If you ever needed to know what was going on at the end of the Gunflint Trail all you had to do was Ask Pat. That was until 2007 when the Ham Lake Fire burned Frank and Pat Shunn’s home to the ground forcing them to move to Cloquet, MN. Patsy didn’t mind so much because she was closer to her family and the conveniences of living in a town instead of 56 miles from the nearest one. Unfortunately those easy town living days came to an end a week ago today when Patsy passed away after a short battle with cancer.
It is as if I have lost her for a second time now. As I sat at her funeral last Friday listening to stories told by her friends from Saganaga I thought of how big of a loss I felt during the summer of 2007. I vividly remember driving up to their house on May 6, 2007 to inform them about the necessary evacuation. They were calm and not real concerned as there had been other fires and evacuations in the years prior. As I left their house I had know way of knowing it would be the last time I would ever step foot in their house.
Driving down Sag Lake Trail and seeing an empty space where their house once stood made my heart drop to the ground. It had been perched above the road with their deck overlooking the wilderness and everything that went on in the neighborhood. So many times I had walked the road beneath and yelled up a greeting to Patsy on the deck. When I drove up their driveway and only saw charred remains of the house I had stood in the day before it broke my heart.
The summer of 2007 was one of the longest ones I remember. Patsy was the parking lot attendant at both of the public landings on Saganaga Lake for a number of years. She would walk between the two landings a couple of times each day and spend hours at each of the landings visiting with people heading out or coming back from Saganaga. She wore a uniform and an orange vest and cherished her "Ask Pat" hat someone had once given her. She was a wealth of information about what was going on all over the Trail and always had a funny joke to tell. Her laugh was infectuous and to know Patsy was to love her.
Many times Patsy and I would find ourselves walking at the same time and then we’d join up and visit along our way. Every time I passed through the landing on my way to the mailbox or to go to town Patsy would have a friendly smile and wave for me. It was very difficult to drive by without stopping so that was rarely ever done. For a long stretch of time before I had children she would phone on a daily basis to catch up. What wildlife had visited each of us, who was up the lake at their cabins and to discuss the ever important happenings on Young and the Restless or Bold and the Beautiful. Like her C.B. call name, Chickadee, she took me under her wing when my own mother passed away in 1995.
When I needed to know how to cook something all I had to do was Ask Pat. She was a great cook and couldn’t believe how little I cooked and what I called a meal. While she was preparing Frank a meal fit for a king Mike was lucky to get mayonaise with his tuna salad that may or may not have had the water drained from the can before serving.
One time while talking with Patsy on the phone I told her I was in charge of making pies for a family holiday. I said I was just going to purchase the pre-made crusts and she came unglued. The next thing I knew she was in my kitchen and we were making pie crusts from scratch. Each one turned out perfectly and when I baked pies with purchased crusts this past September I thought of her. I could just imagine how upset Patsy would have been with me and I wished she could join me in the kitchen that day.
On a different day of baking Patsy insulted me by telling me my cut out sugar cookies tasted too salty. I had prepared the dough carefully without adding any salt and had rolled and cut dozens of cookies to be frosted and decorated at my holiday baking party. I hadn’t actually tasted the cookies because I was dieting but finally after her insistence I was forced to take a bite. I was shocked when I bit into the cookie and it tasted like a salt block. How could that be when I didn’t use any salt? The mystery was solved when we found my bag of sugar I had used. Assuming the clear bag contained sugar and not salt I had prepared dozens of sugar cookies without a single grain of sugar. The cookies tasted so terrible not only would the birds not eat them but also my two huskies who normally ate everything, including feces of other animals.
Patsy loved to give me a hard time about those cookies and any other goofy things she knew I had done. It was all in fun and Patsy was all about fun. She could always bring a smile to my face and throughout the summer of 2007 her absence was felt. I would walk up her hill and sit at the foundation of where her house once stood and weep that she and Frank were no longer there. In a place where neighbors are few and far between they were greatly missed.
That summer finally ended as did 2008 and 2009. We took over Patsy’s job of taking care of the landings. We knew we would never be able to fill her shoes and there would never be anyone else who could. We just did the job and still used her California Raisin keychain for the keys to the cleaning sheds. While I thought of her often I never did call to chat. It was as if she was already gone and I had already lost her. I didn’t want to risk bringing up all of the grief associated with the fire because it would have been too painful to discuss.
I wish I would have had the courage to call her because now it is too late. Patsy is really gone and this time I’m afraid it’s for good. I can’t call to ask Pat anything anymore. But you can believe me when I tell you she is making everyone in heaven laugh with her good natured spirit and witty charm. And I know when I get there I’ll have plenty of things to Ask Pat and she’ll have all of the answers I need and then some.