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Sam Cook / Forum Communications Co., Published May 27 2012

75-year-old twins celebrate birthdays by canoeing

On Lac La Croix, Minn.

There they go, paddling up Boulder Bay of Lac La Croix. Bob and Jerry Fryberger are headed back to camp for the mid-afternoon walleye fry on their annual May canoe trip.

If you saw them passing by on this Canadian border lake, you would say to yourself, “Those guys are paddlers.” Their strokes are crisp and strong, their cadence steady. They paddle in perfect time with each other. The canoe holds straight to its intended course.

There’s a reason for all of that.

“We’ve been at this a while,” Bob says.

These twin brothers have been paddling together for nearly 65 years. They will celebrate their 75th birthday on this trip, at a familiar camp under old Norway pines, among good friends 10 to 15 years their juniors.

The Fryberger twins, as their friends call them, have celebrated their past 14 birthdays on Lac La Croix, the same lake where their mother and father, LaVerne and Robert Fryberger, began taking them at age 11. Here, they came to know the soft tap of a walleye bite, the rugged terrain of the Canadian Shield country and how to handle a canoe in rough weather.

“Dad loved the outdoors,” Bob says. “He communicated that to us by all the hunting and fishing we did. It was an easy thing for kids to grab hold of because it was such a fantastic experience.”

Since then, they have paddled all over the Canadian Shield, not only in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, but far beyond. They have traveled Manitoba’s Gods River to Hudson Bay and paddled Ontario’s Winisk River, seeking big brook trout. They have paddled Ontario’s Wabassi and the Opichiwan and parts of the Albany.

Each September, they make a 10- to 12-day trip to Quetico, just the two of them. At 70, they paddled the historic “Hunters Island” route in Quetico, covering its 145 miles and 38 portages in 10 days.

“They love the bush country,” says Duluth’s Mark Helmer, who organizes this annual Minnesota fishing opener week at Lac La Croix. “I mean, they love it. Bob, when he worked at Georgia Pacific, was once asked to transfer to Atlanta. He said, ‘That’s a long way from the Quetico.’ “ He chose not to move.

Don’t get the idea that when the Frybergers make these group trips the younger guys do all the work. Bob and Jerry haul their own packs and carry their own canoe. To reach Lac La Croix from the Nina Moose River, they must portage seven times, including one half-mile carry.

They hit the landing and get out of the canoe on sturdy legs, wading in the shallows, balancing on rocks. One of them throws on a pack or two. The other throws the 42-pound Wenonah canoe up and they’re off down the trail. If you want a good workout someday, try catching up with them as you paddle across Agnes Lake.

“They really are amazing,” says Ely’s Roger Pekuri, 62, who always makes this trip. “They never fall behind. I’d turn back to look to see if they were doing OK, and they’d be right up with us.

“Those two guys are the toughest guys I’ve ever met in my life,” says Bruce Hannula, 62, of Hancock, Mich., sitting by the fire one evening. “They’re always laughing, always have a smile on their faces. I can’t keep up with them.”

The Frybergers would be embarrassed to hear such talk. They work to keep themselves in shape back home but think nothing of paddling and portaging at 75.

“I don’t know why they’d make a big deal out of 75,” Jerry says. “It’s no different than 74.”

Secretly, everyone else in the group wants to grow up to be like Bob and Jerry. The other paddlers all know, as Bob and Jerry do, that fishing the canoe country at 75 is partly luck, partly a matter of taking care of yourself, and mostly having the fire of adventure still burning in your belly.

The Frybergers remember the late 1940s, when controversy raged over whether to preserve this country, when people such as Ernest Oberholtzer on Rainy Lake and Sigurd Olson in Ely fought to set aside as wilderness in what is now the million-acre BWCAW.

“Thank god that thing was put into place,” Bob says. “Otherwise, it would be loaded with cabins and high-powered boats and planes. It would have been destroyed. I appreciate all the work that Ober and Sig did, and (Frank) Hubachek out of Chicago. They had superior vision.”

On the Canadian side, the 1.2-million-acre Quetico park was set aside in 1909.

“It’s unbelievable, that whole Quetico,” Jerry says.

Already, the two men have been looking at the maps, thinking about their September trip to Quetico, getting up there to that wild country one more time.

“There are lots of lakes we haven’t been to yet,” Jerry says.

Sam Cook is the outdoors writer for the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper