First off, I watch ice closely because I am nutty for skating the biggest lake in the world. No, not Lake Baikal, that piece of shit lake. I mean Lake Superior, the queen of the unsalted seas. Ice cover has been minimal this year so I have been sad, and nearly desperate in this COVID season for recreation and release.
But as my house has a decent lake view, I watched with some interest as ice plugged the outer harbor. It seemed too much to ask for that it should become safe enough to skate on — keeping in mind that ice is never safe. But whatever.
The sign I watch for is the appearance of ice houses. Once they appear, I grab my skates. My logic is this: those guys know what they’re doing. I figure the ice angler community is right on top of the Department of Natural Resources, and is tracking ice thickness so I don’t have to. If they feel safe, I feel safe.
So when, from my Hillside perch, I spied ice houses sprouting in the afternoons, I knew my happy time had arrived. The wildest of wild ice was here.
From past years, I also knew it was tenuous. No matter how thick that ice gets, wind off the lake can break it up with incoming waves. And wind off the land can blow an ice sheet out to sea. In this case we had wind off the land — but that ice was going nowhere.
Day after day, the ice houses would pop up, and the wind would be around 10 mph and I got a couple skate seshies in. In the plunging temps I figured, well this ice sheet is stuck to shore right proper.
When I skated last weekend, I saw ice thickness in the 6-10 inch range and the temps were only plunging further. So I felt pretty good about it. Of course, the wind was also picking up, which provoked wind chill warnings and so forth.
I scanned the 10-day weather reports every day, tracking wind speed and direction. Wind direction was stable — off the land. And apart from some nearly 20 mph winds predicted for Feb. 9, it didn’t look so bad — understanding that ice is never safe. I targeted Thursday the 11th as my next skate day because the winds were supposed to let up a bit. I had the itch.
The ice sheet was rough in places and riven with cracks in other places, but they had sealed. I looked in the cracks for upwelling water, which would indicate, you know, death. But all I saw lining the cracks were delicate seams of frost flowers. That said to me this ice was frozen up tight.
And among the rougher parts were patches of crystal clear, smooth, black ice. It’s black because it’s clear — you can see right into the dark water as you glide over it. It’s perverse but it’s a little like skating over death itself. Because you know it’s never safe. Still, I had heard it was six inches thick, and I had verified that with my own eyes, seeing more than six inches for the most part. Six-plus inches of ice over black water 30- to 50-feet deep. It felt like coming home.
And, those anglers were out there!
I work mornings at a certain local natural foods co-op which also has a great lake view, and I kept an eye on the ice from there, too. The sea smoke boiled away like a cauldron in the mornings, which meant the ice was growing thicker by the day. You could see the stark line where open water met the lip of the ice sheet.
Most of the anglers wanted to be near the edge, over the deeper water. I didn’t need to do that. I was perfectly fine seeing them in the distance as I skated about a hundred yards off shore, between Leif Erikson Park and the Portland Malt Shoppe.
Some days prior, I’d heard from a customer that one of the anglers had been near the edge when a mass of ice sheared off and went spinning away into open water. As I skated over my own death, I thought: those guys are crazy to be so close to the edge.
I mean, I don’t want to die by falling through ice, or off of it. But if I did, I’d be okay with it. Besides the painful drowning in freezing water part. With luck, you’d hit your head as you plunged through, and just skip the suffering.
Did I mention I was wearing my toy shark fin out there? That’s this year’s Lake Superior Aquaman branding exercise. I’d told a couple people, chuckling, “If a body washes up in the spring, and it’s wearing a shark fin, it’s me.” I’m not trying to be cavalier with my life. I have a daughter and a mom. I’m actually quite wimpy about most things. But man I’m hooked on that black ice. I’m just saying if it comes to that, I died doing what I loved. I died a horrible death doing what I loved. That is the best way to look at it.
Then Tuesday rolled around. It was late morning when I peeked at the ice from a window at work. And there I saw my Thursday skating plans would have to be canceled, because the ice sheet had pulled away from shore. It was sailing away. That high wind had done the trick, working those cracks until they unzipped.
My first thought was to see if anyone was in danger, but I couldn’t see any ice houses so I figured it was fine. From my house in the afternoons, I had only ever seen ice houses popping up around 3 p.m. So I figured the ice anglers probably have jobs and can only make it to the ice in the afternoons.
My other thought was, Jesus Christ I was skating there not 48 hours ago.
A customer came in who I talk ice with, and he had seen the situation. He said, “Look on the bright side: now the water can start to freeze again!”
Then a delivery driver came in. And he dropped the bomb. He said, “Dude, the ice has broken away from shore and there’s a bunch of ice anglers on it sailing to Sault Ste. Marie right now.”
Sault Ste. Marie is a city on the opposite end of Lake Superior.
I said, ”What?!? I just looked and didn’t see anybody on it.”
He goes, “No, the ice was full of fishermen. Just packed with them. And they are gone.”
One of my co-workers told me, “You know why they risked it? It’s because the fish are practically jumping up through the ice holes. You can see them swimming below in large schools, and as soon as you drop your hook in, you pull out a monster fish.”
Somebody got a live feed up of the mass rescue operation in progress. Nearly 30 ice anglers were rescued; no loss of life, no injuries.
All of which led me to think: why have I been trusting these idiot rednecks? They’re as stupid as I am.
At least, had I been out there with them, I would not have been the only idiot. I would have come ice skating up to them with my shark fin on, like, “Hi guys! I bet you all feel pretty dumb right now. Beer me?”
-All my essays here.
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