Vern Lokken holds a photo of his fishing buddies. They are (left to right) Back row: left to right: Jerry Dehnke, Phil Deiss, Matt Gruntner, Larry Stevens, and employer Craig Johnson; center front: Vern Lokken. (Catholic Herald photo by Joe Winter)

Joe Winter
Special to the Catholic Herald

Each summer, a Hudson Catholic, Dan Schwab, and a group of other Christian men travel northward to Canada and go on a fishing expedition. Joining them is their longtime friend Vern Lokken, a paraplegic who would not be able to go without the help and camaraderie of his mates.

Like Schwab – who is now retired and very active in the Knights of Columbus at St. Patrick’s Church and with things such as keeping the parish cemetery shipshape – Lokken was working construction, when he fell from scaffolding and was seriously injured.

Although finding a way to fulfill his Mass attendance is a difficulty, Schwab has been taking this trip, which can be seen as a rite of service and route to ecumenism, for more than a decade.

Such dedication is nothing new for him; Schwab and wife Annette were even named couple of the year by the local Knights a couple of years ago.

On Sept. 25, 2004, Lokken, Schwab’s co-worker, was helping with lawn maintenance for his mother in Shell Lake. He had constructed the proper scaffolding to trim dead limbs from a tree.

“An unfortunate occurrence had the sawn limb drop to the ground and bounce into the scaffold, tipping it over, sending Vern to the ground in a twisted position at the waist, severing his spinal column,” Schwab said.

Following surgery, Lokken was cared for in a hospital in Duluth, one week of which was spent in the intensive care unit and three weeks following that for therapy.
Since the accident, Lokken has been a paraplegic.

“His attitude was never being discouraged, just one of acceptance of life’s fate dealt to him,” Schwab said, adding that his wife of 45 years, Dixie, has remained a wonderful complement in his life, and that they attend Trinity Lutheran Church in Spooner.

The couple has two grown children, Josh and Sarah, and three grandchildren, one boy and two girls, ages 9, 11 and 13 years.

After the accident, beginning in June 2006, Lokken participated in the annual co-workers’ fishing trip. He also shoots trap with another co-worker, Larry Stevens, each Wednesday during the summer. In the fall and winter seasons, he and Stevens partake in turkey and deer hunting on the friends’ property in Birchwood.

The group’s employer, Craig Johnson, who owned Madsen-Johnson Corp., which specialized in wastewater treatment plants, invited employees who were superintendents of all the job sites for a week of fishing at Tomahawk Resort in Sioux Narrows, Ontario, Canada. It began in 1985 on
a rented house boat that accommodated 11 men, traveling 15 miles through Lake of the Woods for quality fishing, anchoring on an island.

Johnson learned of a 25-acre island for sale in 2004, thereafter purchasing it. At opportune times, Schwab said, Johnson employed Canadian workers to build a large, impressive home powered by solar panels, with back-up generator ready when necessary.

Although he enjoys his time there, attendance at Sunday Mass has been a problem, Schwab said.

“It is not possible, because of being on an island 15 miles from land, with rough waters and channels, very difficult to navigate,” he said.

As Schwab is the only Catholic, the situation does not accommodate this practice, but he continues his daily routine of an hour of morning prayers for various intentions, which all the other men highly respect.

“At one time, there were two other Catholic men, who no longer currently participate in this trip, discontinuing for various family reasons. The others are of various religious denominations,” he said.

But this endeavor does fit the Catholic ideal of service, he agreed.

“Yes, in a broad sense, because it provides an opportunity for the employees, a chance to relax and socialize with each other. As to after Vern’s accident, definitely yes, in the sense that it provides an opportunity for him to partake in an activity he otherwise couldn’t,” Schwab said, adding this is also an opportunity for the men of other denominations to live out an ecumenical action.

As for Lokken, there has been no change or improvement since his initial injury.
“As a paraplegic with lack of feeling to his lower extremities, he continually has to monitor the condition of his lower body for sores due to constant position in a wheelchair, and in general, as to normal, daily bodily functions,” Schwab said.

Besides the fishing trip, the other men try to gather a few times per year at his home in Shell Lake. “These are wonderful opportunities to reminisce at length about their years of employment together,” Schwab said. “After hours of conversation, they enjoy a meal at a local restaurant. Vern is not homebound. He has a vehicle equipped specifically for him; he continues to be independent.”

He and his wife each have a three-wheel recreational vehicle they use for exercise.
“His attitude continues to be positive and upbeat, given consideration of his disability,” Schwab said.

Will the group continue to do this fishing trip into their retirement years?
“Definitely, as long as health holds up for all. With each passing year, some general aging may change the situation,” Schwab said.