Northern Wilds Magazine
Steelhead fishing on a Lake Superior tributary in Ontario. | AL LUTKEVICH

A Tribute to Shawn Perich: Part One

Northern Wilds Magazine co-founder and author Shawn Perich passed away on August 3 after a courageous battle with glioblastoma brain cancer. Not only was he an amazing writer, but he was also an avid outdoorsman and a fierce advocate for conservation. Shawn made a big impact in the outdoor and editorial community, and he will be greatly missed. Thank you to our sponsors for helping us honor Shawn and the influence he had on so many people. He was truly one-of-a-kind.

If you are interested, please consider donating to the Shawn Perich Memorial for Glioblastoma Research at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Casting Memories: 55 Years of Fishing, Hunting, & Friendship

Too soon my friend, too soon.

I met Shawn on the first Saturday in May, 1968, at Engwalls pond in Duluth. I was 7 years old, and it was the first time my parents let me ride my bike the mile-plus trip, from our house to the pond, unsupervised. I loved fishing and it was the opener of inland trout season. I was the only one there catching fish, so two slightly older guys came over to figure out why. The older one, Dan Parkinson, introduced me to the younger one, “Perch.” I don’t think I knew his real name was Shawn for quite some time. But I guess if your last name is Perich and you fish all the time, “Perch” is a likely nickname. We hit it off from the beginning.

There was one summer that Shawn and I fished every single day that we possibly could. We switched to catch-and-release early on, because we caught too many fish to eat. By age 12, we were catching summer browns on Engwalls pond with size 18 mosquito larvae imitations that we tied ourselves. Trout have always had a special connection for Shawn and me. Generally, when you’re fishing for trout, it’s in a beautiful place. Trout can also be hard to catch, so any you get are rewarding, and they’re beautiful fish.

Catching steelhead took us more time to figure out than it should have—I didn’t land my first steelhead until I was in my twenties. We spent a ton of time on the Bois Brule in our late teens and lost a few nice fish. It’s hard to believe it took us that long, but we never asked for help. Eventually, we got the hang of it.

For us, fishing only lasted about half the year. In the fall and winter, we chased rabbits and grouse with our recurve bows in the woods near our homes in Duluth—probably illegal, even in 1973. Whatever; we were almost never successful—hitting a flying grouse with a bow and a flu-flu arrow is hard. When we could finally drive, we hunted grouse and rabbits further from home with shotguns and 22s.

Shawn’s deer camp was over near Cotton. I hunted by Canyon with my dad. Shawn had more early success than I did, but our dads showed us the right way to hunt deer and move in the woods. We also learned a bunch from each other. We were very compatible in the woods.

In high school, we went on summer fly fishing trips to wherever the Federation of Fly Fishermen conclave was held, with Perry Rowlison, a civics teacher and local fly fisherman. Our group consisted of Shawn, myself, and our friends Pat, Ed, and Tim. During that first trip, we fished around West Yellowstone in the park, near Jackson Hole, the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, the Tetons in Idaho, and in Spearfish, South Dakota, on the way home. I remember Shawn and I hammered tons of small rainbows on the Gallatin our first day alone. He and Pat had a great day on the south fork of the Madison, and we all had a bang-up time on the Teton River that year, except for the bull that took exception to Pat crossing his turf. Thankfully, Pat was able to climb a fence quickly. Shawn and I talked about those memories recently on one of his drives to Rochester Mayo. All these experiences were a big part of our development as fly fishers and outdoorsmen.

Rainy, laying on Shawn’s jacket on the bank, watching everything that was happening. | AL LUTKEVICH

In the early 1980s, after college, we both lived in the Twin Cities—Shawn was working for Fins and Feathers magazine. Living there allowed access to the Kinnikinnick, Willow, and other streams near the border. We mostly fished dry flies back then, but he also started fishing subsurface more. He knew an old friend of his aunt who chased huge browns with big wets on those southeast Wisconsin streams. From then on, he was a better wet fly guy than me. I think I’ll make a point of getting better at it in his honor.

When Shawn and I first started chasing steelhead in Ontario, he was the reconnaissance guy. He got lots of info that probably saved us some time, but also had us fishing places like Ozone Creek. Over time, we figured things out. We found places where we could fish the way we liked to. The Cypress before the floods was heaven. After the flood, we started fishing further east a lot, not that the Jackpine didn’t warrant some of our time. Because we would rather have a river to ourselves than actually catch fish, we always gravitated towards remote locations versus big name rivers. We found some good ones over the years.

Shawn has always had a dog as an adult. While living in Georgia, Shawn and Vikki got Rebel. He was a great dog. Sadly, an untimely accident took Rebel, so Shawn and Vikki got Casey. He was a devil in a dog suit, but he loved ducks and pheasants. Then, Vikki got Abby so she could have her own dog. And dang if she didn’t learn to hunt and demand to go along! Lots of miles in the pheasant fields behind a Lab and a shepherd. As the two dogs aged, Shawn and Vikki added Tanner to the mix. Abby ruled. Vikki was second. The boys towed the line, Shawn included.

Shawn’s dad Dan loved to fish and hunt as much as any of us. As kids, he took Shawn and me into Greenwood Lake camping. At one point, we had a hatch coming off, lake trout rising, and one fly rod in the boat to share. Dan broke off three flies before we took the rod away. Watching those lake trout come up from the depths to take his fly was too much for his nerves.

Dan, Shawn and I took many memorable trips throughout the years, and we spent many years deer hunting together. In fact, Dan and I often hunted without Shawn, when he had to go to work. When Dan got sick, Shawn and Vikki dropped what they were doing to help his mother through it. Deer season in 2004 wasn’t the same without Dan.

After Dan was gone, Shawn and I started going further east in our Ontario steelhead trips. Wawa to Sault Ste Marie was added to our repertoire.

Tanner joined the team while Casey and Abby were still active. Lots of time in the fields and woods ensued, in Minnesota and the Dakotas. After a while, Casey and Abby were gone and there was only Tanner.

I don’t think Deb and I grasped how serious Vikki’s health issues were, or at least not early enough. By the time Shawn told us they were heading to Mayo, it was almost the end. Hospice was short.

Losing Vikki was hard on Shawn, but he toughed it out and moved forward. Shawn and Vikki had agreed he would get a new puppy after she was gone. Enter Rainy River Romeo.

Shawn and his partner Vikki Elberling, in the Black Hills. Shawn and Vikki were together for over 30 years before she passed away in 2014. | STAFF

Tanner and Rainy got along like brothers. He was a pup the first time we took him up the Cypress (after the flood) from the highway. I have pictures of him laying on Shawn’s jacket on the bank, watching everything that was happening. Both dogs loved catching steelhead and chasing grouse and pheasants.

Shawn and I have had lots of adventures throughout the years, big and small. Steelheading the Gold River on Vancouver Island was big; arriving in Victoria, B.C., the day that Canada beat the U.S. Olympic hockey team for gold was a once-in-a-lifetime event. All those trips with Perry in high school. The many pheasant and duck trips to the Dakotas. Steelheading Lake Superior streams on both shores, and even time spent on Lake Michigan streams. A turkey hunting trip to the Black Hills one spring, when there was no water in the rivers for steelhead.

How do you roll 55 years of friendship into a few paragraphs? You can’t.

So, here’s to you, my friend. We’ve had some great times together. There will be a huge piece missing whenever I go where we went and do what we did. I can go alone, but then I’ll be alone. I can go with others, but that’s not the same. But I’ll think of you every time—of that I can assure you.

Conversations with Shawn

I always enjoyed talking with Shawn Perich, whether it was reminiscing about our respective stints at the Cook County News Herald, or debating some controversial outdoor topic.

I smile when I think of one of our silliest arguments. I had stopped by the Northern Wilds office to chat about something and I noticed Shawn’s sturdy coffee mug. It was white, but the inside was a deep coffee-colored brown. I suggested that he should give his mug a good scrubbing. Sacrilege! Shawn explained that his mug was seasoned. The coffee would not taste right in a sparkling clean cup. After some discussion, we agreed to disagree.

The last conversation I had was serendipity. I was calling someone else and misdialed. As I began to apologize for the wrong number, I realized I knew the voice on the other end of the line—it was Shawn. We had a wonderful conversation about Cook County happenings—and about illness, life, and the importance of appreciating every day. I’m so glad I fumbled on my phone and had the chance to talk to Shawn one last time. Thanks, Shawn, for the reminder to appreciate the little things—like wrong numbers in a small community.

A Principal of Journalistic Principle

Shawn Perich and I were on opposite “sides” of the debate about copper nickel mining in the Lake Superior watershed—at least that’s what I suspected. And when that argument was fresh and emotions were raw, it seemed that everyone was taking sides. But Shawn never used his Northern Wilds forum to influence public opinion on that issue. If he had, we might never have become friends, and I might never have met with him in his office to discuss the precarious nature of writing local history and the complex nature of tribal sovereignty—a topic that he knew a lot about.

We talked for two hours that day, and afterwards, he wrote some of the earliest analysis of Walking the Old Road. He also broke the story when a portion of Chippewa City beachfront was returned to the Grand Portage Band.

Shawn knew that great journalists don’t ever place themselves inside a story, regardless of the topic or degree of contentiousness. And yet, he was completely generous with his personal insights, observations, and sharing of outdoor adventures set in our beloved Northwoods. Our community is stronger and more cohesive today, because Shawn always knew how to keep himself out of the story.

Honoring Shawn: Editorial Legacy

I met Shawn at an Outdoor Writers Association of America conference in Utah where he was among a panel of editors introducing their publications and inviting freelance inquiries. That meeting resulted in having several articles published by Northern Wilds over the next several years. Shawn’s openness to ideas and his kind, personal and professional demeanor—and to his editorial leadership among his capable staff—made him one of the most enjoyable editors I’ve ever had the pleasure of writing for.

May his legacy be passed down through all of us who continue to represent Northern Wilds in our submissions as we feel him looking down from that big editorial desk in the sky.

Click here to read “A Tribute to Shawn: Part Two”

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