by Jim Bates
To be honest, I’ve never been much of an outdoorsman. Oh, I liked to take the kids for walks in the park near our home in Minneapolis, and we had a little garden in the backyard where we grew some petunias and marigolds. That was all well and good, but I’ll tell you, moving up north to our little cabin in the small town of Esker has changed me big time. I’m outdoors for hours every day, cutting firewood, shoveling snow, and playing with Andy and Allie. I’ve even started ice fishing. Yeah. But no matter what activities we’re engaged in, it’s challenging to be outdoors, especially when the temperature rarely gets above zero for months at a time (like for the last two months.) To make it all bearable, you have to dress for it.
When I’m outside, I wear a pair of sweat socks and a pair of wool socks under my felt-lined leather boots (suggested by my new friend Jack.) Waist down, I wear thermal long underwear over my regular underwear and a pair of thick wool pants held up by wide red suspenders. Waist up, I wear a tee-shirt, long sleeve tee-shirt, a flannel shirt and a thick wool sweater. Then my insulated jacket. If it’s really cold out, instead of the insulated jacket, I wear a snowmobile suit that Jack gave me. “It’s a good one,” he told me the day he handed it over. “I just sort of outgrew it.” He laughed. Jack was taller than my six feet by three inches and outweighed my hundred and seventy pounds by at least sixty pounds. As Meg and I liked to say, he was “A big boy!”
But his brother-in-law, Arnie Blackhawk was even bigger. Arnie was Jack’s wife’s older brother. Linnea and Arnie were members of the Turtle Lake tribe of Ojibway. She and Jack met while attending college at Bemidji State University and had been married for ten years. Jack and Arnie had a pulp-wood cutting business. They were big, strong, hard-working men.
Arnie and his wife Amber lived with their daughter Willow on ten acres of land five miles from Esker. Like Jack and Linn, Arnie and Amber were independent minded people who grew as much of their own food as they could and kept a variety of animals to supplement their diet. For them, the pandemic was a minor inconvenience. They didn’t spend much time around people anyway.
All four of our new friends kind of chuckled at me and Meg and our Covid masks. “You guys do what you want, Lee,” Jack told me when we were talking shortly after we’d first met. “It doesn’t bother me at all.”
When Meg first met Linn, it was on the phone shortly after I’d literally bumped into Jack’s shopping cart in the Northwoods Grocery store in Park Rapids. The next day Meg had called her to suggest organizing playdates with our two kids Andy and Allie and her daughter Sam. Linn had readily agreed, and the two women bonded right then and there talking about kids, raising them and taking care of a family.
“How about if I include my brother Arnie’s child Willow?” Linn asked. “She’s four and I’m sure she’d love it. She’s over here a lot anyway.”
Meg readily agreed and, just like that, our lives expanded some more.
Which was great. It was nice to at least talk to other people and occasionally get together, and none of them minded at all that we masked up.
After I met Jack in the grocery store and he and I had become friends, he introduced me to Arnie. He was a few years older than Jack’s thirty-five, and, like Jack, he was a likeable guy. The two of them seemed to get a kick out of me, this greenhorn city dweller who had moved his family to the Northwoods.
“We’ll make a woodsman out of you yet,” they joked with me whenever we got together. I laughed along with them. Good clean fun, is what I figured.
A few weeks later they took me ice fishing.
It turns out Lake Moraine, on the shore of which our little town is located, is a great place to catch panfish like sunfish and crappies. Who knew? So, on a Saturday in the middle of March Jack and Linn and Arnie and Amber showed up at our cabin with their daughters. Linn and Amber went inside to be with Meg while me and Allie and Andy and Sam and Willow squeezed into Jack’s pickup along with Arnie and we all drove out onto the lake to go ice fishing.
Onto the lake!
Jack’s truck is a super-sized Ford F-350 with a raised chassis. He drove onto the ice at the public access and then plowed across the lake through six inches of snow like driving down a freshly cleared highway. He pointed up ahead and off to the right. “See those guys? That little village over there?”
There were about a dozen ice-fishing houses set up in the middle of the lake. They would stay up until the season closed at the end of the month. “Yeah. I’ve seen them. They’ve been here since we moved in.”
“I know those guys.” Jack shook his head. “They think they know what they’re doing.”
Arnie grinned. “But they don’t.” He was one of the biggest men I’d ever seen, maybe six-feet five inches and weighed close to three hundred pounds. He was a friendly guy with a quick smile who wore his long black hair in a ponytail. He was also kind and thoughtful, and I enjoyed being with him.
“Let’s head to our spot,” Arnie said to Jack.
“I’m on it.”
Jack shifted into four-wheel drive and yanked the steering wheel to the left. We were now off the beaten truck path and on our own. He plowed away from the ice-house village through two feet of snow, tires spinning, kicking up a ten-foot-high rooster tail plume of white behind us. After about five minutes he pulled into a secluded bay at the north end of the lake and shut of the engine.
“Okay,” he said, opening the driver’s door. “Let’s get some fish.”
Arnie grabbed an ice-auger from the truck bed and fired it up. It took him only a few minutes to drill 9” wide holes in the ice, one for each of us men and one for each of the kids, seven in all. I was impressed to see that the ice was nearly two-feet thick.
Jack baited our hooks of our poles with a colorful little jig and a piece of meal worm. He set out buckets for us to sit on and in less than fifteen minutes we were doing something I’d never dreamed I’d be doing; we were ice-fishing.
You might think that sitting on a bucket in the snow in the middle of winter looking at a hole in the ice would be the definition of boredom, and you might be right. But, in this case, you’d be wrong. We weren’t just fishing, we were bonding. Yeah, it might sound strange, or new-agey or whatever, but we were. And, I must say, for someone like me, who didn’t mind being by myself and who really didn’t have any close male friends, it was kind of nice.
The sky was deep blue. There was no wind. The temperature was in the mid-twenties. Above zero, for a change, I might add. Crows kept us company calling back and forth, often landing nearby looking for handouts. Even a pair of bald eagles circled overhear in a mating flight (Jack told me.)
Arnie told stories about growing up on the reservation, or “The Res” as he called it. Jack talked about the business of cutting pulp wood and hauling it to the pulp mill in either Bemidji or further north to International Falls. They were both interested in my job at Zylon doing lab research on the degradation of plastic in the environment, both of them agreeing that it was a necessary endeavor to be involved in, but that it would drive them crazy.
“I couldn’t stand being inside all the time,” Jack said.
“Me neither,” Arnie added, pulling up a small bluegill, carefully removing the hook and releasing it back into the lake. “Or being around all those people.”
“No kidding,” Jack concurred. “Give me the great outdoors anytime.”
With the nice weather and the setting and the comradery, it might have a perfect day. Except…
Our conversation was suddenly interrupted by the girls when Allie and Sam and Willow started screaming.
We all three jumped to our feet.
The four kids had wandered off. I know, I know, we should have been paying better attention. And, in our defense, we were, but, obviously, not enough. The girls had stayed close but not Andy. A dog had come onto the lake and Andy had decided to follow him. The girls had stayed put. Andy had not.
Ironically, he had followed the dog to only a hundred feet or so from the shoreline where unbeknownst to him (and us) an underwater spring had softened the ice. It only took Andy’s extra weight to cause it to give way and in he went.
He was about two-hundred feet away. I ran like I’d never run before, leaping through the deep snow and keeping my eyes glued to my son’s red stocking hat. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, hanging on the edge of the ice and doing all he could to stay afloat. It seemed to take forever to get to him, but probably was only about a minute.
As I approached the hole, Andy saw me and yelled, “Dad! Dad, help me!”
“Hang on,” I called out. “Don’t move. I’ll save you.”
The more he struggled, the more the ice gave way. My biggest fear was that he’d sink in his water-logged clothes.
“Help! Dad. I’m freezing.”
Oh, my god. Let me save my son. I said a silent prayer as I struggled through the deep snow toward the hole. What to do? I had no idea. Water was puddling around him and I could see his little hands slipping off the ice. He was starting to sink!
I did the only thing I could think to do. As I came close to him, I went into a
full belly slide, stretched out over the snow and right up to the hole. “Grab
my hand, Andy! Grab on tight.”
He was soaking wet. He’d lost his mittens, and his lips were turning blue. He was going numb. I grabbed his hand to keep him from sinking further into the water.
“Hold on, son,” I said. “I’ve got you.”
He looked me. His eyes were rimmed with ice crystals. “Dad,” he moaned,
He kicked his feet frantically to try to get out of the water. Reacting quickly, I pulled on him. Bad move. The ice underneath gave way. Oh, no! Still holding on to Andy’s hand I started sinking into the water. In a matter of moments, the icy water soaked into all of my layers of clothing, instantly numbing my body and dragging me and Andy down, down, down. A terrifying vision of the two of us sinking into the black depths of the lake passed before my eyes. Instinctively, I held my breath. I thought it was all over.
Then I heard a voice behind me. Was I dreaming? Then, I heard it again. “Hang on there, partner. You aren’t going anywhere. I’ve got you.”
It was Jack. He had me by my feet. Together he and Arnie pulled Andy and me out of the water and onto solid ice. We were saved.
We were also freezing to death. The two men got us to our feet helped us to the pick-up and loaded us and turned the heat on full. Hypothermia was setting in and Andy and I were shaking so badly, I thought out teeth would rattle out. We held on to each tightly for warmth.
Then they loaded Allie and Sam and Willow in the back and we raced the truck across the lake to the public access and onto the main road and eventually to our cabin. It only took five minutes but by the time we got there Andy and I could barely move we were so cold. Jack and Arnie hurried us inside, me carrying Andy. Finally, out of the cold and into the warm cabin we started to start to thaw out.
Then the fireworks started.
Meg freaked out when she saw us, and I didn’t blame her. Linn and Amber weighed in as well, all three women berating me and Jack and Arnie up and down and fifty ways to Sunday. Us men? What did we do? We kept our mouths shut. Which was a good move on our part. The women gave it to us with both barrels, the gist of which was that we should have been paying better attention.
They were right. Lesson learned.
And next time we did pay attention. Big time. In fact, we went ice fishing the following weekend and caught our limit. We fried up a batch of sunfish and crappies for Meg and Linn and Amber to make up for the week before. It helped.
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