9) Frozen Fishes

Ever have the desire to drive right out onto a frozen lake and listen to the ice creak and groan under the weight of a three-quarter-ton pickup? No? Well, me neither. But there I was, a wary passenger wheeling it overtop Harding Lake, one of the deepest lakes in the Alaskan interior, on what felt like an fearsome episode of Ice Road Trucker.

I was on a date, you see, and trying very hard to maintain a level of calm because after all, he said, ‘Trust me, I know what I’m doing.’ Since those magical words always inspire confidence, I managed to keep my panic-induced hysteria firmly in check as we rolled off land and onto certain icy death.

Now, as dates go, I discovered that ice fishing is NOT a sport to take the faint of heart. Not that I’m lily-livered or anything. Heck, I’m a little more adventurous than the average bear, but driving on top of water, frozen or not, just isn’t natural. And it takes guts pure and simple. The fact that four other thrill-seeking pickups were already scattered on the ice did nothing to allay my fears either. But I had to maintain my cool, so I latched on to the only distraction available – ice shacks.

Bball-TCSF-Elk Rapids 

credit: www.brauer.com

Confession – this picture isn’t from Alaska, it’s from a movie called Frozen Stupid by Brauer Productions. And I stole..er..borrowed it off the web. But it’s a great example of some snazzy shacks that were sitting out on Harding Lake. Some were real tricked out too, with painted designs, fancy trim, and wood stoves for warmth.

However, our borrowed palace was naked plywood and metal, but the 6×8 shelter did boast a window and I was happy just to be out of the truck. The inside had a few handy conveniences too, like a built-in tabletop and a mini woodstove that provided a sliver of warmth. We’d brought along our own chairs in the form of upside-down 5 gallon buckets, a cooler full of sandwiches, lots of fishing gear, and a very useful flask of whiskey to help keep the cold at bay. I settled things in while the date went to wrangle an ice gator in the back of the truck.

Not to fear my friends, this ice gator was no prehistoric swamp dweller that made its way to frozen Alaska. No, this gator was a noisy gas powered auger that drilled nice round holes. It only took minutes for the beast to cut two big circles out of impossibly thick ice. When the hard work was done we set up our poles and sat back, munching on ham and cheese sandwiches and waiting for the bounty to bite.

As time passed we had a nibble or two hit the line, I actually caught a bait-sized fish that we tossed back, but mostly we just stared at the ice. And sipped whiskey. Now let me state for the record that I didn’t care we weren’t catching any fish. I’m outdoorsy enough to like going fishing, I just don’t groove on the actual catching part. So the lack of Artic Char on the hook was A-OK by me. But for some reason, it seemed to really bother my date. Especially when by mid-afternoon the only excitement came from heavy clouds moving in and the wind kicking up a howl across the lake. But we were snug in our shack and it should have been good. Except the less the Char bit, the more agitated my friend grew.

Of course, I assumed the reason they weren’t biting was because the poor suckers were as frozen as the ice we gatored through. He assured me that was crazy talking, that the ‘poor suckers’ were just hanging out in a thermoclime too deep for the hooks. But I figured they were well used to this sort of thing, more so than me, and were probably just down there laughing at a fake worm dangling on the hook.

When another hour stretched by uneventfully Mr. Agitation decided that we needed to move the shack. Get to a different location and start over. Being the agreeable sort that I am, I went along with the idea. Even though it meant reloading everything back into the truck, disconnecting our heat source, and grabbing a couple snow shovels for some serious manual labor. With a shrug, I took a deep breath and a swig from the flask and prepared to get busy.

That’s how I discovered ice shacks sit on skis and snow is used to pack around the base to hold it steady. In a happy coincidence though, Mother Nature had already done much of the work for us. Wind had been gusting pretty hard. Not only had it swept away most of the packed snow, it continued to swirl the white stuff around us and smooth out the lake surface. Which would only make the moving part easier, right?

Well, we’d cleared away the remaining snow pack and jarred skis loose from the ice. It didn’t take much effort. But timing is everything and as we strung out a tow chain to wrap around the base, a major blast of winter air swooped in and shoved the freed shack into motion.

What began as a graceful slide turned into a comedy to rival any TV sitcom. After a few stunned seconds my date jumped into action and grabbed hold of the shack just as it began to pick up speed. I guess he thought he’d stop it from waltzing away to parts unknown, but the shack had other ideas. With wide eyes I watched as it took on a life of its own, spinning, dancing, and dragging my date along on a crazy ride. And it appeared my guy was way too stubborn to let go.

Now I know what you’re thinking. I should have jumped to his aid, used my questionable strength to stop the misbehaving shack. Well, I couldn’t. I was too busy laughing so hard that I actually fell over. Honestly, that was one of THE funniest things I’d ever seen. It was totally pee-your-pants funny to watch him and the shack sail wildly across that frozen lake.

No thanks to me they eventually snagged a small snow bank and came to a stop. And as soon as I managed to recover from my out-of-control laughing fit, I climbed into the truck and drove over to join them.

I swear laughter truly is the best medicine, because I didn’t even think about the fact that I was driving on ice and one good crack would have me plunging to the depths of Davy Jones Locker. All I could do was wipe the tears from my eyes and laugh the whole way over. I was still laughing when I got out of the truck and met my so very NOT-laughing date. To his credit, once the shack was secure again he forgave my lack of coming to the rescue and found humor in the situation. He finally joined in on the laughfest and much to my relief we called it a day.

But that moment in time etched itself in my funny bone. Even now, many years later, whenever I need cheering up I think of ice fishing, of man and shack swan-diving across the wide frozen expanse.

To me, that is a picture worth more than a thousand laughs.

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