I stumbled downhill through the persistent snow that still blanketed the forest floor here on the lake’s south slope. It wasn’t really easy to get the big sled down here without a trail but that’s what keeps this spot mine alone all winter long.
I had little light left and I would reach the ice about prime time for most fish – just after sunset. The route down didn’t get any easier though and I had to pause every dozen steps or so to look at the forest ahead and decide the most advantageous route across greenbriers, blow-downs and gullies. The coyote tracks became more and more abundant the closer I got. I wouldn’t be alone tonight but I never truly am in the woods.
The lake was mine. This part of the lake always is but especially on the night of some sort of super football game I’d heard rumors of. Suddenly Pittsburgh traffic and people were gone, replaced by a blank slate of white; dead to all appearances but not really.
The hand auger quietly opened channels to the listless black realm below, amassing piles of slushy ice chips. I got lines down quickly but to no avail. Nothing was biting this evening. I continued to cut holes as the stars appeared in a clear sky. Had the tough haul down here been worth the effort or would I go fishless?
I gathered sticks from the shore, lit my stove for tea and rolled out the sleeping bag beside my holes. Anyone looking for fish out here, if they did make the walk in, could walk past this spot a hundred times without any inclination to stop and fish – there’s no neon sign advertising “fish here!” But there is a puddle of open water along the shore that remains open through the coldest winter spells – a spring. What can’t be seen from above though is a slight trench following the natural slope of the bottom down into the depths. Also undetectable are further emanations of warm spring water in this trench.
Soon I was in the bag, face pointed skyward, a brilliant Big Dipper and Orion following each other across a familiar stellar path. Four lines dangled baited beside me, juicy offerings beckoning the nocturnal fishes I imagined swimming below. I was, for tonight, a caricature of the north woodsman, at one with his surroundings, confident in his estimations, and always where the wild things are.
At midnight nothing had moved. At 2:00, still nothing. The owl watched the intruder and his crude tools from the denuded branches along the shore, announcing my presence to the circle of owls around the lake.
The zip stove did its work quietly in the morning, producing coffee and warm streusel apple halves. And then a rod twitched a barely perceptible twitch and a moment later I iced my first fish of the day – a brilliant hybrid sunfish who went back down the hole to go fetch his more well-fattened relatives.
Perch soon lay on the ice, almost never large on this lake but always a good meal in large numbers. A rod almost disappeared down a hole and it was my first channel cat of the day who’d struck on my lightest line – wispy one pound test monofilament. Why do the biggest fish always find the lightest lines? I laughed out loud as I squeezed the monster up through the hole and then back down – I prefer the meat of smaller fish. Two more of these cats came up through my holes and one came back up through the woods with me.
Even back in the the big city I find joy and comfort in such places, just in the knowledge that such places wait all around me, places that can be mine alone, places that can distance me not only from the city but even from the crowds of outdoors people who tend to cluster in specific corners of wild places the same way they might at a trendy new restaurant, a football match or any other place social media has instructed them is worth a visit. Heaven forbid they take up a paper map and strain to interpret it. There’s a world of meaning written into the contours of a good map.
But that’s all well too. If other people want that, then there’s more wild solitude out here for me. They get what they want and I get what I want. No need to rail against the habits of urbanites or agitate for great sweeping changes in the way we live. If anyone wants what I have it’s right here. If they don’t, it’s still right here. Who could be distressed about that?