Fremling Boat

The Cal Fremling, a new floating interpretive center and classroom for Winona State University, will arrive today in Winona for a celebration starting at 2:30 p.m. at Levee Park.

Peter Thomson, Lee Newspapers

What do you have to do in this town to get ‘em to name a riverboat after you?

Well, it’s a mighty big river and you’d best know it top to bottom, side to side, every bend and eddy, wing dam and backwater.

It would be best for you to be on a first-name basis with the muskrat and the heron, be the guy who knows everything there is to know about why the mayfly doesn’t fly in May. Be the guy who emptied all the fish out of Lake Winona, then came back and filled it up again — with better fish. The guy to hunt a duck, hook a walleye, noodle a channel cat, write a good book. Sort of a Paul Bunyan with a PhD.

Do all that and you’ll get your name on a Winona riverboat.

So Friday afternoon, down at the levee, they’ll bust a bottle of champagne and launch the Cal Fremling, Winona State University’s new floating classroom named after the late biology professor and Mississippi River expert.

Of course, knowing Cal, he’d have preferred we first drank the wine, then busted the empty bottle, making sure to recycle all the pieces.

Cal Fremling was green when green was just a color...

“He was a riverman and also an earth man,” his wife, Arlayne, described him. A planter of black walnut, shagbark hickory and Norway pine. A man to walk out into the woods and come back with lunch — morel mushrooms, fiddle head ferns and a great big salad of the first dandelions of spring. “’Try it, you’ll like it,’ he’d say. Usually I would, too.”

He loved to see the grass grow, but never under his feet. From a boyhood in the Brainerd woods, he kept looking, exploring, learning and above all, doing. A guy who when he dropped his watch in the river, dropped a bobber at the spot and went home to get his scuba gear to go look for it.

He found it, too.

He lived a lifetime of finding things, in books and laboratories, as student and professor ... but even more, out in the world where things that hopped, swam, flew and grew green in the sunlight were there to be discovered, befriended and understood.

Cal lived life hands-on, once writing with ill-concealed disdain, “Older river rats tend to be suspicious of those who manage the Mississippi’s natural resources from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, but who don’t hunt, fish, trap or boat, and can’t carry on intelligent conversations with those who do.”

Especially over an icy Grain Belt, those were Cal’s kind of conversations. Another way of learning, another way of teaching, another way of sharing the wonderful excitement of what might lie under that rock or around the next bend of the riverbank.

And it’s great to know that for years to come, Cal Fremling, now embodied in wood and steel, will keep that conversation, that excitement, that teaching and learning alive and well on the Mississippi; an appropriate and lasting tribute to one heck of a man and an immortal river.

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