Today, I cannot be with you on the ice. I am with my wife in a small mobile home somewhere in the Florida Keys. It is 78 degrees, sunny and a light easterly breeze stirs the palm fronds. Fishermen are headed out to the reef with coolers full of cold drinks and chum. Their boats churn up large white wakes that break up the endless expanse of turquoise water. There will be fish for supper here. Mangrove Snapper or Dolphin. But while out on the reef line I will think of you. In my mind’s eye, I will see you on your snowsleds heading up the lake, your tote sled laden with the ice auger, the bait buckets, the food and the packbasket of tipups.
Your first ice fishing day of the New Year will break cold, clear and windless. Snowcapped Mt. Katahdin will still be there, reflecting purple light from the ascending new day. A raven may circle lazily over the frozen lake. Along the shoreline, tracks of a small critter will follow the shoreline up the lake and then veer off into the stark grayness of the beech ridge above the lake.
Wilderness silence. Precious solitude. How wonderful it will be to be there yet again, and to recognize with thankfulness the inevitable continuity of the natural world. Places like this talk to us like no other. They stand in stark contrast to that other “civilized” world, which comes to us filtered by TV, radio and newspapers.
Fishing may be hot or it may be cold. By late afternoon, you will pull your traps, gather your catch (if there is one) and head for a warm fire back at camp. After a meal of baked beans, venison burgers, cole slaw and beet pickles, there will be a cribbage game or two, a trip to the water hole, a glance at the stars winking overhead and then into the sleeping bags.
Hemingway had his reasons for wintering in this place of palm fronds and soft January nights. It is special. But so is it where you are, where your snowsled leaves the only track on the snow-covered lake and the falling sun sets fire to the western sky.
Go with care. See you on the ice in February.
What is safe ice?
Safety experts recommend at least 5 or 6 inches for people and snowsleds, more for larger vehicles. It’s best to check ice thickness by drilling a hole near shore, or ask someone who is intimately familiar with the body of water in question. Early in the year, steer clear of inlets, outlets and large, deep bodies of water.
If you should break through the ice, don’t panic and don’t try to climb onto the ice. Instead, kick your feet and from a horizontal position try to roll onto the unbroken ice. Carry a rugged throw rope for emergencies. It’s a good idea, too, to carry on your person a couple of long spikes tied together by a 3-foot piece of string. These simple devices can be used to help you scratch and dig your way back up onto safe ice.
In a blizzard or blowing snow, stay off large lakes or ponds. In the past, snowmobilers unable to find land, have become hopelessly lost. Remember, too, that in cold weather maintaining your body temperature (core temperature) is key to comfort and even survival. Hats and neck covering and warm fluids can make the difference. Alcohol will make you colder. And believe it or not, your body needs lots of water in cold weather (Hydration is needed to replace fluids drawn from fatty tissues as your body furnace works to keep your core temperature even).
Most seasoned outdoor people who spend any time participating in cold weather activities learn sooner or later to carry with them multiple sources of heat (fire). Butane lighters, dry cedar, propane torches, Coleman stoves, they all work. The key is to have fire sources that are quick and reliable, and to have a backup fire source.
Of course, artificial hand-warmers are nice, too. The newest body warmers out on the market are called “Adhesive Warmers” made by Grabber. These are actually small heating pads that can be attached to your body. They are reportedly good for up to 12 hours. For more info, check out their Web site at www.grabberwarmer.com.
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, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is email@example.com.