Memories frozen in time

Ed Smith
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They say 95 per cent of Lake Superior is covered with ice.

Sounds like an awful lot to me. Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world. It isn’t exactly a bog hole. Still, there were pictures of people skating around on it, and I know I saw that fact somewhere in print, so perhaps it’s accurate.

I do know that in the late 1950s, people were driving their vehicles from Twillingate Island to New World and Exploits islands over the sea ice. They tell me the same thing was happening between Little Bay Islands and the rest of Newfoundland. I’ve often wondered just who was the intrepid soul who first drove a pickup truck over Twillingate Bight. Don’t want to offend anyone, but it seems to me he had to be wonderfully brave or incredibly stupid.

Award-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle once drove his Jeep back and forth between German and Allied lines shouting insults at the Germans all the way. He was pretty well loaded at the time, which is something I would never suggest a Newfoundlander or Labradorian might be.

My father drove his ancient ’55 Chevy up over Gambo Pond, narrowly skirting large black spots indicating open water while his family watched in horror. He might have done it, but I don’t think he did. I would have, if there could have been a very large helicopter hovering directly above me and fastened to my vehicle with strong slings, ready to pluck me from the depths should the need arise.

I have never pretended to be brave. Smart, yes. Brave, never.

Among those pictures of people enjoying frozen Superior were shots of people fishing through the ice. Mainland pussycats don’t do it the way we do. They haul wooden shacks out on the ice and rig them up like summer homes. They have their space heaters, lawn chairs and hooks on the walls on which to hang their clothes, should they wish to change into something fresh during the day. They have TVs to watch “The Bold and the Beautiful” (as if they belonged to either). Their wives and/or girlfriends or both are allowed conjugal visits.

No Newfoundlander worth his salt would be caught dead inside one of those shacks, unless it was some place to duck inside for a quick drink of milk in a howling blizzard. We all do what my father did — turn a beef bucket upside down, turn your back to the elements and wait for something to happen. In a pinch the bucket could be used for other purposes. If you think that’s gross, consider being on the middle of a frozen pond and getting short taken. Right.

My favourite story about ice fishing concerns the time a buddy and I went fishing one extremely cold day. He used to say afterward it was so cold the flame froze in our fire and it took us three hours to boil the kettle.

We decided to split up to do a little fishing. He took one side of the fairly narrow pond and I took the other. We reached our appointed spots and proceeded to put down holes.

You need to understand something here. We didn’t have the advantage of these 15-foot ice augurs with the V-8 diesel motors mounted on the top. Handling one of those things is like driving a monster truck.

I heard of a fellow who had one of those “no guts, no glory” drills and lost control of it on a relatively small pond. Before he could get the thing under control, the whole surface of the pond was chewed to bergie bits and three men and a crackie were in the water. Didn’t see it myself.

In those days before mechanized drills, we used steel-blade axes, which were fine if the ice was only a foot or so thick. Two feet took an hour to get down through. Any more than three feet of ice and you had to leave home before breakfast to get a line down through before dark.

So, I begin to chop. Chunk, chunk, chunk. Each chunk written here is equal to 10 chunks in real chunk time. I began to realize this ice was very thick and liable to take some time. I didn’t want my buddy beating me to the water, so I doubled my strokes. As I’m chunking away, I could hear him, hidden from view behind a small point, doing his thing as well, no doubt with the same thought in mind.

Chunk, chunk, chunk — allow seven minutes’ pause here for rest. Chunk, chunk, chunk. He was really speeding things up and I wondered where he was getting his stamina.

Chunk, chunk, chunk — allow five minutes’ pause for rest. Chunk, chunk … Clink!

Well, folks, I have to tell you that clink is the worse sound on Earth to an ice fisherman. To an ice fisherman, that is, fishing before the days of the outboard ice augur. That’s a sound guaranteed to turn the hot blood in his veins to ice water. It’s the sound of the cold steel in the blade of an axe striking the cold granite of a rock a couple of feet or so below the surface of the ice.

It is immediately followed by the much louder sound of heartfelt and bitter profanity of the highest order.

My buddy, God rest him, was so disturbed and upset by this tragic circumstance that I had to give up work on my own hole and boil the kettle again to get his blood pressure back to normal. That took almost three hours, and by that time it was getting late and we had to go home.

No new-fangled, modern, mech­an­ical, gas-driven ice augur can make a memory like that. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Ed Smith is an author who lives in Springdale.  His email address is

Geographic location: Twillingate Island, Exploits islands, Little Bay Islands Newfoundland Springdale

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