one day, the editor stopped by my desk. he was holding his pipe thoughtfully, which usually meant he had a good assignment. there's an old fisherman north of Grand Marais who is planning a traditional Viking funeral, he said.
i didn't know what a traditional Viking funeral was, but i knew better than to turn down the possibility of a summer road trip up the North Shore.
i'm on it, i said, with feigned confidence.
the old fisherman's name was Helmer Aakvik. he lived in a small house on the rocky shore of Lake Superior just outside of Hovland, about two and a half hours north of Duluth.
photographer Rott and I checked out a staff car and headed north. the drive up was gorgeous, winding through Castle Danger and Beaver Bay and Tofte and Lutsen and Grand Marais. Highway 61 hugs the shore all the way to the canadian border.
hovland is a tiny place--just a scattering of houses, a place that sells deer hide mittens, a post office, and a norwegian lutheran church. it is hemmed on one side by pine forest, and on the other side by the lake.
we turned down the steep dirt road that led to the Aakvik house, which was just feet from the shore. when we pulled into the yard, i felt like we had gone back in time. An elderly woman wearing a long dark skirt and a headscarf came up to greet us: Mrs. Aakvik. she was norwegian, and not very talkative.
an old guy was in the yard; he had a lined face and a mouth that looked downturned in a permanent scowl. though the weather was warm, his creased shirt was buttoned up to his adam's apple, and down to his knobby wrists. he was sitting on the rocks, unsnarling the knots from a fishing net with swollen fingers: Helmer.
by now i had done a little research, enough to know that helmer aakvik was legendary in north shore history. (if you click on the link above, you can read a story told in his own words about a rescue attempt in an icy Lake Superior, when he was in his 60s.) he was nearing 90 now, but he was still sharp. he looked at us with bemusement. he didn't say much. (he was norwegian, too.)
we followed him inside. the house was small and absolutely crammed with stuff. i remember piles of magazines stacked on the floors, way too much furniture, and geraniums perched on little shelves, dimming the light from all the windows. we threaded single-file along a path and ended up in a crowded sitting room.
so, i said, in my best important reporter mode. i hear you are planning a traditional viking funeral.
a what? Aakvik said.
a viking funeral. you know, floating out to sea and setting your boat ablaze.
aakvik sat back in his chair and looked at me. and then he chuckled. i can't do that, he said, in his Norwegian accent. that would be illegal.
and we looked at each other in silence.
after awhile, helmer started talking. he told us stories of the old fishing days on lake superior, when herring and trout could be hauled in by the netful and hovland was nothing more than a scattered settlement of norwegians and swedes. he told us the story of his daring attempt to rescue a young, inept fisherman in the icy waters of lake superior during a fierce storm. all day and all night, aakvik was out on his boat, riding the waves, fighting to stay awake, chopping the ice off his motor with a little hatchet, soaked to the skin.
he told us how much things up the shore had changed, and how the fishing industry had changed. and now he was in his late 80s, and his fishing days were just about over.
he told us that he had commissioned someone to build his coffin--it was out in his shed, even now. we went out with him to see. it was a beautiful wooden box, fitted with a flat lid that was engraved with a curious design. i ran my hand over the lid; it was smooth and strong, sanded to silk.
at one end, the carpenter had engraved the name AAKVIK. and underneath that, a compass rose.
rott and i asked helmer what this meant. he squinted at us in the bright summer sun, and when he spoke, his norwegian accent made his words pure poetry. it's so after i'm gone, i can navigate among the moon and the stars.
a note on the photos: a wonderful picture by Rott. this is helmer and his coffin lid, on the rocks outside his home. you can't see me, but i'm there--holding up the heavy lid and hoping my shadow doesn't ruin the picture. i hope rott isn't too appalled at my inferior scan; doug and i have the picture framed and hanging in our living room, and so i had to scan it through glass.
the viking funeral picture is from google. aakvik did not have a viking funeral; he died in 1987 at age 91 and he and the coffin with the compass rose are buried in Trinity Lutheran Cemtery in Hovland.
TO BE CONTINUED
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