Normal never felt, or looked, so good

by Tom Coombe
Echo editor
Back to normal.
In today's new world, those three tiny words carry an oversized meaning.
Shagawa Lake and some invaluable, memorable family time made that clear to me on a sunny May afternoon.
Let's face it: since mid-March or so, nothing has been normal in Ely, in Minnesota, the United States or anywhere in the world for that matter.
For a time, Ely and much of the nation all but shut down, closing schools and businesses, ceasing travel and crippling airports and vacation hot spots.
Instead there were horrific images and mind-numbing statistics about the impact, and potential future impacts, of the coronavirus.
One domino after another fell in March, with businesses shutting down and others ordered to be closed. Church services and community events went by the wayside and local governments gathered to declare emergencies before going into their own bunkers, closing down public buildings and holding public meetings - often awkwardly - via technology.
Schools went on a bit of a hiatus with word soon to come that distance learning - one of many new corona-driven buzzwords - would take hold for the remainder of the school year. First the senior D.C. trip, then prom and finally graduation fell victim to current events.
The sports world wasn't immune, with professional and collegiate sports seasons abruptly ending, the high school basketball tournaments cut midstream, and the high school spring season going down as the season that never was. And after nearly a century, American Legion Baseball won't be played in Ely or anywhere in Minnesota this year.
The hits just kept on coming through March and into April, and even a beautiful spring - at least for Ely's standards - only served as a reminder as what might have been.
A usually hectic time filled with baseball games and practices, city and school meetings and recruiting trips, early mornings and late nights and jam-packed weekends were replace by drab routines. A trip to the dump and nearly-daily stops at Holiday or the grocery stores were highlights.
May was filling in much like the previous two months, but a wide-open date on a usually full schedule provided a unique opportunity: a pontoon boat day trip on Shagawa Lake.
For me, boat rides and fishing are foreign concepts. Despite a life spent almost entirely in the 55731 zip code, it's probably been 30 years since I've spent any boat time on one of our lakes and my lifetime over/under could safely be set in the single digits.
But the stars aligned last Friday, thanks in large part to the coronavirus. Jacob and Robert were itching to get me into a boat, Macy wanted to try fishing for the first time and Hollee practically grew up in the water at her family's Burntside Lake cabin. My mother-in-law Peg made the arrangements and joined us, brother-in-law Dale and his son Alex came from Virginia.
Mindful of my aversion to water and watercraft - a pontoon was the smallest boat I'd even consider entering - I had little to do that day but enjoy the ride and the scenery.
It was cloudy and just a bit breezy when Dale pulled the pontoon out from Lady Bug Lodge and my crew - loaded with food, beverages and fishing rods - set out for our adventure.
Dale captained our ship and cruised across the lake. I looked back at Lady Bug and couldn't help turning back the clock to the 1980s, when I knew the place as Olson Bay Resort and remembered oh-so-many trips to its well-known restaurant and its Paul Bunyan "Mountain of a Meal." At age 10, I got my name on the wall for polishing off a pound worth of fish.
We stopped and started across the lake for a few hours, cruising by places I knew only from land - ranging from the homes of friends and acquaintances and landmarks such as Semers Park, the Grand Ely Lodge, and the sea plane base.
Fishing was supposed to be one of the goals of the trip, but other than a nibble or two that robbed poles of their minnows, we got skunked.
That didn't seem to faze any of the boys, who were right at home on the water. Jacob could be a professional fisherman and he earned "big brother of the year" award for his patience with his six-year-old sister. Macy's smiles and genuine excitement made the day. Robert cast a few lines as well but was just as content to stretch out in the boat and simply relax. Need stress relief? There's a 14-year-old in Ely that knows how to set aside life's difficulties and improve anyone's mood.
His mom smiled for much of the trip. I got the feeling Hollee enjoyed this as much or maybe even more than our kids. While my routine has been disrupted, hers has been turned upside down for the better part of two months. She works from home, oversees three kids and their "distance learning" school work and manages all of the chaos of a family of five. She deserved this getaway, albeit as brief as it was, more than any of us.
Peg laughed and shared some stories and Dale took good care of the boat, warning me well in advance of any turbulence. Old pros on the lake, they helped settle the nerves of a novice. Good and lasting memories were made on a day that started with trepidation.
Clouds gave way to the sun midway through our journey and the peace and serenity of Shagawa Lake - interrupted every so often by other friendly boaters and anglers - made me temporarily forget the lexicon of 2020. Social distancing, COVID-19, flatten the curve, antibody testing and the absolute worst of the worst: “the new normal."
Sorry, I'm just not buying nor accepting that our future will be defined by distance learning, pepretual restrictions on small businesses, masks, staying six feet apart and nursing homes that permanently separate the elderly from their loved ones. That's no future. We can and must do better.
Those thoughts prevailed as Dale pulled the pontoon back toward Lady Bug Lodge. We crossed paths with a couple of smaller fishing boats as we pulled in.
After disemabarking, I couldn't help but be taken aback. To my left, another party with a fishing boat attached to their truck, pulled into the resort. To my right, outside cabins, were vehicles that brought visitors to enjoy the lake and an Ely weekend Ahead of me on a deck was another group, food and beverages in hand, about to start a weekend away from reality. Nowhere was there any sign or signal or evidence of current events. It looked like a photo that could have been taken on any May weekend in Ely, pre-2020. It looked, dare I say, normal.
And it never, ever, looked so good.