75-year-old twins celebrate backcountry birthday

Posted May 23, 2012, at 5:07 p.m.

ON LAC LA CROIX, Minn. — There they go, paddling up Boulder Bay of Lac La Croix. Bob and Jerry Fryberger are headed back to camp for the mid-afternoon walleye fry on their annual May canoe trip.

If you saw them passing by on this Canadian border lake, you would say to yourself, “Those guys are paddlers.” Their strokes are crisp and strong, their cadence steady. They paddle in perfect time with each other. The canoe holds straight to its intended course.

There’s a reason for all of that.

“We’ve been at this a while,” Bob says.

These twin brothers have been paddling together for nearly 65 years. They will celebrate their 75th birthday on this trip, at a familiar camp under old Norway pines, among good friends 10 to 15 years their juniors.

The Fryberger twins, as their friends call them, have celebrated their past 14 birthdays on Lac La Croix, the same lake where their mother and father, LaVerne and Robert Fryberger, began taking them at age 11. Here, they came to know the soft tap of a walleye bite, the rugged terrain of the Canadian Shield country and how to handle a canoe in rough weather.

“Dad loved the outdoors,” Bob says. “He communicated that to us by all the hunting and fishing we did. It was an easy thing for kids to grab hold of because it was such a fantastic experience.”

Since then, they have paddled all over the Canadian Shield, not only in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, but far beyond. They have traveled Manitoba’s Gods River to Hudson Bay and paddled Ontario’s Winisk River seeking big brook trout. They have paddled Ontario’s Wabassi and the Opichiwan and parts of the Albany.

Each September, they make a 10- to 12-day trip to Quetico, just the two of them. At 70, they paddled the historic “Hunters Island” route in Quetico, covering its 145 miles and 38 portages in 10 days.

“They love the bush country,” says Duluth’s Mark Helmer, who organizes this annual Minnesota fishing opener week at Lac La Croix. “I mean, they love it. Bob, when he worked at Georgia Pacific, was once asked to transfer to Atlanta. He said, ‘That’s a long way from the Quetico.’” He chose not to move.

Don’t get the idea that when the Frybergers make these group trips the younger guys do all the work. Bob and Jerry haul their own packs and carry their own canoe. To reach Lac La Croix from the Nina Moose River, they must portage seven times, including one half-mile carry.

They hit the landing and get out of the canoe on sturdy legs, wading in the shallows, balancing on rocks. One of them throws on a pack or two. The other throws the 42-pound Wenonah canoe up, and they’re off down the trail. If you want a good workout someday, try catching up with them as you paddle across Agnes Lake.

“They really are amazing,” says Ely’s Roger Pekuri, 62, who always makes this trip. “They never fall behind. I’d turn back to look to see if they were doing OK, and they’d be right up with us.”

“Those two guys are the toughest guys I’ve ever met in my life,” says Bruce Hannula, 62, of Hancock, Mich., sitting by the fire one evening. “They’re always laughing, always have a smile on their faces. I can’t keep up with them.”

The Frybergers would be embarrassed to hear such talk. They work to keep themselves in shape back home but think nothing of paddling and portaging at 75.

“I don’t know why they’d make a big deal out of 75,” Jerry says. “It’s no different than 74.”

Secretly, everyone else in the group wants to grow up to be like Bob and Jerry. The other paddlers all know, as Bob and Jerry do, that fishing the canoe country at 75 is partly luck, partly a matter of taking care of yourself, and mostly having the fire of adventure still burning in your belly.

On May 14, the day the Frybergers turned 75, Helmer has a plan cooked up. At a prescribed time just before the big walleye meal, the six members of the group other than Bob and Jerry would don baseball caps with “TWINS” and “75″ embroidered on the front. Helmer had them made especially for the trip. Nobody would say anything, just wait for Bob and Jerry to notice.

The plan unfolds perfectly. The hats go on. And for 20 minutes, Jerry and Bob do not catch on. Finally, Jerry looks at Helmer’s cap, then Rick Francisco’s. Then, like a periscope scanning the horizon, his gaze rotates around the group from one fellow angler to another until he realizes all of them have identical caps.

“All right, Helmer,” he says. “What’s with the hats?”

Then it dawns on Bob and Jerry. They are the TWINS. And they are 75.

What ensues next is possibly the worst rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song ever rendered.

The Twins are humbled and sheepish — and deeply touched.

“This is terrific,” Jerry says.

Helmer starts serving up walleye fillets. Pekuri and Hannula dish up mashed potatoes and Stovetop stuffing. Someone distracts Bob and Jerry just long enough for someone else to place one lighted candle each in their stuffing. The Frybergers blow out the candles and dig into the walleyes.

The fishing is especially good for a couple of days on the trip. Francisco fillets 42 fish the first day for the eight anglers. The group hauls in coolers of ice to preserve some fish for eating, some for taking home. Limits are carefully watched, regulations respected.

But fishing is just part of the experience. It’s spring in the border country, and the critters are cranked up. Eagles wheel overhead as the men jig for walleyes. One morning, a moose feeds along shore. Peepers call from boggy bays. White-throated sparrows sing from the brush. Loons go laughing across the night sky.

The Frybergers appreciate all of it.

“I love the nights, the mornings, the sunlight, the wind, the water, sitting around the campfire, seeing the eagles, the moose,” Bob says. “It keeps drawing me back. I can’t wait to go again.”

“And the paddling,” Jerry says. “The paddling is a big one. One day, with a strong southwest wind in our face, my daughter Lynn and I were paddling down a lake. I got to laughing, it was so magical, even though it was hard.”

The Frybergers remember the late 1940s, when controversy raged over whether to preserve this country, when people such as Ernest Oberholtzer on Rainy Lake and Sigurd Olson in Ely fought to set aside as wilderness what is now the million-acre BWCAW.

“Thank god that thing was put into place,” Bob says. “Otherwise, it would be loaded with cabins and high-powered boats and planes. It would have been destroyed. I appreciate all the work that Ober and Sig did, and (Frank) Hubachek out of Chicago. They had superior vision.”

On the Canadian side, the 1.2-million-acre Quetico park was set aside in 1909.

“It’s unbelievable, that whole Quetico,” Jerry says.

Already, the two men have been looking at the maps, thinking about their September trip to Quetico, getting up there into all of that wild country one more time.

“There are lots of lakes we haven’t been to yet,” Jerry says.

(c)2012 the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.)

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