My heart tells me that the notion of climate change is responsible for this meager winter weather. With almost no snow since October when we received more than two feet, and temperatures reminiscent of weather in November, I have to remind myself not to jump to conclusions. There is far too little data to assume any specific reason for the slow winter start. As I scientist I have to remind myself to remain objective. Only time will tell the answer to this riddle. Still I am frustrated when my heart and my brain are in conflict.
Despite the warmer than normal winter we have had there has been enough cold to form ice on nearby lakes. Nearly every night it dips well below freezing and during the day it rises into the mid thirties. About a week ago I went out to test the ice depths with my ice auger and was surprised to find that it was four inches thick. With a short stretch of cold weather predicted for a couple of days I planned on ice fishing by the end of the week.
Three days later I drove to the next town north of me. This little hamlet in Vermont has a large eleven mile long lake and a small lake of just under 200 acres. Reasoning that big water would not yet be safe I opted for the smaller of the two fisheries. I tested the white ice by stepping onto it with my feet and the weight of my body. The ice did not bend or give under my more than adequate bulk. I walked out about 50 feet onto the pond and drilled a hole with my hand auger. These ice augers are razor sharp and shave through ice like there is no tomorrow. About every three turns of the handle cuts an inch of ice. I turned the handle twenty one times before I cut all the way through. I cleaned the hole with a large slotted spoon know as an ice ladle and measured the ice of the depth. The measure on the ladle handle revealed that the ice was six and three quarters inches deep. This ice thickness passes the test for human traffic.
I started the long walk to the opposite side of the lake where an old channel marked the area of a former river bottom. This was an area where I have had success in the past. As I traversed the lake a sharp blast of wind brought in the first of many snow squalls that day. Visibility was near zero as I trekked across the ice pulling an ice sled with my right hand loaded with tip ups, a bait bucket, and a lawn chair. My left hand balanced the ice auger carefully placed on my shoulder so that if I fell the cutting edge would not come in contact with my body. I walked about fifty yards. The falling slow on the ice made travel very treacherous. My feet almost slipped out from underneath me several times. A hard fall on the ice could end my day given I am still not fully recovered from back surgery. I stopped, pulled out the long chair, sat down and slipped some ice grippers over my oversize Sorrel boots. These would help to keep me upright and prevent the a dangerous fall that could end my day.
There was only one other ice fisherman on the lake this day. He as a good quarter mile away on the opposite shore and only occasionally visible. I took little comfort in the fact that I had company. Given the lack of visibility and distance any accident would likely go unassisted. This thought allowed me to proceed cautiously checking for ice thickness periodically so that I could assure myself that ice fishing would be safe.
It has been years since I have fallen through winter ice. My last such event was in the 1980′s. I was checking a cross country skiing route where a 15K race would happen the next day. The middle of the race crossed a ten acre pond. The weather had been a little shaky so my assignment was to “secure” the route making sure that it was passable and safe. The pond I was checking was just off of a public road. There was little or no ice in front of the culvert that drained the pond underneath the public road but that was not that unusual. I stepped onto the ice about fifty yards from the culvert. The wind was blowing and there were fierce snow squalls that severely reduced visibility. I could see two ice fisherman with their back towards me in the middle of the pond. My idea was to walk out to them and inquire about the ice depth given they had already drilled about ten holes. I knew that this pond had several springs where warm water created ice domes which appear as small mounds on the ice where the ice can be thin. These areas were to be avoided but the visibility was poor due to the blowing snow. I was about 30 yards from the two ice fisherman when I stepped onto one of the ice domes and fell straight through the ice. The shock of the cold water was immense. I started to sink and looked up. I could see the light peering through the hole in the ice and started kicking my feet and paddling wildly with my hands. I went straight up and cracked my head on the bottom of the ice. The pain was blinding. I let myself sink back down towards the bottom. My feet were now on solid ground. I remembered that light bends in water and this time I kept my eye on the hole after I pushed off the lake bottom with my legs. I was now in a panic. The cold was crippling my muscles. I swam towards the surface with all of my might , kept my eye of the shaft of light, and grabbed the edge of the ice on opposite sides of the hole as I neared the surface. I used all my remaining strength to thrust my body out through the ice hole. I landed on the surface like a walrus having fun in the arctic.
The two fisherman had not seen me fall through the ice but had heard a loud cracking noise when I did so. The first thing they really saw through a fog of blowing snow was me flying out of the ice hole landing on my belly on the cold hard surface. They yelled and jumped back in shock. At the sight of me emerging through the ice. They couldn’t imagine where I had come from. They ran over to me. I was flopping around trying to get my muscles to work. They pulled me onto my feet. I only wish I had the presence of mind to say something like “the fishing was pretty good down there but I just had to come up for air”.
The two fisherman were white from shock. The first thing they said was “Where the hell did you come from?” I was too cold to answer them. They helped me to my truck where the cab was still warm. I took of my boots and tipped them over. Cold water came pouring out. I drove home barefoot. Given it was less than a mile to my house I knew I would be alright. I had a second shiver as I thought about what could have happened.
The next weekend I saw the same two fellows ice fishing on the pond. I knew they might be there and went up with a six pack of beer to give to them as a meager way of saying thanks for helping me get back to my truck. They told me that they had no idea someone had fallen through the ice. They couldn’t figure out what the loud cracking noise was and where the splash had come from. They even heard a loud thump on the ice when I cracked my head on the bottom. When I came through the ice one of the chaps said it scared the hell out of him and he thought he was going to have a heart attack. We all had a good laugh. Over the years I ran into these two chaps several times. Each time we would review the entire incident and laugh again. I can only say that I am glad I survived to laugh about it a few times.
With all of this in mind I proceeded cautiously. When I arrived at my desired location and bored the first hole I was relieved to see that the ice was seven inches thick. I felt that I could now proceed with confidence. I cleared the hole of ice, rigged the tip up, dropped the baited hook and line through the hole in the ice, and set the flag.
Augering through through ice by hand can work up a sweat and even though this day hovered around twenty degrees I found myself taking off layers to avoid over heating. Getting soaked from sweat can bring on a severe chill later on when your activity level drops. Knowing the what’s and if’s of staying warm in cold conditions is important to staying on the ice for extended periods.
As I bored the fourth hole the ice let out a long cracking noise followed by a very loud groan that echoed across the lake. Although this can be unnerving, particularly early in the season before your psyche has become reaccustomed to the ways of the ice, I let my rational mind take over while it told me that all was still safe. There is a tremendous amount of tension in ice. Sometimes while boring a hole and cutting through the ice it relieves that tension and the result is loud, booming cracking noises and ominous groans. It’s all part of the ice fishing experience, particularly early in the season.
I was having a hard time getting all my ice fishing rigs set up. The fish were biting and I was spending as much time tending my tip-ups as I was setting up new ones. This is a good problem to have when you are ice fishing. Given the entire purpose of being there is to catch fish and have fun how can you argue with success?
For the next three hours I never had an opportunity to sit down in the lawn chair. I spent the entire afternoon cruising the ice, pulling in fish, releasing most, clearing my ice holes of snow, and resetting my tip-ups. The snow squalls came and went all afternoon. The winds were beyond fierce, sometimes tripping the flags on the tip-ups. Every once in a while I would look across the lake to see if the other ice fisherman was still at it. The visibility was to obscured by the blowing snow to confirm or deny his continued presence. I was alone with the wind, heavy blowing snow, and the excitement of knowing that this was where I was at my best; tested by the elements in an environment that challenged even the hardy.
With the last dark storm cloud and heavy snow squall I knew that I would not emerge from this in daylight unless I broke down my ice fishing equipment at this point in time. And so I began taking down my ice fishing rigs. I had caught thirty one fish on twenty four minnows. I would return home with a dozen keepers which would be fileted and put in the freezer for a future meal.
After I picked up all my equipment I noticed that my bare hands were frozen. I never feel comfortable working with gloves on despite how cold it may be. I slipped my numb fingers into my elk skin gloves, grabbed the rope to the loaded ice sled, and began the trek back across the lake.
As I pulled the ice sled across the frozen lake through the blowing snow and darkening skies I thought about ice domes, the cold water underneath, frozen limbs, and how to avoid all three.
There would be no one to help me if I fell through the ice. I was on my own.
And what could be better?
Written for www.wildramblings.com in January of 2012