Sheer Excitement

In the second half of May, it is hard to say what season it is here. We call the months of May and June “spring,” but with the ice auger boring down to the very limit of two add-on extensions, through fifty-six inches of ice, and with a wool cap and wool coat and two layers of wool trousers feeling still about right in the clothing department, “spring” rang a little hollow when I talked on the phone with my mother down in Minnesota last week.

It is not “break-up,” because nothing here breaks up with any force. There is no Mackenzie or Yukon River juggernaut, where boxcar-sized blocks of silt-encrusted ice tear out trees and wreck houses in an annual signal that winter has again given way to summer. Here, the ice just melts. Yes, eventually some fifty-acre pans will separate and start to move and drift. The wind can get up and push them around for a week or three, and sometimes they crash and pile jumbles of broken ice onto points and islands.  It can be slightly dramatic, for a minute or two. Then, on a day in late June or early July, the ice is gone. Summer begins by July first, give or take a week.  

In the bush-pilot realm of my life, it is still necessary to pre-heat the engine for an hour or so before departure, on some mornings well along into May. The planes are out on the ice on fat tires and wheel-skis now, and only in the past day or so can I confirm that the skis won’t be needed now, as long as I don’t get asked to go too far away to the north or northeast.

And in the dog-musher facet of our life, the season has abruptly shifted from “on” to “off.” Not for any lack of ice out there to run teams over, but only by reason of easy access. Now the shore lead is a little too wide for the dogs to plunge through at the start and end of each run. Sadly, we hang up the harnesses for the year.

The birds are coming back, and passing through. Robins and warblers, seagulls and geese, eagles, a gyrfalcon, and a flicker who has been banging on various wooden walls around the place. The first Harris’s sparrows about the 13th, now steadily whistling through the day.  A loon, looking in vain for a place to land.

The landscape — all burned to a crisp eight years ago, for those of you who are just joining the story — is plain, brown, and drab. Sorry if that terse description is a little harsh for you romantics, but I think even Wordsworth would agree. Green grasses and fireweed sprouts and birch buds are still weeks away.

The sun today, May 25th, is as high and will follow the same path as it will on July 18th. Yet on July 18th it could easily be 30 degrees C. (90 degrees F.) here, and by then we will all be happy to dip three or four times a day in the lake just to keep cool.  This morning, with the same sun-path as mid-July, a sweater felt good. My bare feet were downright chilly and, truth be told, looking a little purple as I dangled them over the edge of the outside balcony.

I do appreciate the ponderous pace that our planet takes to warm and cool, season by season. Easy there, it is always saying, no need to rush into this next big thing. What’s the hurry?

What this second half of May is — perhaps surprisingly, so I will elaborate a little now — is prime ice-fishing season. That is one activity that these May days are made for: the sheer excitement of ice fishing. Around here that tongue-in-cheek line comes from a tee-shirt we saw years ago, with a line drawing of a frumpy fellow in a heavy overcoat, hunched over a hole in the ice with a jigger rod in his hand, frost layered thick on his bushy eyebrows.  The caption: “For sheer excitement, try ice fishing.”

But wait, smart-aleck. Let’s consider that crystalline four-and-a-half-foot tube, eight inches around, and think for a moment about where it leads, what it connects. That ice-hole is a portal to utter mystery.  Nothing less than a different world; call it “inner-planetary space.”  Think about it. A pane of translucent cold crystals, wafer-thin in the grand view (four feet of ice perched over five hundred — and not far from here a couple thousandfeet of water.) Above it, topsides so to speak, is our known and knowable world. Air, rock, trees, fellow creatures warm and cold, large and small.  All beautiful and welcoming (despite the drab burnt-over miles to the north) and familiar.  But go below — and again, I mean hundreds and thousands of feet — what? Certainly nothing familiar, or cozy, or welcoming. No air, and in winter no light, and the crushing pressure of a gazillion tons of water that all year long stays just barely warm enough to be a liquid.

And yet. We walk our rounds daily out to three or four of these little drilled holes, where bait minnows on double hooks dangle like offerings to the gods of that nether realm. The merest filament of line, less than half a millimeter in diameter, connects us to what is so far beyond our comprehension. Down and down. Just off the bottom, a hundred feet, almost two hundred in some of the good spots.  Loop it off and wait. And wait. Entire days and nights. (“For sheer excitement,” someone always says, on days when we are skunked.)

And then, checking again after a long quiet stretch, Kristen and Annika and I hike out and come up to one of the holes, crunch-crunching on the dead-flat seventy-five-mile membrane of McLeod Bay, the little skiff of frozen water that divides up here from down there, topsides from below. At hole number two, with one questioning tug on that miniscule wisp of line, we can tell. Got one.

And hold on, this fish has some size to it.  Comes up for a bit, the line goes slack, and then a powerful surge away and deep again, and I let out line as fast as I can. No rod and reel here, just a little chunk of scrap lumber with the line wrapped around two nails.  (They don’t sell them at Cabela’s.)

It is a bit of a battle this time. Five minutes, maybe, as big loops of line come hand over hand out onto the ice. Getting closer now. Annika kneels by the hole. We all lean over, rapt, staring down the narrow sunlit tube of ice. Brief glimpses of the fish now; the flash of a silver flank goes whizzing past the porthole. It is about to cross over the brink. From down there to up here, from life to death, through the narrow gate the auger drilled a week ago.

A big head, eyes wide apart and staring right up at us. The big lake trout — a freshwater char — is played out. She (as it turns out) is now right there five feet down at the bottom edge of the ice. One smooth fast pull up through the hole, and Annika’s hand reaches under the gill and jiu-jitsues a fine slab of silver and orange, sideways and over, onto the clean white ice. She takes the chunk of stick that the line is wrapped around, mutters a matter-of-fact “Thank you for your life,” and whacks the fish very hard three times across the brow. It quivers. Just a beauty. Wow.

Warm sunshine, late May, smooth white ice. Fillets grilled over birch coals will be the five-star menu tonight. And direct, today, from a part of the world we will never know. That’s sheer excitement, with no sarcasm.

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