“The sweeping blast, the sky o’ercast, the joyless winter day.”
– Robert Burns
It’s easy to romanticize about the snow and the cold when you are doing it from a perch deep in the Florida Keys. Outside, beneath the overhanging palm fronds that are being rustled by a soft easterly breeze off the oceanside, the thermometer reads 78 degrees. But from afar, I keep an eye on the Maine winter.
For me, the real Maine winters have always held an allure. Why is that? I guess that there is just something about the cold and the swirling snow that always made me feel alive and invigorated. Packing up a tote sled with gear, food and ice fishing equipment and hauling it by snow sled into our Seboeis Lake camp for a winter weekend of ice fishing was always a good time. The snapshots in my mind are many: kids and dogs playing on the ice or racing to a tip-up to be the first to “ice” a squirming fish, cribbage games in the overheated ice shack, pan-fried venison and onions for lunch, heading back for camp flanked by a blazing red sunset across the frozen lake, a cozy camp and steaming bowls of scallop stew, carrying pails of wash water from the lake under a black star-studded sky, that special crunch of snow underfoot when the temperature hovers at zero.
The other night, when the weatherman told of a deep freeze in Maine, I sent a text message from the Florida Keys to my son, Josh. He was at our Maine camp with his dogs and kids on an ice-fishing adventure not unlike his childhood days.
“Cold? Kids OK?” was my text-message query.
His response by text message was “Porter has frostbite. Dana’s tooth brush is frozen. We lost Eli somewhere between the camp and the outhouse.”
He was joking, of course, to get a rise out of the grandparents. He then added, seriously: “Cold? You can’t imagine, Shackleton plus Sam McGee.”
His sparse words told the story. Shackleton, the arctic explorer who tasted the death-grip cold like no other man, is one of our heroes. Ditto Sam McGee, who poet Robert Service made famous in “Cremation of Sam McGee.”
Like Shackleton, Robert Service had intimate contact with the kind of cold that robs a man of his will to live. The Australian arctic explorer, Douglas Mawson, almost perished when he fell into an ice crevasse. Hanging from a rope and too exhausted to claw his way to safety, the words of Robert Service came to him and kept him going: “Just have one more try – it’s dead easy to die. It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.”
As strange as it sounds, I think that it’s the chance to escape the cold, to finally get warm somehow, somewhere, that is part of winter’s allure. Sam McGee captures this love-hate relationship with the cold that world class explorers, like Shackleton, and weekend winter warriors, like my son Josh, have in common.
With help from me, his father, Josh cut his teeth on cold weather adventures. Once, when he was just a tad, we spent an especially bitter cold and windy February day ice fishing at Seboeis Lake. Looking back, we were fools to stick it out even if the fish had cooperated — which they didn’t. Back at camp, as we huddled by the stoked up ram-down stove and waited for the venison stew to heat, a close chum of mine, who has a masterful flair for the theatrical, was moved to recite The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
Now Sam McGee, from Tennesee, was no stranger to my friend and me; but Josh and his friend had never heard of he. When my ice fishing companion got to the best part, he opened the door of the ram-down stove and shoved in a fat chunk of dry beech. To this day, I still see the wide-eyed youngsters and the shadow of the real flames dancing off my friend’s cheeks as he smiled and, looking at the thawing youngsters, recited Service’s immortal words:
“Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.”
It was the experience, the bone-chilling cold and cheek-searing wind that day on the ice — and my friend’s uncanny timing — that stamped this memory. And, of course, the chance to get warm….huh, Sam?
“And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected] and his new book is “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook,” which is available through www.maineoutdoorpublications.com.