When I made my guess of April 1, 2016 at 11 a.m. in George’s “Ice-Out Contest” down at the marina I started my email with “George: It is probably foolish of me to guess April Fool’s Day … but I am going to anyway.” With such a long-lingering Fall this year, where deer hunters basically wore blaze-orange t-shirts for both weeks, and rain showers were more prevalent than snowstorms in January, I thought perhaps there would be an early ice departure to let us all back on the lakes in the first week of April. In retrospect it looks like I should have guessed April 11. My wishful thinking continues.
For the first time in my memory the snowmobile club did not stake the lake to officially declare ice conditions safe for travel. I never let a Winter go by without skiing into my cabin at least once but for a long time I thought it was just not going to happen this year. When the ice fishing huts finally showed up with 4 X 4s and skidoos parked around them I figured it was a safe sign for humans on skis and I really needed to get back there to see what the red squirrels had been up to for the last few months. There had obviously been a few pine cone parties but little damage was done. I’ll take red squirrels’ over teenagers’ parties any day of the week.
When the last weekend in February offered -10C nights and near freezing days, with +11 and rain rolling in on Monday, I needed to talk some other fool into joining me in a hurry. My cousin and frequent accomplice in life, having just flown in from Mexico the day before, was easily fooled by my claim of having left a fine bottle of tequila in the cottage at close-up last Fall for just such an adventure. And of course my faithful dog Robbie will follow me anywhere when he sees me getting steaks out of the freezer.
Skiing conditions could not have been finer. Bright sunshine with a light tailwind made -5C quite comfortable. You could actually feel the strength of that late-afternoon, late-February sunshine on the back of your legs. No, we were not skiing in Bermuda shorts. But we were easily gliding along like a pair of Swedes with full backpacks on a couple of inches of powder snow covering whatever depth of ice lay below. Did we really want to know?
About half way up the lake, with a thirst developing, I spotted a strange, dark object on the ice about 50 feet north of my track. Ever curious, I headed over to see what it was. Now, empty beer cans are all I usually collect from the motorized crowd but this time it was as if the Barley Gods were prepared to be more generous. This beer can was intact. And full. And not frozen. Since the guy whose skidoo it had bounced off of at 60 miles per hour was now long gone and unlikely to come back to claim it, I snapped the top open. So when Eric finally caught up to me we washed the beer down with a wee bit from his emergency flask of Alberta Springs finest whiskey. Suddenly the sunshine seemed brighter. The breeze lighter. Unlike drunken skidoo drivers, impaired skiers on a large flat surface are unlikely to hurt either themselves or anyone else. With our thirst quenched and a bit of high octane fuel added we were soon approaching our shoreline.
After 2016’s mild winter it was a bit of a surprise to find ourselves up to our knees as soon as we shed our skis to climb off the lake. The snow had fallen gently it seemed and so no big drifts challenged us like last year where -30C and high winds whipped all of the snow off the lake, piling it along the shore like big drifts of white sugar.
Fire and water now became the essentials of life. With the fire blazing and the Sun touching the treetops it was time to see just how thick that ice really was. After estimating how far offshore the trout might be cruising the “spud” (an old axe head welded onto a steel shaft with a handle on top) was retrieved from its summer resting place and put to work. Removing about six inches of snow revealed a first layer of punky ice with water coursing through it. That was a bit disconcerting. Then solid black ice was hit. After chipping away about another six inches the lake tried to make its escape out through our hole. Unlimited pure water and perhaps a trout for dinner was Limerick’s promise to us. Lots of pure water was the only certainty at that moment but the fishing pole was ready.
The personality and tone of Limerick in Winter is much different from cottage season. The silence is intense. Wind through the pines gives them a different song than warm Summer breezes. Trees audibly go ‘pop’ all around the lake on those really calm, frosty nights. No lights ever come on over on the far shore. Starry skies appear closer in the clear cold, letting you know you really do live in this incredible Universe. Sometimes the Northern Lights dance across the sky and you can ski out to the middle of the lake and have them surround you. Always-expected loon cries never fill the night, replaced by a distant wolf howl or the hoot of an owl to remind you exactly whose territory you are now sharing. And you suddenly realize how much better they are at surviving here in this forest than we slow, hairless humans.
The snow was melting when we retraced our ski trail on Sunday afternoon. It felt like the last day of Winter. Now on April 1st Mother Nature is fooling us yet again. The promise of Spring is pushed from our grasp just a little bit more with -13, -13, -18, -11 the Bancroft forecast lows over the next few nights. With a tip ’o the hat to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
As for those trout … while cooking breakfast I heard a slight commotion down on the ice. The fisherman, who shall remain nameless, claims to have hooked into a very large trout. Somewhat of a monster trout to hear him tell it. Apparently the problem lay in the fact I had not chopped a hole in the ice quite big enough to get Mr. Trout out. I shall have to correct that oversight next Winter when … if … the ice returns.