I spent my first two nights of 2019 hidden away in a fish house on an otherwise empty Lake Vermilion. I captured a beautiful sunset, stood alone among the stars, and nearly filled a whole notebook with chicken scratch and lefty-made ink smears. I sustained myself with peanuts, beer, water, and breakfasts from local diners. It was simply perfect.
This three-part series begins with the last night of 2018, where three friends and I gathered around a special beer for storytelling and blade-sharpening.
There were about six hours left of 2018 when I burst into a fish house with four bottles of Vanilla Rose Porter.
Night had fallen on Lake Vermilion when I arrived, and the air temperature hung well below freezing: -11 Fahrenheit, I believe, but that was merely a surface scratch. It was going to get much colder still, and stay that way for a few days. The lake offered very little to break up that frigid dark. The starlight was dim, and almost all of the other fish houses nearby were vacant.
And here I came, hot like a rainbow beam, fresh out the passenger seat of a Taurus, arms folded around four bottles of Vanilla Rose Porter. I can’t tell you the last time I felt this divine, or if I ever have.
Vanilla Rose Porter is the reason my dog is named Porter. It’s made by Pitchfork Brewing in Hudson, Wisc. I still have the first bottle of the stuff ever sold. That was back in 2013, when only 70 bottles were sold. Now, they sell a few hundred each year. The beer is infused with local honey and whole vanilla beans.
More importantly, this beer is aged in Four Roses Bourbon barrels prior to bottling. A quote from my living will, if I may: “shall be buried with a bottle of Single Barrel Four Roses, full please.” The bottle I keep under my home office desk is not full. I don’t need an afterlife to enjoy that one. Come to think of it, I wish I’d have had some with me on this night.
Anyway, Vanilla Rose Porter means a great deal to me – and here I was in this fish house with vintages of this beer from 2015 to the newest. A gift like this means the people inside the fish house mean a great deal to me, too.
The ice over Lake Vermilion was, at least where we measured that night, 18 inches thick. Ice fishing season up north was well underway at this point, of course. Roadways had been forged through the snow cover, and fish house communities were grouped in cul-de-sac-like little formations. If you were a seasoned ice fisherman, the cracks in the ice didn’t bother you; if you were not, you tried not to let the cracks in the ice bother you.
Inside this fish house, frost had begun to build up on the walls’ paneling but the thermometer offered an indoor temperature of about 65 degrees. The keeper of this house wore snow pants and a long-sleeved Minnesota Twin shirt. A little light was clipped to the brim of his cap.
He was the stepfather of a great friend, my man Eliot. Eliot had driven me out here that night, a calm before a New Year’s Eve storm that was no doubt already gathering back in downtown Hibbing. We’d leave our mark on that soon enough.
For what it’s worth, Eliot wore a Carhartt jacket and a black winter cap. Between he and his stepfather, I sat in a wool peacoat, a tassled scarf, and a pair of leather boots with zippers sewn into the sides. At one time, they might have been considered “fashionable.”
We were joined by the only other person fishing that night. He was visiting from Missouri, a good friend of Eliot’s stepdad. The two had gotten to know each other back in Missouri, and become friends pretty simply (least by my understanding). I don’t believe there was much more to it than “Come up on sometime” and “Okay.”
When I heard nobody would be in the fish house all week after tonight, I asked if I could occupy it for a few days. The answer was, “Okay.”
YOU DON’T MISS TWICE
Murder by Death has an amusing track on their album Good Morning Magpie called “You Don’t Miss Twice (When You’re Shaving with a Knife).” The song is literally about shaving your face while you’re in the woods.
What a lot of people don’t know is, this song – and most of the album – was written by lead singer Adam Turla during two weeks he spent by himself in the Smokey Mountains. He cut his face shaving in a river one morning, and that’s how this song happened.
I fantasize about doing that sort of thing often, not the face-shaving but the isolation among nature and the inspired filling of notebooks. I tell my wife about this, but she never really takes it seriously. Either my technology addiction or my addiction to exploring local cuisine would do me in straight away, she says.
Fair point … but to what extent does a phone scroll or a trek into the city for breakfast dampen the experience of “being in nature”? I finally asked myself this. So what if I bring a laptop. So what if I wolf down bacon and eggs at some diner after the sun rises. Where, exactly, is the line between camping and glamping – and who gives a shit if you cross it?
I suddenly had a chance to answer those questions. All I had to do was ask for permission to use it. They said, “Okay.”
BUT FIRST, A TOAST
The bottles came to and from the table in shifts. We drank the 2015 vintage at room temperature and my friends examined the 2018 bottle while the 2016 and 2017 vintages chilled outside. When the 2016 came in, the 2018 went out, more cups were passed, and that poor little table was overrun by it.
Our friend from Missouri said he’d only have a little. Porters and stouts fill him up too quickly, he said. His claim would prove untrue, at least this time. I passed him and Eliot’s stepdad cup after cup after cup. I tried not to pour my own servings too selfishly (but I won’t evaluate my efforts here).
Even though my bottle of 2015 looked like it had been pulled from the ruins of an underground city, and even though my 2017 poured with an uncharacteristically foamy head – both of which I’d blame on my own storage – there were no wave-offs when the cups came around. There was no “I’m good.” Vanilla Rose Porter is silky, boozy, delicious. The mouthfeel and flavor of this beer perfectly align with the modern expectations of a special beer, because it is one. When the beer is this good, nobody’s “good” until the very last is gone.
We laughed, passed pictures, and drank. We discussed the fate of the Vikings once-new, now-old offensive coordinator. He was an example, we said, of taking on too much too soon. We expect a lot of newly-minted “young gun” coaches to suffer a similar fate. Eliot got the blades of his leatherman sharpened. Our friend told me about a really great [REDACTED] back home; and I decided that yes, a road trip to Missouri is probably in my near future.
There were about three hours left of the year when we left. We would shoot champagne at Sportsman’s Restaurant and Taverna when the ball dropped, then shoot champagne again and again to help the bartender get rid of the shit. We’d cram ourselves into the last bar serving drinks on Howard St. for a couple more hours after that. We’d get a ride home around 2:30 a.m., wake up around 9 a.m. New Year’s Day, and file that night away as “a pretty chill New Year’s Eve.”
My first night of 2019, and the next two days after that, would be spent back at that fish house. I didn’t bring anything to shave with.
Editor’s note: the glass of Vanilla Rose Porter at the top of this article was taken at the Pitchfork Brewing taproom. Hey! Find more information about Pitchfork Brewing here!
RELATED: The owners of the fish house are also the owner of the Thirsty Salmon, the legendary basement bar I wrote about last month. If you missed the story about Tammy Hejda’s big catch on the Kenai River and the inspiration behind the bar, time to catch up!