Weekends at camp have long been a winter habit. We unplug, cook on a woodstove, wake to sunrise on the shore across the pond, and watch the foggy clouds of our breath. I lived for these weekends, but this year camp was not available.
We were missing ice time, and had a brilliant idea–we’d drag the old family ice house to a nearby pond, and use it as camp. It is too small to sleep in, but we began scheming how to enlarge it so that next year we could spend the night on the ice. I am quite excited by this concept, and our first few evenings in the tiny shelter were spent planning the expansion and dining on campfood by candlelight.
This ice house is over twenty years old. It has a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood for the floor, and the walls are sailcloth, painted leftover shutter paint green. It won’t win any contest, but it has become our center for peace, connection, and once in a while fishing. To sit in the center of a frozen pond, temperature in the single digits and wind chill driving it far below zero, with nothing between us and that weather but a thin sheet of fabric, creates a remarkable sense of sanctuary. At home we have a thermostat, double-paned windows and delight in storms outside, but take our safety and warmth for granted. Here, we know it how fragile it is. Let that fire go out and things would get uncomfortable very quickly.
I feel exultant when the wind buffets the walls and moves on down the pond. We sip our Zinfandel, have another bite of caraway-studded bread and a forkful of Mediterranean chicken with rice and olives and feel victorious. Yes, this was a brilliant idea.
That was in January. This record-breaking winter was just getting started. Deep snow came and insulated the lake. Water seeped between the ice and the snow, but didn’t freeze. It flowed into the shack. It rose through the nearby fish holes and created a small slush pond around the ice house, putting the house six inches under water. Then that froze. The house now was firmly embedded into the surface of the lake. The door was frozen shut. We chain-sawed the door so we could open it, got the stove going to melt the ice inside, chipped all the way around the tent and put pry bars in, but that tent was not going to budge.
Howling winds and sub-zero temperatures made it hard to work on the shack. Seeping then freezing water continued to creep up the side of the house. The situation was dire. We were discussing how to get it out at a local restaurant, and several people, including some we just met that night, said they could help the coming weekend.
It was a blue sky Sunday. We set up a grill, had toast, sausage and bacon, pancakes, our own maple syrup, a pot of hot spiced chaga, and a pile of oranges.
My husband’s grandson chipped relentlessly at the now two-foot deep ice block that was the floor of the shack. The ice had risen above the stove opening, so using it to melt the ice inside was no longer an option. A fishing pal and his father began the process of chain-sawing all the way around the tent for the second time. Ice was scooped out and tossed aside. The door was off once again, the entry opening was now only about three feet high.
We chipped and chopped and pried. It was slow-going. We had been there maybe half and hour when I looked up and saw a group moving purposely towards us with shovels, bright jackets and large smiles. It was everyone from the restaurant. Friends, neighbors and new friends helped move ice, tell stories of other ice disasters, and turned this task into a picnic.
Spirits lifted, we worked and ate and talked. The ice was all removed from inside. But before getting all the way around the building the chainsaw died. A fisherman who had stopped by brought us a spark plug, and we got another hour in when it died again. We worked by without power tools, cheerfully passing ice from hand-to-hand like a bucket brigade.
Someone went off to find another saw, and we used the ice-auger to drill connecting holes. The ice was thick. A new chainsaw arrived, but the sky was graying. Our friends and neighbors had to leave, and a half dozen remained working to free the house.
I never thought for a minute we would fail. But dark came on, and we had yet to chisel in pry bars, or screw on the poles we planned to use for lifting.
We salted and insulated the channel we had made around the house and went home.
A few days later the ice had again swallowed the house. In Maine, houses need to be off April 1. Ours is not going anywhere. Plans involve support bars and floatation. We are working on it, and family is rallying. One of them suggested a making a homemade winch by putting a pole in the ice, attaching a handle and rope, and winding the rope up, pulling the house out: http://www.wimp.com/carlake/. I have to say I want to try it.
Sometimes things just go wrong, and in a winter of breathtaking beauty, our sinking ice house was one of them. We failed, but are not defeated, and will have a lighter, higher, bigger house next winter.