Ice Fishing in 1954

Ice Fishing in 1954 by Jon Reed

Have you ever been ice-fishing? I was thirteen-years-old and couldn’t feel my face in a bitter Lake St. Clair wind as the sky was just turning pink. I was waiting to go ice-fishing, and gusts of wind blew sheets of snow across an expanse of white. My father was inside a bait-shop renting a shanty after our 3:30 am drive to Caseville. I wore a parka over two winter coats, a sweater, several shirts, three pair of pants and socks, and heavy boots. I wouldn’t admit it, but I worried about being miles from shore on a foot of ice over twelve feet of water. A lump of ancient Model T Ford pickup that would take us out sat chuffing a few yards away.

A classmate friend, Eddie, and his father waited inside a big Dodge staying warm. Arriving a half-hour before to rent their own shanty, Eddie was a little slow and yet to figure out we had to sit on the flatbed exposed to the elements. My father came out and we climbed onto the flatbed, handing up thermos bottles of coffee and soup and treble-point fish spears more suitable for Roman gladiator coliseums. We were soon bouncing and roaring our way across Anchor Bay, unable to hear over the open exhaust, flailing tire chains, and wind. After a while, I stood up clinging to the top of the cab for a better view. It was clear for miles and I pulled a scarf over my face for better protection.

Tiny shanties appeared in the distance and we shuddered to a stop near two of them a few minutes later. Typical boxes of 4’ X 8’ plywood, there was room inside for only two people. They were cheaply-constructed because many were lost each year. Inside, a small oil stove would take the chill off. Each shanty was positioned over a pre-cut hole in the ice to fish through after a lid in the floor was removed. Without windows or lights, each shelter provided a clear view into green water below, like staring at a luminescent television screen. Before leaving, our driver said he would return with two more fishermen for the third shanty.

It was odd, watching him drive off, seeing how far away from the shore we were. Caseville was only a line of bare trees miles away. The wind picked up and the shanty stovepipes’ smoke flattened sideways. If there was a problem, we were alone.

Eddie and his father turned toward their hut twenty yards away and my father and I trudged through the snow with them to make sure they were alright. Fishing shanties aren’t necessarily built by the most intelligent people on Anchor Bay, much less to local building codes. They’re slapped together by fishermen, not architects. This particular one had its three foot square hole in the floor just inside the door. After lighting their oil stove a few minutes before, the driver had thrown the lid to one side before removing the overnight skim ice so they could begin fishing. It was an accident waiting to happen.

Too late, no one told my friend to look carefully before entering the hut. Poor Eddie dropped straight down through the hole, with a horrifying yelp, into twelve feet of freezing Anchor Bay. Fortunately, my father was standing just outside and grabbed Eddie’s collar as his head was disappearing in a splash of foam and ice.

“Whoa there, son. We can’t lose you that way. C’mon back here.”

After he had a good grip, he hauled Eddie back out and stood him in the lee of the hut. Eddie was wide-eyed, shaking, his hair turning to icicles as we watched. Eddie’s father stared, gulping soundlessly like a just-caught fish.

If someone falls through ice miles from shore, he’s in a lot of trouble unless he has a quick-thinking father like mine. Rescue from above is impossible. The instant swimmer better have taken a deep breath before going through and able to climb back out in less time than it takes to describe. If he hits his head going down, he’s gone. Rescuers might find him in a couple of months next spring when the ice melts. Eddie would have been dead for sure. As it was, he was lucky to be standing there, much less slowly freezing.

“Are you alright, Eddie? Eddie, can you hear me?” my father asked as Eddie stood there freezing. But Eddie couldn’t get a word out, fast turning blue.

It was obvious his day was done. My father flagged down the Model T returning from checking another shanty, and my friend was bundled inside while his father sat on the pickup bed. That was the last I saw of him for a few weeks. Shaking off images of a dead Eddie floating under a foot of ice, we went back to our shanty to bait minnows and think about a near miss. At the end of the day, we had a bucket full of good eating perch and I had a father who had saved a life.

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