Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My Father-in-Law

Quarry Point
"Dad's Rock"--Quarry Point, Port Wing, Wisconsin
August 14, 2014, would have been my father-in-law’s 98th birthday. He was a quiet man, but had a wonderfully wry sense of humor. Back when Russ and I were dating in high school, sometimes I’d be invited for dinner. I didn’t often want seconds, and Russ’s mom would comment that I ate like a bird. Every time, Russ’s dad gave me a quick smile and piped in, “No she doesn’t. She uses a fork just like anybody else.” His name was Ellwood and at the time I called him Mr. Erickson, but when Russ and I got married, it was ever so easy to start calling him Dad.

1989 Mom, Dad, Joey and Katie at bird house
Russ's mom and dad, Joey and Tommy. (Katie's off to the side.)

My in-laws spent vacations fixing up a little place in Port Wing, Wisconsin, where they moved permanently when my father-in-law retired in 1979. I loved Port Wing even before I became a birder, but it became ever so much richer when I discovered its avian treasures. When my father-in-law went fishing on the Flag River, I often tagged along. We’d spend hours at the streamside without talking. He focused on brook trout, I on warblers and thrushes, but our shared love of being together in that beautiful place didn’t need words.

He also often fished in Lake Superior, from a big rock jutting into the lake just beyond the Quarry Beach. When I got there on my long walks, I’d sit down on the rock for a companionable few minutes. Sometimes my mother-in-law would send him off with lunch or snacks for both of us. As we ate, we’d tell each other how the fishing and birding were going. Before I got back to my walk, I’d point out a group of baby mergansers or a couple of Spotted Sandpipers as he started casting again.

When I came back to the house tired after walking 8 or 12 miles, he’d tease me, saying he could see birds closer just sitting in his chair watching his bird feeders and Marty Stauffer. When he’d complain about all the Blue Jays pigging out at those feeders, I’d tease him right back. When I talked about Blue Jays on my radio program, I often mentioned a fictitious organization, the “Port Wing Blue Jay Haters,” and for Christmas one year, I created a poster for him showing a Blue Jay circled in red with a red slash through it above the words, “Port Wing Blue Jay Haters. Ellwood Erickson, President.” He got a big kick out of that.

Port Wing Blue Jay Haters

One year I put a poem on his birthday card:
There once was an angler named Ellwood
Who fished up in Port Wing, not Bellwood.
   He cast out his line,
   Caught a large branch of pine,
And angrily muttered, “Oh, hell! Wood!”
He got the hugest kick out of that, perhaps especially because of the naughty rhyme.

My father-in-law died in 1992, but whenever I see a Great Gray Owl, I think of one particular one sitting on the fencepost not too far from the house when I was returning after a long winter walk. I rushed in yelling, “There’s a Great Gray Owl on the fencepost!” and he raced out the door, not even grabbing his coat, to see it. I think of him whenever I see Blue Jays. And whenever I’m taking a walk in Port Wing and come to Quarry Beach, there he is, a solitary and beloved figure, lowering his rod and reel to wave to me.