The bucket lid bites uncomfortably into my butt. The ice below me is 8 inches thick. I stare down the hole. Or is the hole staring back at me? I feel a little tug on my pole. I stare even more intently into the hole. No. Nothing. We’ve been out for quite a while now, the cold sun is standing at its highest in its low winter arc, and the fish aren’t biting. They haven’t for an hour or so. Perhaps they’re preoccupied with the events and daily musings of their own universe beneath the ice while we stand above them like falcons over a field. Instead of searching for mice with our eyes, we stick lines attached to a hook and bait, our adultery to the virgin world below, a thick sheath of ice between us. Inside my little world, anything seems possible.
I’m sitting in a small, collapsible ice shanty, a flimsy structure made of rough green canvas and metal rods that allow it to fold up and over from the sled in which it’s grounded. Folded over me, I can sit on a bucket over my ice hole with ample room over my head, even with my 6’2” stature. I have two hooks that descend into the shallow waters of Lake Champlain, close to the Vermont shore. Even though Lake Champlain is 400ft deep at its deepest point, 12 miles wide at its widest point, and 120 miles long, we’re on the South Lake, a thin and shallow extension of the Main Lake. Two hooks are attached to the end of my rudimentary ice fishing pole, made of less than a foot of a normal fishing pole strung to a notched piece of wood that acts as the reel. On one hook is a minnow, on the other is the eye of a fish we’ve already caught. Apparently the fish like them; they were biting on those earlier.
The only connection I have to the outside world is a small plastic window etched into the green canvas. Peering out, Lake Champlain lies frozen, seemingly dormant until you hear the whistles, cracks, and bangs. My mind slips.
The ancient whales and beings of the old Champlain Sea whistle, snap, gurgle, and groan from their deep graves. The hole I’m fishing from glows from beneath; I’m convinced there’s another world beneath me, full of never-before-seen creatures that come out only in the winter, full of civilizations, full of intelligent beings that we are perhaps too unintelligent to comprehend. What are they doing? What do they think of us? Are we perhaps on such different levels of awareness that acknowledging each other in our true forms is impossible?
Unfortunately, the sounds emanating from the lake are the result of the constant freezing of the lake. The temperature has risen from 10 to 16 degrees Fahrenheit since this morning; it’s cold enough that the water underneath continues to freeze and expand, loading the ice above with immense pressure. This pressure causes the ice to shift and fracture in its reluctance to budge, causing eerie noises and uneven ground to walk on. We only have one ice shanty, and my roommate Joe, girlfriend Caroline, and guide Dave are outside, fishing with their respective and similarly rudimentary ice fishing poles.
I look up from the hole, back out the small plastic window. Soft light touches the open ice plains of the lake interrupted by the foothills of the biggest mountains in the area, and the biggest park in the contiguous United States: the Adirondacks.. This is all new to me. I spent a lot of my childhood as a diplomat’s son in Baku, Azerbaijan – a semi-desert. Oil and natural gas literally seep from the ground, enough that entire hills have been on fire for decades. Moving west, it quickly became green as the Caucasus rise from nothing. The tree line quickly disappears, and we often ran into sheep-herders spending their summers in the verdant high plateaus for the sheep to become fat and delicious. The summers in the city were blisteringly dry and hot, the winters windy, sunny, and warm. We would get a couple of inches of snow two or three times, but even rain only fell a couple of times a year. When I moved to Northern Virginia when I was twelve, winter mystified me. It wouldn’t snow a whole lot, but I tracked every storm on every weather website I could, excited for every opportunity the temperatures would plummet and the flakes would fly. Now I’m a sophomore at Middlebury College, in central Vermont. One northern winter lies behind me, but if I was mystified in Virginia, I am in a constant state of dreaming here.
What is it we love so much about snow? I mean we, as humans? Is it in our nature to love it, or are we taught to love it? To people who don’t have warmth as a constant in winter, do they like freshly fallen snow too, or does it mean cold and suffering to them?
A gust of wind pushes and scratches against the rough material of the ice shanty, and I can feel drifting snow pile up against its impeding structure in the immense open space of the lake.
No matter what the constant in our lives is, what we do all have in common is our humanity. I think it’s in our nature to love snow. We compare ourselves to it; unlike us, it is wholly indiscriminant to what it touches when it falls. No branch, no needle of the evergreens, no nook or cranny is forgotten as it blows about. Its white purity contrasts to what we see in ourselves as impure humanity. Yes, I think it’s in our nature. And yes, I am completely enamored by it.
I stare back into the hole. Joe pitched ice fishing to me as a great adventure for my Adventure Writing class, and I accepted it immediately without thinking too much about it. Now I’m here, on the ice, and can’t quite grasp what happened in between the idea and the reality – I had never thought about doing it before. Maybe he seeded the idea so he could come along – he ice fishes at home in Idaho all the time. I was warned before I tried ice fishing that it might not be all about fishing; instead it was an excuse for men to have a break from their pestering wives and drink beer with their buds, sometimes late into the night. Honey, I was fishing out there all night long, but no bites! This, however, is not the way that we’re fishing today, or rather, this is not the way our guide Dave Doria ever fishes.
Looking back out the window, I spot Dave walking across the lake in the distance, a sled full of ice fishing gear in tow. No, he doesn’t walk. Dave takes small, deliberate steps on the sticky patches of snow to gather speed, then makes a small jump to slide a couple of feet on the ice. Layered thickly against the cold wind and a hoodie covering his overspilling white beard, his large, stocky figure resembles an oversize penguin, or perhaps a young child playing on the ice.
Dave stops, his ice sled bumping against his shins with residual momentum. He turns around to grab his ice auger to quickly drill through 8 inches of clear, solid ice. Within 20 seconds his line is in the water, and his figure silhouetted against the glowing mountains stands still. Only his fishing pole bobs up and down. A couple of minutes later, if no fish bite, he throws his pole into the sled along his auger, and finds the next magic spot. If a fish does bite, he brings it up, swiftly unhooks it, and debates with himself whether the type and size is worthy of eating. Too small? Right back into the water. Big enough? He throws it into the bucket, where it quickly freezes stiff. “I like to eat fish,” he told me later, chuckling, “which is basically the reason why I do ice fish. Fish are good.”
He isn’t catching anything now. He pulls his line up, throws the rod into the sled, and moves further into the horizon. No beer, no permanent ice shanty, he enjoys being on his own out there. What he keeps with him is not only his gear but also his thoughts. The wide open space nestled by the steep shorelines that only a large frozen lake can provide fosters a feeling of solitude that in turn cultivates a freedom to think, to feel, to marvel at the world.
Today Dave has offered to show us some tips on ice fishing, but he says, “When I ice fish, I normally go by myself. Just go on the lake, and it’s pretty peaceful. You get to think about all sorts of other things if they’re not biting, and if they are, there’s plenty to do.” His carefully placed words come from lips hidden inside his white beard. He nods and looks at me deliberately – his silence is as much a part of the conversation as his words. This is something he really enjoys.
When we came, we parked at an acquaintance of Dave’s driveway, and followed an icy path down to the shore of the lake. Wade Provencher, the acquaintance, showed us his own permanent, solar powered ice shanty just 40 feet from the door of his back porch. Being out on the lake is a family affair for Wade, and I asked Dave if this has ever appealed to him in the many years he’s ice fished. “My son has come out with me a couple times, not in the last 2 years, I guess. He gets bored if he doesn’t catch anything” – Ben’s first time fishing, he caught a Northern Pike taller than him within seconds of casting his line in. Regarding the rest of his family, he said, “I’m not the greatest at ice fishing, but yeah. I’ve asked and they always seem to have something better to do.”
I stare down the hole in the ice again and bob my pole up and down a little bit. There’s a small weight on the end of my line hovering 4 inches above the bottom of the lake that brings tension to the line, making it very easy to tell if something is even nibbling on the bait. Still nothing, though. I haven’t yet figured out why exactly I’m here, though. Sure, Joe gave me the idea, but I must have accepted it for reasons.
Why the ice? My newfound love for winter has motivated me to try a plethora of new things to do in the cold months. Downhill skiing was the only winter sport I had done before coming to Vermont (and I’m obsessed), but since then I’ve gone snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, winter camping, and a ton of other things. I’m always down for more things to do in the throes of winter, and being out on frozen lakes seems like an appropriate way to experience it.
And fishing? I fished a lot more when I was younger and traveled a lot more –my dad and I went deep-sea fishing in places like the Seychelles, Malaysia, and South Africa when we still had time to travel, and I would always troll a fishing line from behind our sailing boat on the Chesapeake Bay. I distinctly remember brimming with pride when I brought my tackle box full of squishy fake fish and big hooks into 1st grade show and tell, stumbling over my own words telling stories of the Striped Bass and Bluefish I had caught. Now I’m 19 and haven’t gone properly fishing since my 13th birthday, when I went fly fishing in Oregon. I’ve largely forgotten what fishing means to me these days, and now I find myself on a personal quest to find out if it’s changed, and how it’s changed.
“Oh hey there!” I hear from outside my confined world.
“Did you get a bite?” I shout. The noise of my own voice booms inside the ice shanty, startling me.
“Yeah, come check it out!”
Maybe the fish are biting after all. I fold up the front of the ice shanty out of excitement, forgetting how different the outside world is as the bright sun, which momentarily peaks out from bulging snow clouds, immediately blinds me. The wind catches up to me, blowing down the small of my neck, reminding me of why I went inside in the first place.
Joe is kneeled down on the ice, gripping the fish with one of his camo-waterproof gloved hands, the other one wrestling with the barbed hook inside the fish’s mouth with his Leatherman. Above his thick, black beard, Joe wears glasses that never seem to be aligned. One side of his glasses is always notably higher than the other, creating a diagonal line that cuts across his eyes that always makes him look slightly quizzical. This is appropriate, and fits the part of his personality that is always thriving for information. He’s a physics major, and I like to think that’s the reason he always finds a need to explain the happenings of his surroundings. Being outdoors is an important part of who Joe is. “Idaho Joe,” they call him at school; he has a reputation for doing intense hikes and crazy camping trips both at home in Idaho and in the Middlebury area. To me, what’s more important is his ability to make any small excursion outside a huge adventure.
Joe finally unhooks the fish, and holds it up to me. It’s a small Perch, which is all that we’ve caught today. All small, all Perch. I pull up my line so I can get up and take a close look, I’m afraid that if I leave my line in the water, I’ll get a bite and have my pole pulled down into the depths of the unknown. Since Perch travel in schools, if he gets a bite, I might too – I’d better take it with me. Joe is beaming, I can see that the thrill of catching a fish, no matter the size, never gets old for him.
“Look how big it is!” he exclaims, playfully holding the fish out towards me with fully extended arms so it looks bigger. “It’s HUGE!” We all laugh, but indeed the fish is too small for us to keep. There are no regulations for how many Perch to catch on Lake Champlain specifically – you can fish ‘em all year long no matter how many nor how big, though they rarely get bigger than 10 inches. This one is around 4 inches, and cleaning such a small fish is both a pain and the minimal amount of meat is not worth taking a life.
To his side is Caroline, my girlfriend. My favorite partner in crime, she carries a spring in her step, a twinkle in her blue eyes, and a contagious smile that precedes an addicting laugh. When Joe and I got cold and moody fishing earlier, Caroline got up and slipped around, doing jumping jacks, running on the snow patches and jumping around on the ice. When she was 4, she wanted to be a dog when she grew up, and her unfathomable energy hints at the idea that she’s a yellow Lab deep down. Reliable and fun, Caroline is the best adventure buddy I could ever ask for.
“Bye fishy!” and the fish goes back into the hole. Joe, Caroline, and I are all adventurous spirits with the idea that silliness is the cure to adulthood and growing up, but I’m the only one from the “city.” Where I come from, we pay people to fix things; where they come from, they fix their own toilets, their own kitchens. It was always something special for me to be in the trees, whereas I feel like they have always been surrounded by them.
Past Joe and Caroline, our rows of tip-ups look like small cranes organized neatly in straight lines across the ice. Equipped with bait and frozen into the ice, the small wooden structures practically fish for us. There are an infinite variety of tip-ups, but we’re using two kinds. Most of ours have a wooden base piece with another wooden piece drilled perpendicularly and balanced on the top of the base in such a manner that it can still swivel freely. The fishing line travels from the reel, which is attached to the base, to one end of the perpendicular part. When a fish bites, it pulls the end down, causing the top to lose its balance and tip up, hence the name, tip-up.
The problem is, especially when it’s as cold as it is today, the water in the hole freezes the line into it, not allowing the tip-up to be triggered. Quite often with frozen holes, there’s a fish on the end of a line but the tip-up stands normally.
The other kind of tip-up we’re using doesn’t have this problem. We call it “frost proof” because the reel actually lies in the water, suspended by a wooden cross that fits across the hole. When a fish bites and pulls, the reel spins around, triggering a metal pole to unhook a sprung-up red flag. Because the reel lies in the water, it’s not so important to keep the hole unfrozen, so you can theoretically go about fishing in your own way as much as you want until the flag flips up.
Dave only has two frost-proof tip-ups, they tend to be more expensive. Between the three of us we have about twenty tip-ups set up, nowhere close to our limit of fifteen per person on Lake Champlain. On smaller lakes in Vermont with more fragile fish populations, only eight to five tip ups are allowed per person. Fifteen is a ludicrous amount of tip ups in comparison to other states. Across the lake, in New York, the general rule is five to eight on all lakes, and in the Midwest the limits are often two to four. For us right now, our twenty tip-ups mean there’s a lot of maintenance to do, but I enjoy it. It gives me a physical and material thing to work on. In college, you get used to doing abstract things with no material gain, but here I get to smash and crack ice. My progress is noted not by grades but by the satisfaction of having rows of tip-ups free of ice and ready to go.
I reach the first tip-up, slipping slightly as a gust of wind pushes me further on the slippery ice. I smack the ladle in, too close to the line. I worry that I could snap the line. I try again, avoiding the line, and scoop all of the slushy ice out. Luckily, it’s only slush. “It’s really nice, the drifting snow is keeping the ice nice and soft,” said Dave earlier. Caroline and Joe responded immediately, as if understanding naturally. I clearly don’t know as much about ice and snow as they do; I accept it as fact and only wonder what clearing ice for the tip-ups would be like without this lucky slush.
With the hole free of the ice, I reluctantly take my gloves off and pull up the wet line. No pull, no unlucky fish on the bottom. I take the whole line in, only five or six long. It’s early in the ice season, and the fish are still able to patrol shallow water plants in search for smaller fish seeking shelter, and so we set up all of our tip ups close to shore. Later in the season, we will go deeper and farther out. At the bottom of the line, I find our minnow hooked through the back but miraculously still thrashing about. I can’t keep it out of the water too long, otherwise it will freeze stiff. If I put it down, I risk it freezing to the ice, in which case it’s impossible to chip it out alive again. These small minnows are incredibly hardy, though. They can freeze stiff, have a hook thrust through their back and come back to life as they thaw in liquid water.
I drop the minnow into the hole with the hook still in its back and slack in the line allowing it to point itself down and thrash its small tail back and forth rapidly into the depths, hoping to immerse itself within the weeds again.
Perhaps it has found some friends already, and is looking forward to being with them again. It’s sad that it’s been raised for the sole purpose of being eaten. It is fooled into being free by immersing it into a whole new world full of possibilities – open water, yummy food, maybe some other minnow friends. Held back by the hook pierced through its flesh, it hovers helplessly above the weeds, a place it probably instinctually goes for in search of protection.
Joe explained “Nervous Bait” to me earlier, when your pole begins to vibrate as the minnow senses a predator and thrashes about in its attempt to hide and evade imminent death. It’s a sign you’re about to catch a fish, and you become concentrated on every movement of the pole, ready to hook the fish when it bites.
The minnow disappears into the murky depths, I pull my gloves back on to the delight of my frozen fingers, and go to the next hole. We’re using store-bought minnows on the vast majority of our tip-ups — it’s illegal to catch your own bait in Vermont — but we’re also using maggots (also store-bought) and the eyes of the fish we’ve already caught, both of which seem to be working pretty well. With the eyes on the hook, though, it looks as if they’re staring at me. They’re cold, blank stares with bloody, tubular structures hanging off them. I’m not a big fan, but if the fish down there like it, I’m okay with it.
That day, we caught about 40 Perch in total. We kept the 30 that were big enough worth cleaning, and Joe, Caroline, and I parted with Dave to fill our hungry stomach with fish tacos that night – Dave refused to take any so that we could fully enjoy the fruits of the day’s labor. It was somewhat of a dreamlike day, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the grand mountains and the drifting snow, and it felt a bit like an Arctic excursion. This may be the reason why I proceeded to make the mistake of planning the next adventure.
The idea was to do an ice fishing-camping experience. We would set up tents on the ice and go fishing all that we wanted. We could set up tip-ups all around our camp site and set up a tent without a bottom to act as a makeshift ice shanty, and fish late into the night and early in the morning – when Dave said the fish bite most often.
The beginning of the trip was mass confusion. There’s the question of who can even come, what equipment is needed: how many tents, what kinds of tents, how many stoves, what ice fishing gear, etc. and, of course, which lake to go to. The weather for the night proclaimed MOSTLY CLOUDY, WITH A TEMPERATURE RISING FROM UPPER SINGLE DIGITS TO AROUND 24 BY 5AM. SOUTH WIND 11 TO 14MPH. If we wanted to camp out on the ice, we would definitely need protection from that wind. I was also worried that the tents won’t stake into the ice very well, and that the tents might blow away. Lake Dunmore, close to Middlebury, is pretty big, with three or four access points, and has a cool island that looks like it’s about a twenty-minute walk from one of them. It’s a super popular lake for ice fishing, and the Saturday we were planning to go happened to be the beginning of the ice-fishing season for Lake Dunmore. We certainly wouldn’t be alone out there. People would probably be snow-mobiling around, making tons of noise.
Fern Lake, just south of Lake Dunmore, is much smaller, and also has a small island that could provide protection from the winds. This island is much more East-West oriented than Dunmore’s, though, plus it’s very close to the northern shore, so we would be very secluded in a small enclave. This would definitely be the more secluded and solitary option of the two. The was put off for later, when all of us would be together – probably in the car already going.
48 hours before we plan to leave, we finally had 4 people that are sure they can go. Oops, just kidding, some guy from Montana who’s a big fisherman wants to come along too. Make that five. Doesn’t Ben’s car only have 5 seats? And isn’t it a small hatchback? I hoped it would work.
Two hours before we left, I was scrambling to find a bait shop close to Lake Dunmore. When we went ice fishing with Dave, we stopped at one in New Haven, but that’s in the opposite direction from either Dunmore or Fern Lake. I searched on my phone, which I realized was almost dead, and found nothing concrete. Someone had told me the other day that Vermont Field Sports might have it – it’s on Route 7 right across the A&W. I called only to be told that Kampersville might have some. I looked on my dying phone again, ring them up, and YES, they sell live bait! What’s more, they’re located right on the northern tip of Lake Dunmore.
We met up at ADK circle, right in the center of campus, at 1pm and for the first time since we started planning, the 5 of us are together. No Joe or Caroline, they’re on their own camping trips this weekend.
Pat Schmidt is the most reliable one in the group, he was the one that I reached out to when the others wouldn’t respond to calls or texts. He’s from Bozeman, Montana, and we were both in the same Oceanography lab last semester. I know him as someone who mixes hard work and fun extremely well – he would usually dance around the deck of the boat with a broom and environmentally friendly soap, scrubbing and singing the silt from our core samples away.
Ben Sanders is, I suspect, Pat’s best friend. They share an energy only close friends have, but I don’t know Ben through Pat. I know Ben through a guide seminar we both did on Vermont’s highest peak, Mt. Mansfield. Through the sheets of rain and wind, he told stories of camping in Nunavut, although he comes from Wisconsin. We shared the glorious moment of the mountain’s first snow when we woke up the next morning and he’s someone with whom I feel I can very naturally trust.
Hannah Habermann is Ben’s girlfriend. Well, not officially. “I mean, basically,” was Pat’s answer to my question about them. Either way, Hannah is from Billings, Montana, two hours and, in Montanan miles, practically down the road from Pat. They had only heard about each other before coming to Middlebury, but now they’re best friends. I don’t know Hannah as well as Pat or Ben, but from our interactions, I know she exudes an addictively positive energy that causes her to sing and dance and be a very pleasant person to be around.
Austin Stevens is the one I know the least. Pat was the one who texted me about him joining, and what I knew about him before we met for the first time at 1pm at ADK circle was that he liked to fish and he was also from Billings, Montana. He greeted me with a strong handshake, and I immediately noted his stocky structure that seemed to root him into the ground. He has a wide, brimming smile that’s eager to please, and I wonder if I can trust him.
For now, Ben and I need to fetch the ice fishing gear that we picked up the night before. Dave very hospitably and trustingly offered to lend us some of his gear while he was up in Burlington at an ice fishing convention, “mainly to say hi to old friends of mine that I haven’t seen since the last one.” Ben and I dragged large tub filled with tip-ups on the sled, the handle of the long ice auger nipping at our ankles as the plastic complained on parts of the asphalt not covered in snow.
We stuffed the sled into the back of Ben’s car, indeed a small hatchback, pushing the back seats ever so slightly forward, and found ourselves with 5 people’s worth of gear, including 3 pairs of fish scale skis. Ben, Pat, and Hannah hadn’t bought fishing licenses and planned to ski and fool around in the snow while Austin and I fished. The smallest backpack was squished on top of the tub, tents and sleeping pads fit into the sides, and the skis fit in parallel across the right side of the car so that anyone wishing to enter from that side had to limbo in. The biggest backpack was on the laps of the 3 people sitting in the back, who had to sit cross-legged anyways because the last two backpacks were forced into the space in between the front and back seats.
Feeling like a clown car, we were ready to go. Or, almost. Where to go? I awkwardly turned around in the passenger’s seat, the faces of Pat, Hannah, and Austin barely visible over the backpack, and gave them the predicament between Lake Dunmore and Fern Lake. They decided on serenity and solitude over bigger fish, and we punched Fern Lake via Kampersville into the GPS.
The fast fiddle and banjo rushing out of radio matched the spontaneous feel of our adventure, and we laughed and sang our way to the ice. Fern Lake is Dave’s favorite place to fish, and I can see why. It’s small and secluded, not so good for tip-ups but good for wandering, drilling and jigging with a pole. The access point is on the south end, and it looked like a ten minute walk to the island on the north shore. Unlike Lake Champlain last week, a barely ankle-deep layer of snow covered the slippery ice, which should give us good traction. We stepped onto the ice, everyone donning their backpacks except for Pat, who loaded his things onto the sled along with the tub, and decided to test the ice.
I was confused at first, at why it was suddenly so difficult to drill through this ice, but then I realized that smaller lakes probably freeze harder, and don’t have as many cracks to weaken structure. The general rules are 2 inches of clear, hard ice for one person on foot, 3 for a group in single file, 7.5 for a car, 10 for a truck, and 20 for 25 tons. After 4 inches, a lot of sweating, and five too many minutes, we decided it was thick enough and headed out to the island.
The shoreline of Fern Lake is lined with dense forest, trees almost spilling over into the lake, but interrupted every twenty yards by houses. I contemplated how many were permanent residencies. There was only one set of tracks across the whole lake, and the snow had been there for five days or so, and I pessimistically concluded that the majority of them were summerhouses. Caroline lives quite close to the shore of Maranancook Lake, one of thousands in central Maine, but on the immediate shore of the lake are countless tiny cabins. Uninsulated and unsuitable for winter, they disrupt the beautiful coniferous forest for the majority of the year. When she tells people she’s from Maine, people often respond with, “Oh I have a summer cabin up there!” She doesn’t know what to say to this. “Yeah, well I live there,” I think she would say. “You don’t really know Maine.”
On our way, we came across some people. A father with his two young daughters, they seemed to be taking a post-school week walk across the lake, but they’re not from the shore, they live farther away. Either way, they told us that “a man camped out there for two weeks this summer, he became the talk of the town I tell you,” pointing out to the island. It was 13 degrees out and cloudy, but he was in an oversized hoody. “Didn’t know what he was doing out there or nothin’. Then one day, he up and left, nobody knows what he was there for or where he went.” He wished us a good day, one daughter hanging off one arm, the other pulling and tugging his other arm while deliberately slipping around exposed ice.
It took us another five minutes to walk to the small island, maybe twenty yards long East-West and ten yards wide North-South. Beautiful Hemlock and Pine grew from the thin soil, grown sparse enough to walk around but also thick enough to break any kind of wind. SOUTH WIND 11 TO 14MPH was still on my mind, but I felt confident that we would be okay. I was a little disappointed at the lack of ferns, but this feeling dissipated quickly as we started drilling holes.
I quickly realized that my vision of having sixteen tip-ups, the maximum for two people on the lake, would be extremely difficult. While it took us three to four minutes to drill through eight inches of ice on Lake Champlain, it was suddenly taking us twenty minutes to drill through twelve, even with the help from Ben, Hannah, and Pat. After each hole, our arms ached even more. The sharp blades at the end of the auger seemed to do nothing for us. I tried to set my chin on top of the auger to put more weight on it once I drilled far enough in, but the skin on my chin became raw and it got too uncomfortable.
We only set up five tip-ups at the end of the day, but we caught nothing. I was hoping for a grand feast of fish for dinner, but we ate what we bought as back up: Broccolo, Cheddar rice that you just add hot water to. Despite the disappointment and despite the cold, we sang, laughed, and shared stories well into the night around the ice hole. The steam from the food condensed onto the nylon walls, and after a while it froze, sending small flakes of ice sparkling back to the ground. It was a night to remember.
As we headed into our -30F sleeping bags and drifted off into sleep, we neither heard nor felt any wind whatsoever. Whether there was even any wind on the lake that night, we’ll never know.
The next morning, I was the first to wake up. I could tell from the only mild pain on my exposed nose that the temperatures had indeed risen during the night. I put on all my layers in my sleeping bag to preserve the warmth and zipped open the tent. 7:20am and cloudy. No wind. Much warmer.
I walked to the first tip-up, not frost proof, and stomped on the hole to break it. Nothing. I stomped on it again, harder. Nothing. The fishing line disappeared into a sheath of solid ice. This was no lucky slush. This was the real deal. I got out the ladle and started chipping away. I spent the first hour and a half just chipping away at the ice for four of the five tip-ups – when the rest woke up they got to work on the fifth. The good news was that every tip-up got hit, three had no minnows on them and two had Perch on them – bigger than anything we caught on Champlain!
The insistent chipping away at the holes, however, resulted in severed lines on all of the non-frost proof tip-ups. One of the frost proof tip-ups was also damaged from being pulled out with too much ice above it, even after we hacked away at it for a good thirty minutes.
That morning, we caught nothing either, and, as it started to rain, we packed up and set back home.
The next time I went ice fishing, I went out to Wade’s, the place we went the first time. Joe came with me, and since he had class at 10:30, we left early in order to get some proper fishing in. 6am on the dot had us driving out of Middlebury with bright blue and red Idaho plates, and the brightest stars were still burning. 2 degrees out, and the windless night allowed a thick frost to rest on top of almost every surface. In the twenty minutes it took to drive to Lake Champlain, the stars disappeared, and the sky was the kind of blue you can only otherwise get over the deepest parts of the oceans. No impurities, no physical resistance seemed to exist in between us and the vast unknown.
Wade allowed us to use some of his minnows, his augers, and the permanent homemade tip-ups he had set around his ice shanty. He organized them so that you could see each tip-up through the small windows from the warm and comfortable confines of the insulated walls. The windows were now covered in thick frost, but we weren’t planning on using them at all. Joe and I drilled new holes beneath the tip-ups, he complained of the thickened ice since he last came, but I was content. About 12 inches here too, good for a heavy truck. This was way better than Fern Lake, but my arms still ached with each turn of the auger.
It’s good that I came back to the same place I started, because it was fundamentally different in one way: I noticed the houses. The foothills of the Adirondacks were bathed in a soft, purple light, but this time I looked more at the homes that lined the shore. I suddenly felt like the people that come up to Caroline. “Oh, I once ice fished there!” I felt like an invader because I came into ice fishing seeing it as another deep-sea fishing experience, seeing only the mountains and the ice, and wanting only the fish. I’m fortunate enough that Dave has been allowing me to use his gear, despite obliterating his tub of tip-ups and severing some of his lines. I’m afraid that had I paid for such things, I would’ve seen ice fishing as more of a commodity, more of an experience rather than a small part of a larger way of life.
It’s taken me a learning day and an ice fishing trip gone awry to realize that the most profound part of the experience of ice fishing was not catching fish, or watching sunrise nestled between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks; it was ultimately connecting with Vermonters. I suddenly had something that I could immediately relate to them about. Walking around campus and talking to the staff, I didn’t feel like I was a city kid, a Flatlander that once “went to college in Vermont”, and skied a bunch. Dave worked at the Middlebury Snow Bowl a long time ago, when today’s detachable double and triple chairlifts were simple rope-tows. “During Christmas, people from the City would come up to ski, and just couldn’t imagine what people would do in the winter. They only came up to ski.”
I ultimately began ice fishing seeing it like skiing, as something fun to do on the side, but that has changed. Ice fishing is small part of a general way of life. I run into real people who lead real lives, the experience has shed light into the seemingly banal parts of Vermont life. They are not the ski resorts, nor are they the mountain guides, these are the people that make the culture in Vermont. The people make the place just as much as the landscape does, and it’s not that I’m only realizing this now because I’ve said this in a great many other places – it’s that I’m saying this here. The vestiges of my suburban, conventional mindset addresses these locals very romantically – people talk at cocktail parties how organic and fresh the lifestyle in Vermont is, but ultimately most of these people will go to the ski resorts and the hotels and overlook the ice fisherman, the hunters, the carpenters, the farmers, the real people of Vermont. People are perfectly capable of shifting their perspective, it’s all a matter of attaching meaning to the things you say. I can say life here is organic and fresh all I want, what matters is if I truly understand what this means.
I wonder if I will ice fish after this class. Theoretically, yes, I will go. A number of people have wondered if they could join me next time I go – perhaps this embodies the innate attraction to become a part of the culture – but I don’t know if I’ll stay true to my word. It’s so easy to stay in the bubble of the Flatlander, but it’s more difficult and more fulfilling to escape this confinement and actively participate in what the locals around here do. It’s time to see and feel what it’s really like to live in Vermont.