The tiny houses dotted along a frozen surface are irresistible to any one with a camera in hand. Their simple shapes in the middle of a field of ice, surrounded by forest and mountain, have inspired coffee table books and appeared on the covers of magazines. They represent a culture, a world, and, for those who have not braved the ice, an unknown.
While one can buy a prefabricated fish house, most are built by hand out of reclaimed and found parts. There are no two alike, whether built sparely for function, or over-the-top with plush sleeping pads and high-end sound systems. On Toddy Pond a house built onto a car that will no longer pass inspection drives its owners from one end of the pond to another, going where the fish take them. Most fish houses stay put, though. It is not easy to load up a house, trailer it to a lake, tow it out and secure it against strong winds. Their metal or wooden runners do allow them to be pushed across the ice, but this is rarely a one-person task, and not undertaken lightly. Tradition prevents too much moving around as well. Sons put their houses on the same lake where their fathers and grandfathers did, and the exact location where the big fish bite is handed down with reverence.
Seen from the outside ice houses are an intriguing part of our winter landscape. It’s a different world inside. Layers of clothing are shed and a bone-deep heat akin to hot rock yoga reduces one to a mellow, jellied creature, with no reason for being except to look out the window at that crystalline view. Fisherman say they are looking for a flag, and the chance of a fish. If there has been no action they mutter and say, “Not a flag all day,” but I do not think there is much disappointment.
The windows they gaze out may be round like portholes, or a large expanse of plexiglass taking up half a wall, or perhaps a narrow strip going along every side of the house, giving a view of the ice in every direction. They let in light, and let the fisherman watch his tip-ups, as well as everyone else’s.
Derek Wescott of Northeast Harbor built a lighthouse-shaped fish house for he and his son to fish from. The inside is lined with green Astroturf, and a beacon in the top illuminates the shore of Eagle Lake on Mount Desert Island for 360°. A gas heater brings the temperature inside to well over 70°F. He has an oven, a fold-down bed, and fleecy seat covers. It is cold, about twelve below zero, and my fingers are grateful when I put them back in my gloves after taking a photo. But the ice house is hot, and Derek opens a window so we don’t melt. Through the portholes we watch the sun coming up from behind the hills. Derek says full moon nights are spectacular as well. “I’m usually alone, though,” he tells me with a deep laugh. He comes out and fishes on nights with a full moon, sleeping in his lighthouse haven, although he really does not sleep much, “Too busy fishing, and just looking at the lake in the moonlight,” he says.
Nearby is a modern, smooth, white plastic structure, made from a discarded calcium chloride storage tank. Diffused light glows through the opaque walls and inside it is spacious and I want to move in, but was told Butterlickin’ the mouse had a prior claim. Todd Staples built this ice house with his son, and friend Eric Rodick. They built it a few miles away where the mouse made his home in the floor, but neglected to run away when it was towed out to the ice. He dines on bacon grease and paper towel. Todd’s dad had purchased the tank at a town auction over twenty years ago. He had no plans for it, just could not pass up the great deal. Todd and Eric said, “Let’s make it an ice house.” A brilliant idea, but Todd’s dad didn’t bite. When he died, Todd and Eric again said, “It would make a great fish shack,” but Todd’s brother owned it, and, like his dad, said no. The tank sat empty for more years. Eventually Todd’s brother died, and Todd, Eric, and Todd’s son gave it a life. It now glows on the ice at Eagle Lake; an ultra-modern, urban chic home plopped into the center of a frozen Maine lake.
Not far away a neat gray house has a gleaming new woodstove in the corner, with a curved metal shield behind it. It was a Christmas gift for Norman Walls from his son. “It’s a little beauty,” Norman says, and it is. It was welded by Todd, Norman’s ice neighbor.
Fish shacks houses need to be small and light so they can be transported to and from their winter homes on a trailer. Each house uses the limited interior space in ingenious ways. There might be gimbaled lights, or chairs and beds that fold up against the wall. Pots and pans, spices, and ladles hang from ceiling beams. Firewood is stacked under a seat, and jig poles are in the rafters. Extremely compact, usually handmade woodstoves vent through the ceiling, but even the smallest will blast enough heat in the confined space to make hats go on hooks, and jackets turn into seat cushions.
Eagle Lake has a dozen or more fish houses, square, round, pitched roof and flat. No neighborhood on land has this variety of architecture and style. And a group of ice shacks is just that, a neighborhood. Warm sunny days will have people keeping an eye on tip-ups, but also tossing Frisbees© to their dogs, cooking other dogs on a bonfire, and if a patch of ice has been cleared of snow, kids will be skating and whipping hockey pucks to each other. There is a festive air, and everyone is interested in what everyone else catches. The drone of an ice auger is background to the call of a raven. The days are getting longer, and the light bouncing off ice casts a soft pink glow making everyone beautiful–man, woman and child.
This winter the ice is thick, but the season is almost over. Get on the ice, feel the glow, and maybe even knock on an ice house door. You just might be invited in.
FYI: An ice house is an ice house is a smelt shack, ice-fishing shack, fish house, shanty, fish shack–all the same, just regional or personal preference.
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