Dock fishing

Columnist Patti See’s mother, Virgie See, fishes off a dock with her granddaughter, Jennifer See, around 20 years ago.

Here on Lake Hallie we have homemade docks held up by barrels or docks wheeled into the water each May and wheeled out in November. We’ve got dilapidated wooden docks overrun with a staggered line of painted turtles or aluminum ones that catch the sunlight just right and glisten like gold.

Since I moved to Lake Hallie 11 years ago, I have pined for a freestanding dock that juts into deep water to more easily tie down my 34-year-old pontoon boat. Our existing dock is held up by cantilevered railroad tracks embedded in my house’s concrete foundation. Two summers ago, I quickly wrote off my first estimate as too pricey.

Whenever I buy any big-ticket item a little voice inside of me doubts if I deserve it. A friend once called this “Midwestern restraint,” the way many of us Wisconsinites apologize for owning nice things. Pair this with the do-without mantra instilled in me as a kid, and you can see why my last impulse buy may have occurred in the 1990s. My parents were frugal beyond belief. Not just saving bath water and reusing scraps of tinfoil but anything that could possibly be repurposed: from potato peelings to old toilet seats. They believed in coupons, thrift sales, bargains, making do.

I revisited my dock plan last August and got a much lower estimate. Still, I was filled with pandemic-induced anxiety. What if I’m laid off? I might need that cash for groceries. As I waged an internal battle, the spirits of my dead parents sat on each of my shoulders. “That’s a lot of money,” I heard Dad whisper in one ear. In my other ear Mom exclaimed, “A new dock!”

Since my mother never learned to drive a car or Dad’s boat, a dock was the one place she was able to fish without anyone telling her to come in. Camping and fishing were cheap fun for our family of 10. Some of my earliest memories are of casting from a dock at some Wisconsin campground with Mom beside me.

For years Dad untangled cane pole lines for his seven little ones. By the time I came along, child number eight, his patience was spent. Mom taught me to thread a night crawler onto a hook and take off a flopping sunfish. She schooled me in casting techniques and eventually offered the ultimate compliment: “You do that better than me.”

When I was still too young to stay alone, I hated fishing in the boat with Mom, the marathon angler. Pellets of rain, beating sun, bursting bladder? None of it mattered. “One more cast,” Mom would beg Dad as he motored his small Alumacraft v-hull away from whatever good spot she discovered, near lily pads or a sunken tree trunk.

I’d be cranky until Mom handed me the chocolate bar hidden in her life vest. She rarely bought candy, so each time it was like a rabbit out of a hat. The warmth of her body melted that Snickers or 3 Musketeers. A further indulgence was licking clean every bit of the wrapper like some feral trick-or-treater, then washing my hands and face in the cool lake.

Mom was a smoker and a few times she accidentally burned through her fishing line. We watched as her minnow or the wind pulled her bobber further away. Once a Northern pike hit on her loose line and tore past our boat. She lost a prize fish and her lure but gained a story she told for years.

Both of my parents were happiest on water. I recently discovered our surname “See” derives from the topographic name for someone who lived by a seashore or lake, from the Old English word “sae” or in Middle High German “se.” For years my family speculated our name was shortened from a longer version when my great-great grandparents immigrated to the US. It really is that simple: “See” equals the sea.

I dreamed of living on water since I was a child. My husband and I are not Rockefellers — a retired English teacher and an academic advisor who pinched our pennies for life — but you might look where we live and think we are. When we’re outside, strangers often slow their boats to comment our looks-like-a-wedding cake-house with its foundation in the lake.

One especially bold guy in a speed boat once called out to me, “When are you inviting me to stay over?” I realized the attraction was the house, not me, but I felt compelled to tease back, “Let me ask my husband.”

Recently a fisherman asked if I was related to our home’s former owners. I am not, but Scott was the Tangen’s lawn boy many decades ago. I enjoy these interactions, part of my role as steward of this house and the lake. I realize any improvements are not just for Bruce and me but for future Lake Hallie lovers. Still, do I really need a new dock?

In September my brother, Dad’s executor, gave me an envelope with the last of our inheritance. Exactly enough to cover a dock. A sign? I thought so. I made the down payment before I could change my mind.

Last winter I shoveled the frozen lake in front of my house in the dimensions of my new dock. As I walked on that patch of cleared snow, I imagined casting from four-foot cedar planks. Dreams of summer always get me through winter, especially needed last February.

In mid-May, installers Adam and Chris showed up by barge to put in our L-shaped dock. They laid down ten-foot aluminum frames from a large rectangular float. Neither guy got his feet wet, much less waded in the water. It was a two-hour spectacle that neighbors watched from boats or kitchens.

A dock is always a public stage. Given where our house is situated my life is on often display. Now, after just a month, this pier has become part of Lake Hallie’s landscape, though no kayaker nor angler will know by paddling or chugging past that it’s in honor of my dock-loving mother, Virgie. When I sit out here at dusk, prime fishing time, I remember the impossible tenderness of Mom’s voice as she jigged her rod: “Just a little while longer.”