Strong winds straight out of the cold blue north blow waves of snow through the air on this frozen eighty acre pond. The snow in the air takes on the form of a wave as it travels across the icy landscape complete with a curled crest at the top. The temperature is not that bad, perhaps 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but the 30-40 mile per hour wind makes the wind chill something in the neighborhood of zero degrees. Not that I am complaining, these winds are beyond refreshing; one might say they are, in fact, reviving. Cold winds make me feel alive. It is if my spirit is being recharged on these cold windy days.
I am lightly dressed for the weather at this moment. I am about to begin the task of hand drilling through nearly 30 inches of ice at least five times; once for each ice fishing tip-up that I will set up on this mid-February day. I have never been able to work with gloves on. I take them off while drilling the ice. I turn the auger handle around and around. It takes maybe 100 turns to bore through the thick frozen water. As I auger away, a perfect mound of ice shavings piles up around the auger. The ice shavings are so fine it appears that they could be used for a snow cone. For a brief moment I make a mental note to bring an ice cream cone and some maple syrup next time, but I know that I will never remember to do this when getting my ice fishing supplies together, typically at day break. I will be lucky to remember to bring the bait.
Often as I bore through the ice my mind wanders about but on this day I stay focused to keep the chore moving along. Uncovered wet hands, 40 mph winds, and prolonged exposure to well below freezing temperatures can create blue/black frost bitten fingers; something I cannot afford to let happen at the beginning of this day on the ice.
It only takes a minute or so to bore through the ice. Once drilled the hole is full of slush and must be cleared of all this icy debris before I can drop a baited hook through the water in the ice hole. I use an over-sized ladle with drainage slots to dredge the ice shavings: it is important to get every last piece of ice out of the water in the hole. An unclear ice fishing hole means the debris will hinder my fishing line as I try to feed the baited hook and line into the dark water below. Clearing the slush takes another few minutes for each hole.
Gusts of winds beyond the 30 mph wind speed make me wonder what I am doing out here. I am by myself today, a fate common to those who enjoy ice fishing. Company is hard to come by in these conditions. I really don’t mind being alone, in fact, it gives me the opportunity to just let time pass by. Some find “letting time pass by” unproductive. I find it to be a necessity of life. While time passes I observe what it leaves behind; a necessary pastime for someone who loves to write.
About half of the time that I ice fish I share the experience with a family member of friend. I really enjoy company on the ice, not only does the work load get shared, but also the joys of a day on the ice. It is true that some do not enjoy the cold environment as much as me but most develop a new appreciation of this long lost activity experienced by so few in this electronic world. My sister, who now lives in a southern urban area came up to visit this past December. She had never been ice fishing. Together, along with the rest of my family, we bored holes in the ice, set up our tip-ups, caught a few fish, and enjoyed a few rounds of refreshment. I sensed it was a real adventure for her and one that put her back in touch with her rural roots. A day well spent for all.
Three or four times this year I have gone ice fishing with one of my two sons. Not only do we get to freeze our rear ends off, we also enjoy a well spent day together . In the back of our minds we hope for a big run, or at least one monster fish, but it is the time spent together that builds the important memories. At the end one January day on the ice recently my oldest son and I watched the cold sun sink beneath the horizon of a frozen landscape. Neither of us said anything, perhaps we were just too cold, but I choose to think that we were just enjoying the peace of the world around us. Last season, my youngest son and I were just starting a day that looked promising. Tip-up flags were going off left and right even while setting up the remaining gear. The day was cut very short as I tried to dislodge a hook caught in the gill of a chained pickerel and the barbed point went through my thumb and thumbnail. We packed up immediately and spent the rest of the day looking at the inside of an emergency ward. The scenery wasn’t so nice but believe it or not we still managed to have a few laughs.
As I bait the last hook and drop it through the ice I go to a position on the ice where I can keep an eye on my five tip-ups. I unfold a beach chair so that I have a comfortable place to sit, and as I am doing so I chuckle at the irony of using a beach chair on the ice. Typically these popular pieces of portable furniture are used for sitting on the beach and viewing the water. I am literally using this beach chair to sit on the water even if it is in a frozen state. Four of five months from now this very location will only be visible from a kayak or canoe, and there will be no leisurely walking about to traverse the water surface. Winter does have its advantages despite the fact that many would disagree.
I sit down and take in the scenery around me. The wind is still blowing and so the view is slightly obscured by the light snow that blows off of the surface of the pond into the air. Still, I can see that this pond sits in a high valley surrounded by hilltops that are in the vicinity of 2000 feet above sea level; hardly mountains as compared to the Rockies, but very interesting scenery nonetheless. These hilltops are a mere shadow of their former selves. Some geologists believe that hundreds of millions of years ago these hills were mountains of the greatest proportions, perhaps rivaling the Himalaya Mountains in Asia. What is left now is a mere remnant of these once magnificent landscape features, bedrock knobs interspersed with hills and valleys. The withering of these mountains is a mind boggling process. The key element is time. A lot can happen over tens of millions of years. Multiple glacier events where miles of ice pluck hordes of bedrock from the surface as they advance south, tremendous reshaping of the landscape by fluvial influences, geologic events from the monstrous (earthquakes) to the sublime (earth surface freezing and thawing), or atmospheric events including aeolian (wind) erosion. All of these influences both major and minor have unyieldingly worn these once great mountains down to their present size.
Thinking about all this while I scan the hills on the horizon is a wonderful and necessary distraction from the frigid weather. My thoughts are eventually interrupted by a flag popping up on the most distant tip-up. I hurry over to the tip up hoping to see the line being ripped off of the submerged reel, only to find that is lazily turning; an indication of a small fish. I pull the reel out of the hole, lay the tip up on its side and wait for the line to become taught before setting the hook. About a minute later of pulling in the line and carefully placing it on the ice so it will not be an impossible tangle reveals a good size yellow perch in the water filled auger hole. I decide to keep this one to add to my collection in the freezer from which we will have several nice fish dinners at sometime in the future.
After placing the fish in the bottom of my ice sled I carefully set up the tip up and rig it with new bait in hopes of more luck. The pace of fish catching has been very slow on this cold, unforgiving morning. I walk back over to the beach chair and once again settle in. I pull my cap sown over my ears, pull my turtle neck up to my chin, zip my polar-tec jacket up to the very top, and do the same for my blue, insulated outer vest. This time I tuck my hands into my pockets, they are particularly cold from having gotten wet in the cold, hard blowing winds. Hunkering down is now a matter of more than comfort, it is necessary for surviving the weather in this cold, cold sport known as ice fishing.
It is difficult to believe, but despite the unrelenting wind and wind chill temperatures in the below zero range I actually fall asleep while sitting in the chair. Although I think I only doze for a few minutes it is difficult to say how long I slept, I never watch time while ice fishing. I like to let time pass at any pace it wishes. I am in no rush to see time pass by, my days on this planet pass quickly enough without me rushing them on. A severe gust of wind flows some of the gear off my ice sled and the clattering wakes me up. I see there is another upright flag on the same tip-up on which I caught a fish a while back. I rush over there, once again hoping to see line flying off the reel. This time the line is coming off at a faster pace, but nothing to get too excited about. After removing the reel from the auger hole I set the hook and bring in the fish by pulling in the line one arm length at a time. This time my harvest is a 17 inch chain pickerel, a nice fish for a future meal.
Four plus hours have now passed. The bitter cold is working its way into my bones and so I decide that I will call it a day. I have been the only person on the ice this day. There is little wonder why. As I take down each tip-up I carefully reel in the line, remove all of the ice collected on the tip-up and reel, and fold up the tip-up and place it on the ice sled. The take down takes about fifteen minutes; all time spent with bare hands and wet equipment. My hands have little feeling as I put the last tip-up away.
Trudging back across the pond pulling the ice sled loaded with gear and the ice auger I stop to change hands holding the rope. I look up at these ancient hills and wonder what they will look like in another million years, ten million years, or even 100 million years. Time marches on with no mercy for anything in its way. The only constant on this planet earth is change.
As I pick up my pace with the shore not far off I regret not having stayed to catch a third fish, a few more moments of peace, and some wild thoughts that warms my mind, heart, and soul.
Written for www.wildramblings. com in February 2010.