Memories to the future: Chicago outdoors & beyond

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Jim Kjelgaard?

There’s a memory trigger.

In a discussion about Alaska on Thursday, an older brother emailed how much he remembered reading Jim Kjelgaard in junior high.

It was a week for memories, from bait shops to graduations to Kjelgaard.

As to Kjelgaard, my brother stunned me. In my world, one that revolves around the outdoors, those who get that faraway look in their eyes at the mention of “Big Red’’ or Kjelgaard are my people. (Photo is from Amazon.)


I did not expect that from my second oldest brother. He is a retired professor, a biophysicist, somebody who knows facts and figures.

But imagination is a powerful thing.

When I was in elementary school, I read every one of the Kjelgaard books in our small country library. It had a quarter of the 40-some books published by Kjelgaard.

Those books took me to places where a boy could survive against all kinds of wild challenges. It was the stuff of dreams then, memories now.

In a literary aside, yes, I read Jack London’s novels in my younger years. But even as a kid, I mistrusted the truth (literally and literaryly) of his stories. My youthful literary instincts were right on London.

Forgive me for tripping down memory lane, but I had two graduations last week. Our second son graduated high school and our daughter graduated eighth grade.

The memories flow naturally.

It began on Monday when I returned from Bass Pro Shops Pyramid, an out-sized otherworldly experience of outdoors retail in Memphis.

In some ways, I felt a little like somebody being tempted to go over to the other side.

By that, I mean I am a romantic at heart.

Small bait or tackle shops are stuck deep in my memories, largely because smell is the sense most closely linked to memory. (Photo at the top is from nine years on a stop at Triangle Sports & Marine in Antioch where proprietor Greg Dickson bartered and bantered with regular customersHarold Ruben and Allen Zelken.

One reason I write about the outdoors is rooted in the smells and talk of small bait shops. The most memorable bait/tackle shop for me growing up was near the confluence of Pine and Little Pine creeks in the northern Pennsylvania mountains. There were red worms, night crawlers and minnows; and a smaller area with tied flies.

It was the place we loaded up on bait and advice on our way to summer vacations in a cabin without modern advantages along Pine Creek.

When I moved to Chicago, 30 years ago this month, I naturally found the knot of bait shops at Montrose and Clark. I knew those places in other places.

The thing is that change is inevitable.

Other than Park Bait, all those bait shops are gone. On the South Side, Henry’s Sports and Bait is in its sixth decade.

It’s tempting to wring hands at the disappearance of dozens of bait or tackle shops in Chicago in the past quarter century. The reality is that in that time three Bass Pros, two Cabela’s and other related big-box outdoors stores arrived in the Chicago area.

There’s a buzz and a busy-ness to those stores. That’s something. But romantically, I miss the minnows and crawlers that scented the air and memories of small bait shops; and the talk and local fishing advice.

Time is not romantic. It moves on.

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