BY Michael Mentzer
I’ve got a warm feeling in my heart for ice.
I don’t mean the variety found in a cocktail glass, even though that does have a certain glow of its own about it.
I’m talking about the sweeping fields of ice on nearby lakes, especially the vast expanse of Lake Winnebago, and the countless miles of ice on the network of Wisconsin rivers and streams transformed into roads and highways for all sorts of motorized traffic.
I’m referring to memories and the impact of an ice-encased outdoor world that opens passageways to places and activities otherwise unknown and untried, like the ice caves at Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands that attracted thousands of adventurers a winter ago.
Those winters of long ago make me smile knowingly on the outside and laugh uproariously on the inside. I was a lot younger then and oblivious to risks.
I confess that winter a year ago reduced me to a whining, pathetic shell of my former self.
So I want to talk about the ice and snow that warmed my heart and tickled my soul, not the kind that bullied and shriveled me.
Preserved in ice
Headlong speed on a slippery slope brings sheer joy. I remember the Olbrich Park toboggan slide in Madison on a literal ice-formed chute just wide enough to hold screaming kids with their arms and legs entwined front to back like a human pastry twist on a slab of wooden slats hurtling down the hill at breakneck speed.
Local residents remember similar downhill adventures at South Hills golf course and on Holyland slopes.
Ice-skating rinks manicured to mirror-like smoothness hold a special place in my memory banks. It seemed they covered parks in virtually every community in the state. Fond du Lac featured rinks at Waters School, Second Street Playground, McDermott Park and Plamore Park just to name a few.
And a once-in-a-lifetime event that could have turned deadly still gives me goose bumps and makes me thankful I was there and survived it.
Several of us — all in grade school — stood transfixed on the ice of Lake Monona a quarter mile offshore as the wind accelerated and the ice field moved like a glacier beneath us. It carried us that full quarter mile and more until we were standing, pointing to where we had come from and laughing in the park adjoining the lake on a sprawling slab of honeycombed ice at least a foot thick.
Those are ice and winter memories I will always treasure but they can’t hold a candle to our ice-fishing days on Lake Winnebago in the 1980’s and 90’s when our kids and friends joined forces, built snow forts, played snow football, watched their jig pole bobbers in the shanty and raced in packs whenever a tip-up flag popped up.
However, I do have vivid memories of orange tip-up flags illuminated like neon in the late afternoon of a January weekend.
I can still see in my mind’s eye two men and six kids racing and bumping each other, laughing all the way to the flag and wanting to be the one to feel a walleye, sand pike, white bass or hump-backed jumbo perch on the end of the line.
In fact, over several years, there were eight kids, not just six, who participated in those Winnebago outings. There were four in our family and four in our friends’ family. The youngest in each family were girls, who gladly took over for their brothers when their turns came.
Of the eight, four earned college degrees in fields related to environmental studies. Among them are educators, including a high school environmental education teacher; a property manager who enjoys landscaping; a helper of the developmentally disabled; a medical lab technician; an airline pilot; a former Peace Corps volunteer who taught agriculture in Kenya; and a member of the U.S. Foreign Service.
All eight of them, no matter how they earn a living, have carried on a special regard for the outdoors and the environment. Among them, they have 11 children, and two new arrivals are expected within the next couple months. There’s no doubt in my mind they will appreciate the outdoor world as well.
As a group of local youngsters, they inherited their regard for the outdoors naturally. It’s almost impossible to not be influenced in significant ways when you get a number of chances to run free on an ice field of 137,000 acres, drill countless holes and set up lines to catch a fish or two…and then take a moment to view the snowy windswept desert and arcs of the 88 miles of shoreline that encompass Lake Winnebago.
There is an unparalleled beauty in all of that.
There are colors and tones along the shoreline and in the sky that are impossible to capture in words or even in photos or paintings.
Fleeting, fragile sundogs on a late January afternoon easily rival a summer rainbow.
Only memories can do justice to all of that.
There are lessons to be learned from those outings on the ice and in the outdoors in general.
It’s virtually impossible to feel arrogant or self-important when standing alone in the late afternoon on a vast piece of ice beneath a pale blue and violet sky when the wind can render wet and supple fingers into a numb and useless claw in a matter of seconds.
And in a reflective moment, usually in hindsight, we realize that we shouldn’t take what we treasure for granted.
We live in changing times. In fact, we’re often told that the only certainty in our lives is change. That particular certainty applies well beyond the range of ice fields and fishing and memories.
Too often we don’t pay much attention until change makes its presence felt. Then we have a choice to make — deal with it or be discarded by it.
Hearing the call again
My ice-fishing days have declined for years like the Winnebago sand pike we caught so often decades ago.
But I hear the call of the tip-up a bit clearer again. I answered the call a few times in the brutal cold a year ago and it warmed my soul, though it did nothing for our frying pan.
I’ve been blessed with grandchildren and I’d like the chance to drive a few miles onto the ice with them and set tip-ups around us. I have some things I’d like to show them.
I’d like to see the day when we could catch sand pike on the reefs and flats off Fisherman’s Road on the East Shore and Wendt’s on the West Shore. There are indications that sand pike, often referred to as sauger, are enjoying a slow revival, thanks to the forces of nature and human intervention.
I’d like to see our grandchildren get a chance to catch sand pike and know the difference between a walleye and a sauger…
And, beyond that, maybe share a life lesson and get them thinking in a matter-of-fact way how and where we all fit in the scheme of things.
Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.