Spirit of Adventure

the people you meet in the great outdoors put nature’s value in perspective

Rob Hanson, photos by Rob Hanson

Lake Eau Claire
Lake Eau Claire

I’ll never forget the brilliant defiance in Herb Comstock’s laugh as he recalled a recent conversation with his doctor. It was the last 10-hour shift of my first season as a fisheries technician with the Department of Natural Resources, the day before Halloween 2013, and Herb was one of only a handful of fisherman still braving the gloomy, windswept chop of Lake Eau Claire in pursuit of its jumbo-sized perch and walleye.

Now, obviously most people don’t take chemotherapy lightly. But then again, guys like Herb don’t take their deer hunting lightly, either. And before he would agree to continue taking a chemical that might save his life – but is guaranteed to make him feel like death – Herb had more imminent concerns.

“Not until after deer hunting,” he proclaimed. “Yep, I told the doctor I’m not going to get sick and miss hunting season. When I get back, then we’ll talk about it.”

Few are more protective of a precious fishery than those who like to fish it. And in a way, for people like Herb, nature will sometimes reciprocate.I laughed: Who could argue with that kind of gumption? But in the end I walked away with a lump in my throat. Despite surpassing his three-year life expectancy by a decade, his worsening condition had become apparent throughout the fall. Herb – a lake resident and a guy who enjoys nothing more than putting on a fish fry for his kids and grandkids – and I chatted at least a couple of times each week. He was always willing to tip me off on what lures were hot, and impart his wisdom as butcher of 34 years on everything from cooking fish fillets to properly handling venison. But I had a feeling this might be our last chat – and not because I would be on a different lake the following season.

There is a lot in the way of adventure one could write about after spending 40 hours a week for months on end in a boat. There are camping and fishing tips, and unique sightings like the snake that tried to steal a stringer full of fish or the man-sized muskies that would put the fear of God into anyone who dares to dip their toes.

But what comes to mind more than the where-to and how-to aspects of adventure is the spirit of adventure that is embodied by characters like Herb and so many others around the world who seek fulfillment in the outdoors. People who not only choose to seek recreation in the natural world, but need to. People who more often than not take their lifestyle to its logical conclusion, becoming heavily involved in their communities and putting a focus on stewardship.

Herb Comstock
Herb Comstock

A hill may not stand up to a mining company if those who hike it don’t speak up. Few are more protective of a precious fishery than those who like to fish it. And in a way, for people like Herb, nature will sometimes reciprocate.

A former lake association president and DNR technician in the 1960s, Herb was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, 13 years ago. I visited Herb on April 9 this year, coincidentally on his 73rd birthday, and his attitude about attitude hasn’t changed.

“You just make up your mind: It’s not going to get you until you’re ready,” he said.

In the acclaimed book, Deep Survival: Who Lives and Who Dies and Why, author Laurence Gonzalez outlines living for something greater than oneself as one of the top attributes of those who survive being trapped in nature by terrible circumstances. I’d like to think many people live a sort of inverted version of this, wherein the struggles of modern-day life or the clutches of serious illness are the disaster, and living for the taste of fresh air and adventure is what keeps them going. I’d like to think experiencing the sunsets on the lake, the excitement of not knowing what was on the end of his line, and making it a point to climb into that little aluminum boat day after day – even with a toxic chemical weighing heavily in his system – are all a big part of why Herb answered his phone all these months later.

While traveling far and wide in the past few years working and playing in some of the most beautiful wild places, my goal was always finding some idyllic Zen state in nature. But without exception, it always winds up being the people you meet along the way who really define the journey.

Maybe it’s National Park Service workers who hump through rattlesnake territory in the Grand Canyon in 115-degree heat to save a tiny fish, or the laid-off Wall Street businessman who took his bad situation and transformed himself into a successful mountain guide – a stranger who only by chance shared a drink and a glorious sunset with some friends and I on a mountain in Utah.

Or maybe it’s Herb himself, who won’t be climbing any mountains anytime soon, but even on days when no one else was catching fish, would putter up to my boat to let me know he was just one fish shy of his limit and would be back in half an hour. It was almost always less time than that, and it never ceased to amaze.

Most of these people wouldn’t call what they do “culture.” It’s just how they live. But as much as an arts and music scene can rejuvenate a city’s downtown, outdoor activities can be equally transformative for both the adventurer and the world they love. Here in the home state of Aldo Leopold, and a place defined by its seasons and natural resources, some might argue there are few better places to reconnect to the natural world from whence you came. So this summer, as you paddle the Eau Claire River or hike the Ice Age Trail, or dip a line in Dells Mill, don’t forget to allow your surroundings to enrich your spirit and the spirit of the community.

Rob Hanson spent a significant share of 2013 in a boat on Lake Eau Claire working as a fisheries technician for the state Department of Natural Resources.