I got to know Ray Martin back when I was in high school. We had discovered the vast area of back channels, islands, and sloughs across from East Winona and Homer and would motor through Swift Creek, across from the East End harbor, into Blacksmith Slough and down the Burlington tracks to where the main channel comes in across from Homer where the L-dam is. Driving along the main channel on Highway 61 the Mississippi looks like a big river, and it is, more so than you can see. From the Minnesota side to the Burlington tracks is a good mile, and then another two until Highway 35 in Wisconsin by Marshland. All of that area is islands, sloughs, and marshes, and Rayís place was hidden among the islands about midway between 61 and the tracks.
In those days you could get from the tracks to the highway through the narrow channel of water where Ray anchored his boathouse Ė there was a navigable gut both upstream and downstream into Blacksmith, if you knew your way around, and then an opening out into the main channel. Many years ago there was another mid passage that ran down to his place through the middle of the main island between the tracks and the Minnesota side, but that has long since silted in like so much of the backwaters.
The first few times we went by his place, we got no conversation out of Ray, just a cold stare. It was a long way from anywhere, and he was probably keeping an eye out for thieves and vandals. Ray was not a big man, but people didnít mess with him. I heard that early on a few did and came out on the short end, and word got around. After he got to know who we were, he warmed up some and he and I became friends, although I canít say I ever got to know him real well Ė he was out there because he wanted to be by himself, I suppose, and was never full of gab, at least not with me.
In those days the marsh on the other side of the Burlington Tracks, an area twice as wide as the Minnesota side, was owned by the Lipinski brothers and was called the Delta Fish and Fur Farm. They commercial fished and trapped it, and sold hunting rights to the members of the Delta Duck Club to pay the taxes and make ends meet. The members would gripe that most of the ducks shot there fell to Rayís gun and Rich Lipinski supposedly went prematurely gray chasing him around in the some 6000 acres of swamp. Thatís the story, true or not.
In any case, when I saw Ray in the fall our topic of conversation would always be the ducks, how the local crop was, whether any were down from up north, were they flying and what kind, etc. He also fished and trapped commercially on his side of the tracks, year round. I met his son Eric after the funeral down at Schnieppís Bar. He told me that Ray first moored his boathouse over there 55 years ago, and for the past few years, before his health began to fail, actually lived there summer and winter. At one time Ray had worked for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, but retired early to spend all his time on the river.
Over the last ten or fifteen years I would see him occasionally at Schnieppís, where he was a relative. In the mensí room there you can still see an aerial view of his place out in the islands, which he called the Ponderosa. For years there was also a picture of Ray, seated on a bait bucket, ice fishing in his skivvies. Under it a question was posed to the viewer: So you think youíre tough?
Thatís gone now, along with Ray, although I hope they find it and put it back up again. But itís for sure, that we wonít see Rayís like again soon, a man who made his own life and lived it on his own terms. His epitaph ought to read: ďHere lies a free man.Ē