and laughter were gone. The lodge, with its jukebox and a hundred baseball caps stapled to the ceiling, turned ghostly quiet.

But now, eight years later, we spied an “OPEN” sign on The Trap’s front door. Cautiously, we entered. Then met the new owner, Andy Shotliff — Joe’s grandson!

Andy had taken ownership, remodeled the building, reopened it to the public, and was operating as the manager of the bar and restaurant.

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Although Andy was but a toddler during our days at Bluegill, it felt like we were members of the same family. We swapped stories about Grandpa Joe from the good old days, including when a bush pilot made an emergency landing on Fishtrap Road, and Joe and Randy plowed a runway across the snow-covered lake so he could take off again.

And when Andy brought out The Trap’s photo album — with images of Joe, Honey (now 85), Randy, Wanda, and Wendy from bygone days — there were several moments of silence, as we suddenly felt part of a reunion much larger than we had planned.

The rest of that week, my grown children Mike, Jackie, and Janet, and their respective significant others, Gen, Gene, and Kevin, along with granddaughter Summer, tubed on the Namekagon River, canoed on the Flambeau, visited the cabin on Bluegill Lake, and swam at its beach, same as we used to 35 years ago.

And as Marianne and I watched 5-year-old Summer run joyously down Bluegill's familiar path to the pier, we both experienced a brand new feeling: a mix of happiness, connectedness, and family, through intimacy with this sacred place.

David McGrath is formerly of Hayward, is an emeritus professor of Native American literature at the College of DuPage in Illinois, and is a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at profmcgrath2004@yahoo.com.

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David McGrath

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