Emmaville Store, circa 1969

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Viking Outfitter

I wish I knew Ray before. When I met him, shortly after we purchased Emmaville, he was struggling to recover from a stroke he suffered earlier that year.  His speech was difficult to understand, which made it hard for him to tell the stories he so wanted to tell.

Ray was a retired 3M employee, but never worked in Maplewood or any other manufacturing plant.  Ray worked as a fishing guide at 3M's conference center, located 3 miles east of Emmaville on Big Mantrap Lake.  He marketed himself as the "Viking Outfitter" and was a local legend.  Ray and his wife, Lillelue, a spunky retired schoolteacher, lived just a mile north of Emmaville in a modest house in the woods.

Ray was a true son of the North Country, at home in the woods and on the lakes.  His parents owned a resort on Third Crow Wing Lake, where Ray developed his love of fishing. He grew up in a time and place where a boy could learn all he wanted to know by being outside.

Ray learned other lessons about bravery, pain and deep friendship fighting in the Korean War.  In 1951, he was severely wounded in battle, and would not have survived without the actions of a friend who found him on the battlefield.  According to military records, Ray recovered and returned to duty, serving a total of 21 months.

The first few times Ray came in the store, he brought me samples of his hand-tied flies, made with deer hair, squirrel tails, and whatever else he could get his hands on. He would stand at the bar, his diamond willow walking stick at rest against a barstool, and tell me what fish species the flies were used for, how to cast them, and even where to go to use them. The words were so hard to get out, but he really wanted to share his knowledge with me.

While I was an attentive listener, wanting to soak in as much information as I could, I knew I wouldn't be able to follow through on Ray's advice anytime soon, given my work schedule.  Owning Emmaville is like owning a dairy farm - you can never really get away. I wish I knew Ray before.
One day Ray brought in some photo albums.  Most of the photos were black and white, showing him as a young man, holding up gigantic muskies and northern pike.  In some photos, one or more middle-aged men stood next to Ray.  From the looks of their "dress casual" attire, they appeared to be executives from 3M or other companies that dealt with 3M. In all of the pictures, Ray is smiling. In some of the pictures, the other men are looking at him, admiring the legend.

The pictures also told me that Ray had a conversion experience in his later years. Back in those heady days, no one thought about catch and release.  The fish were mounted by a taxidermist or eaten.  But by the time I met Ray, he was a staunch catch-and-release advocate.  He would get pretty worked up about this issue, or wolf management or other conflicts involving the land and water he loved. Sometimes he got so emotional he teared up, but that might have been an effect of the stroke. Although the Ray I knew may have been a shell of his former self, it was clear that he was a man of conviction.

There was another side of him, too. Ray was an accomplished musician, having learned to play the mandolin, the fiddle, guitar and even accordion. Years back, he and several friends would gather in the Emmaville Cafe and jam.  The Ray I knew couldn't play much any more.  When we had an open house or Christmas party, he would bring in his mandolin or accordion and play a few notes. He could play a bit of the melody, but couldn't finish. The stroke had robbed him of his musical talent.

The funny thing about Ray was he liked to make a fashion statement.  He wore a cavalry hat, complete with a braid, like the one John Wayne used to wear fighting the Indians.  He also wore a variety of bolo ties, many of them homemade, or necklaces, kerchiefs, vests, and colorful pearl-button cowboy shirts.  And always, always, dark aviator sunglassses.

I got the impression that Ray liked to draw attention to himself, and clearly knew how to manage his reputation. Perhaps that's just part of being a legendary guide and woodsman.  He insisted I display his flies, mounted on pieces of driftwood or cork.  It seemed that he saw in our store one last opportunity, not to promote himself, but to ensure he would not be forgotten.

One of the last items Ray brought in to show me was his custom-made, split-bamboo fly rod. Over eight feet long, it was a three-piece, perfectly balanced and beautiful. He also brought in a well-used Pflueger Medalist No. 1495 fly reel, probably made in the 1950s.  The amazing thing about Ray was he used fly rods to catch big northerns and muskies, the fightingest fish around. My guess is this was another conversion. Having been so successful with conventional rods and reels, he found using a fly rod more sporting.  He wanted me to put it on display in the bar.

Watching Ray's decline over past couple of years was heartbreaking. As Lillelue became Ray's full-time caregiver, friends and neighbors helped where they could with meals, housekeeping and running errands.  I'm sure Ray wanted to live out his days in his woodland home but Lillelue was wearing out. Often she came in to the store, exhausted and exasperated.  They moved to assisted living in town a year ago last fall.

We saw Ray one last time here in the store early last spring but I didn't get a chance to talk with him.  He passed away in May, not long after we lost Clayton.

His split-bamboo fly rod and reel still hang in the bar. We had a nice photo of him holding a large northern he'd caught on the rod in the Emmaville "Wall of Fame" photo album. I had hoped to frame it and hang it next to the fly rod, but sometime in the last couple years it went missing.

We still remember the Viking Outfitter anyway, and I still wish I knew him before. I'm lucky to have known him at all.
Ray and Lillelue at the Emmaville Cafe

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