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John Myers column: A good man, and consummate outdoorsman, gone too soon

Brian Major was the kind of guy who would show you his best fishing spots just because he considered you his friend.

Brian Major
Brian Major and a limit of mallards we had just shot.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

BIG GRASSY RIVER RESERVE, Ontario — A good man died last Sunday morning.

We called him Coot, after the small duck-like bird, but his given name was Brian Major, a member of the Catfish Clan, Big Grassy First Nations Ojibwe of Lake of The Woods, Ontario. His Ojbiwe name was Waapishkasing, "bright sky." He was a consummate outdoorsman and my friend for nearly 33 years.

Brian beat the demon of alcoholism decades ago, but could not beat the scourge of diabetes. He was just 68, way too soon for his friends and family, and for me.

Brian was the kind of guy who would show you his best places to fish, where the ducks would land in the evening if you were patient and, if you promised not to tell anyone else, where the blueberries were — all just because he considered you a friend. Which was almost everyone he met.

When I needed a dead oak tree felled, Brian brought his older foster kids over — he and his wife, Dianne, raised dozens over the years — and had them scurry up the ladder and tie ropes high in the tree. Then he revved up the chainsaw and dropped the tree exactly where it needed to fall, safely away from the sauna and the cabin and the powerlines (and any kids).


Brian was a respected elder in his community. He had a long career as a police officer, netted and sold fish commercially, was a part-time fishing guide and guided hunters for moose and deer in the fall. But he would sometimes make time to sneak out with me for a quick morning duck hunt or pre-sunset walleye trip by boat or on the ice.

There is a point on an island that leads back to a shallow, sandy bay, a good distance out from our place, where Brian took my oldest daughter, Maggie, and me over Memorial Day weekend nearly 20 years ago. We caught dozens of walleyes that afternoon. He explained why the fish were there, why they were so shallow, about the bugs that were hatching then and the minnows that were there to eat the bugs. The Myers still go back to that spot every year at the end of May, and we always catch fish. It will be forever known as Brian’s Bay.

Brian wasn’t perfect. He was often late to whatever we had planned. And he often spoke in infuriating riddles, like telling me the fish were biting “by where the eagle sits in the tree.” (Which eagle? What tree?) Or the time he filled the rear livewell in my boat with 10 times my nonresident legal limit for walleyes explaining to me that “there is no word in Ojibwe for 'limit.' "

I remember an ice fishing day when my daughter, Abby, was about 10 or 11. Brian always had candy with him in his fishing shack, so Abby would venture over to his shack and then not come back for hours. (To be fair, she brought peanut M&M’s to share, Brian’s favorite.) It turned out she wasn’t just getting candy, but also a lesson in life and in Ojibwe language, which Brian spoke fluently. She was learning the Ojibwe words for ice and raven and snow and fish.

Early on warm, midsummer mornings when we were at the lake, Brian would motor his boat to our dock after hauling in his nets. He’d tie up in the leeward spot to pluck the fish out of their tangle. It became a spectator sport for the Myers clan and many of our guests over the years. In exchange for the many words of wisdom he would impart on us as he worked, Brian would receive a cup of hot coffee (cream and sugar, of course) and buttered blueberry muffins right out of our oven.

Still, we got the best of the deal.

His netted walleyes would go into plastic crates of ice. Most of the other fish would go into the beaks of pelicans. When Brian's boat showed up, dozens of pelicans followed. They knew Brian always had fish. Sitting in the back of his 16-foot Alumarine, he would hold out a perch or an occasional tullibee and the boldest pelicans would swim up and grab the fish out of his hand, tilt their head back and swallow it whole. Sometimes he’d play with them, holding a fish high, then moving it left, then right, then up and down. All of their big heads would follow his hand in unison.

In October 2019, on the night I nearly totaled my pickup hitting a deer on a remote stretch of Ontario highway, Brian was my third call, after 911 and AAA. I asked if he knew of anyone who could come fetch up my wife and daughter and dog and gear. He summoned his son, who was 30 miles away, to shuttle me to the body shop following the tow truck. Then he called another mutual friend to shuttle everyone else to the cabin. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Brian was coordinating this rescue from a hospital bed 100 miles away.


That's just who Brian was: always helping, whenever he could, whomever he could, however he could.

Brian and his family endured heartbreaking loss over the past few years. They lost their adopted son, Birdie, to drowning. Their home burned to the ground, a total loss, the family escaping with only the clothes they were wearing. And Brian lost his first battle with diabetes when one of his legs had to be amputated below the knee. He has been in and out of hospitals many times since, as has Dianne, with multiple medical issues.

Despite all that loss, Brian never lost his sense of humor, nor his Christian faith in God. He would come over to say hello, accept a donation of a case of U.S.-made Fresca (he said it was better than the Canadian version) and then sit at our kitchen table into the night, telling elaborate stories mixed with some corny jokes. ("Why don’t Indians like snow?" he asked. "Because it’s white and it’s on their land!")

Miigwech, niijii, my friend. Thanks for the things you taught me and the times you made me laugh and the hours we spent in a fishing boat or duck blind or ice shack.

Giga-waabamin minawaa, Coot, until I see you again. I’m not sure my faith can hold up to yours. But, in case you come back to visit as a spirit, you'll know where to find me.

I’ll be fishing by where the eagle sits in the tree.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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