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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Friends Rush Between Blizzards to Bury ‘the Captain’

Updated: Jan 16

   We buried Tom Heberlein on Jan. 12, shoveling fast to fill his grave with the forest’s red dirt before winter’s first blizzard howled inland from Lake Superior.

   Four members of our group had fled snowstorms far to the south, rendezvousing with two friendly locals who juggled their schedules to fit our weather-adjusted plan. Our original schedule, still in place just 18 hours before, called for a gathering of nearly 20. We had agreed to meet Saturday, Jan. 13, at Heberlein’s hunting shack in central Ashland County for his “green” burial and informal funeral.

   “The captain” had died Jan. 4. Soon after, friends and family from Ohio, California, New York and North Carolina booked flights into Madison and Minneapolis while our resident cooks and car-pool drivers took head counts, wrote menus and gathered groceries. We also took inventory of all available cots, pillows and sleeping bags for bunking overnight at Heberlein’s Old Tamarack hunting camp. We emailed rosters, mentally assigned Old T’s bunks and rooms, and calculated the buttermilk needed for pancakes the next morning.

   In the rush, no one shared our plans with winter’s weather gods. When we inquired near dusk on Thursday, Jan. 11, the gods laughed and sent forth a blizzard to hit Madison at dawn Jan. 12, and another to strike Mellen by midafternoon.

   Our out-of-state travelers canceled their reservations and sent heartsick apologies, but our residents of southern Wisconsin fared little better. Those who hadn’t bolted northward by dusk Thursday were confined to quarters by dawn Friday. Worse, if our remaining few closer to Old T didn’t bury Heberlein on Friday, we would have to wait till Sunday for the next opportunity.

   And so it was that Thomas A. Heberlein’s burial Friday afternoon suddenly resembled that of Thomas Paine’s 215 years earlier. Paine, you’ll recall, was the English-born founding father who helped spur the American Revolution by writing a pamphlet titled “Common Sense.” Despite Paine’s high profile, only six people attended his 1809 burial: a carriage driver bearing a woman and her son who Paine looked after, a Quaker whose “humanitarian heart dominated the creed of his head,” and two black men—likely freedmen—walking behind, presumably toting shovels.

   For added insult, Paine’s terse obituary read, “He had lived long, did some good and much harm” during his 72 years.

   We think Heberlein fared better at his burial. He deserved better, anyway. He had lived long, done some harm and much good during his 78 years.

   His loving wife, Betty Thomson, working from storm-shuttered Madison, crafted our group’s new plan for the burial she couldn’t attend 275 miles northward. The funeral director in Mellen, Mitchell Mountain, said he would deliver Heberlein to Old T at 2 p.m. on Friday. Waiting there would be me, my wife, Penny; and Lyn and Lyman Wible of Middleton, who would arrive from their summer cabin near Mercer.

   In addition, Al Conley, Old T’s resident caretaker, said he'd join us. Although Conley was scheduled to work the afternoon and evening shifts at his son’s Drop Tine Bar and Grill in Cayuga, his daughter-in-law stepped in for him.

   Conley had dug Heberlein’s grave three days before; covered the hole with plywood atop 2-by-4s; and insulated the pile of loose clay with straw, tarpaulins, cardboard and lumber. He assured us the dirt hadn’t frozen, but couldn’t extend his guarantee once subzero temperatures arrived during the weekend.

   Heberlein, a lifelong hunter, conservationist and environmentalist, had wanted a simple burial; one still practiced by Jewish and Muslim peoples, but largely forgotten in the United States since the Civil War. He wanted no tomb, fancy casket or embalming chemicals. He arranged to be dressed in simple biodegradable clothes, with a blanket and elk hide for his shroud.

   With help from dear friends Rich Stedman and Keith Warnke, Heberlein’s wife learned the requirements for burials on private property, and the proper depth—3 feet—for a green grave.

   Mountain arrived at Old T about 1:30 p.m. with Heberlein’s body, swaddled in a queen-size L.L. Bean Hudson’s Bay blanket. Wible, Conley and I then spread the tanned elk hide across an icefishing sled, and Mountain helped us lower Heberlein from the gurney to our improvised catafalque. After cutting more rope, we tied the elk hide around the captain, and pulled him toward his gravesite 200 yards to the south.

   Our group assumed varied roles the next two hours, starting as mourners and pallbearers, and then hastening on as sled-pullers, eulogists, storytellers, shovelers and grievers once more. We had our flaws, of course. Though Conley had dug the grave so Heberlein could see the sun rise daily over the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, we had laid him with his feet pointing west in his grave. Realizing our mistake, and imagining Heberlein shaming us eternally, we lifted him back out, pointed his feet east, and lowered him again into his straw-padded grave.

   Betty later excused us, writing: “Typical Heberlein, generating an idea and getting everyone else to get it right.”

   We then paid our respects from atop this Northwoods knoll, a spot we thought Heberlein would like for its scenery and family heritage. The Iron River gurgles a half-mile to the east, its tannin-stained waters home to trout, chubs and beavers. You can’t see the river for all the poplars, spruce and balsams in between, but a lone white pine beyond Heberlein’s 40 acres points the way.

   Wible said Heberlein’s father, Charlie, hunted deer often from this knoll, especially late in life when he considered the site “way back in there.” Wible also spoke of Heberlein’s rich life “of ideas, adventures and friendship,” and how he let us know he loved and trusted us; sometimes gently, other times not. We recited a poem we thought Heberlein would like, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Wible then entrusted God with Heberlein’s eternal care, and bid his soul godspeed.

   Our shoveling soon commenced. After an hour’s labor and occasional shots of brandy, we unanimously agreed 3-foot green graves are better than standard 6-footers. “Thank you for that, Tom.”

   After Mountain left us for his next assignment, Nick Vander Puy arrived from Mellen. Vander Puy had crossed a wolf’s track on the path in, and suggested it had come to lead Heberlein on his new journey. We liked that image, which meshed well with Heberlein’s fierce spirit.

   We eventually set our shovels aside, and anchored a wooden cross to temporarily mark the grave. We also took a GPS reading for historical records while Conley groomed the knoll with his tractor’s blade.

   For the first time we noticed winds moaning in the towering red pines nearby, trees Heberlein helped plant 60 years before. We retrieved our coats from the sled, dusted them free of snow, bade silent farewells to Heberlein, and returned to the shack for our drives home.

   Three hours later, Betty sent a thank-you note: “I have a hard time thinking about Tom’s body underground, but a warm feeling about the snow cover now coming down.”

Lyman Wible and Patrick Durkin, with Mitchell Mountain following, pull Tom Heberlein’s body to his gravesite in Ashland County. — Patrick Durkin photos

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