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Dokken: Day on big Lake Winnipeg proves therapeutic for cancer patient

As outdoors activities go, this would be his last kick at the can for the foreseeable future. Chemotherapy was complete, but a stem cell transplant – an equally arduous step on his journey to recovery – awaited.

Greenback2.jpg
Lake Winnipeg walleyes are known as "greenbacks" for the iridescent bluish-green color that's visible along their backs.
Contributed photo
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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

HECLA, Manitoba – An avid outdoorsman, he’d just completed chemotherapy, a taxing regimen that began in April with the expected bumps that result from a medical procedure designed to help rid his body of cancer.

The biggest side effect, he said, was the inability to sleep the night after a chemo treatment.

He’d been diagnosed last winter with multiple myeloma – “a cancer that forms in a type of white blood cell called a plasma cell,” according to the mayoclinic.org website – and he’d had this date penciled on his calendar for several weeks.

Two American friends were coming up to join him for a weekend visit that would include a day on Lake Winnipeg, wind and weather permitting. They’d hit the road early for the 2-hour drive from his home near Selkirk, Manitoba, to Hecla Island Provincial Park, where they would launch his boat in pursuit of the greenback walleyes for which Lake Winnipeg is famous.

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Lake Winnipeg

As outdoors activities go, this would be his last kick at the can for the foreseeable future. Chemotherapy was complete, but a stem cell transplant – an equally arduous step on his journey to recovery – awaited. The transplant would begin with harvesting healthy stem cells in early August, followed by the actual stem cell transplant in early September.

Without getting too bogged down in a complicated medical procedure, the transplant would require spending several weeks in protective isolation to guard against infection while he begins to rebuild his depleted immune system.

There’d be no deer hunting this fall, no moose or elk hunting, no fall fishing.

This day on Lake Winnipeg would be it.

He’d gone to bed at 8 p.m. the previous evening and said he'd gotten a good night’s sleep for the first time in several days. Still, he seemed more tired than usual last Saturday morning as the three of them sat in the kitchen sipping coffee before hitting the road to Lake Winnipeg.

Resting his head between his hands as if trying to summon up whatever energy remained, he didn’t look like he was ready for a day on the water, especially water as potentially treacherous and challenging as Lake Winnipeg.

“Are you sure you’re up for this?” one of his friends asked, feeling a twinge of apprehension at the thought of all of the things that could go wrong.

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Yes, he insisted; he was up for this.

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The forecast for Hecla last Saturday had called for a southwest wind of 15 kilometers per hour – about 9 mph – switching to the northwest about 10 a.m.

That would have been perfect for reaching his intended fishing spot on the south side of Black Island. He and his wife, along with two others, had boated numerous greenbacks – including two Manitoba “Master Angler” walleyes 28 inches or larger – the previous Sunday on the south side of the large island.

Unfortunately, the wind forecasters missed the mark by a mile last Saturday. That became apparent within minutes of launching at Gull Harbor. The southwest wind was closer to 30 kph than 15 kph, and with miles of open water for the waves to build momentum, there was no way to safely reach – much less attempt to fish – the area where he’d done so well just days earlier.

Trying to navigate the swells and rollers would have been stupid, if not downright dangerous – there’s a reason they call this lake “Big Windy,” after all – and so he joined the rest of the boats on the protected side of the island within view of Gull Harbor

The exhaustion he’d shown earlier seemed to melt away in the boat, and he was able to enjoy his day on the water with greenback action that was just fast enough to keep things interesting. It wasn’t the torrid bite he’d experienced the previous Sunday, but at least he was fishing.

There would be no “master” greenbacks on this day, but jigging with salted shiners in about 20 feet of water, the three fishermen would still catch perhaps 20 walleyes up to about 25 inches long in 5 hours of fishing.

Back on shore, the fatigue he’d shown early that morning returned, and he willingly relinquished the wheel of his truck for the comfort and safety of the passenger seat for the 2-hour drive back home.

Despite the fatigue, despite the wind that didn’t behave as forecast, it had been a great day.

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Rainy, blustery weather prevented fishing catfish the next day on the nearby Red River, but the outdoorsman facing the next leg of his long journey in the battle against cancer was like a new person.

Energy replaced fatigue – and it stuck around all day.

A good night’s sleep was a factor, to be sure, but the emotional boost of spending time on the water in his “happy place” and fishing with friends likely played an even greater role.

The visit by two Americans, he said, had meant a lot to him.

“Thank you for the recharge,” he said later. “I can see the end now.”

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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