Finding Fishhawk Lake A Touching Tribute To a Father From His Son
Gary Mortensen loved his dad. That will be readily apparent after you are taken on his journey through a time of childhood and adulthood with his father and their drives to Fishhawk Lake.
I didn’t know Gary until this week, but felt very close to him already because of his love for Fishhawk Lake and the magic that it has brought to his life. It also was the catalyst in bringing his father and him closer together. I asked Gary after a poignant conversation if he would allow me the honor of reprinting his memoir dedicated to his dad on Father’s Day in 2009. He was incredibly generous and didn’t hesitate to say yes. Thank you so much, Gary, for letting me share your story.
A Father’s Day Reflection: Finding Fishhawk Lake
Dad drove up to my house on Thursday for our semi-monthly drive. The “get in the car and drive day” was something we had started doing years earlier as a way to stay connected in each other’s lives. In the past we had talked of fishing trips to Alaska, going to Sweden and other grand adventures but after so many years of talking and never doing, we both silently conceded to scale things back and simply go for a drive.
That I got to do the driving was a big accomplishment in its own right, as Dad was never really comfortable with anyone else behind the wheel. He was funny about the whole being-in-control thing, but I imagine the stroke that left him with a bad eye and atrophied right hand proved enough to let him relinquish the reins.
The first time we took one of these drives was back in the mid-’90s. My wife was on the verge of making me a first-time father and the world seemed big and full of possibilities. Dad was one of those men from a past generation where saying “I love you” was not something that came naturally.
The only son of Depression-era parents, he worked hard his entire life to provide for us, and when he took time for himself, it was usually to go hunting or fishing with his father. I tried following that lead, but I never became the hunter or fisherman that I think Dad might have hoped for, so we rarely did special activities together. It was in my mid-30s that one day at a family event we both agreed that I should take a day off in the middle of the week and just “go for a drive.”
On our very first road trip we pointed the car in the general direction of the Oregon coast and set off. It was a warm, easy Oregon morning and we talked for hours as we drove. We talked about things we had never discussed before, speaking openly and honestly with each other, and I got to know my Dad in ways I never thought I would.
We stopped in Vernonia and had lunch at a small family restaurant and Dad kept raving about how good the food was. He smiled and said we would have to come back and eat here again some time. Dad even let me buy, no small gesture for such a proud man. Not long after lunch we meandered from one back road to another until we came to a sign that read “Fishhawk Lake.”
After driving down a narrow, heavily wooded road, we found a small, scenic lake with cabins all around it. It was a magical discovery. I parked the car and we just sat there and looked at the lake and talked. We spoke of dreams and aspirations, of buying one of the cabins and of what it means to become a father. I had never felt such love from my dad before and I know he felt it too.
Last year when he pulled up, we both smiled, happy to be with each other again . As I was driving, I asked, “Where to, Dad?” and he said “Hey, let’s go find that lake.” I nodded in agreement. It had been 14 years and it was indeed time to find that lake again.
As I drove we talked: Of old stories and broken-down bodies, of little boys becoming men, and mostly of the heartbreak of losing Mom. She had died a few weeks earlier after a valiant but brutal two-year battle with cancer. The familiarity of the drive offered quiet solace as we stopped in Vernonia for our special lunch. Dad told stories of his days as a policeman in Lompoc, Calif., and of his time as a semi-professional baseball player, and while his eyes would light up, the story would always lead to Mom and his head would drop.
After lunch we decided it was time to go and find the lake. I drove out of town down roads vaguely familiar. Neither of us spoke much and soon I came to a road that forced me to turn either right or left. I paused, then started to turn left when Dad said softly, “Son, I think it’s to the right.” I remained convinced that the lake was to my left, but Dad looked at me and tapped me gently on the arm, steering me towards the right decision as he had done so many times before in my life.
And so I turned right. And soon enough we were there again at Fishhawk Lake. We sat in the car in silence, each of us thinking quietly of the woman we had lost. I looked at this proud but broken man and my heart ached for him. Nothing would ever be the same.
My sons and I saw Dad two days later. We went down to McMinnville and spent the entire day with “Papa.” The day went by incredibly fast and as I was leaving I hugged him and told him I loved him. He looked at me with tender eyes and told me, “I love you too, son.” The next day I got a call that Dad had died in his sleep. That was a year ago and it is just now that I am able to write about it.
This Father’s Day I plan to take my sons to go see that lake. I will tell them stories about their Papa, eat at the same restaurant and park in the same place by the lake where Dad and I parked. I will tell my boys I love them and I will cherish every moment.
Gary Mortensen lives in Tigard.
My dad was my hero. He still is. His birthday is today, so it’s especially hard since he is no longer living. He never got to see Fishhawk Lake, but his photo as a young man very proudly showing us his catch (a Pike caught in the St. Lawrence River at the Thousand Islands where I spent many happy summers) has a prominent spot in our home on Fishhawk Lake.
Dad is standing in our old boathouse at the Islands. Mom found this years after my dad was gone. It totally captures the joy of living on a lake, fishing, enjoying family and the simpler things in life. All in that smile!
I love you, Dad. And I miss you every day.
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Finding Fishhawk Lake A Touching Tribute To a Father From His Son Reprinted in part courtesy of Gary Mortensen,A Father’s Day Reflection: Finding Fishhawk Lake.