Remembering a great friend
T he first time I met Dean Tait was in June 1967 during the second year he and his father, Ted, owned T & D Amisk Cabins. The last time I saw him was about the 25th of June this summer when he limped up to our cabin, knocked on the door and came in for a visit, like he does every year.
He handed me one of his handmade diamond willow canes and said, “Here. Take this with you. I make them during the winter to keep out of Bonnie’s way and to keep myself from going nuts.” He was preparing for his third back surgery.
On July 13th, Dean and his wife Bonnie were poking around in the woods 40 yards from the gravel road that leads to camp. Dean was searching for diamond willows to make more canes. He complained of feeling dizzy, toppled over and died from a heart attack. He was 69. Bruce Joa, Dean’s brother-in-law who has owned the camp since the early 1990s, phoned me and told me the bad news.
In 1972, the summer after I got out of the Marine Corps, Dean offered to provide a small cabin for a friend and me in exchange for painting the 24-foot wooden scows that he built at the time. “You can paint in the morning, fish in the afternoon,” he said. And that’s just what we did. That was the summer Dean taught me how to fillet fish, although I never did remotely approach his expertise.
Dean, like Bruce, treated our family … well, like family, and my parents loved him. I remember one time almost 40 years ago when Dean learned that my brother Jim and I had a six-pack of beer cooling on ice in the old log cabin where they used to store ice blocks cut from the lake. He moved our beer, and was grinning like a Cheshire cat when Jim bemoaned our loss. After a proper time of enjoying our suffering, Dean returned the beer.
Dean and I loved to trade salvos. When I took the wrong rental boat one time, ran out of gas two miles from camp and had to be towed in, Dean (and Bruce) were waiting in the marina. Bruce simply shook his head in disgust and looked at the ground. Dean cupped his hands and called across the water, “Tourist!”
I’d arrive in camp and there would be Dean out near his fifth-wheel trailer. Early afternoon and the gnats and black flies were present in clouds. “When are you going to do something about these damned bugs?” I’d ask in mock outrage. “What bugs?” he’d answer.
I sold Jake’s old 18-foot Lund to Dean three years ago for $600, and had been trying to make him feel guilty ever since, with no success. “Do you need a sleeping pill after giving me so little for that boat?”
“No,” said Dean with a grin. “I am sleeping just fine.”
The last three years when I’d pull into camp with my 20-1/2-foot Lund Alaskan, there would be Dean standing in the roadway. “Hey, I’ll give you $900 for that tub,” he’d always say after I exited the pickup.
“Nah, I had a boat ‘stolen’ from me up here three years ago.” More smiles all around.
I particularly liked to ride the ATV from the marina to the fillet table. When I’d pass Dean’s trailer, after catching 18 or 19 walleyes in a couple hours fishing, I’d loudly proclaim: “The lake’s fished out … it’s the damned Canadians.”
“We’ve got to keep you Yanks out of here,” he’d shout.
Bruce said in his eulogy, “Dean saw the natural world around him in a way many of us cannot or do not … I might say, ‘Look, a bird,’ and he would tell me what it was and something about its habits, nesting place and its relationship to the other creatures around it.”
The family buried Dean’s remains above Castle Rock, just across the outlet of the Sturgeon-Weir River from camp, a spot with a magnificent view of Amisk Lake. Dean would have approved. He told me many times, “Bernie, I never get tired of looking at this lake.”
Forty-seven years I knew the man, and we never had a bad word between us. We all will miss him.
Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for The Sun since 1974