My husband and I watch the daily movement on freezing-thawing-refreezing Lake Hallie. First come what Bruce calls “Jesus Geese” who appear to waddle-walk on water those mornings when the rime is just thick enough for migrating birds to skate on the lake. Then come the risk-takers. Last November I could launch a kayak off our dock into chilly water and watch teens ice fishing. Now we see the die-hards of mid-March, a different breed of adventurer willing to slosh through 5 inches of wet slurry to get to a prime fishing spot.
I’ve come to recognize Lake Hallie’s winter sounds: groan or boom of shifting ice, motorized whine of a power-auger. Most weekends I awaken to fishermen right outside my bedroom window.
One recent morning, I noticed a lone figure in the distance, a Yeti-lookalike pulling a sled of fishing gear. My thermometer read 14 below zero in my toasty kitchen. Is this like “deer fever,” that tunnel-vision that affects hunters? I remember what my friend Bill Nolte once said about smokers outside his bar, The Joynt, on a frigid Saturday night: “I wish I loved anything that much.”
I grew up hearing our across-the-lake-neighbor’s cautionary tales. Helen Sabaska’s 10-year-old nephew, Carter, fell through thin ice, and another kid plucked him out. Fifty-two years later, Carter tells me that going home wearing a 7-year-old girl-cousin’s sweatpants was more traumatic than busting through the ice.
Mid-December 1993, Helen’s son, Tom, heard cries for help from an 80-year-old fisherman. The Chippewa Herald reported a hole in the ice kept getting larger as Clyde Stetzer floundered and looked for something to cling to. Clyde said about the cracked ice, “I’d walked that way once, but it just opened up and let me in.” Tom grabbed a canoe and slid it out 20 feet from shore and somehow was able to rescue this stranger. Once Clyde was inside Helen’s warm house, he told a reporter, “I’m a lucky boy to be here today. The water was pretty cold.”
These early-season mishaps explain why local taverns wait until the first and third Saturdays in February for their ice fishing contests. Lake Hallie Sportsman’s Club has sponsored one since 1980 and Slim’s Lake Hallie Tavern since 2008. Both offer prizes for the fattest bluegill, crappie, perch, northern and bass, as well as post-fishing raffles back at the bar.
People set up camp for a day: lawn chairs, coolers and 5-gallon buckets of beer and gear. A folding table goes up for registration and fish weigh-in, a port-a-pottie is unloaded and a chilidog/beverage cart tools around. This year the ice isn’t thick enough for vehicles heavier than snowmobiles, 3-wheelers, or gators — which resemble a swarm of mini Army Jeeps.
One woman tells me her kids are inside their pop-up tent viewing a small screen of crappie and perch swimming beneath the ice. I marvel at her tiny fishfinder camera snaked down a hole at my feet.
This technology is supposed to be used for catching fish not just watching them, a little like playing a videogame when the real thing is just steps away.
A group of three generations reels in a 7-plus pound northern on Grandma’s pole. She tells me her arms got tired, so her son hauled it out. Her little granddaughter says confidently, “We’re the winner.”
The week between contests a minivan broke through the lake just down from our house. The 30-something driver heard cracking ice in the wee-hour darkness and instinctively opened his car door. He reached toward the backseat but could not grab what he wanted most before his vehicle sank. He struggled out of the icy water without his dog and walked nearly a mile down the frozen lake to Sportsman’s Club. When he knocked on a window for help, his hair was covered in icicles.
The next night a tow truck driver stops at our house to ask if he can use our land for vehicle recovery, come daylight. He also wants to know the exact location of the springs that feed Lake Hallie along our shore. I point towards Helen’s house: “Right across from that one.”
Two days later a salvage crew launches from Helen’s level land rather than our steep embankment and avoids our shoreline’s weaker ice by dragging the vehicle, while it’s still underwater, to the middle of the lake for extraction. I can’t wait to witness this, but I have to work. My best friend, Karen, reports to her mom Helen’s then sends hourly texts and photos my way.
Neighbors gather as three guys in yellow vests chainsaw through inches of ice that formed over the sunken vehicle. The diver looks like he’s swimming in a glass of large ice cubes. He slips underwater to fasten a winch-hook to the minivan’s front seatbelts. Old-timers say this is the sixth vehicle to break through since 1967, another example why those who’ve lived here the longest will never drive on Lake Hallie.
A jon boat in February can only mean a rescue or a death. Eventually the diver surfaces with the owner’s dog. Karen’s photo shows this pet wrapped in a tarp and left on the ice. At the end of the day, crew members will load the bundle last.
My retired firefighter brother comes out three different times to watch and wait, then return home when nothing much happens. In a weird telephone game that could only occur this century, Karen sends photo updates to me in Eau Claire, I forward to Joe in Chippewa Falls, then he shows up to visit Bruce who periodically looks at the action through binoculars from our Lake Hallie kitchen. After work I rush outside to watch the final retrieval.
Finally after 10 hours of preparation, which includes positioning a 6-foot beam through the busted out back minivan windows — from a distance this looks like a Matchbox car skewered with a Popsicle stick — the Honda Odyssey is towed on its top across the ice to a wrecker idling on Helen’s shore. Given the daylong spectacle, Bruce jokes it’s like we’re resurrecting the Titanic. More likely it would be “The Lorraine,” a wrecked early-20th-century riverboat, or even a bootlegger’s still thrown into the lake when Prohibition feds got too close. Both are hidden beneath the ice on Lake Hallie.