By James Strauss
He was the first out for the season. The lake had iced over days before, which was uncommon so early in the year, but he’d taken the opportunity to beat any other ice fisherman and establish his fishing hut in the best location. Ten degrees below zero for three days was sufficient to form an ice layer thick enough to drive his truck across, tow the shack out, then park back at the edge of the lake and walk. He trudged back toward the run down ‘out-house’ looking shed he’d left near the middle of the lake. Inside the clapboard structure was a propane heater, six-inch ice drill, fishing equipment and half a case of Bacardi Rum. It was Saturday. He would have two whole days to do nothing but ice fish and drink, with a strong emphasis on the drinking.
When he arrived at the shack he turned around, and then studied the shore of the big lake for signs of other ice fishermen, but there was not a soul about. Smoke came from a few chimneys and he knew, even at six in the morning, his presence out on the ice was noted by many of the people who lived year around in the lakeside cabins. Several binoculars were probably sighted in on him, he thought, as he studied the shore. That conclusion did not give him any discomfort. Quite the opposite. If anything happened, like the ice not holding, then help would be only minutes away.
In past years many fishermen had gone through, one guy had even lost his Porsche, but all had been saved due to the ‘watchers’ on the shore and their quick actions. Because of the Porsche, and the potential pollution such a sinking might have on the lake ecosystem, no vehicles were allowed to park out on the ice during the frozen winter months. All the fishermen hated the discomfort and inconvenience that the rule caused, but they all understood the need to keep the lake pristine. Without the freshwater fish population there would be no ice fishing, and certainly no place to get as securely and quietly drunk as most ice fishermen loved to be.
Once inside, he turned the knob of the propane tank to full open and started the heater, making sure to pull down on the vent lever. Propane was clean but in a small enclosed space even the small waste of carbon monoxide it produced could be deadly. The next order of business was to mix a Rum and Coke, his favorite drink. Two parts rum and two parts coke mixed, without ice, inside a small ceramic cup.
He finished off two cups in as many minutes, warming him to the point where he could remove his heavy sheepskin coat and hat. The propane heater was extremely efficient. The thermometer read sixty degrees and he could see it slowly climbing.
He checked the ice surface around him. He had never built a floor into the shack. He preferred the walls to contact the ice directly, allowing him to pull fish right from the hole instead of up through a hole in a wood floor. He was a purist and proud of it.
Mixing a third drink, which he momentarily set aside, he worked on this fishing rig. A short flexible rod, light line and leader, two small hooks and a heavy sinker. He was going after bottom feeding bass. They were all fairly small, no bigger than nine or ten inches in length, but he loved their taste. Many of the other fishermen went after perch, a milder fish. The propane heater had a side burner. If he cared to, and was lucky enough to catch something early, he would have grilled bass for his breakfast. The thought made him smile. Downing the third rum and coke added humming to the smile. Auld Lang Syne. It was, after all, New Years Day, and he was dead set on changing his life. He was going to visit the children who’d gone away so long ago after the divorce. He was going to stop drinking after this last season of ice fishing. He was going to go back and get a real job, one more in keeping with his college diploma, rather than continue being a vacation cabin caretaker and handyman.
He set the prepared rod and line aside, built a back up, and then took hold of his powered ice drill. The guys at Home Depot said that it would drill a six-inch diameter hole through two feet of ice in one minute. Placing the point of the drill in the exact center of his small space he balanced the tip on the slippery ice, holding the machine perpendicular with his left hand while pulling on the rope handle sharply with his right. The machine screamed to top speed instantly, jerking him a little off balance with its torque. The blade bit into the ice, bounced upward, then slammed back into the ice, grinding in with great crunching sound.
He was under water. The impact of entering the thirty-two degree water was stunning. He body screamed in pain, and then flashed with a deadly numbness. He surfaced, dropping the drilling machine into the depths. He treaded water for a few seconds. Debris was all around him in the water. The heater, flame gone but gas bubbling from the tube, floated next to him, along with his hat and coat. Even the small stool floated inside the confines of the shack, bobbing among all the chunks of broken ice. He twisted around. The ice had broken under the shack he realized, his brain slowly recovering from shock. It had broken perfectly,
He moved to one wall of the shack and tried to lever himself up, grabbing hold of a cross-bracing two by four. The shack pulled down. He did not rise at all.
He paddled to the door. He pulled the shack downward, and then tried the handle. The door opened outward, designed to save as much of the shack’s small space for occupancy as possible. But it opened only two inches, and then jammed against the edge of ice outside. He started to panic. He was already losing the feeling in his hands, and strangely, in his hips and midsection. His legs still worked. His frog kick still kept him afloat, along with his weak grip on the wooden supports of the shack wall. He had to think, so he calmed himself. Help was not far away, if he could just maintain himself, get free of the frigid water and make his way outside. Simply waving his arms out in the open would bring immediate assistance.
More attempts at climbing failed. He fell back. A bottle thumped against his arm. He looked down. It was the half empty bottle of Bacardi. Treading water for a few seconds using only his legs, he grasped the bottle in deadened hands, got the cap off and took it to his lips. He drank the half bottle down in continuous swigs, and but could not release it from his frozen hand when it was empty. Instant heat blossomed from his stomach. He could feel the heat move slowly up to his head. He could only prop his hand on the wooden support of the wall, his fingers no longer usable for grasping anything.
He half lay against the bobbing wall, wondering what was going to happen to him.
“Please God, help me. I’ll quit drinking. I’ll take care of my kids. Just give me another chance.” His last words were slurred, even to his own hearing. He tried them again, but he couldn’t improve the pronunciation. He had to rest or he was not going to be able to help himself, he knew. He closed his eyes for a second, to take a break.
On the shore William and Harriet Barrow stared across the mile of ice and snow that separated them from the shack.
“The damn thing was four feet higher, I swear, when he set it up out there earlier,” William said to his peering wife, “and I’d bet a season ticket to the Cubs that its moving around somehow.”
“Nope,” Harriet said, in finality, “that’s the wind and the temperature differential caused by sun reflecting off the ice. “That guy is in there, probably sitting in a drunken stupor, waiting to catch a fish he’d pay three dollars a pound for at the Sentry.
“We ought to call it in, just to be sure,” William said, still staring out across the lake with his binoculars.
“Nah, we’ll have us some hot coffee and consider. If you think its still moving then, we’ll call.”
Half an hour later the couple returned to the great window. Both agreed that the shack was not moving at all.
Inside the shack, ice sealed everything over, catching all the debris and broken chunks in a jumbled frozen setting. The highest thing to rise above the surface was a man’s arm. Thrust upward, almost from the elbow, was a plaid covered forearm ending in a hand tightly clutching an empty Bacardi bottle.