Despite having every reason to give up and cash in his chips, he has chosen to find meaning and purpose. What would be considered a burden too large for most to bear has become a cause for the celebration of life, family, and friends.
Expressions like “it’s a small world” can be overused. When Steve Toriseva from Babe Winkelman Productions asked me if I would consider guiding a gentleman who was in a wheelchair, I had no idea how small the world really was. My positive response to Steve’s request resulted in a humbling trip down memory lane.
Four years of classes, studying, tests, roommates, buddies, and fishing (although I’m not sure in what order) resulted in a criminal justice degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth with the intent of beginning a career in law enforcement until I was snagged, literally, by a residential facility for delinquent boys in northwest Wisconsin. The sales pitch went like this: I could get paid to live and work on a lake while counseling young men desperately in need of male role models. Sold!
The transition from student to counselor was drastic, if not traumatic. Nothing in a classroom prepares you to hear the stories and witness the results from years of abuse and neglect. It became quickly apparent that I would earn every cent I made and then some. Welcome to reality! As one can imagine, my co-workers included quite a cast of characters. We all came from different backgrounds and walks of life, but we shared a common bond in the outdoors. It was through outdoor experiences that we would build relationships with these young men and help transform them from angry and confused outcasts into kids with hope and promise. Although most of the counselors I worked with were generally from the 80s generation, our school teacher was the elder statesman. Don Christensen was a seasoned veteran at the camp who had been there and done that. He had at least ten years of experience on all of us, and there was nothing he hadn’t seen. Nothing! Now far be it for a bunch of young punks just out of college to sit down and listen to someone who had so much to offer. Of course not. We knew everything, and Don was merely someone we viewed as past his prime and out of touch with the here and now. How wrong we were.
Had I been as intuitive as I gave myself credit for, I would’ve noticed that Don and I shared something special and our approach to working with kids was similar, if not identical. I remember walking into his classroom and seeing a box full of brand new fishing equipment. Now everyone knows that fishing guides are tackle junkies, so I couldn’t resist asking. “Don, where did this all come from?” Don explained that he had petitioned an outside organization for some free gear to outfit the kids during their stay. They obviously obliged and provided fishing equipment to last the summer. The looks on the kids’ faces when they received their new rod, reel, and box of tackle were unforgettable and Don instantly became legendary to them. He had not only given them a material possession, but a reason to forget all of the hate and experience all of the good that surrounds them. It’s amazing how a gift that has more than monetary value can transform forced and superficial relationships into significant associations that profoundly impact the recipient as well as those who give. Now to put this in perspective for you, Don was left alone in his classroom every day to work with court ordered teenagers, many of them having extremely violent backgrounds. I don’t recall ever being called to assist Don in any situation or circumstance. This is a testament to the connection he had made with each of those young men and his ability to use that connection in guiding them through an extremely critical and impressionable stage of their lives.
Even though it was right in front of me, I refused to see or understand the connection Don and I had. Instead, I chose to torment him. At least I made myself think I was tormenting him. It was easy to pick on the “old guy”, and we had a lot of laughs at his expense. Don had been around the block, and he had no doubt seen my kind before. I was young, brash, full of enthusiasm, but not mature enough to see through all of the external distractions that hide what is real. Make no mistake, Don had me figured out. He just didn’t feel the need nor see any productive use in revealing it as is the difference between experience and youthful ignorance. Many years later, it would become clear that he was toying with me. I was so smart that I didn’t realize it at the time.
After two years of working with Don, marriage and career opportunities sent me in another direction. I left the camp in a cloud of dust certain that I would never return. My ambition had outgrown the small and intimate environment. I had no intent to be like Don, hanging around past my prime dealing with the same people and same issues day after day. I was moving on and had the whole world in front of me. I clearly remember the week before I left. Don had come to work with a limp. Clearly, this was a sign of old age and an excellent opportunity for me to get in one more dig. It seemed hysterical to me at the time.
“Absolutely,” I responded. Steve went on to explain that a dear friend of his was a quadriplegic. Before being sentenced to the wheelchair, he had been an avid outdoorsman. Steve desperately wanted his friend to have the opportunity to see the water again and experience everything that he loved. How could I say no? After prodding Steve for a few more details, it was revealed that his friend had rapidly progressive MS and his immediate future was in jeopardy. This trip needed to happen sooner rather than later, and I needed to get moving. Apparently, Steve’s friend was from northwest Wisconsin so logistics should be relatively easy to work through. The name of his friend was Don Christensen. “That’s strange,” I remember thinking. I once worked with a Don Christensen. I asked Steve to send me the contact information for his friend, and I assured him everything would be handled. When I saw the address, I tried to convince myself that this was complete coincidence. There’s no possible way that this is the same Don I worked with ten years ago. Just to be sure, I thought I would do some investigating and made a phone call to an old co-worker that I hadn’t spoke to in years. I began the conversation with small talk, catching up on families, kids, etc. before I asked, as if it had just come to me, “Whatever happened to Don?” Silence… “Didn’t you know?” “Know what?” “Don was diagnosed with MS shortly after you left. He continued to work for a few years before he was physically unable to work anymore and retired.” The rest of the conversation escapes me. I was floored. How could it be? The stoic teacher of wayward youth was bound to a wheelchair? This didn’t make any sense. Then I remembered the limp.
It took a few days to gather the courage. Why would he want to fish with me? Did he even remember me? What if he did remember me? I tormented myself with these questions and created every excuse imaginable not to call him. Eventually, I ran out of excuses. I had promised Steve that I would take care of this, and guilt was eating me up in more ways than one. After much deliberation, I finally mustered up the courage to send Don an email. To say it was awkward was an understatement, and it was impossible to find the words. I had not spoken to him in over ten years, and his life had drastically changed in that time. “How’s it going?” hardly seemed appropriate. I managed to stumble through it, and received an immediate response from him. I couldn’t believe how gracious and at ease he was in his reply. He indicated that it was great to hear from me and was curious as to what had happened to me. We began corresponding on a regular basis over the next few months. He seemed genuinely interested in my life, what I had been up to, my family, etc., and we swapped a few old war stories from our days at the camp. His current limitations were not even a part of the discussion, and there was a sense of humor present that I didn’t recall being a part of his personality when we worked together. He was eager to talk about his kids and hunting accomplishments over the past few years. In fact, Don had taken some trophy whitetails off his property in recent seasons that would be the envy of many buck hunters, and he detailed the accounts of each one as if the hunt had just happened the day before. Same old Don! Despite his circumstances, he had’t lost his passion for the outdoors. I could even sense an increase in his enthusiasm and zest as he told his stories and described his encounters. After several emails had been exchanged, I finally asked him if he would be interested in getting back in the boat to do a little fishing. Although his response indicated that he would, I was left with the impression that he wouldn’t follow through. I didn’t press the issue and left it in his court. I would later find out why he didn’t take me up on this initial offer.
Over the next few years, we maintained correspondence on a regular basis, swapping hunting and fishing stories and keeping track of each other’s families. I looked forward to every message I received from him, and was continuously astonished at his accomplishments in the outdoors. He and his family had developed quite a sanctuary for deer and turkeys on his property as well as a system where Don was actually able to hunt on his own in a specially designed ground blind. A sip and puff mechanism had been designed for his weapons, and he had become incredibly efficient at harvesting his game. I’d put his results up against even the most accomplished able bodied hunters. Now that he was unable to use his arms, full time caretakers were a reality. I can only imagine how precious those moments alone in his blind were to him.
As if this wasn’t impressive enough, he had also been maintaining a website, www.afarcry.info, for several years. The mission is to provide opportunities and resources for outdoorsmen and women with disabilities. Although he never broached the topic of getting back in the boat with me, he started to inquire as to whether I was aware of any resources for quadriplegic fishing equipment. Unfortunately I wasn’t, but assured him I would keep my eyes peeled and would let him know when I found anything. Assuming he was working on something for A Far Cry, I didn’t realize that he was scheming to get back in the boat. A few weeks later, the message came. “Remember that fishing trip you offered? I’m ready.” I couldn’t believe it. Honestly it had become an afterthought, and I had given up any hope that it was going to happen. It appeared that he and Riley had been designing a sip and puff spinning combo and they were ready to do a little research and development. I should’ve known that Don didn’t want to just go for a boat ride. He wanted to participate, to fish. What sense would it make for a man who spent his entire life in the outdoors to watch everyone else do what he knew he could do as well? “You’re on!” I told him, and we began hammering out the details. Weather was an important factor in scheduling the date. Folks with MS are very sensitive to hot or cold temperatures and we gambled that a mid September afternoon would provide the right combinations. Riley, I was told, would also like to catch a walleye, and I was hopeful that fall transition would begin by then and the walleyes would become aggressive. Now the ball was in my court.
It’s easy to become cynical of the human race. Just turn on the television or plug into the internet for awhile and you won’t have to look hard to find reasons to be disgusted. Well, I knew that if I was going to pull this trip off with Don, I would need some help. It’s times like these that restore my faith in humanity and the inherent good that we all possess. My first call was to long time friend and guiding partner Terry Peterson. Without hesitation, he cleared the date on his calendar and responded, “Whatever you need.” After deciding on two lakes, factoring possible wind conditions, I contacted two resorts that I knew had pontoon boats. The owners of Anglers Haven and The Waterfront in Hayward couldn’t have been more eager to help. They both offered whatever they could to assist and asked for nothing in return. Regardless of how our day on the water turned out, in my book it was already successful. The enthusiasm of everyone to help a man have a great experience spoke volumes for the kindness and generosity that still exists.
The plan was to go like this. If we awoke to a favorable forecast, Riley would drive Don to the designated lake. Terry and I would be waiting with a pontoon that we had made accessible for Don’s specialized wheelchair by removing the front rails. This would provide a perfect platform for the chair with plenty of room to move around. Since the pontoon we had wasn’t equipped with all of the electronics and gadgets we are used to having at our disposal these days, Terry would be our scout. From his guide boat, he would locate likely spots, mark them, and assist us in positioning the boat on the appropriate location. I would handle the business end of fishing from the pontoon, and Riley would provide any care and support for Don that may be needed. If we could get some fish to cooperate, that would be icing on the cake.
Don and Riley were greeted at the landing with sunny skies, no wind, and temps in the low seventies. Although these are not considered favorable fishing conditions, it was exactly what we needed for Don to have an enjoyable day on the water. Over the years I’ve become extremely comfortable meeting new fishing customers as is the nature of my job, but this was different. As my old friend rolled into the parking lot, I became panic stricken. I was nervous, flat out! The emotional connection you get from eye contact and a handshake with someone you haven’t seen in over a decade can’t be replicated through exchanging words on a screen, and I hadn’t realized how much I’d been looking forward to this day. As I approached the van, Don turned his head, smiled, and put everything at ease just like he had with his response to my first email four years ago. As Terry and I prepared the pontoon, Riley assisted Don into his chair, and he proceeded to motor his way in the opposite direction. Where was he going? It looked like he was heading home! Terry looked at me, and I shrugged my shoulders. Maybe he didn’t like the looks of the situation and decided better of getting in the boat with us. After about five minutes, he returned to the dock with Riley, and I had to ask, “Where’d you go, Don?” “Guys in wheelchairs need to take a leak too,” he responded. Of course…
After a smooth transition from the dock to the boat, we were off. Don closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and appeared content. It had been years since he had been on the water, and it was evident that he was back in his element. When we arrived at the first spot Terry had marked, you could feel the anticipation. Riley was making the most of the opportunity asking relevant questions, and Don displayed the unmistakable expression of pride and satisfaction that fathers have when introducing their sons to new outdoor experiences. Our method would be basic, but efficient. We’d anchor over fish holding on deep structure and present live bait with jigs and slip bobbers. Riley demonstrated the sip and puff reel for me, and we quickly got our lines in the water. I would need to cast Don’s line in the water for him, but from there he was on his own. The contraption impressed me to say the least. Through a straw in his mouth, Don could not only control the handle of the reel, but he could also move the tip of the rod in its holder with a joy stick on his chair. By doing this, he was able to effectively vertically jig his leech, bouncing it off bottom and periodically snapping it higher. I couldn’t have done it better myself and silently wondered if he had gone through this routine countless times in preparation for this moment. If the fish were cooperative, certainly he would connect.
After working over a couple of locations, it became evident that if we were going to catch any fish, we had our work cut out for us. A hot and long summer had prolonged the usual cool down in water temperatures that typically occurs at this time, and the walleyes proved to be especially uncooperative on this afternoon. Terry and I had spent the morning trying to locate active fish, and our suspicions were confirmed as spot after spot failed to produce even a nibble. Terry diligently dropped marker buoys on likely locales that have produced for us many times in the past, but it was to no avail. Walleyes weren’t in the cards.
While we fished, Don and I carried on a conversation that spanned all of the years since we had worked together. Families, friends, politics, challenges, triumphs, and all of the daily obstacles we face were discussed. It was good to see him. He was happy, content, and had found true meaning and purpose with his life. He shared a story with me that rarely a day goes by I don’t think about. Apparently a few years earlier, around the time I first offered the fishing trip to him, his MS had advanced drastically, and he had two options. There was an experimental drug that may slow down the progress of these symptoms. If he didn’t take the drug, the inevitable was approaching quickly and any independent movement he had left would be lost. The experimental drug came with a catch. If his body didn’t accept it, death would be the result. To lose what independence he had left would have been the equivalent to death and Don wouldn’t have any of it. He took the drug, and saw immediate improvement in the progress of his symptoms. In all of the messages we exchanged, he never mentioned this. I was speechless, and Don became quiet for awhile. After a sustained silence, I asked him if everything was O.K. “Everything is perfect. I’m just soaking it all in”. Then he turned and said, Mind if I have a smoke?” I laughed. Who was I to deny this man a smoke? “Go right ahead, Don.”
Several times throughout the afternoon, we would have to stop fishing so Riley could assist Don in exercising his legs. They explained to me that this was a crucial part of Don’s ability to stay active and needed to be performed religiously. Riley would pick his father up from the front by wrapping his arms around Don’s chest. After standing him up, they’d perform several squats together. After returning to his chair Don would always exclaim, “Much better!” Observing this had a profound effect on me throughout the day. I have heard it said before that one of the hardest things a man has to do is bury his father. If that’s the case, then I would say caring for your father through a degenerative and debilitating disease has to be a close second. I was moved by the obvious bond that they both shared and the grace in which Riley treated his father. Never once did it appear as a burden to him. They would joke with each other during their exercise routines, and I wondered how many fathers and sons shared the same mutual respect and love for each other. How many sons would set aside all of their youthful ambitions and aspirations to care for a man that would require their unwavering devotion and commitment while he suffers with a disease that has no conscience? I can only imagine how proud Don must be to have raised such a selfless and giving young man, and every father and son could learn a valuable lesson from them.
Although Don and I were perfectly content with swapping stories and debating worldly topics, Riley had other things in mind. One can take only so much listening to guys talking about how good they used to be. We’re here to catch fish! Right, I had forgotten about that. I think Don had as well. After conceding that walleyes were not going to provide any action, I suggested that we try to find a few smallmouth. At this point, Riley was in favor of anything that would provide a tight line, and battling a bronzeback seemed like a more than reasonable alternative considering we weren’t getting a sniff from the eyes. Our loyal scout located a deep weed bed in 15 ft. of water and we dropped anchor. I rigged our rods with slip bobbers and sucker minnows suspended just above the weeds. As soon as Don’s bobber hit the water it was down. Chaos ensued, and by the time we got organized, the opportunity was gone. Smallies at this time of year travel in packs of three to five fish, and there had to be more around. Riley tossed out his rig and his bobber took a dive. Fish on! After a brief but eventful tussle, we landed our first fish of the afternoon. After a quick photo op, we released the 16” bass back into the lake. High fives were in order, and the mood in our boat changed. Smallmouth will do that. I’ve never had a customer catch one that didn’t enjoy the experience. They are relentless fighters that put every ounce of determination they have into avoiding the net.
With the sun beginning to set, I knew we were short on time. I looked at Terry and motioned to one of our favorite smallmouth holes at this time of year. If we were going to show the Christensens the kind of bass this lake had to offer, that would be the spot, and time was working against us. Terry sped off to mark the spot, a large deep flat adjacent to a rock reef with scattered boulders. Along the way to our new destination, Don asked me if I ever found those screws for my tree stand. What? “Did you ever find those screws to that nice ladder stand you bought when we worked together?” I was baffled. “Don’t you remember that nice stand you brought to work and assembled in the school before deer season?” As a matter of fact, I did. In those days, a new tree stand was a major investment, and I had ordered a top of the line stand that would certainly be the envy of all my co-workers. I had it delivered to work and hoped to acquire the needed assistance for proper assembly. It had been stored in Don’s classroom for a period of time until I was able to get at it. Upon opening the box and going through all of the components, I discovered that I was missing two essential bolts that were necessary to complete the project. With the opening of our deer season only days away, this was unacceptable, if not impossible. As with most Wisconsin hunters on the eve of opening day, I instantly became a maniacal mess while ranting, raving, and searching every hardware store within 100 miles for the precise hardware needed to properly assemble this perch that would no doubt be the answer to the buck of my dreams. As I was rolling this through my mind, I noticed a “cat that got the canary” grin on his face. Don took the screws. He had gotten me, fair and square. It only took fifteen years for me to get it, but he knew it all along. I didn’t know whether I should punch him or hug him, but the look on his face was priceless. Young punks always think they know everything. He had my number all those years ago!
As we pulled up to the marker Terry threw out, he gave me the thumbs up. I knew he had marked a school of bass. With the sun setting, our time was running out, and I rushed to get everyone in the water. After getting all of our lines out I, turned to look for Don’s bobber. There was no bobber. “Don. You have one. Reel!” I’ve been incredibly fortunate to experience a lot of great moments on the water both personally and professionally, and I’ll tell you for a fact that no fish I have ever dealt with meant more to me than the one on the end of the line at this particular moment as I watched his rod buckle and the drag start to sing. I must have sounded like a complete fool. “Reel! Keep your line tight! Keep your rod up!” All of these instructions to a guy who was sipping and puffing with all his might to keep up with a fish that had other ideas in mind. After several minutes of give and take with Don’s eyeballs popping out of his head, the gut wrenching “ping” of line breaking echoed through the air. The rod straightened, and the line went slack. I have lost monster muskies and walleyes at boat side that haunt me to this day, but I have never had the feeling in my gut after losing a fish like I did at that moment. I’ve never wanted anyone in my boat to catch a fish more than I wanted that one. After catching my breath, I looked at Don and was prepared to give him the old “We’ll get him next time” line. I didn’t need to. He had a grin from ear to ear and proclaimed, “That was a big fish!” My disappointment quickly turned to the realization that this man had just experienced something that he hadn’t felt in years. It’s the reason why we fish. It’s a feeling, a thought, an emotion. Although many have attempted, no one can accurately describe it. You have to experience it to get it.
As I stared at the frayed line trying to unravel the mystery that follows any lost trophy, Terry pointed to the western horizon. We were out of daylight and needed to get Don and Riley back to the dock. When I told him it was time to wrap it up, he didn’t argue. However, I could tell that he had more left. He’s no different than the rest of us that live to fish. The one that got away keeps us coming back for more and creates a thirst to be on the water that cannot be quenched. The trip back to the landing was short, and the day ended as it started. He tipped his head back and soaked it all in. It had been a good day.
As Riley loaded him back in the van, I knew that this wouldn’t be my last trip with Don. A fire had been rekindled, and an old friendship had taken on a new meaning. God willing, Don and I will fish again. I think of his circumstances often and will never be able to repay him for the lessons he has taught me. Despite having every reason to give up and cash in his chips, he’s chosen to find meaning and purpose. What would be considered a burden too large for most to bear has become a cause for the celebration of life, family, and friends. We would all be fortunate to have an ounce of the courage that Don displays to face each day. Courage takes on many meanings and is often overused. Not in the case of Don Christensen. He’s the man we should all aspire to be, and his lessons should be reflected in the lives we live.