I've done a lot of stupid things in my day. I've put my life in some precarious situations more than once, and I've taken risks that many fisherman would likely think foolish. I've seen some insane conditions and circumstances have unfolded in the past that left me shaking my head. I thought I had seen a lot, that was until this weekend. What I experienced makes everything else seem like no big deal. I cannot imagine it could get any more intense than this. Let me explain.
It all started out on Friday evening. Mike Tengwall, "Tinger," and I hooked up the trailer, loaded the snowmobile and portable shack, and headed for northern Wisconsin. The object of our effection was Lake Trout on Lake Superior. I've heard the stories about the ice and watched the news episodes about the guys drifting away on ice chunks, only to be rescued by helicopters. In fact, that was exactly what we were discussing at about 10:30 PM as our snowmobile trailer ripped off the tongue and went flying out of control at 60 mph. We got lucky and somehow the trailer stayed upright as it spun in circles attached to absolutely nothing. God was looking down on us, because magically our gear made it through the disaster and the trailer never flipped. To make a long story short, this was not the way we wanted to start our trip, and it took us the next 4.5 hours to get all of our gear to the hotel.
Our night was short and our morning consisted of trying to resolve our problem first thing before we went fishing. We quickly discovered that northern Wisconsin is not the best place to shop for a snowmobile trailer. We would have ended up with nothing, but found a local business owner about 50 miles away looking to sell a trailer. After everything we went through, we bought it immediately.
Finally, we reached the ice shortly before noon. It was at this point that we should have taken everything as a sign and turned dircectly around. Our friends, Kent and Jenny, were already out on the ice and our goal was a GPS icon that had been so hot for Mike and Kent the years before. Kent reached that 250 foot deep spot by snowmobile on Friday and had good ice beneath him. In fact, the locals had piles of fish on the ice when he got there. That was yesterday, this was today.
When we finally navigated our way 10 miles through the Apostle islands, it was very clear that the ice we wanted to fish no longer remained. In fact, we were looking at nothing but open water as far as the eye could see. It left an uneasy feeling in our stomachs to be so close to the water's edge, especially when one of the locals came up to us and said that this ice would soon be gone too. We were so close but yet not willing to put ourselves any closer to the water and decided to fish for a short period before we left for the afternoon. To fish in 230 feet of water only a few hundred yards from open water was just not right. I had that eerie feeling in my stomach the whole time, but managed to pick up on the techniques and coax a few Lakers into eating. Unfortunately I missed all 3 of them and we headed to shore without a day one fish.
Day 2 we figured we would get in on the morning bite and fish in a similar area from the day before. As we came around the island, 2 of the locals that headed out before us were coming back our way. Mike instantly said, "that's not good if they are coming back," and as we approached them it was very clear why. The entire area that we had fished the day before was nothing but open water. It broke loose in places that we didn't even think possible. Somehow the current that was ripping through the islands had take out nearly all the ice in it's way. It was simply incredible to see a mile of ice just dissappear only 12 hours after we had fished it.
As we stood on the ice trying to ponder our next move, things became even more interesting. Jenny made an insane revelation when she said "guys, am I seeing things, or is this ice moving up and down?" She was right and it was beyond freaky. If you stopped walking around, you could look in one direction and physically watch the ice raise and lower a foot or two at a time. I didn't even think this was possible, but sure enough, as I looked at Mike and the others we were riding on waves. At one point I would be a foot taller than Mike, then the wave would continue and I'd be a foot lower. It put knots in my stomach instantly. It was the worst roller coaster ride I had ever experienced, and to make it even worse, we were only on 6 inches of ice. Every crack around us had water in it (the tell-tale sign that the ice is going to break free) and we were without ever knowing, in the heart of it all. If I didn't think that I could fall through at any second, it would actually have been kind of cool to get my camera, set it up, and record the motion effect. That was not the case though, and I didn't race for the camera. Instead, it was a race to get the heck out of there.
With an entire 5 square mile section of ice now off limits, we opted for a somewhat protected location to try our luck. It was a new spot a few miles away and around an island. None of us had ever fished it before, but we didn't care and just wanted an area that we felt safe and could wet a line. In our minds we were still shaken up and just wanted to fish comfortably. This was the right idea and by 9:15 AM we were finally fishing. Around 10:00 I finally iced my first Lake Trout. Not a giant, but a Laker nonetheless, and out of 160 feet of water, it was pretty darn sweet. Mike followed that up shortly after with a couple of his own and soon after Jenny and Kent each iced their first fish. Entangled in the fun we almost forgot about our morning experience. Mike then stole the show with a battle that was the exact reason for our insane adventure. A dandy of a laker that gave me a new appreciation for a giant battle on ice. It was at that point that we could almost enjoy the art of fishing again. Unfortunately that was all about to change.
As the early hours of the afternoon started to pass Mike took a walk outside. It was obvious that something drastic was changing under our feet. All I heard from Mike was "Travis, you better get out here." As I walked out of the house I noticed that it was wet every step I took. All the cracks had water in them (the bad sign) and Mike told me to stand still. Sure enough, I could literally see the waves in the ice. We were raising and lowering as if we were in a boat. I can honestly tell you that this is not cool when you are on ice. Not even a little bit. Our stomachs just dropped and we raced to get our gear packed up. We tried to keep our cool, but you could feel the urgency in our work. In a matter of seconds we were ready to go but the snowmobile was stuck in the wet snow. Not cool. As fast as two grown men could, we pushed the snowmobile and sled out and started heading back as fast as possible. The only problem was the loose chunks of ice that we were driving over. The smaller chunks would take on water as the weight of our machine would push them down. I almost crapped my pants at that point, but thankfully the snowmobile could handle it and would skip over the bad spots. It wasn't until a few miles and two large pressure ridges were crossed before we had any sense of comfort about us. I can honestly say that I have never screamed "Go, Go, Go," so loud in my entire life. The second we hit shore I knelt down, patted the ground and said thank you God. For the first time in my life, I actually thought that I may have gone too far and tested the limits too much. We were so pumped to be on solid land and without hesitation, we called it a weekend. We packed the gear and drove 6 hours through a midwest snowstorm.
We figured we lost a good 5 years on our lives after that day. Looking back on it all, I can say that I never truely felt comfortable on that ice. I wore a life jacket and had ice picks, which I am usually too tough to wear. There were several times that I will admit to being scared. It sounds aweful to say, but I remember playing out scenarios in my mind for when we went through. How would I get out? What would I do if we both were in the water? Things that I've never had in my mind on a fishing trip. I can't explain it, it was just something that I am glad I made it through, and glad I was able to experience just once. But, on the plus side, I was told that this was as bad as anyone has seen it up there. So I guess I have seen the worst of it. Will I go back? I don't know that yet. I'm still trying to clean my shorts.
P.S. That ice we narrowly escaped from on Sunday...It's gone. Until next time, keep on livin' the dream!