We clomp across two inches of crusty snow that only days before had been a soft twelve; turn onto a narrow path dotted with two-hooved tracks and clusters of small, coffee-bean-like pellets; dig our toes into; stick our heels down; walk under bare, elegant maple and birch boughs until we come to Hunter Lake, covered now with slick ice the color of milk.
I have always been nervous about walking over frozen waterbodies. I know too many stories. Have heard too many echoes of ice cracking in my dreams. I cannot imagine the cold of that water, or perhaps I can, or the trying to brings pain enough. In any case, when we step out of the woods and onto this strange scientific plain, I am tight in my muscles, my limbs as rigid as sticks.
But there are four tall men ice fishing 200 feet away, and unlike the times before, I have a friend at my side who is more brave, less discouraged by recent high temperatures, and less shy, more easy with a held-out hand. So I follow her, shuffling--sliding precariously across this upper-world's waxed floor--to say hello.
Phil has caught three crappies, and he uses terms like tipup and spike and Vexilar and jig as he pulls up one more.
My friend asks Phil where he's from, how long he's been out, what he's having for dinner. I peer down into the holes--long, Phil-fist-width tunnels that lead into a dark, murky realm--and am amazed again that there are such creatures that can swim and live and carry on under ice.
"This last one, he just jumped right out of that hole there," Phil says.
The sky is blue. The sun is its pale shade of winter yellow. I think, if it were me, I might vault into that color-world, too.
In the end, I am too bashful to ask to hold the pole, to admit to this northern fisherman that I am no one he'd respect. How do you tell a man with cigarettes at his feet that on ice you have always been afraid?
So I do not ice fish. Instead, I crouch down by a recently abandoned hole. A thin film of ice has crusted across the top of the water. I take off my mitten. Tap the ice and break it clean through. Then I make sure my shadow is not in the way, that the blues and yellows of that crisp February afternoon are apparent even to the fishes. And then, for a little while longer, with a little more courage, I wait.