On Thin Ice

(This Blog entry was my submission to a Sportsman Channel and Outdoor Blogger Network writing contest.)

A major credit card company had a contest, a few years back, in which one could win one’s own private island. The television commercials showed groups of very young, very attractive people partying down on a tropical beach, dancing the night away, without a care in the world. The magazine ads featured a white sand beach, turquoise water and palm trees, and all of the ads included the tag-line “What would you do?”

An entire page of fine print followed the magazine ads, laying out the details. I had a hard time making out the tiny words in the dim sputter of gas lights and I couldn’t turn on a reading lamp because the day had been cloudy so the solar panels hadn’t been able to muster up a full charge to the batteries, and I’d spent my entire 12-volt budget watching Red Green on Canadian TV, so I might have missed something. What I could make out, though, was informative.

First of all, the island they were giving away was not specified. It could have been a guano-encrusted rock in the North Atlantic or the spider and snake-infested outcrop of a volcano off the coast of some third-world dictatorship, with the winner responsible for property taxes and every other imaginable expense. I suppose you could always use your credit card. Other details were left up to the winner, like just how you would get 100 of your friends to and from your island, not to mention all the supplies for plain living, let alone throwing a party. I guess you could charge all that, too.

That ad campaign stuck in my craw. I was living and working on a private island and about the only folks who came to party were geriatric nudists from Quebec, parking their boats off the north shore during the warm summer months. Not an attractive young person in the bunch but it wasn’t just naked senior citizens that got to me; it was the fact that those advertisements, with those beautiful people and the little umbrellas in their drinks, made living on an island look so darn easy and carefree.

I thought about that contest and those kids after Thanksgiving as I made late-season runs to shore, stocking up on fuel oil, propane and food. I thought about them as I brought those loads home through rough water and snow squalls. They were on my mind as I watched the work boat being hauled ashore at the boat yard and you can be darn sure they were on my mind as I made my way back in a leaky Lund, stopping now and then to bail water from around my feet and bash the accumulation of frozen waves from her bow.

I decided in early December — technically not yet winter — that crossing was no longer an option. Swilling rum on a tropical beach with a hundred friends sounded pretty good as I pulled the docks so they would not be crushed and swept away by the storms to come, but this wasn’t the tropics and I didn’t have a hundred friends. No, for the next five weeks, maybe six (it turned out to be seven), I’d be swilling my rum with Mrs. Gordon, some chickens and half a hundred pregnant sheep.

A mile and a half off shore, we sat and we waited for the ice to form. With all those hungry, pregnant ewes wandering around there wasn’t much sitting but there wasn’t a whole lot of ice-forming going on, either. To freeze that much water, it has to get cold and stay cold. Really cold.

So cold that the interface between air and water crackles like radio static. So cold that fog crystallizes into tendrils that sparkle like jewels in the moonlight and burn like embers at sunrise so it appears the world is on fire at twenty below.

Coyotes and deer were first on the ice. They were also first to go through it. I once followed a set of coyote tracks from one side of the island to the other and twenty feet out, where they ended at an irregularly-shaped, healed-over hole in the ice and, for a time, my safe route home included taking a right at a deercicle.

Each day I worked my way further away from home, punching holes with a spud bar. Checking texture as well as thickness, out of sight from the house, I might have been a visible speck to someone on shore but, from that far out, I wasn’t likely to catch anyone’s eye. Strange boomings, groans and screeches echoed beneath my feet and all around as I chipped my way across the ice, avoiding thin spots and staying away from the punky stuff.

People have ventured onto the ice of Lake Champlain for centuries, moving from one side to the other without having to go around. I’ve heard that in the old days the trick to hauling lumber across the ice was making sure to strap on enough to float your sledge if you broke through and that people tied a line around each horse’s neck, to be pulled tight in the event of going through, because a drowned horse sinks but a horse that passes out from suffocation will float and can be pulled out and revived. I also heard the caretaker of the island south of us strapped oval-shaped pieces of plywood to his boots and walked on very thin ice, like a duck, but none of that seemed very helpful to me as I made my way along, imagining I heard the sounds of screaming horses and struggling men carried on the wind.

And then one afternoon, after several days of waiting for more ice to form, I touched the far shore. The way was marked, a supply line or even an escape route opened across the ice after seven weeks of self-imposed isolation and, now that I had it, I was going to use it. Already composing the next day’s grocery list in my head, I took a right at the deercicle and headed for home.

The opposite of a heat wave moved in that night, the sky so clear it seemed as if whatever heat could possibly be generated simply vanished into the void of outer space. The sun did what it could in the morning — which wasn’t much — but the wind snatched away its good work. Chores went slowly in the cold but we got them done and, after a quick bite to eat, I was off across the ice to shore and then to town for the first time in nearly two months.

The big cooler was to keep things from freezing as I made trip after trip from the car to the island. I don’t recall everything I brought home in the way of fresh food and supplies but we survived so I must have done well. Spring came — so did the lambs — and the ice again became too dangerous to cross. For six weeks we waited for it to go, spending our days tending newborn sheep and keeping the coyotes at bay, coming home each evening covered in mud, manure and all sorts of birth-related stuff. And every night our electricity budget (and our ability to stay awake) allowed, we watched TV and saw those commercials with the beautiful people and their island and their tropical drinks with the little umbrellas.

What would I do, indeed.


Other entries in The Outdoor Blogger Network/Sportsman Channel Blog Writing Contest:

“My Thanksgiving Deer” From Hunt Like You’re Hungry

“Early On the Road” From Mike’s Gone Fishing

“11 Month Waiting Period for Trout” From The Naturalist’s Angle

“Frozen in Time” From No Clear Line

“Coming Home” From The Hundred Little Dramas

“Twas the Night” From Bigerrfish

“Cool One’s Heels” From Four Season Angler

“Winter Scouting on Murphy’s Mountain” From Owl Jones

“The Steel Runner Sled” From Daniel Rice

“Outdoors Friday” From Jake Ricks

“My Father and Thanksgiving Day” From Kyle Wolf

“You’re Not Dead Til You’re Dead” From MNAngler

“No Planes No Trains Just an Automobile” From Kirk B Cahill

Categories: Humor, Vermont, Winter | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “On Thin Ice

  1. You are a hearty soul, my friend. Lovely images, both literary and visual, of a landscape that this southern boy can only imagine. Thanks for the trip.

    Best of luck in the contest!!!!


  2. Maybe this shouldn’t be as funny as I found it but when you wrote that “Coyotes and deer were first on the ice. They were also first to go through it.” I thought I was going to pass out laughing so hard. In the world of humor there is NOTHING better to me than a dry wit. Some folks would take that the wrong way, but I doubt you will – and I’d kill to have a better “dry wit” myself. THAT sir, is a great winter travelling story! 🙂


    ( Isn’t it great how OBN is bringing together so many outdoor bloggers…it reminds me of the first internet chat rooms…minus the spam and links to naughty sites. Not that I would know anything about that….)

  3. That is some pretty country you have. Jealous.

  4. Pingback: Winner(s) of the Sportsman Channel Blog Writing Contest

  5. CONGRATS!!!!

    And look at you – posting links to all the other folks writing! That’s very nice of you, Quill! 🙂

    …even if you are a Yank. 😉

  6. Enjoyed the read. Island living takes more than most would imagine. Great job!

  7. Pingback: Closing Up | The View from Fish in a Barrel Pond

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