Ice fishing. Now there’s a concept. I want to tell you a story about a trip a bunch of guys made about 50 years back. But let’s get the picture here. Forget the luxury of little shacks that you can drive to in the middle of the lake, where all you do is sit around and drink and step outside every now and then to take a leak and make sure the snow isn’t going to make it impossible for you to drive back. Real ice fishing is a form of recreation where you leave civilisation miles behind to get to the lake. Snowmobiles are the only way in. If you catch something, you’ve got a great meal to look forward to at home that evening, but even if you don’t, you’ll have fun bombing around the lake on your machines.
Here’s how the trip in should go. You drive a long way north, starting very early, passengers dozing in the warmth of the car. Shortly after daybreak you arrive at the start of the trail – an undistinguished spot on the road that one guy recognizes because he was here two summers ago, when they walked in. You get out of the car and quickly zip up your one piece snowmobile suit and tighten the laces on your knee-high felt insulated boots. Your eyes water a bit in the wind and a sharp squeak overlays the crunch of your boots in the snow. You start the machines and take comfort in the oily smell of the exhaust and the roar of the small motors that are your lifelines. You start by wrestling the 500 pound machines over 6 foot snowbanks at the side of the road and into virgin snow that would be up to your chest if you could find the bottom. You load up the trailers with food, thermoses of coffee or tea, fishing gear, ice augers. A quick discussion to sort out who rides on which machines and you set off, with the lightest machine first. No one has been here before you to break trail, so the lead machine is plowing through a foot or two of soft light snow, occasionally coming to a halt as the driver, unable to keep the machine balanced, bogs down and has to jump off and start wrestling to get the machine righted and moving again, maybe tramping down the snow in front of the machine, throttling gently so the track can get a grip on the snow and won’t spin, standing in a crouch, maybe one knee on the seat, working hard to keep balanced. Panting and sweating with the exertion and doing it again a half mile further. The woods would be deathly still if not for the roar of your small expedition. The passengers on the other machines, pressed against a driver’s back, stare into stands of poplar and birch that somehow manages to look whiter than the snow itself, and short, scruffy pines. You can see a long way into the bush, but not to the horizon. Some signs of life – deer or rabbit tracks. Eventually, the trees end abruptly and you are at the lake, an expanse of white, bounded by trees and ice-encrusted granite. That’s if all goes well.
On the day I’m thinking of, 50 years ago now, my father, two of his friends from work, and two of my brothers took three machines into a lake about 3 miles from the road. The weather was fine, clear sky, about 20 below, cold but not bitter. The snow was soft and deep, and the going was hard. The lead machine was driven by a man, we’ll call him Frank, who was in pretty good shape for someone in his early fifties. But he was feeling the exertion of the struggle with the machine, his legs were weary and he was damp on the inside from sweat, not a good way to start off a day of ice fishing. He’d hit a fairly open spot where the wind had been through and had compacted the snow on top so the machine could ride higher and get some speed up. But he could not understand why his breath was coming with such difficulty and why the pain in his chest was getting worse and worse. He was probably unconscious by the time his machine ran headlong into a tree and his leg, somehow entangled between the machine and the tree, was snapped below the knee. The lake was twenty feet away.
My brother Chris was 12, John was 15. Neither had seen a man die before. For that matter, neither had my father or his friend Jim. They had no skills to revive Frank, and with their limited understanding of how these things worked, based on a lifetime assuming they would never have to know, they were uncertain for a while as to how to even confirm whether he was still alive. However not much time had to go by before the body, with no chemistry at work to generate heat, was quite cold. Everyone was pretty calm, I am told. There was a short discussion about how they should get help. They could not take the body out on the machines they had; the small trailers could not handle the weight. They would have to go back to the road and use Jim’s CB radio to try to contact someone within range. But now they were faced with a difficult decision. They could not leave Frank alone. Unwilling to send a single machine back (what if it got stuck?), and believing John to be too inexperienced to handle a machine on the narrow trail, they decided to leave John with Frank, and take Chris and the two working machines back to get help.
I’ve talked to John about it. We even laughed, uncontrollably – what else could we do? – as he told me how he stood staring at the body, dreading that it might move. He tells me that he stood still, long after the sound of the machines had diminished below the sound of his breath, until he could not stand it anymore. Then he dug through the trailer that had been left behind, got out the auger, and trudged onto the lake to a spot that looked good, where he drilled a hole, baited a hook, and dropped a line in. Standing in the white silence, alone except for a terrible mystery in the shape of a cold broken body near the shore, he did what he had come to do.
I never asked him if he caught anything.
Stephen Garrett was born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and now lives in Toronto. His short story “Have You Seen This Person?” was also published by Off Topic Publishing and can be read here: https://offtopicpublishing.com/2017/09/01/have-you-seen-this-person-by-stephen-garrett/