Little "p" pilgrimage
A few weeks ago, I attended what was advertised as a Gordon MacQuarrie “pilgrimage”. I put pilgrimage in quotes because Gordon MacQuarrie was not an overtly religious man. He was a famous Wisconsin outdoor writer who passed away in 1956.
He was born in Superior and spent the first two-thirds of his brief life hunting and fishing in Northwest Wisconsin and writing about it. As his fame spread he took the opportunity to become an editor for the Milwaukee Journal, but he still went home every chance he had, and he continued to write about it.
Despite his relatively brief life, his writing is still having an impact today. Although many familiar with his work would say that he is one of the best outdoor writers of all time, I personally would argue that he is one of the best writers I know – period. His stories quickly draw you in so that you feel that you are there with him crouched in the duck blind, on the deer stand, or flycasting in the hopes of enticing a huge Superior Lake-run steelhead to strike at your black bucktail in the legendary Brule River. As good as he is at inviting you to join him in his adventures, he is even better at introducing you to those he did hunt and fish with – at times with humor, and at times with obvious, if unspoken, great affection. MacQuarrie understood the power of relationships, especially relationships founded on a mutual love and respect for all things wild in Wisconsin. He was able to write feelings that especially men many times feel within, but struggle to say out loud.
In 2017, a handful of souls living near Barnes, Wisconsin in Bayfield County started the Old Duck Hunters Association, ODHA, to keep Gordon MacQuarrie’s memory alive and ensure that he continues to be introduced to new generations of outdoor enthusiasts. The ODHA was a fictitious group of comrades that MacQuarrie used as a backdrop to many of his stories. The group doesn’t want him to be buried and forgotten in the past. So, they devoted a wing in their town's small museum to him and gathered many of Mac's prized possessions. There you can see one of Mac's duck skiffs, a scattering of his ancient duck decoys, his split bamboo fly rod, and perhaps most intriguing to me is his typewriter with a page from the story he was writing at the time he suffered a fatal heart attack still wound on the reel. These and other items are touchstones to his life. I could easily feel his spirit in that collection. When you encounter a like-minded soul, it is pilgrimage.
You can join the ODHA to help introduce him to others; I am card-carrying member ODHA #64.
The same group has also started to host an annual get-together that they have named the 'MacQuarrie Pilgrimage' to raise some money to support the museum, but more importantly to bring together people who respect and even cherish MacQuarrie’s stories. I attended this year for the first time along with 24 or so others, several of whom came from other states.
The highlight of the pilgrimage for me was a pontoon boat tour of Middle Eau Claire Lake where a teen-aged MacQuarrie helped his father build a log cabin after the big pine was logged off early in the last century. The cabin later served as headquarters for many of MacQuarrie’s adventures and friendships, and it still stands on a hillside just down the shoreline from the point that was his favorite place of all to hunt ducks. A picture of the cabin is included with this post (above). It was good to be there.
My favorite part of the tour was the ice house. The ice house was a log structure originally built by lumberjacks who took off the big pine in the late 1800's. One of my personal favorite MacQuarrie’s stories focuses on an planned end-of-the-day rendezvous at this very site one fine October day with his father-in-law, the President of MacQuarrie’s imaginary Old Duck Hunters Association. The ice house is melting back into the land now; only a couple of corners are still standing as you can seein the picture to the right. I slipped a chunk of a crumbling white pine wall log into my pocket. It is, in a very real sense, a relic, and it now sits on my bookshelf next to an antique bluebill decoy that I bought several years ago, specifically because MacQuarrie wrote much about hunting late-season bluebills. I have never hunted ducks myself.
Good pilgrimages are journeys of connection. They connect us to places, people and events that we have come to appreciate as important. They connect us to others, to those who either went before us, as well as contemporaries who live with the same sense of appreciation.
All pilgrimages, even little "p" pilgrimages, provide a necessary opportunity to ponder the important, the meaningful, the deep things of life that shape us, the things that make us better people, what is temporal and what is eternal.