ice culture in the great (white?) North

Soundtrack playing in my head: Cocteau Twins, “Serpentskirt”

Lake Ice Fishing Work Sunrise Sky
KimJaesub / Pixabay

The mercury in Madison hit 40 earlier this week, and the snow is almost completely gone, so I figured this would be a good time to talk about a phenomenon I refer to as “ice culture.”

The center of Madison is built on an isthmus between two lakes—Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. Both are 3-5 miles across. When I first visited Madison on a cold February day thirteen years ago, a friend took me out for a walk on the ice on Lake Mendota. While I’d heard of people ice-skating on ponds, the idea of actually walking out onto a lake was a bit unsettling. There just weren’t many lakes or ponds in Chicago to walk on, so this was a new thing to me. During the years I lived near Lake Michigan in Chicago, I might see things ice up in the shallower waters near the shore, but it was rare that I could actually walk out on the lake. If I could, it wasn’t for very far.

Now that I live in Wisconsin, I’ve learned that a rather vibrant culture exists around the ice that covers our lakes in winter. One of Madison’s annual events is called “Kites on Ice” which takes place out on Lake Mendota. The ice is also a place where some rather funny things can be left for everyone to see, such as the appearance of a “submerged” Statue of Liberty.

And then there are the ice fishermen, dedicated souls who sometimes seem to literally walk on water. I’ve seen ice fisherman on Monona Harbor on 50 degree days in April when one would swear that the ice would break any minute.

One joke frequently told in Wisconsin: A somewhat inebriated fisherman decides to go out at night and find a nice patch of ice to do some ice fishing. In the dark, he wanders onto what looks like the perfect fishing spot., So he sits down and starts to cut a hole in the ice. Suddenly a bright light comes down upon him from above and he hears a booming voice that says, “There are no fish down there!” Startled, he looks up into the light and asks, “Who are you?” “The skating rink manager,” says the man with the flashlight.

Anyway, I had an appointment near John Nolen Drive and Rimrock Road an hour or so after sunset, and since I had some extra time, I decided to walk to Lake Monona. Behind the building where I was, on the other side of some railroad tracks, there is what appears to be an abandoned dock. I’ve walked out on this dock a few times during the summer. Because it was so warm out, and because it would be a while before my bus would come, I decided to walk out onto the dock again.

I had no qualms about walking out onto the dock, since the chances of my slipping on ice were very slim. But a thick sheet of ice still covered the lake. Because of the warm weather, a fog had settled over the city, and it was especially thick over the lake. At night, I’m used to being able to see some lights across the lake, but this time, the fog kept me from being able to see much beyond 1000 feet, and I found myself staring into a somewhat fuzzy looking gray-black void.

I found the foggy darkness a little bit unsettling. It was hard for me to focus my eyes on any one thing, since all I saw was ice and darkness. Sometimes I had to look back at the lighted road to remind myself where I was. While Madison is not the large megalopolis of Chicago that I moved from three years ago, it is still very much a city. But here, I was standing on the edge of a very different world, and a very large one at that—one that would take me perhaps two or three hours to walk across if the ice was solid enought. A world relatively few humans tread during the winter, particularly at night, and that becomes even truer the further out onto the lake one goes. It made me wonder what else treads here, if anything. I thought about the various fish and other creatures below the ice, probably sleeping or moving very slowly. I couldn’t see far enough to know if the ice was solid all the way across the lake, or just in Turville Bay where I was standing.

As I stared out over the dark lake, it seemed like the ice was moving, even though it looked like a solid sheet. Were my eyes playing tricks on me? It looked to me like it was moving up and down, almost as if it were breathing, and I began to wonder if maybe the ice was softer than I thought.

So I walked back to the railroad tracks behind the dock and grabbed a few rocks. I threw one stone out there as if I were trying to skip stones. I half expected to hear a “splash”, or maybe a “squoosh,” but instead I heard a “Clack, clack-ka-ka-ka-ke” as I heard it bounce along the ice. I threw another rock, in a different direction and heard the same thing. Then another.

I wasn’t sure whether to be happy or sad about that. Ice can be unforgiving and unyielding. It never feels comfortable when it touches flesh. Yet, it can be dependable, protecting us from clearly dangerous cold waters that would be unsafe for any human being. Usually, during this part of the winter, I don’t find myself longing for spring just yet, and in fact, I’m trying to enjoy the moment as much as possible for what it is.

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