Normally we call it the season of mud: March. It's good for nothing, really. Neither spring nor winter, outdoor sportsmen have long found the buildup to the first day of spring to be one long yawn. This winter, however, has been topsy-turvy, with substantial snow and cold weather coming late, after much of the already flimsy ice of Lake Leelanau had broken up early. Ice fishermen, generally feeling deprived this winter of a chance to get out and do their thing, had already given up when the snow and cold returned, too late to make for safe ice. On St. Patrick's day the cold sun shone on deep blue water, while incongruously drifted snow from the previous week lined the roadways. It was here, near Alpers Road, that I had arranged to meet with three sporting pioneers, advocates of a new sport which they have dubbed extreme ice fishing.
Extreme ice fishing enthusiasts are a breed apart. It's not so much a sport as a mind set. Even in normal winters there are men who brave the ice first, leading the way for others to follow. But extreme ice fishermen deliberately seek out the most precarious conditions, pitting man against nature in a finely tuned test of stamina. Keith, the oldest of the three, explained the philosophy of his sport to me as he unpacked the gear from his pickup. It was 6:15 a.m., and a fine mist rose from the still, open water to the north. The sun would be up in about 40 minutes.
"What you see here is the edge of the ice pack," said Keith, pointing to an arc of ice that spanned the lake from the east shore, all the way across to Cemetery Point on the far side. "It's thick in places, but undependable. Beyond that is a great stretch of fresh, clear ice, maybe one inch thick at most, and to the north, open water. There are underwater springs and various thin patches, and it's our job to know where the danger is and to deal with it. We like to travel light, and we keep fit, because once we get out on that new stuff, it could go any minute."
Keith looked up at the sky and judged how long they might have. For now everything was cold and calm. A fresh wind would pick up once the sun rose. Then the heat would begin to build, and the ice would start to break up. "You've got to respect the integrity of the ice, man. Out there, you're as close to nature as you ever want to be. We don't have time for drinking and joking. For us, it's all about being one with the ice, and ourselves." Keith took a last sip of his bottled water, then passed it to Eric and Scott. "Like I said, we travel light. Only a line and a hook, and just enough clothes to keep warm for about an hour. Then it's back in the truck, and on our way to work before anybody knows different. We're on the ice, and by the time we're off, it's already gone. It's a great way to start the day."
Extreme icers claim that the fishing experience is altogether different "on the edge". For them, it's not about tip-ups and ice shanties. Its a matter of focused concentration. Their training involves a form of yoga known as "Uttanasana", or, "deliberate stretch breathing". Practitioners claim that the advanced breathing techniques enable them to "walk softly", distributing their body weight so evenly that they make almost no impression on the thin ice. Each step is adjusted by a rhythmic exhalation that counterbalances the downward pressure of walking. It is an exercise requiring great discipline and skill. This technique allows the fishermen to venture to places that normal fishermen never get to see. Extreme icers claim that the fish congregate more intensely under thin clear ice, and bite more readily.
Scott stretches, and breathes deeply in the morning air. He is now ready to don his ultralight bhotees, or "snakeskins", special ice shoes named after the Himalayan Rattler, whose skin has been known to blow across the icy wastes. They are a specialty item from Bhutan, and Scott is careful not to step on any sharp stones. The shoes are thin, with little or no insulation from the cold, but their finely webbed texture allows the wearer to actually feel his way across the thinnest of ice.
"Normally you'll see four or five guys standing around a hole, you know, shooting the breeze, eating, smoking, getting drunk," says Scott. "Not us. When we're out there we need to stay as far away from each other as possible. Get too many guys around one hole, and next thing you know, the ice breaks. Same with radios and all that. We try to keep quiet so as to hear what the ice is doing. I've even seen some times when I've had to leave fish behind, simply because the ice I went out on wouldnt support the weight of me, plus the fish, come time to go back in. Other times I've had to literally slide like an inchworm, just to keep my weight evenly distributed over the ice."
For reasons of anonymity, the three did not want their pictures taken. The DNR frowns on any activity which endangers lives and has privately discouraged extreme ice fishing. So worried are they about the sport becoming popular that they refuse even to officially acknowledge its existence. When I phoned Lansing to get the official take on the subject of extreme ice fishing, I was met with a wall of silence. Only one official even hinted at the scope of involvement statewide, but he also did not wish to be identified. It seems as if the policy is one bred of fear. If extreme ice fishing can be ignored, the DNR hopes it will just go away. Meanwhile they wage a silent war against what they see as a hazard to public safety.
But Keith disagrees. "We live in a society of rules. It seems that every time you turn around your freedom to come and go as you please is being restricted by some public official. We know what we're doing. We know it's dangerous, and we live or die by that knowledge. If we go out, we only take ourselves, but we think the risk is worth it. I mean, who wants to be half alive when you can live life to its fullest. For us, this is what makes life worth living. It's exhilarating. This is discipline and adventure and meaning, all rolled into one. You can't legislate against that.
As I watched Keith, Scott and Eric set off down the steep embankment towards the lake, I heard an early morning vehicle approach, the first since we had arrived. It was the orange county plow, putting in his time on this fine spring morning, dusting the slightly glazed roads with a thin coating of grit. I waved as he passed, and watched as the swirling sand settled around my feet and under Keith's truck. Had he seen them? I wasn't sure. It was still gray in the predawn light. But already the salty grit was doing its business. I could see a circle of wet melt around each grain of salt. As the plow rounded the corner and went out of sight I shouted a last "good luck" to the guys, then turned to be on my way. They waved from the distance, but didn't answer back. By now they were in the extreme ice zone.