COLUMN: On Thin Ice
reviving a fiery childhood tradition on a frozen lake
Patti See, illustrated by Sierra Lomo |
Our neighbor Helen Sabaska says that Bruce and I live “across the street.” Lake Hallie is narrow enough for us to yell from our house to hers. When the water freezes, we are across the street, and the lake becomes a village of shacks with an ice road down the middle – many feet of snow rutted and trampled by vehicles filled with fishermen out here to catch northern or bass, though most settle for panfish.
Each winter, our neighbor Larry Luedtke measures the ice, so we know when to walk across Lake Hallie from our dock to his. A few years ago, I saw him out on the perfectly clear ice; no snow had fallen during the consecutive nights of deep freeze that solidified maybe two inches. I stood on my dock, too afraid to go out where he’d drilled a hole and dropped a line. He generally comes over to tell me the ice is safe; then I walk in exactly his boot prints on my first few times out alone.
“Let me take your picture,” I yelled to him. I wasn’t sure he could see his reflection on the mirror-like ice.
Just as I was about to snap the photo, he pulled a three-foot northern pike up through that tiny hole. I swear the fins touched both sides. I jostled my phone. I’ve seen fish caught on ice but nothing so big and startling as this. Once his mammoth was off the hook, I snapped a photo of Larry proudly holding it. No matter how much I wanted to see that fish, I still would not leave my dock.
As a kid, I often ice fished with my parents. But the highlight for me was always a roaring fire on the ice, not lacing a waxy onto a hook with my cold fingers or attempting to cut through
a foot of ice with a hand auger.
As a kid, I often ice fished with my parents. I sat patiently on an overturned bucket and stared through a hole no bigger than a Frisbee. But the highlight for me was always a roaring fire on the ice, not lacing a waxy — an enormous maggot — onto a hook with my cold fingers or attempting to cut through a foot of ice with a hand auger.
That first winter we lived here, I researched how burning logs create enough ash to form a layer between the hot coals and the ice. To appease my city slicker husband, I agreed to build our fire close enough to shore that if the ice cracked and we all tumbled through (Bruce’s fear), we’d just stand up to save ourselves.
In January, on the day of our first fire-on-ice gathering, my 19-year-old son and I constructed the fire together long before guests arrived. Alex would leave for basic training in a few weeks, and that night was his send-off.
Alex and I carried down brittle pine branches and chunks of oak from our covered woodpile. He carefully made a log-cabin structure and narrated as he added log after log: “You want good air movement, and you don’t want the whole thing to collapse.” I’d never thought of either of those points. That’s why he’s the Eagle Scout and ROTC cadet, while I’m the writer who pontificates about the grandeur of bonfires on ice from her youth.
That night, I had a few surprises for Alex: a cake adorned with plastic Army men and a shoveled path across the lake lined with dozens of luminaria to light our neighbors’ way. This is a fancy name for paper lunch sacks full of sand with candle stubs inside. But when the luminaria were lit on that dark January night, they lived up to their name.
Our fire took a little nudging to light, but when it finally caught, all guests oohed and ahhed. They stamped their feet and passed around peppermint schnapps with hot chocolate.
Kids snapped pictures and instantly posted them online. “It’s a fire … on a lake!” one wrote. This made me smile. What was a common occurrence in my childhood — a break from the monotony of ice fishing — was now a novelty worthy of tweeting.
This essay is an excerpt from Patti See’s latest book, Here on Lake Hallie: In Praise of Barflies, Fix-it-Guys, and Other Folks in Our Hometown (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2022).