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Russell Dillin

Russell Dillin, 10, of Mauston, shows the walleye he caught while fishing with guide Don Wilson in the summer of 2018.

Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago is 800 miles from Sioux Lookout, Ontario Canada. Since the spring of 2017, Russell Dillin, age 10, of Mauston, has spent too much time at the Chicago Hospital. Since 1993, Don Wilson has guided and managed a fishing outpost near Sioux Lookout. This past summer, the distance between these two locations and people melted, bringing together a special young man with a special place.

Don Wilson flipped fillets in a cast iron pan; the oil boiled over the top of the morning’s catch, making a unique sound reserved for shore lunch. Ten-year-old Russell Dillin stood nearby, watching every move the guide made.

The guide had been impressed with the young man; he seemed to know more than most clients about fish patterns, wind, depth and lure selection. The boy was also unusually inquisitive — especially about fishing a Canadian lake.

The morning’s conversations had been dominated by fishing, so Don thought he would learn more about his client. “So, what sports do you play?”

Russell looked into the guide’s eyes, “I like football, basketball and baseball, but I can’t play football because I have a tumor.” His nonchalant tone sounded like he was answering what he had for breakfast. Taken aback by the casual response, the Don wasn’t sure how to reply, but the boy’s disarming smile filled the awkward moment.

“This was one tough, mature, 10-year-old,” Don said. “You would never know there was anything wrong. He seemed so content and unbothered by his illness.”

Russell’s obsession with fishing started on his grandparent’s dock at age 3. He outlasted those charged with supervision on the dock. Since then, his passion has intensified; he prefers YouTube fishing clips to video games.

About a year and half ago, Russell’s life suddenly was dominated by visits to specialists, surgeries and tests, eventually revealing a growth near his pituitary gland. Because of its location, the tumor is inoperable.

He learned that his lifestyle had to change dramatically. Participation in sports would be curtailed and medication makes skin sensitive to sunlight. For a 10-year-old with a life dominated by sports and the outdoors, news like this shatters spirits.

Not Russell’s spirit. There has yet to be a “woe is me,” or a “why me?” Rather, this life-changing event has shined a light on all that is good about Russell. He turned his misfortune into a mission for spreading goodwill to others.

During one of his first visits to the hospital, Russell disappeared while waiting for a consult. The staff, slightly panicked, searched throughout the children’s oncology floor before finding him huddled with other children who had diagnoses worse than his.

Russell chooses to spend his free time at the hospital playing games or talking with the younger children: trying to make their day a little brighter. If positive energy fights tumors, Russell is winning.

Ghost River owner Darrell Kartinen met Russell and his dad upon their arrival on the dock. To their amazement, Darrell wore a familiar t-shirt; it was a popular shirt produced back in Wisconsin in support of Russell. Darrell got the shirt by a “small world coincidence.”

Throughout their stay, the Dillins ate their evening meals at the lodge with the owners and other employees. Fish stories and history of the fish camp kept Russell enthralled, as tales of the past spun around the table.

Two of the younger workers at Ghost River were drawn to Russell ‘s fun-loving personality and included him on some of their daily routines, including playing catch with the football. One afternoon, when Russell’s father Jim napped, the boys invited him along for a short fishing trip.

Not wanting to wake his dad, Russell quietly gathered his gear, and sprinted to the boat. Unbeknownst to Russell, the boys had earlier cleared the excursion with Jim, but everyone let Russell think he got away with something.

Don recalled a special moment during their trip. “Our day started a little slow, but then Russell hooked into a big walleye. I thought his eyes were going to pop out when the fish came up. When we got his fish in the net, his smile was the biggest I’ve seen… and I have been guiding a long time.”

Don finished, “I will never forget Russell’s keen knowledge of fishing, but more than that, my day with Jim and Russell is one I will remember because of the positive attitude they both had. It made me proud to be a small part of their fight against his nasty medical condition.”

I believe Russell and Jim are glad they found Ghost River. I think Don and the Kartinens are glad they found Ghost River, too.

It has been 20 months since Russell’s diagnosis, and the experimental drug is working. His tumor has not grown, nor spread; and there is a good chance he will be off the drug this summer — just in time for the Dillin’s return trip to Ghost River.

For 13 summers in a row, Ghost River has been our family’s fishing destination. Darrell and Tena Kartinen, along with daughter Chelsea, run a first-class camp. Ghost River (ghostriverlodges.com) is far more than a quality fishing experience; you arrive a customer, but leave like family.

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