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Column: A day on the ice creates memories

“In the town of broken dreams, the streets are filled with regret; maybe down in Lonesome Town, I can learn to forget,” – Baker Knight

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MARQUETTE — When I pushed open the back door to head outside, the cold air hit my face almost immediately. It was still dark. Some of the stars were still visible overhead, although it wouldn’t be too long before the sun would begin climbing into the chilly, late winter skies.

I grabbed my fishing bag and ice-fishing pole off the shelf and threw them into the back seat of my Jeep. I started the engine and pulled out onto the dark road.

The temperature was 3 degrees when I started my drive south toward a friend’s house. He and I were set to get in some jigging for trout before the ice on the inland lakes would become a thing of the past.

A few miles from home, I started to notice a few cars on the highway, their headlights nodding toward me in their approach, while the daylight just over the horizon was getting brighter.

I turned onto a few quiet side streets in one of the old, iron towns. The lack of lights in windows suggested this early Saturday morning might be a good day for staying in bed.

I was tired too. It had been a long week. I was still shaking some of the dust out of my head when I approached a big four-way intersection. I felt a tinge of the crossroad blues, coming to me all the way from 1936.

Nobody seemed to know me, everybody passed me by.

I turned right and began a long descent through hillsides steeped in jagged rocks, past the wide expanse of a frozen lake bisected by a set of railroad tracks.

I wanted to be out there walking those steel rails, but the thought of how cold it would be right then sent a chill through me that sunk like cancer into my bones. Still, the idea of walking down a line with nowhere to go but on the ice if a train came seemed to suit me somehow.

I continued to roll, trading one sleepy town for another as the miles stretched back behind me. The temperature outside had climbed to 9 degrees at one point but then began to tumble again the closer I got to that next town.

Here was a once quaint Mayberry-type locality that seemed to be swallowed up inside the widening ore pits and crushed by the encroaching waste rock piles that now towered over its skyline.

Decay and desperation seemed to be sloughing off almost every building here, like shredded and tattered clothes hanging off the limbs of a castaway.

At one point, a couple of generations ago, family of mine lived here.

They’ve since died, though the old house is still standing and occupied. I remember playing in the yard where sparse grass grew, along with red and yellow hawkweed.

I used to walk to the small country store with my dad, where I would get a cold pop in a frosty glass bottle on a sunny summer day.

The waterfall just outside of town was locked up in ice when I passed. The temperature began to tumble again as I continued to wind down through twisting curves along the creek.

I reached the bottom of a cold sink that hung tight over the watercourse. It was now 3 degrees below zero. I started to question my zeal for getting up early on this Saturday morning to go fishing.

In a tree alongside the road, three ruffed grouse were perched among the almost bare branches near the top. These birds were looking for buds or catkins to feed on.

It wasn’t too much longer before I pulled into the driveway of my friend’s house. High snowbanks stood in front of the windows of the ranch-style home. A set of distorted footprints in the snow on the roof looked like they might have been left there by Santa.

It was a frosty windows scene, with the house no doubt snug and comfortable inside. I heard my friend’s dog barking as I approached the door.

My friend and his dog soon came out to greet me.

A few minutes later we were unloading gear from the back of his truck into a snowmobile sled. I rode on the sled out to the lake through the frosty woods, near a summery campground now locked and packed away for the winter.

It was now 5 degrees below zero, but the day’s morning sunlight was beginning to reach us as we stopped on the lake ice. The sky was a shade of robin’s egg blue.

The snow was packed on top of the lake, which made for easy walking and riding. It seemed very early when we pulled the starter cord on the ice auger, the sound reverberating across the ice to silent homes and vacant cabins.

It was warm inside the ice shanty thanks to a propane heater. The lake ice was about 15 inches thick. The water beneath was clear, clean and cold. I could plainly see my fishing lure jerking and shaking 20 feet below.

We sat talking about fishing excursions, lures, our wives and kids. It was a great way to spend the time. Just getting out, even in that cold weather, made me feel alive and exhilarated.

We had set some tip-ups out too. Over the course of a few of those morning hours, we didn’t catch any fish. I had one trout briefly follow my lure and another had taken a minnow at the end of my tip-up line, but it didn’t stay hooked for long.

A couple of other anglers on the ice didn’t appear to have fared any better.

Stepping outside the ice shack, the sun felt like a godsend, its warm rays bathing the skin on my face. A bald eagle flew overhead looking for scraps. He would be finding a couple of dead minnows on the ice after we left.

In a stand of pines, before a spacious home perched high on a small bluff, a good-sized group of evening grosbeaks were talking to each other as though they too were enjoying the morning sunshine.

The wind, which had been snapping earlier, had died down. The ice claws of the morning had finally relaxed, with the temperature now comfortably in the 20s.

I again rode the sled off the ice. We unloaded our gear and headed back, still talking about what a beautiful morning it had been, even though the fishing had been slow.

Back at my friend’s house, I asked about the variety of crabapple tree growing the front yard. He said he didn’t know, but said the birds loved it, especially the grouse.

After he showed me his backyard, I rolled back up the twisting roadway, past the rocky bluffs sparsely covered with trees and the wide frozen lake and the big intersection.

By the time I got home it was early afternoon. The quiet weekend house I had left before daylight, was still in a very sleepy Saturday state.

Before long though I was sitting and talking about the morning, eating a hot bowl of chili, melting the last vestiges of frigidity out of my body.

It had been a beautiful morning, one well worth getting up early for. It wasn’t about catching fish. It was about being “there.”

Sinking down deeper into my chair, I replayed the morning’s events in my head.

Like I almost always do after I get home from being outside, I thought about how I needed to do more of this – a lot more of this.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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