When living in this part of the world, a person has to embrace the ice. This weekend promises to be a veritable festival of ice with the Book Across the Bay ski race across Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay, a possible snowshoe trip (across the ice) to the mainland sea caves in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and a hoped for (shhh....don't mention this to the VOR!) trip across the ice road to Madeline Island. Ice fishing is onne of the more popular ice based activities around here, a sport I've kind of lost contact with over the years. My dad was a rabid ice fisherman, a guy known for getting on the ice as soon as it was possible, for the legendary early season bite. I don't think even the old man would have followed the 134 guys out on to Lake Erie last weekend though.
Our story begins with an exceptional walleye bite on Lake Erie, a lake that has literally come back from the dead. One of my favorite beers is Burning River Pale Ale, a Great Lakes Brewing product that commemorates the day in 1969 when the Cuyahoga River started on fire a short distance from where it enters Lake Erie. Since that black day the lake has rallied, become much cleaner, and supports one of the best walleye populations in the Great Lakes region. Some of the most productive walleye spawing grounds are on the reefs created by dumping the remains of the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the "mistake by the lake", into Lake Erie. This ice fishing misadventure took place west of there near Oak Park, Ohio, roughly 85 miles southeast of Detroit. Apparently fisherman had been catching walleyes like crazy and wanted to get farther out in the lake. When they encountered a large crack (around here we call them pressure ridges) they put wooden pallets across it so they could drive their ATV's or snowmobiles further out on the lake. Apparently 135 people were out on the ice when a combination of warm temperatures and strong winds caused the ice to break off and drift out into the open lake. One guy died and another was fished out of the lake as a combination of Coast Guard helicopters, air boats, and private craft ferryed people off the ice.
Falling through the ice is shocking, numbing, and mildly terrifying. I know this from experience. When I was in high school, Half Moon lake,a cutoff meander of the Chippewa River, was in danger of a major winter kill due to a long winter with heavy snow cover which causes oxygen depletion. When the springs near the Rod & Gun club opened the ice, it seemed like every distressed fish in the lake was there, gasping for air. Since many of these fish would die anyway, the DNR decided you could net one 5 gallon pail full of fish, game fish excluded. Several dozen of us pulled on the chest waders, grabbed the long handled smelt nets, and headed for the hole. With long handled nets the waders really weren't needed because the ice was thick enough to stand on the edge and net the fish without breaking through.....as long as people stayed spread out. As I happily filled my pail with bluegills, crappies, perch, and a carp or two, I suddenly noticed I was flanked by two grade school kids and a guy I assumed to be grandpa behind me, asking me how I was doing. As I started to say, "Get the hell away from...." I saw the ice crack behind grandpa and suddenly the 4 of us were on a 10 foot by 10 foot tilting oval, which we very quickly slid off into the frigid water. As every person who has ever donned a pair of chest waders knows, the water will invariably be 2" deeper than the waders are high. As the water flooded in, reaching and shriveling sensitive bodily parts, I grabbed the two kids when they popped to the surface and set them up on the edge of the ice where it was solid. I climbed up myself, secretly hoping the idiot grandpa was gasping for air on the bottom, but saw that others had hauled his sorry ass out as well. I laid on my back on the ice with my feet in the air, letting the water drain out of the waders. I 'squished' the quarter mile to my car, net and fish bucket in hand, fired up the heater to melting level on the '60 Chevy Biscayne, and drove home naked. Nothing like a little hypothermia to slow down the brain function.
The boys out on the Lake Erie ice chunk had it much more comfortable. After being evacuated they were lined up and their names were taken down by the authorities so they could be heavily fined if they were stupid enough to do it again. The rescue not only cost thousands of taxpayer dollars but also endangered the rescuers. Sheriff Bob Bratton of Ottowa County Ohio summed it up best. "I have no problem with people ice fishing, but these idiots should realize that when you see open water, you should not build a bridge and cross it," he said. "It's a shame you can't arrest people for stupidity." Sorry Sheriff, we would need to increase jail space exponentially if that were allowed in this country.
I am certain this weekend will have no mishaps of that nature. After my dunking I was and am a bit more cautious and realize that on Lake Superior a change in the weather can break off a huge chunk of ice and blow it out into open water; Canada here we come. The ice is lots of fun to play on, as the two ice maidens above can attest, and has a lot more uses than simply cooling your cocktail. Just use your head and ask yourself if Sheriff Bratton would have grounds to arrest you for stupidity before you set foot on the frozen water