Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Nurse the Hate: The Frozen Lake

The lake would freeze solid by December in most years.  Intrepid outdoorsmen would go out onto the windswept ice and fish.  Some men would mill about their holes in the ice wearing snowmobile suits and multiple layers of clothes in a failed attempt at beating back the unrelenting wind.  Others would haul homemade shanties out onto the ice via snowmobiles.  There on the raised platforms they would fire up space heaters and drink, the hole in the ice an excuse to escape their families.  The success of the fishing was unimportant.  The camaraderie shared between the men out on the ice was the real reason most endured the activity.  It was something to do during the cold.

In a small town to the north, most men are outdoorsmen.  There just isn’t anything else to do but drink and smoke, which most of these men did as well.  Cans of Stroh’s would sit exposed on the ice where it wasn’t important to keep it cold so much as hoping the beer wouldn’t slush up from exposure to the elements.  At intervals, a whiskey bottle would be passed around and the men took turns taking long pulls and laughing at inside jokes.  I was a boy watching everything, excited to be part of this ritual.  I noticed all the small details of their language with each other.  I noticed how ice would be skimmed out of the fishing holes.  I was miserable in the elements but happy to be there.  It felt like a rite of passage.

There is a distinctive sound when ice of a certain thickness cracks.  It almost sounds like a large tree breaking off a major limb.  It’s a deep sound.  There is no mistaking it.  Instinctually everyone stops dead in their tracks to take stock to see if this sound is going to create disaster for them personally.  Heads turn on a swivel.  About 50 yards away I could see a pair of arms and a head reaching up out of the ice.  The ice had cracked open and a man had fallen in.  Men started to yell and run towards the man in the hole.  There was chaotic activity.  Two men ran the long distance to the shore to try to retrieve the emergency pole that could be used to pull a man out.  It was a long run made longer by snowmobile suits and winter boots.  “You boys stay back!” a man said to me and swiped us back with his forearm.

Three men yelled at their friend in the ice.  The man slowly struggled in the water.  Each time he tried to grab the edge, the ice broke loose making the hole larger.  “Hold on!  We’re getting the pole”.  The two men that had run for the pole were almost to the shore.  I could hear the man in the water breathing heavily and gasping.  His jacket arms made dull thudding noises as he tried to get any type of hold to haul himself out of the water.  It must have been incomprehensible how cold the water felt, how quickly it had happened to him.

The man in the hole began to slow in his movements.  This increased the urgency of the tone and language of his friends on the ice.  “Hold on!”  The men with the pole looked like they were furiously running back but they seemed to make no progress.  The sheer white of the snow met the light gray of the sky providing no sense of scale.  They didn’t seem to be getting closer.  The man in the water looked right at one of the men cautiously near the spot where the ice had cracked.  I could see he was only looking at that one man.  He spoke in an odd calm voice.  “I’m going under.”

The man in the water slipped below the surface.  The water was very dark, almost black.  I saw the man disappear.  The top of his black stocking cap made one final appearance above the water and then sunk under the ice.  He was gone.  The men around the hole yelled out.  We all waited to see if he would surface.  It was quiet as we stared at the ice as if making a sound would reduce his chances of survival.  The two red faced panting men arrived with the pole.  One of the other men grabbed the pole and began to flail at the hole hoping to snag the man in the water.  He was gone.      

I never went ice fishing again.  I walked across that frozen lake only once more in my life.  I was an adult.  That day the ice was clear.  There was no snow to obscure the visibility.  Small fish swam close to the surface.  It felt like magic being able to walk across the water with the fish lazily swimming below you.  A child squealed out in delight at seeing the fish.  Small shanties were set up about 200 yards away.  Men stood in cold weather gear in small groups watching for indications of nibbles on their line.  Some men smoked.  It was the same general area where I saw the fisherman die all those years ago.  I thought about that day but didn’t say anything to the people with me.  There was no point.  It was late December.  The ice was frozen to a safe thickness.     


At January 5, 2018 at 11:10:00 PM EST , Blogger AZ said...

Another well written, great read.

At January 12, 2018 at 7:13:00 PM EST , Blogger kk said...

Dang, Miller.


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