Imagine going on the same vacation 39 years in a row – not because you have to ... but because you want to. That’s been the case, as well as the yearly ritual, for Russ “Rooster” Wester since 1980. He’s made the cyclical journey from his home in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, to the land of 100,000 for a variety of reasons. However, at the top of his list is the fact that there is nowhere, other than Wekusko Lake, that he’d rather be in the early summer of the year. He started this recurrent respite simply for the fishing, but with each ensuing year, his reasons have changed. Sure he still loves to fish … but now he returns for the friendships he has cultivated over decades. Last week, I sat down for a talk with Rooster, his wife Nancy, and one of those friends, Gerard Lamontagne, at the Wester’s Wekusko Falls lot.
Rooster and Nancy aren’t stay-at-home folks. Their home is in Minneapolis and they winter in Texas, but they also travel to numerous other places, as wife Nancy’s books of amazing photos confirm. Rooster, 75, is a big man, with a booming voice, hence the nickname. Talking about the first year he came north, Rooster notes that it was on a whim. A friend had heard of the area from another acquaintance and suggested the trip. “We used his boat, his vehicle … all I did was grab my rod and reel,” said Wester. “We stayed in the tenting area and launched our boat on that side as well. We weren’t very observant back then, because we didn’t realize they had a beautiful boat launch and fish (cleaning) shack on this side. We fell in love with the lake right away.”
Of course, back in ’80, he only had a week of vacation, so it was three days at his campsite on Wekusko and then back to reality. In order to savor the experience, he shot Super 8 video of their adventures and in addition to watching them often himself, Rooster showed them to friends back home. “The next thing you know, people are saying, ‘Hey, can I go?’” he explained. Well … the adventures were on! Through the years he says they have traveled here with as many as six different families and groups as big as 30 people. “Unfortunately most have passed on, or their health is such that they can’t make the trip,” Rooster said, adding that it is a trip he yearns and plans for yearly. Nancy chimes in, “We go to Texas in the winter and he is already making his lists of what he is going to bring up here.” But Rooster counters, “When you make a trip of 900 miles … you wanna be a little organized.” He has experienced breakdowns and close calls, but the things that stand out over the years are the local hospitality and enduring relationships.
“I gotta admit as I get older … the fishing is stellar, but it is more about coming up and seeing the people I’ve befriended through the years,” he said. Some area acquaintances, such as Mark and Darlene Chlan and Lane and Susan Boles have developed into strong friendships and he talks with emotion as he recalls giving Chlan’s son Timber his first shave as a little boy and then seeing him just a day or two prior to our talk. “You know, what the frosting on the cake is?” Rooster asks rhetorically. “When I saw Timber the other day in his uniform (emergency medical technician), looking so good, and I think of the changes, not only through the park, but in people, well, it’s been great.”
Some of the changes that stick out for him are the addition of electrical service, and the now-unlocked main gate. “They used to lock it every night until a guy had a heart attack and there was trouble getting in and getting him out,” he said. “Then there’s the showers … we used to go over to the lodge and pay for a shower, now they have a beautiful shower facility.”
“One change for sure is that even though the fishing has always been good … the fish have gotten so much bigger,” he adds. Wester recalls a time when a stringer wouldn’t provide much more than a meal for the crew that came; now it is a chore to find them small enough to keep. He also finds that as the campground becomes better known, it is harder to get a spot for any length of time. “When we first started coming up, we use to pull into Puello Bay (on Wekusko Lake) to fish northerns … we’d be the only boat. The other day there were four or five in there when we pulled up.” But Rooster sees a silver lining in that as well. “You know when I see all these campers and the place full … I notice these young kids riding their bikes through here. They are our future campers … they’ll be back.”
And it seems so will Rooster and Nancy – Rooster says that there is something else that has him hooked on the area… poutine! “I never in my life had that,” he said. “I’ve had the fries and gravy, but with those curds, oh my God, is that good.” He says he tried it with chicken and bacon just that day and laments that it is a good thing he didn’t find out about it sooner or he wouldn’t have been able to fit in his truck for the drive home.
It seems 40 years is a long time to be doing anything, but making that trek north, without once skipping a beat, is something to be celebrated. I propose that he be acknowledged and honoured for his endurance … perhaps with an honourary citizen award, or a plaque of some sort?
As we close out our discussion, Wester reminisces of fish frys, fireside sing-a-longs, friendships and the ever popular one that got away, then states with enthusiasm … “We’ll be back!”