With A Little Help From My Friends – Joe Cocker

Puckaweekend, in recent years, has been a well-documented phenomenon. Last year’s introduction of the Colorado Crew, 2017’s debut of Jeremiah’s tractor, the 2016 demolition of the woodshed, and our first real efforts at lumberjackery in 2015 have all been logged and uploaded. But Puckaweekend has been around much longer than this site. I’ve collected the digital equivalent of an oral history–emails, Hangouts conversations, texts, and photos–to tell tales of Puckaweekends past. Wistful reflection, rambly musings, and coarse language await below.

The Early Years

“Wheeler rides” have long been a Puckaway pastime.

Every year when I was growing up, I’d spend the four-day Teachers’ Convention weekend at Puckaway with my grandpa, Richie. This usually fell around Halloween, and late-October is one of my favorite times to be at Puckaway. It’s cool enough to work outside wearing long sleeves without breaking a sweat and there’s just something special about late fall in the woods.

I’ve never known an empty pole barn.

Richie passed away in February of 2003 when I was a senior in high school. That year and–with very few exceptions–every year since, I’ve set aside a long weekend in late October to spend time at Puckaway. My whole life, but especially since losing my grandpa, this place has been a such an important and meaningful constant for me. It’s like a good variant of a horcrux. I always feel better after spending any time at Puckaway, but there’s something unique about these annual trips.

As much as I loved bringing Lyssa up here, or coming up with my folks, these fall weekends were very personal visits for me. As a kid, it was always just me and my grandpa. My mom and grandma usually spent the weekend together somewhere else, either gambling at the casino in Nekoosa or making a run up to Black River Falls. My dad would work since he was saving his vacation days for deer season. This was just my time with Richie and I loved it. After he was gone, my fall weekend at Puckaway was the closest I could come to having him back.

Those first solo years while I was in college were kind of rough, emotionally. It was cathartic to be back up, but also bittersweet. I didn’t have the time or resources to keep up maintenance. I’d spend a lot of time just cutting grass and bagging leaves, and I began the long process of clearing out what’s now the keep. Back then it was just the “old trailer” and served a glorified storage unit. I had promised myself that I would always take care of Puckaway, but I rarely felt like I was living up to that promise.

2007

There are no photos from the bachelor party weekend. Instead, here’s Red and me at my wedding. Think he knew he was on his first date with his future wife that night?

Things might have gone on like this for a lot longer–solemn annual solo trips to honor my childhood tradition and mourn my lost hero–but then I had my bachelor party. In early September of 2007, my friends all gathered at Puckaway, many of them visiting for the first time. We spent some time on Green Lake in my folks’ pontoon boat and went trap shooting at a nearby quarry, but the whole weekend was centered around camping out at Puckaway. Big bonfires, drinking, telling stories, and just enjoying each other’s company–all of this brought new life to what was already my favorite place in the world. I went into the whole thing apprehensively, worried people would see the scrap piles, run-down woodshed, lack of simple amenities like plumbing and running water, and wonder what the hell I was getting them into. But–to a man–the opposite was true. I got to share this deeply personal place with my friends, and they all loved it.

2008

Of everyone who attended, Red really took to the Puckaway lifestyle. He spent the Memorial Day after my wedding helping my dad and I dig a new hole for the outhouse. If that’s not commitment, I don’t know what is. Overall, 2008 was a turning point for Puckaway. I felt energized by the bachelor party and by being able to share my project and cleanup plans with my buddies. That summer, we cleaned up the yard and around the pole barn to the point that we had not only beat back the years of neglect since my grandpa stopped caretaking, we were getting it in even better shape.

Red even started a Puckaproject of his own. He took notice of an old aluminum fishing boat that was upside-down on some sawhorses at the edge of the yard behind the keep, hauled it back home, and started scraping the paint off. That summer and into fall, we tested its seaworthiness, learned to patch holes in aluminum, gave it a fresh coat of paint, and outfitted it with cushioned benches and a four-speaker stereo. We christened this boat Defiant. As October drew to a close, and after several successful fishing outings, we decided to close out the season with a trip to Puckaway.

This marked the first time since Richie died that I wasn’t spending my fall Puckaway weekend alone. It was great! We celebrated the successful restoration of the boat, told (and made) a bunch of drunken stories, and like my bachelor party before it, this brought a part of Puckaway back to me that I hadn’t experienced in years.

Growing up, only my immediate family–grandparents, parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins–seemed to visit Puckaway. But that wasn’t always the case. Richie bought the property in 1972, and for the first decade under his care, this place was somewhere he and my grandma enjoyed with their friends. They’d come up together in big groups for long weekends to trim trees, tear down and burn a building, and carve out new parts of the yard, but also to drink, relax, and enjoy each other’s fellowship. Puckaway With Friends was a new concept to me, but certainly not a new concept to Puckaway.

2009

Back then, Red and I did a lot of emailing back and forth to escape the drudgery of our respective jobs. More often than not, we discussed Puckaway and the next projects to tackle. Sharing this place just increased my desire to clean it up and turn it into what I always envisioned for it, and 2009 was another good year for making strides in that area. My folks bought a 2005 Polaris Sportsman 500 off of craigslist, and for the first time, we had ready access to the whole property instead of just the yard. The marsh was now something we could explore rather than just some squishy no-man’s-land. We established some ATV trails that year that you can still see from Google Maps today.

We still had a fall weekend at Puckaway, but the mood swung back to somber that year. I was facing my second open-heart surgery in December to correct an issue that came up from my first one when I was 12. No drinking for me, but it still certainly felt good to be up at Puckaway. It eased my anxiety, at the very least.

2010

I came out from my surgery no worse for wear and ready to get back to normal. By spring of 2010, I had just become a homeowner, was done with any and all activity restrictions, but mostly I was ready to get back to work at Puckaway. It was beginning to take less time each year to reclaim the yard from fall leaves and keep it respectably mowed. Lyssa and I made several trips up over the summer as we got settled into our new home and started bringing things out of pole barn storage.

It was during one of these summer trips that our lives changed forever. Lyssa walked into the keep one sunny June afternoon holding a positive pregnancy test. I was at Puckaway when I found out I was going to be a daddy.

That fall, Farmer Joe joined Red and me for the not-yet-called-Puckaweekend-weeekend. When we weren’t busy drinking and catching up, we made a concerted effort to clean out the pole barn. By the time we called it quits, we were able to park two trucks inside. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first Puckaweekend group project. Many hands made light work of an otherwise daunting and seemingly impossible task. In our cleanup efforts, we came across the MEN WORKING sign that still hangs on the outside of the pole barn. Hemingway himself couldn’t have summed up the Puckaway Mission Statement more succinctly than that wonderful sign.

There was something else we didn’t know at the time. This would be Hannah’s last Puckaweekend. This loyal, sweet pooch, who kept making trips to Puckaway with me even after I moved out of my parents’ house thanks to Red bringing her along, was getting old and suffering from hip dysplasia. At least she had a fun final trip. Who could have predicted that, seven years later, we’d see another Hannah roaming the Puckagrounds?

2011

A fourth-generation Puckawegian is born.

This was a momentous year for many reasons. On March 31, Jacob Joseph Thelen had his first visit to Puckaway. He was three weeks old, the same age I was for my first trip. I’ll never forget how it felt to hold him and walk around the grounds, telling him about my grandpa and about all the fun we were going to have together at Puckaway.

Proof that tequila boosts fishing skill.

The year I became a dad was the year Red would become a married man. I was privileged to be his best man and to organize his bachelor party. And there was only one place in the world he wanted to host it.

From the planning email I sent to Red and Paco that summer:

As for our respective shopping lists, I intend to bring:
[… ]
-Something I don’t even know about yet that will make for a frightening drinking experience. I intend to find something odd at Festival when I make my supply run and I intend to make you bastards drink it with me.
[… ]
There you be. Any questions, lemme know. I’ll be busy hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. And getting my will in order.

In August, over a dozen men made camp at Puckaway. Again, I was apprehensive that it wouldn’t live up to expectations, and again I was proven completely wrong. Everyone had a blast and I was humbled and honored to share Puckaway with them. And Sean will never forget the night he can’t remember thanks to Aalborg Akvavit, the aforementioned “frightening drinking experience.”

Red’s party was the major gathering for 2011, but I still had a fall trip planned. It was no longer such a struggle just to keep things maintained at Puckaway anymore and I was ready to start some major improvements. I laid my plans out to Red in a series of emails:

I’m renting power equipment on Thursday! This is a new and exciting thing. I’ll be running a power trencher between the trailer and the pole barn, burying a heavy-gauge cable and the shed will be electric for the first time in its existence. By the time you make it up, there’ll be outlets, inside lights, and a flood light.
[…]
There’d be a four gang box of switches at the small door, one for each outside light and one for each inside light. To start, I’d put at least one weatherproof outdoor receptacle at the corner facing the burnpit. A lot of the outlets and any workstation fluorescent setups would come later once there was an actual main service line feeding the shed and we had a basic plan for use. Even using 100w bulbs (which we probably wouldn’t), all 15 planned lights could be on at once without even hitting 75% capacity for a 20amp circuit. We’ll have more than enough juice to light it up well and run almost any electrical tool we’ll need. The shed’s about to get some overdue love.

Finally, the fall Puckaway weekend got a name:

Puckaweekend looms large, good sir. Prepare yourself.

Digger’s hotline has already been there and the yard is littered with flags. Based on the leftover wiring I’ll have (the distance to the shed is a lot less than I would have guessed), I might try running out to my trailer, too. It’ll be nice to get the extension cords out of the trees. And to be able to run the pump directly.

I’d eventually revisit this project and improve it, but this was an incredible step up from stringing extension cords through the trees to power the keep, and the pole barn finally had lights! For the first time, I really felt like I was shaping the future of this place instead of just holding tight to the past.

Looking back, running power to the pole barn feels like the corner stone to so many projects that would follow. I spent the rest of that fall cleaning up in there and setting it up as a true workspace.

2012

Happy little buddy.

It felt pretty good to go into spring at Puckaway with power in all the buildings and more space than ever. It felt even better to share this all with my son. Jake, Lyssa, and I spent a lot of time at Puckaway this year. I loved watching him explore and get excited about things like toads and turtles.

The growing fleet.

The projects kept ramping up, too. I hauled home the old 5′ by 8′ utility trailer my uncle had made for my grandpa, gutted it down to the frame, and repainted and re-boarded it. It came in handy as a way to haul more than one ATV at once, which was important now that my folks purchased a second Polaris Sportsman 500, this one a 2012 model. Good thing there was plenty of room in the pole barn.

Puckaweekend 2012 was a low-key affair, but still quite a good time. Farmer Joe, Red, and I kicked back and kept the burnpit fed:

This rain will be perfect for burning. I wanted to mow up some leaves, too, but ah well. Brought a chainsaw this trip so we can take a whack at some of the dead shit around the shed and get a decent trail set behind and around it too. Bring whatever scrap you want. Hell, break down those cabinets in your basement if you’re feeling motivated.
[…]
This trip, I just wanna burn things and relax. Counting the hours at this point.

One of our more successful adventures in boating.

2013

I still, of course, took plenty of trips with my little helper.

This is the year that Puckaweekend as we now know it really started. If Red and I wanted to catch up with Sean and Tach, we used to all meet in Menomonie where they all went to college together. We certainly got some fun and memorable weekends out of this, but since no one had any ties to the UW Stout area anymore, it didn’t make much sense anymore. The guys had such a good time at Red’s bachelor party that the idea of meeting up at Puckaway was floated as an alternative. Soon, I was busy planning the first full-scale Puckaweekend:

Indoor entertainment options include Cards Against Humanity (with the five expansion decks), Solarquest, N64, and the SNESBMC full of music, movies, TV shows, and emulators.

Outdoor entertainment options include a touchscreen media center in the pole barn with my whole music collection, rifles, revolvers, two boats, three ATVs, and building a big motherfucking fire that can be seen from space.

Oh yeah, and I shaved down the door on the outhouse so that it actually closes now. After a long absence, private shitting is back at Puckaway.

I will be arriving on Wednesday evening, Oct 30th, and leaving on Tuesday afternoon, Nov 5th. There’s currently no set schedule or itinerary besides eat, drink, and be merry. New additions and modifications since Red’s bachelor party include 42″ and 32″ HDTVs, portable hot shower (that can and will be set up indoors in the actual bathtub), new green 2012 Polaris ATV (same model as the blue one) and the smaller red ATV has been refurbished to greatness it has not known in many a year. I am happy to report, however, that we still shit outside in the hole that Red has provided for us.

We should have enough indoor sleeping accommodations for everyone and we can all make a run into town for food/booze if you don’t want to have to worry about pre-purchasing and hauling.

There is enough firewood, plywood and lumber available to ensure a raging bonfire each night (and day). And, of course, the outhouse is ready and waiting.

This led to a follow-up email that almost reads like one of my log entries:

Puckway Progress Update

Though most of Saturday evening and Sunday were quite damp and rainy, we made a lot of progress this weekend. Joe and his lovely lady Janine came up Friday afternoon and proceeded to clean our Primary Habitation Trailer stem-to-stern. It smells much better now and the surfaces are much less hazardous to one’s health. The three of us also packed up a lot of extras that were in the kitchen cabinets and closet to make more room on the table and counters.

The happy couple also put in several sweaty hours de-blocading our marsh trails. Two heaping flatbed trailers-full of brush and logs were converted to ash this weekend because of their efforts, and the trails are much easier to navigate. I especially thank them for the removal of a pesky stump by Big Joe’s deer stand that’s nearly made me swallow my teeth on more than one occasion. Fuck you, stump. I enjoyed burning you.

The pole barn had been filling up again which made me rather uncomfortable considering our recent strides in reclaiming floorspace. So, starting Saturday evening, I installed some shelving and the best remnants of my old kitchen cabinets, hauled out a fridge to the Primary Habitation Trailer, carted off a 5′ wide dresser to the larger trailer, and moved around some wall cabinets. We can now probably park three vehicles in there when the boats, utility trailer, and ATVs are out.

Unfortunately, not all efforts met with success. After an uncomfortable ordeal bolting an antenna to a tree 35 feet off the ground, my only reward was the ability to tune a local Christian station. The Primary Habitation Trailer is still not capable of showing live football, but we can watch Davey and Goliath now, I guess.

Also, the indoor shower is currently a dream deferred. At some point in the labyrinth of cheap ABS drain piping, there’s a leak or five. I need to get into the subfloor from the bottom to drop a pipe right from the shower and it was rather wet to dig into that this weekend. There’s a good chance I can still get this done early on during Puckaweekend to keep us slightly less smelly.

And, finally, on that note, Joe may have to sleep outside. His body is capable of producing smells so foul they defy adequate description. I’d most closely liken his emissions to microwaved skunk excretions blended with the sweat from an Amish workshirt, sprinkled with curry, and poured over pure sulfur. He is a dangerous man, indeed.

Ten days remain, gentleman. I look forward to raising a glass with you all.

I loved having all of these friends around the burnpit once again. It was quickly decided to make this an annual event. After everyone left, I just felt so filled up. It seemed like a paradox to me, at first. I always guarded Puckaway so closely because I associated it so strongly with the memories of my grandpa, but sharing this place with friends brought those memories and feeling back stronger than I’d felt them in years.

2014

This year started with the introduction of a new member of our family. Joshua Peter Thelen was born in January and had to wait three months before the weather was nice enough to bring him to Puckaway. My heart melted when I overheard Jacob telling his baby brother all about this place.

Many of my trips throughout the spring, summer, and fall revolved around burning. They’ve been gone long enough now, it’s easy to forget how many years that old wood piles dominated the landscape. As October rolled around, we approached the last Puckaweekend before I’d start logging. These are excerpts from a group email I sent out to Red, Sean, and Tach:

Before you guys get packed up, here’s the rundown of our supply situation and creature comforts.

We may have several other attendees this year, but the four of us are guaranteed indoor sleeping spots in the trailer. The back bedroom is still empty, however, so you’ll want to bring an air mattress or two. I do have enough sheets, pillows, and blankets for all of us though.

We have some TP, but probably should get more as well as some wipes when we make our supply run. There are a fair amount of kleenex and paper towels.

Puckaway is loaded with phone chargers. As long as your phone has a micro-USB connector, I’ve got you covered.

Should Tach grace us with his delicious chili again, we have paper plates, bowls, and plastic utensils to spare.

We’ve got a ton of bottled water, as well as 18 gallons of Oshkosh tap water for use in the shower. Because WE HAVE A SHOWER NOW. So bring some towels, soap, etc if you want to make use of it.

The shower was a very exciting development for the time as I was still years away from coming up with a running water solution. I did, however, have the tub drain hooked up to a ten foot pipe emptying into the woods, so we were able to use a portable camping shower tank, pre-heated by propane and operated by a hand-pump. Considering we used to just have to stink all weekend, this was a major improvement.

I loved getting ready for Puckaweekend. I’d look forward to it all year, often counting the days. Any apprehension I had about how this place might look to others was gone. Everyone who came, burned, ate, and drank with us just seemed to get it about Puckaway. And this was the year that Sean truly locked in. He would get as excited as me about planning projects and improvements. And he’s directly responsible for one of the first big projects I documented that next year when I started logging again.

And I needed to start logging again. Puckaway was and is always on my mind: a legacy for my boys, and a nexus for my friends. I write here because I feel like I would burst if I didn’t. I’m sure most log entries aren’t that interesting to most people, but they’ve been an incredible source of comfort, nostalgia, and reassurance and they drive me to continue to improve and challenge myself. I look back on fun we’ve had and obstacles we’ve overcome and look forward more of both.

This year, we’ve got four guys flying in from Colorado who are picking up another in Minneapolis. Two in this crew have never been to Puckaway before and aren’t coming on my behalf, but because Sean’s become such a strong Puckaway evangelist. Jeremiah’s been waiting all year to haul up his tractor with his new truck. Runge saved up his PTO and pulled overtime for weeks to max his time out with us. Even Scrapper Paul seems extra excited to see everyone again.

I’ve never been the best at gauging my own worth and giving myself credit. But I know this: I had an excellent mentor and a hero in my grandfather. I have generous, loving parents, a perfect partner always by my side in my wonderful wife, and strong, kind, helpful, fun, and funny boys. I’ve got some of the best friends a man could ask for. And we all have Puckaway, this one perfect place where everything good and important in my life connects.

I can’t wait for my next chance to share it.