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Wild Side: Sailing over many generations

My father, Bill Wilcox, and grandfather, Blair Wilcox, sailing Old Salt on Lake Michigan. Caroline Gifford photo.

By Daniel Wilcox, Outdoor Columnist

I agree with Water Rat’s quote in Kenneth Grahame’s book, Wind in the Willows: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing-absolutely nothing-half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”  I really enjoy being out on the water in wild places.

I was named after an ancestor who was a Rhode Island whaling captain in the mid-1800s. He survived a number of years-long voyages and lived to tell about it. My mother still has his whalebone cane. I like whales but that’s history.

My father and both grandfathers were sportsmen who enjoyed hunting, fishing, sailing, and generally being out on the water. My maternal grandfather Nelson Brewer was a judge in Cleveland, Ohio. His main recreation was spending weekends in the islands in western Lake Erie. He went out there to hunt ducks in Magee Marsh, caught perch, bass and walleyes off the reefs and hunted pheasants in the vineyards on the islands. Some of my earliest memories are from my grandparents’ place at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island.

My grandfather Blair Wilcox was a civil engineer from northern New York State. He built bridges in France with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War I and returned in one piece. He developed and then managed a salt mine for the Morton Salt Company in Manistee, Mich. where my father and aunt grew up. Blair was an avid fisherman. I have his bamboo fly rod and steelhead flies that he tied.

My grandfather Blair liked sailing. He took my father and aunt out on Lake Michigan in an old navy lifeboat named Old Salt. My father played hookey from high school and took Old Salt out for cruises. Old Salt was later donated to the Sea Scouts for their use at their Belle Isle Base in Detroit.

After serving in the U.S. Navy during WWII as a salvage diver, my father Bill Wilcox attended college in Ohio where he met my mother. Dad enjoyed fishing on Lake Erie. We caught boatloads of fish and perch fries were popular. My brother and sisters and I are fortunate to have grown up in a family that went to wild places in the Adirondack Mountains in New York State and La Verendrye Park in Quebec for vacations.

Dad was a Scoutmaster and Explorer Post leader who taught us boys swimming, rowing, canoeing and camping. We took week-long canoe trips in Ontario. My brother and I became Eagle Scouts. I worked at several Boy Scout camps as a counselor and guide, teaching kids swimming, wilderness camping and canoeing.

Dad became the Director of the Tinnerman Canoe Base on the lower French River in Ontario for the Cleveland Boy Scouts. Dad spent many summers at the canoe base with college-aged guides hosting crews of scouts and their leaders. They provided indelible memories of high adventure canoe trips to thousands of scouts. We had many enjoyable trips to the canoe base to help open and close up the camp. After my Dad retired, my sister Ginny and her husband Bill were directors of the canoe base for another eight summers.

As I grew up in Ohio we watched with dismay as water quality and the fishery in Lake Erie deteriorated in the 1960s. I decided to study water resources at UW-Stevens Point. That resulted in meeting my wife Carol, living here in Wisconsin and many years of work in that field. We have paddled many miles by canoe, traveled to many beautiful wild places, and now enjoy sailing on Lake Superior in our Southern Cross cutter Sea Dragon.

Considering the history of my family over all those years, and understanding how biology works, I’m convinced that my predilection for enjoying boating and for wild places isn’t all genetic. It’s mostly taught, and I’ve been taking lessons all my life.

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