My sister is a native New Englander but has lived in the Washington DC area for the last twenty five years or so. The last couple of years she has ventured back to New England to visit me over the holidays. Our visits are pretty laid back. We talk about old times. Like many siblings we are amazed at how differently we remember much of our childhood. While she’s here we enjoy outings that are different from her more southern way of life. For example, we visit old cemeteries in hopes of finding long lost relatives on the European side of our family in our home town and the surrounding area. Last year she went ice fishing in ten degrees below zero temperatures and didn’t even mind. This year we decided ice fishing might be fun to do again and given the near freezing temperatures the weather seemed ideal.
My two adult sons are around a lot during the holidays and they enjoy ice fishing as well. The morning of our outing I went out to the shed to put our ice fishing stuff together. There is a lot of gear with this sport: tip-ups, ice chisel, ice auger, slotted ladle for removing ice from the auger hole, water proof gloves, shiner bucket, jigging poles, jigs, minnow net, filet knife, filet board, portable snow shovel, lawn chairs for sitting on the cold frozen ice, and assorted fishing gear like knives, pliers, hooks, leaders, and sinkers. I keep my ice fishing gear together so it didn’t take long to assemble the equipment and put it in an ice sled that could be towed across the ice. I was a little worried that the ice auger might not be sharp. We use a hand held auger that bores an eight inch hole. It is made in Finland and believe me when I say that when it is sharp it can bore a hole nearly as fast as any power auger operated by a gas engine. On the other hand when it is dull it is painfully slow boring through the dense ice. We wouldn’t know until we put it to the test so I made sure the ice chisel was available in case we had to do it the old fashion way.
After I had loaded all of the ice fishing gear into my pickup truck I was wondering what I might have forgotten. I have a Doctorate in Forgetfulness. In fact I’m so good at forgetting things that Universities all over the United States and Canada are begging to give me honorary degrees. But that’s another story. On this morning I suddenly remembered that we would need a knife and pliers. And I had just the tool to bring along. One of my most prized possessions is a Gerber Multiplier that one of my best friends gave me in 1986. For twenty four years I have kept this tool close by my side in many adventures. It has been with me on many fishing expeditions to the Quebec wilderness. With it’s many different accessories it has opened cans of beans, sharpened hooks, gutted fish, removed hooks from the gills of pike, trout, and walleye, cut rope, and even opened a few bottles of beer that did not have a twist off cap. This knife has been with my on many hunting trips where it has been used as an accessory in setting up deer stands and moose blinds. It travels constantly with me during the summer when I’m doing field work. I cut plant parts for identification, snip twine when unbundling a plant during a restoration project, and it even has been used as an anchor to hold a tape for measuring plant plots. Over the years I have become inordinately attached to this object, almost as if it were some sort of adventure partner that I counted on when dependability was a necessary quality. This particular tool is exceedingly well made. It has served me well and often over all these years.
Without thinking twice about it I put the multi-tool in my old Carhart vest and climbed into the pickup truck. I was headed to a local general store to buy some minnows for fishing. The boys, my sister, and my wife would meet me in an hour or so at an 80 acre pond where we would begin our day of ice fishing. The general store was pretty empty. No standing in a line for bait today. I netted four dozen shiners for our day on the ice, grabbed an extra bag of hooks, and paid for everything inside of five minutes. The drive to the pond was only another twenty minutes or so. I knew I would be early.
After unloading the ice sled from the back of the truck, complete with all the aforementioned equipment I decided to head out across the ice and start boring some holes. I was excited to try out a new depth finder/fish finder that my oldest son had given me for Christmas. This electronic wonder can shoot straight through the ice and with sonar tell you the depth and if there might be any fish at this location. I pulled the ice sled out onto the pond about a quarter of a mile. I had fished this area before with some luck. The electronic fish finder is a small hand held unit. I put the sensor on a little water on the ice and it immediately gave me a reading. I knew the depth but apparently there were no fish at this location at the moment. Relying on my instincts I decided to bore a hole at this location anyway. I was surprised to see that the ice auger was adequately sharp. It took about a half minute to bore through 16 inches of ice. The ice shavings piles up in a perfect circular mound as the auger blade navigated through the hard water. Ice has inconsistent texture. It is black and granite hard in one layer, and full of air and soft in the next layer. The auger actually slows down in the air laden ice, just the opposite of what you would expect.
I was ladling out the ice chips in the first hole when I saw my younger son’s Jeep Wrangler pull up across the pond. It didn’t take him long for my two sons to get out onto the ice. Maureen and my sister would arrive a little later. The boys know I have a bad back these days, and immediately took over the ice auger duties. Brendan manned the fish finder locating good spots for Liam to bore a new hole. I moved slowly behind them, cleaning the holes and setting up the tip-ups. Before long my wife Maureen and my sister showed up and they took over the slush removal duties while I concentrated on setting up the tip-ups. Within a half hour we were completely set up. Our first flag was a dud, meaning we didn’t catch a fish, but it was still the first glorious flag of the year. Within an hour we started catching perch and pickerel. Brendan decided to do some jigging and manned one of the auger holes with the fish finder and a jigging rod rigged with a jig and shiner. He borrowed my multi-tool to set up the rod. Before a few minutes had passed I saw him whisper something to his brother. I didn’t think much of it at the time. It wasn’t long before he announced that he had retired my Gerber multi-tool and would be buying me a new one. My heart sank. I knew what had happened. Brendan explained he had leaned forward and the multi-tool had slid off his lap into the hole in the ice. He watched it as it slipped into the cold icy abyss below. I jokingly gave him a hard time about it the rest of the day. In my gut I felt sick. It was as if an old friend had slipped through the ice and died. After a few minutes I convinced myself that this was all very silly, but nevertheless I still felt a loss.
My sister and wife left after about an hour and a half for some girl time. You know, sister-in-law bonding. Hot baths to warm their cold feet and a nice warm drink back at the homestead. The boys and I fished on for the next few hours and managed to pull in a modest haul of pickerel and yellow perch; enough for a meal after they were filleted. As the sun sank below the southwestern horizon we pulled our gear and loaded it back in the ice sled. All in all we had a good day, and I tried my damndest to put the Gerber multi-tool loss in the back of my mind so as to not taint a wonderful day on the ice with my family.
We went out to dinner that night. We drank, ate, and we were merry. I looked around at everyone at the table, my wife, sister, Liam, Brendan, and his long time girl friend Chelsea. There was laughter. There were smiles. And certainly there was lots of love.
That night I had a fitful night of rest. I had a powerful dream about an old tractor that I used to love. I even named this old 1955 International “Susy-Q”. I spent many a wonderful day on that old tractor; plowing the driveway, getting in wood, grading and leveling the landscape. This old machine was a work of art, and I loved every inch of her. Like all old equipment she began failing me as father time and worn parts took their toll. I switched to plowing the driveway with my pickup, getting in wood with my four wheeler, and hiring out big jobs that required heavy equipment. In my dream I was standing by this old tractor. I was lamenting her fate. She was going to tractor heaven, and I was very uncomfortable with the idea. So uncomfortable, in fact, that I started to sob. The intensity of the dream woke me up. After rubbing my eyes and trying to make sense of this dream I realized I was really lamenting my lost multi-tool. Although it was just another hunk of metal in my life I realized that inanimate objects can take up important space in our minds. I was still pretty sleepy when I was trying to sort through all this. For some reason I remembered an old magnetic heating device that I used to attach to the oil pan to keep the oil warm so that I could start the old tractor on cold winter mornings. I had no idea why this occurred to me and then it hit me. Perhaps I could use that old magnet to retrieve my multi-tool!
I barely slept the rest of the night. I was up before dawn pillaging around in the shed looking for the old magnetic heater. I hadn’t used it in nearly a decade, but I was confident that it was out there. Sure enough, after I moved enough old junk I found it behind an old propane heater. While in the shed I pulled about twenty five feet of heavy fishing line off my surf casting reel and grabbed a roll of duct tape. I took the magnet, the fishing line, and the duct tape inside where I fashioned an assembly that I could drop through the ice and “fish” for my multi-tool. I felt hope although there was still some uncertainty as to whether or not this would work. At about 7 AM I headed off to the pond with an ice chisel and my contraption.
About a half hour later I was on the ice. I figured out which fishing hole the multi tool had been dropped through and chiseled out the ice that had reformed during the night. I dropped the magnet through the ice hole and lowered it to the bottom. I pulled the magnet back up. There was nothing stuck to the bottom of the magnet. I repeated the procedure again and again, trying to get the magnet in a different position each time. Each retrieval proved to be fruitless. I was about to give up when I stood in front of the hole and studied the situation. I realized that the multi-tool that slid off Brendan’s lap would have gone in at an angle. I then threw the magnet at a forward angle and let it sink to the bottom. I felt something, some added weight, when I retrieved the magnet. I brought the magnet up ever so slowly. As I pulled the magnet through the ice the pliers on the multi-tool clung to the bottom. The multi-tool fell off the magnet before I set it down. I stared at this old tool as it lay on the ice. It was beautifully wet. I could see all of the nicks and scars that made it so precious. I felt as if I had just rescued an old friend.
When I returned home my wife asked me if I had any luck. I hesitated and then pulled the multi-tool from my pocket. My sister and Maureen actually cheered. I called my son immediately. I think I woke him up. He was as pleased as I was that I had retrieved the old multi-tool. It’s hard to believe, but despite my aching back, I actually smiled the rest of the day.
And unlike the creel that was waiting in the freezer from the previous day’s fishing, my son was off the hook.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in December of 2010.