Over the last month western New England has received an impressive series of snow storms. Every few days either a low pressure area will track from west to east blowing in from the northern plains or a snowy freight train, referred to a nor’easter in these parts, will rumble up the east coast, picking up moisture on the way, and cover us with additional layers of winter. Most of the snow has occurred in sub twenty degree temperatures resulting in light, fluffy flakes that blow horizontally as much as fall vertically. Feet of snow have found our area during the last 30 day period. About a week or so ago one of these low pressure areas tracked too close to the coast line resulting in eight inches of snow and about a half an inch of freezing rain. This was followed by several smaller storms of two to eight inches burying the ice cap beneath the fresh snowy surface.
I love winter. Make no mistake about it. I love the fact that it can close human enterprise down and hold our modern world hostage despite all of our technology. I love that it proves that humans are not yet quite in charge of everything. I love how it holds us back, makes us take our noses out of the cyber world, and take account of all things wild in our midst. I love that it makes me feel small and weak and that is not an easy task. I love the fact that it pulls at my heartstrings and makes me joyous. I love how it can build character for those willing to meet its challenges. I love winter because it is fresh and clean and pure.
So it was on this day that my youngest son, Liam, and I decided to go ice fishing. Liam is an adult and lives about 40 miles south of our homestead. He is still young and vibrant and celebrates daily life on a regular basis with his friends. These facts dictated that our ice fishing adventure would not take place in the early morning. Given the single digit temperatures when he arrived at about 11 o’clock in the morning I was quite content to have a half of day of ice fishing to look forward to. After loading the truck with our ice fishing sled that carries all of our equipment we hopped in the pick up and started the drive north where we thought a half day of fishing on Sawdaga Lake was in store. The trip between Heath and Whitingham is undertaken on secondary roads. Plowed snow piled high on both sides of our route gave us the feeling of driving through arctic tunnels. Along the way there are several vistas looking north. There we had fabulous views; thick blankets of white snow lying on rounded purple mountain tops. The sky was sunny, blue, and bright. We both looked at the majesty of the winter landscape as we drove along. We didn’t say much as we motored in a northerly direction save an occasional off the cuff comment about snow and winter. Mostly we just took it all in. Big view, small view, it was all so beautiful.
When we arrived at Sawdaga we noticed that there were hundreds of people there. This is a lake where on a normal day there might be five or six other people ice fishing. It became apparent that there was ice fishing derby. There were signs, fish cops, trucks on the ice, newly located ice shanties, and lots and lots of people; most of them carrying and ice auger under one arm and a case of beer under the other. We kept driving.
Within a mile we arrived at a large reservoir known as Harriman. The lake is about eleven miles long and a mile or slightly more wide. This is vast as compared to the 190 acre Sawdaga Lake. We immediately recognized that the reservoir was almost completely devoid of people; just right for two guys trying to get away from it all and take it all in at the same time.
Easy access on this southern end of Harriman is nonexistent. We found a little pull off on the side of the public road and hiked in on a summer boat access. Liam broke trail as the area had seen very little human traffic. There were no snowmobiles tracks and only one other set of foot prints. He pulled the ice sled while I carried the ice auger. The ice sled towed neatly on top of the snow while Liam trudged along in thigh deep winter. I followed and was glad to be trailing in his foot steps that made my journey just a little bit easier. I have been nursing a bad back injury and on this day Liam would not only haul in the equipment but dig away the snow where each tip-up would be erected and bore each auger hole by hand. I was principally there to be along for the ride. I was just happy to be out under blue skies, in cold air, and in the presence of my son.
We traveled about half a mile in all. Despite the single digit temperatures and ten mile an hour breeze Liam had worked up a mild sweat for all his efforts in the thigh deep snow. I hadn’t worked up a sweat at all and was feeling just a little guilty about not being capable of carrying my end of the bargain. Liam immediately began digging the first hole in the snow covered ice. Each snow cleared area must be at least a square yard. I focused on the different layers of snow as he dug away. Light and fluffy on top, then a layer of ice, light and fluffy below that, then a layer of compacted snow and a layer of slush on the bottom. The deep insulating snow had actually kept the slush from freezing on the bottom where it lay on more than a foot of ice. I wondered if the twenty below zero weather that was going to start the next day would put an end to that.
This winter lasagna, layers of recent weather history, fascinated me. A cross section of the dug snow revealed the weather patterns for the past month. I brushed the side of one of the vertical walls of the freshly excavated snow to get a clear look. Not only could I see each winter precipitation event but I could see thin frozen planes of ice telling me that there were days when the strengthening sun softened the snow and then it refroze at night. I thought about all the mysteries that must be locked up and now being lost in our last remaining, and melting, glaciers. Atmospheric gases, ancient pollen, and other relic airborne particles are held within these monoliths of ice; history being lost to global warming. I wondered how so many humans could be cavalier about this ongoing crisis. I wondered what secrets were disappearing that might have clues to our present climate crisis.
I looked up. Liam was boring another hole. The least I could do was set up a tip-up. I unfolded the wooden contraption. I pulled some line off the reel and then wound it back onto the reel as line pulled though my forefinger and thumb clearing any ice off the fishing line. I netted a small minnow out of the bait bucket and put it on the hook. I dropped the minnow into the clean ice hole where it swam fast and far away from the light. When the minnow was about eight feet into the black watery abyss I set the flag trip on the tip-up, sunk the reel into the water, and balanced the whole unit above the hole using the wooden cross arms. I then moved onto the next hole where Liam was just finishing his second auger hole.
My mind wandered back to the snow layers. It occurred to me that our own personal histories are recorded within the recesses of our brain in layers and layers of information. Peeling back these layers is most often a pleasant task. The good memories are the easiest to locate. But, as we all know, there are other not so positive events in our lives that may be long forgotten. Just like the layers in the snow where an old ice storm may be revealed there are not so pleasant memories sandwiched between positive recollections. Memories like an unkind word, an unsolicited opinion, a deed we wish we could take back. Like it or not this fabric created by our personal histories are who we have been, who we are, and can be used to help us understand and guide who we will be; good or bad. Our personal climates are not always within our control. Like the elements that create the weather there are many extraneous factors that help to shape who we are.
I could feel the biting cold on my ungloved hands. This brought me into to the present and put me back to the task of setting up the tip-ups. Liam was laboring ahead of me leaving the less strenuous work for the old guy bringing up the rear. Finally we set up the last tip-up. We decided to use our jigging poles and fish two ice holes by hand. We pulled two old lawn chairs out of the ice sled and set them in front of the holes so the cold wind was at our backs. We rigged the poles with a jig and minnow and methodically bobbed our poles up and down in hopes of angling success. The tip up farthest from our jigging set up was triggered and a red flag popped in the air. I was the closest to that hole and went to check out the situation. I looked into the water in the auger hole and could see that line was being reeled off the spool. I gently pulled the tip up out of the hole, set it on its side and pulled the fishing line. The hook was set. I pulled the line in hand over hand. A nice salmon showed its face as I pulled it through the hole. It was large enough to keep; a nice meal for my son when he got home that evening.
After I reset the rig I went back to my jigging hole. Liam and I talked about some of our friends. We were catching up on the every day life of mutual acquaintances. I was interested in the pack with which he still travels. I have known many of them for most of their lives. They are now adults. They are all experiencing life from a different perspective these days as am I. Fast moving clouds cast rapidly moving shadows as they blew across the lake from west to east. As we talked I looked at the snow in front of me. Shallow layers were being swept away as the wind blew from the northwest. I could see the underlying snow of a week ago bleeding through the thinning upper layer. Seeing these two snow layers and two periods of time simultaneously reminded me of the term “pentimento”, an underlying image in a painting from an earlier painting or previous rendition that shows through usually when the top layer of paint has become transparent with age. And at that moment of revelation I looked over at my son. He sat there breathing in cold air, soaking up life from the remaining sun in the southern sky. He was content. He was alive. He was enjoying the peace of this cold desolate lake. For a moment I could see myself in him. His young face covered, for the most part, my own genetic image. I could see where I ended and he began. Two separate but intertwined lives. From his perspective I imagined that this would be difficult to see; at least for the foreseeable future.
As the sun fell behind a mountain to the south and the temperatures toppled to near zero we began picking up our equipment. We pulled the tip ups, packed the sled, and Liam grabbed the rope and began the long toe back to the truck. I followed behind carefully walking in his tracks so as to not make two sets of imprints in this white canvas that we call snow.