Winter Special

or never-resting time leads summer onTo hideous winter and confounds him there,Sap check'd with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,Beauty o'ersnow'd and bareness everywhere.

--William Shakespeare, Sonnet #5

YEAH, WELL, IT'S the winter of our discontent once again. Deal with it. As the
following writers testify, it isn't so hard. Jim Harrison writes of pleasuring himself--sorta--via the ever-dubious sport of ice fishing. Rick Bass savors the hibernating life. Nicholson Baker notes the vicious beauty of ice storms. John Haines discovers stories hidden in the snow. And film critic Rob Nelson offers some chilly movie picks. We've also collected tips on avoiding avalanches, frostbite, and snow-blindness, along with
a handy guide (for those especially desperate winter moments) to building a snow
shelter good enough to sleep in. As usual, you'll find listings of the season's more notable events as well--since we can all use a little help in dealing with it.


Ice Fishing, the Moronic Sport

We're not actually that far north. Yes, a small church in the Upper Peninsula had a Blessing of the Snowmobiles, and not a trace of irony was noticed. But the sense of the Arctic does pull on us; days shorten, men mumble, the euchre games at the tavern grow extended and violent. There is much talk in December and January of just when the bay will freeze over. It is the west arm of the Grand Traverse Bay they are talking about, a very grand bay indeed, containing some five by thirty miles of Lake Michigan's water. The east arm (they are separated by the forefinger of Old Mission Peninsula) usually freezes first, but the lake trout there, for unknown reasons, run smaller. Some years the bay doesn't freeze, but this is rare. And some years an oil tanker is brought in at an inopportune time, say if there is a steady offshore wind and a warming trend, and the ice breaks up and blows out of the bay. Until February 14, the date on which the ice is usually safe, sportsmen must be content to fish on smaller lakes for perch or crappies, or some of them take up the ancient art of pike spearing. But these activities locally are only considered as warm-ups. On inland lakes, many consider these forms of ice fishing adequate and cases are made for chugging bluegills with corn borers, a small obnoxious worm found in cornstalks. Houghton Lake, a resort area drawing much of its traffic from Hamtramck and other posh Detroit suburbs, throws a gala every winter known as Tip-Up Town, the "tip-up" referring, of course, to the crude rig positioned above the hole in the ice.

Years ago, when I was a temporary prisoner on Long Island and dreamed of a return to Trout Country, I thought of those hallowed winter nights that resemble Christmas cards, with large jeweled flakes of snow falling softly on humble farm animals and peasant faces upturned in wonderment and looking not a little bit like my relatives. But reality is a different pudding. Braaaoowill is what we have, my transcription of what is called a snowmobile "safari." Safari is when a dozen or so machines strike out in the night cross-country for another tavern. Let's have it once more: Braaaoowill, as if a dozen burly chain saws were mating under a single tympanum cowl.

Walking out on any large expanse of ice has always been dramatic to me. After not many steps I tend to stumble involuntarily, as if I were an exhausted survivor of the Byrd Expedition. I frankly expect seals or polar bears, perhaps a wolf loping along the farther shore. But if I fall and roll over I can maybe see a 1969 Camaro passing on the road or a guy and gal in his 'n' her purple satin overall suits just cattin' around on their throaty Ski-doo. This brings me swiftly back to reality. Here are a few reality facts from the Great North: our unemployment rate this year is sixteen percent, giving many some much unwanted time off; snowmobiles, mobile homes and motels each outnumber the total population in 1977; most of my friends are unemployed and if I did have any money they would try to borrow it! I am led, though, by many people I meet to believe that they are mainly worried about the Communist Threat and how the "radicals are tearing apart the country." They tell me that they "worked for what they got" and "nobody gave them nothing." In periods of high unemployment the Great Depression again becomes a ruling fact of life. Yet many people up here strike me as more populist than conservative, and there is the kind of generalized suspicion of Big Government that one finds in non-urban Arizona. They are angry at Nixon for selling them that 1952 Buick, but then they hated Johnson, who is still blamed for everything but the tight-money policy, which is especially hard on a resort area, the only other large local industry being a state insane asylum.

Oh boy! I have been invited to go ice fishing by two of my friends, Richard Plamondon, who is a bartender, and Pat Paton, a carpenter and machinist and block layer. As I dress before dawn, I feel somehow patriotic wearing Air Force surplus arctic balloon boots and bib overalls over other trousers and thermal underwear and various sweaters and a goosedown vest and an outsized quilted coat from when I weighed 225 pounds. Eighteen articles of clothing in all, and when I got out of my car I found I could scarcely walk. I fell on the slippery ice with padded impunity, a big helpless doll of a trout slayer. The early morning air was bluish with cold, and as I waddled along I thought of the promised steak to come in the afternoon and the whiskey I would use to wash it down. But there I was being asked to spud some holes in the ice. One cannot refuse. Chores are shared. Pat and Richard were organizing the chuggers and tip-ups. Everyone spuds their own holes, a rule of the Big Ice. I felt the spud was too heavy after only a few chops. I wanted the ice to be very thick for my safety but thin for the spudding. It became apparent that we could have fished from the security of a railroad car. Over a foot thick, and I was wheezing and steaming and my shoulder ached. I knew then why construction workers liked the sport: they were able to spud the holes. Anyway, Richard tested the depth: 170 feet. A lot of dark down there. I peered in the hole and saw the reflection of a moon face, my own. Richard set a tip-up for me and told me to spud another hole to chug in. I couldn't believe it. I thought, whatever happened to the tradition of the gun bearer who in this case might be put to work, or some sallow, nasty teenager might be brought along for a pittance. But I spudded on. Finally I attached a Swedish pimple (surely the most elegant name for a bait) to a line, dropped it to the bottom, raised it five feet as instructed by Pat and Richard, who watched my motions critically, and began chugging. Sort of ghastly. No question about it. I had become a Chugger! A brutish act, and it was so cold except for my toasty feet in their big white warmonger boots.

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