Here in the sun-drenched Florida Keys, the nearest thing to an ice shack is a small shed near the marina that holds two big chest freezers where boaters get their 10-pound bags of ice cubes every couple of days.
As February approaches, for some inexplicable reason, I get thinking about ice shacks and the good times they represent for hardy Maine ice fishermen, an angling faction to which I once belonged. An ice shack, by any other name, can be an ice shanty, ice house, fishing shanty, fish house, fish coop, bobhouse, ice hut or darkhouse. They have always been ice shacks to me.
One particular ice shack comes to my mind. Fashioned in plywood and painted barn red, it was of modest size by Maine ice shack standards (6 by 8 feet). Mounted on big Teflon skis with a trailer Y on the front for towing, there were two small plexiglass windows on each side. Inside, in one corner was a small ramdown stove, a pile of seasoned split beech and a small pine-board countertop. Against the opposite wall was a sitting bench for anglers. Hanging on the walls from nails was an assortment of fry pans, a coffee pot, ice scoops and other fishing and cooking paraphernalia. In the center of the plywood floor was an 8-inch circular cutaway that could be removed so that an angler could access an ice hole beneath when he felt like working a jig line.
A cribbage board, a deck of dog-eared playing cards, and an old battery-operated radio rounded out the ice shack list of necessaries. And a bottle of blackberry brandy, for medicinal purposes.
Ice shacks were not without some challenges, not the least of which was getting the shack off the shore and up the lake to the fishing hotspot, and then getting it back down the lake at the end of the fishing season.
Once the shack was towed down the lake with a snowsled to the desired spot, we always took measures to avoid freeze-ins and blowovers. We got the skis up off the ice surface with chunks of firewood. The shack itself, which could be moved from its location or tipped over by a big blow, was always secured to the ice by ropes attached to eyebolts from each corner of the shack.
Additionally, red reflectors were placed on each outside wall so that nighttime snowsledders could see the shack’s location from a safe distance. (A number of years ago a high-speed night snowmobiler was killed when he put himself and his snow machine through the side of an ice shack!).
For more winters than I can count, our Seboeis Lake ice shack was the focal point of some memorable family outings, even on the most bitter days with single-digit temperatures and a biting north wind blowing snow into the ice holes faster than you could scoop them. As most outdoor folks figure out early in their experiences, surviving the elements through your own skills and outdoor know-how can be personally fulfilling and, yes, even fun. Picture this: Outside there is a zero chill factor, but inside the ice shack it’s a cozy 70 degrees. There’s a cribbage hand being dealt. An iron skillet is sizzling with deer steaks and sweet onions. Coffee is perking on the hot plate.
Halfway through lunch somebody spots a flag waving atop an ice hole. “Tip up! Tip us!” is the cry. The door of the ice shack flings open and eager, snow-suited anglers race to be the first to the tip up. The dog always seems to get there first.
Ice shack snapshots are not always worthy of a smile. Sometimes there is a price to pay for braving the elements in search of that outdoorsman’s special brand of satisfaction known only to those who have been there. Getting a snowsled and a towed ice shack bogged down on a lake in a field of slush is a uniquely miserable dilemma. All things considered, though, my ice shack recollections linger as good and lasting memories.