With thousands of miles of wilderness, there’s room for everyone to do their own thing, together or alone.


“What the hell is that,” I wondered aloud as Christine and I traveled east to west through Minnesota on a cold January day. Fourteen degrees below zero, the vehicle’s digital temperature thing told us. A cool, beautiful day, the hotel clerk noted, with the Scandinavian accent that suggests intimacy through blood, with cold.

We left the city lights in the rearview mirror as the sun began to show and soon found ourselves in rural country – farms with dairy cows coming out of barns after morning milking and bundled up farmers raising a warm hand in passing. Open countryside interrupted by windbreaks and small, medium and large lakes as if scattered by handfuls thrown at the start.

Some lakes were inside the city limits of the small towns we passed through. On the outskirts of a small town, we saw the apparition that brought the question. Christine stared out the window and quickly determined that an ice fishing tournament was in the works. A lake of about 300 acres was covered with people ice fishing.

We looked at each other and wondered at about the same time; is there enough ice to hold them all? Of course, as a sign announced, a derby was sponsored by the city and several non-profit organizations. It seemed unlikely they would promote people huddled on the ice if a trip to the bottom was likely.

Having brought no ice fishing gear, we didn’t stop, but I started laughing as we rode. “What?” Christine asked. “Remember I told you I met these people last week,” I replied. She burst into a smile, immediately understanding the humor.

Before leaving Alaska, I had a midweek day off and chose to spend it hauling a sled full of ice fishing gear to a spot on a favorite lake, where I caught some big fish. After doing it so many times, it seemed a deadly certainty.

There were no vehicles in the parking area before sunrise, but some people had braved a lake crossing and it looked like at least one vehicle had started crossing the ice before I arrived. I didn’t trust the ice and besides the mile to our favorite spot still offered lots of interesting things to think about. A trail where an otter had made its way running and sliding on its belly, as they do, just above the set of coyote tracks that ran along the lake, sometimes pushing through the shore brush which testified to a beautiful population of rabbits.

Before reaching the special fishing hole, a crow perched near a nest on a cliff above the lake, greeted me with a loud caw. The clever bird probably recognized me as a potential supplier of food scraps if it played its cards right.

My path followed close to shore and protected the pickup parked right at “my spot” until I rounded a rocky outcrop about 70 yards from the truck. Thinking I would give the other ice anglers plenty of room, I stopped about 50 yards away, removed my ice auger from the sled, and moved it into position to drill a hole.

“Hey,” shouted one of the people in the truck, “you’ve got the whole lake to fish in, why do you have to be so close.” The brief exchange involving our respective ancestors and relative flexibility is not worth printing. Suffice to say, it was heated and, in retrospect, ridiculous for a couple of adults.

But, it worked for my antagonist. I said to hell with it, reloaded my auger on the sled and headed back to my truck, too angry to try fishing anywhere else. I came back about half way back before realizing the guy was right, I didn’t need to fish there and probably would have felt the same if the roles had been reversed.

When we walked past the incredible congregation of ice fishermen on this Minnesota lake, I couldn’t help but think how funny it would be for these people to have witnessed the disagreement over the fishing of too close, about 50 meters apart.

Ice fishing is perhaps the most obvious example of how the outdoor experience is what it means to the individual. Christine and I enjoy the solitude of the wilderness areas of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where no motorized devices can be used. No snowmobiles, power augers or even chainsaws.

This means that almost any winter day we can snowshoe a few miles to a lake and not see another person or any sign of human passage except for snowshoe footprints in our wake. . When I’m ice fishing, my favorite sight when I look up from the ice hole is a huge expanse of ice covered in spotless snow, and not much else unless it’s a coyote, a lynx or a wolf crossing in the distance.

And yet, apart from that, our experience is markedly different. Christine loves to erect her portable ice shack above the drilled hole in a chosen spot and turn on her propane heater in front of her camp chair. She’ll drop her favorite orange lure into the hole and jiggle with one hand, while reading a book with the other. Sometimes she falls asleep and is awakened by the tug of a rainbow trout or an arctic char.

I will have drilled many holes within jet range, to access different depths of water. I park my chair over the first drilled hole and drop my silver spoon – not my inherited wealth but an oblong metal decoy. I will sit facing the wind, most often that corresponds to facing the sun, and soak up the warmth it brings. It’s not silent, but with the white powder coating the ice, it’s about as close to having no distracting noises as it gets, instead I’m invited to listen to the rustle of the wings at the above my head or an otter poke a breathing hole. For me, a corner of paradise in the middle of winter.

Then there’s the annual Brainard, Minnesota Jaycees ice fishing derby, held on Gull Lake. It’s a huge not-for-profit event that hosts around 10,000 ice anglers. For three days prior to the January event, volunteers drill some 20,000 ice holes for participants on approximately 250 acres of the lake.

Ultimately, the way individuals pursue outdoor adventures is as varied and diverse as the people who do it. With its wide variety of public lands, Alaska is uniquely qualified to satisfy most outdoor pursuits, a fact I need to remember, lest I start taking it for granted.


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