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home : outdoors : outdoors May 29, 2016

1/18/2013 5:12:00 AM
I've seen ice and I've seen rain
Participants in the AMVETS ice fishing tournament gather atop the watery ice.Craig Turk photograph

Participants in the AMVETS ice fishing tournament gather atop the watery ice.

Craig Turk photograph

Craig Turk
Outdoors Writer/Photographer

This can be a frustrating time of year.

We’re locked into what’s commonly known as “the dead of winter” – a seemingly endless time of year known for its short days, long, cold nights and massive Christmas credit card debt.

What has made it perhaps worse this year is a lack of snow. Skiers, snowmobilers and the like depend on the white stuff for those pursuits that keep them away from seasonal affective disorder. Also, the many businesses that cater to these snow lovers take a hit when Ma Nature fails to cooperate.

For me, though I feel for these recreators and those that benefit, the lack of snow is not personally depressing – no more so than any number of other topics, anyway. Actually, my current winter recreational equipment consists of a snowblower and shovels. Though costly, their lack of use hasn’t caused me to lose any sleep.

Oh yeah, there’s ice fishing. But ice fishing depends largely on the cold, and much less so on the snow. Of course, the ice has been dicey this year, and I’ve been leery of easing my considerable bulk out onto its surface.

I finally did just that, though. Stopping out at the AMVETS ice fishing tournament last weekend, I noted trucks, even some pulling trailers, on the surface of Nokomis Lake, where the tournament is held. I figured the ice could hold me as well.

So, I’ve finally ventured out onto lake ice. The action was moderate, resulting in the harvest of about three beers.

Rain had removed all snow from the ice and left water atop. As temps cooled, the surface got better, with a strong wind aiding evaporation. A mid-winter rain can be an interesting thing.

I recalled a mid-winter rain from some time in the 1980s, when I was a teenager.

I had a snowmobile at the time, a running but run-down Johnson Skee-Horse, which, beside being responsible for a scar between my eyes, also sought to embarrass me whenever it had the chance. One of those chances occurred as temps dropped in the wake of a winter rain at a time I was hopeful of getting some ice fishing in.

The rain had flooded the frozen surface of a nearby lake I frequently recreated on. When the rain stopped and the cold swept in, the rain on top froze, leaving behind a mirror-like surface, save for a few tufts of remnant snow here and there. It was a surface that offered approximately the same amount of traction as lard-slathered glass.

Toting my fishing gear, I motored my old sled across the crusty snow along the shore and eyeballed the unobstructed and reflective expanse. I really wanted to go on.

The worn skis of the old Johnson and its lack of a brake probably made little difference, suddenly. Sure, it would not turn on hard-packed snow and it only stopped by engine-braking or colliding with stuff, but, really, what sled could turn or stop abruptly on such a surface as what was now presented me? My old snowmobile was just as well-equipped as any other to tackle that mirror of a lake.

Besides, though I might have said, outwardly, that the machine was fast, inwardly, I admitted that it might not be. It’s not like I was going to set that track to spinning, I figured.

Recognizing that walking on the ice in its current state would be a fool’s errand, I left my ice fishing gear on shore and eased the snowmobile onto the lake.

I was cautious at first, lightly thumbing the throttle. The Skee-Horse moved out in a straight line, boosting my confidence.

I couldn’t turn, except by using those occasional tufts of snow. I’d just turn the skis in the direction I wished to go shortly before I got to one. When I got to it, the sled turned. It worked well. Soon, I had built sufficient nerve to punch the throttle. Exhilarating. 

The winter wind caressed my face as I reached a speed of indeterminate miles-per-hour, but what I knew from experience was nearly as fast as my dog could run. Well, pretty darn close.

Soon, I was near the center of the lake, cruising freely and loving it. Suddenly, and without any of my own input or tuft of snow, the sled started to turn. Now I was sliding sideways and was soon to learn something about the composition of the lake’s ice.

The water atop the ice, several inches in depth, had not, at that point, frozen completely. There was an inch or two of ice, a slush layer, then the thicker winter-long accumulation of ice. As I slid sideways, the top layer gave out. 

As one might expect, the stop was sudden for the sled. For me, it was simply a transfer to a new mode of ice travel.

When the snowmobile broke through the top layer, it turned on its side and abruptly disposed of its rider. Said rider, in plain view of every house on the lake, was sent sliding across the slick surface on his back – and he coasted helplessly for an impressive distance.

I gradually came to a halt. It was fairly painless, the sudden new mode of travel, but it left me some distance from my snowmobile and quite some distance from shore. Laying on my back, I looked at the perpetrator.

The snowmobile was sideways, still running, the side of its track occasionally biting the slick surface as it made a pathetic attempt to go on without me. It finally stalled.

I found out that the machine’s seat, apparently, wasn’t secured by much to begin with – it wasn’t secured at all at that point. It had separated like the rider had, though it hadn’t attained the impressive distance.

It was no small feat getting back to the machine, but I eventually did, at times slipping, at times breaking through into the slush layer.

I turned the sled upright and placed the seat back upon it. Then I began the rigors of starting it. The temperamental old sled started pretty well when it was cold and the air was as well. Warmed-up, and after having flipped on its side, it was stubborn. And the foothold was not good as I yanked the starter rope.

At least the recoil mechanism still worked then, unlike in the sled’s later life, when manually wrapping a rope around an emergency starting sheave was the only way to start it.

I held my ground – I mean ice – and eventually got the machine to fire. Even more smoke than usual poured from the machine when it started, but start it did. I did not regain the nerve to fully accelerate while puttering to shore.

Really, though, all that was bruised was my ego, which was pretty calloused anyway – and not just from the various efforts of the Skee-Horse.

The conditions on Nokomis last weekend improved as the day went on, and I noticed a few riders piloting snowmobiles across its rain-altered surface. None of those riders were put into embarrassing predicaments by their machines as far as I could see.

Let’s hope they get some decent snow soon so they can ride on the trails as well as the ice. From my experience, most embarrassment inflicted upon riders by their machines happens on or near lakes. Not all by a long shot, but most.

Anyway, I’m glad I got out onto the ice, even if it wasn’t in a fish-catching role. I don’t currently own a snowmobile and the snowblower and shovels just fail to keep me suitably entertained.

But I’ve got my ice-legs under me now. Look out fish, here I come.

Craig Turk may be reached at cturk@lakelandtimes.com.

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