400 plus souls gather in a field of ice. Three boys toss a ball for their dogs. A silver-blue Miata cruises with its top down. Fires dot the expanse, and a small group huddles around each one, warming hands and roasting hot dogs.
It is the annual Great Pond Fishing Derby. Fish are the reason for the derby, but they are only a small part of the picture. This derby draws crowds from across the state. The line of cars and trucks leading to the pond (admittedly 90% trucks) stretches over half a mile. The day is gray but bright and a festive spirit is felt in everyone we meet.
An orderly row of tip-ups leads to a small tent city. Sleds are parked by the tents, and there are ice augers and folding camp chairs in a variety of sizes and colors. Moose stew simmers on a gas ring beside bowls of potato salad. A dozen or so fisherman and non-fisherman watch for a flag and chat. They wave as I walk by. “Try some stew?” one of them calls. I’d love to, but it is January and I am on my annual no diet. No gluten, no sugar, no alcohol, no caffeine, no meat, no dairy, no stew.
A silver-blue convertible circles. Someone asks for a ride, but the driver says he has to stay in sight of his traps. A young couple cruises by on their snowmobile, but stop to help my husband who was having trouble starting his auger. Turns out they live down the road from my sister-in-law. People intersect, visit, part and connect elsewhere. That becomes the rhythm of the day, a chain of small vignettes. The small groups and single fishermen combine to form a veritable city on ice. It appears like a scene that Bruegel the Elder might have painted.
At the Great Pond Outdoor Activity Center one of the volunteers describe how it looked at 6am. “It was dark, but the ice was glowing with what seemed like a thousand bright lights. It looked like a city skyline.” The Center has information on the prizes, and patient staff reply to inquiries for cabins or campsites. “No, nothing available this year, the cabins and tents for rent get booked a year in advance.” I hear this told to more than one disappointed inquirer. There is also information on House in the Woods, a “therapeutic, recreational, and educational retreat for our nation’s U.S. armed forces and their families.” The derby is a fund-raiser for House in the Woods.
I take a break from the ice and walk a short stream-side trail behind the center, nose down looking for animal tracks. The sound of the water increases and around a corner are small waterfalls edged in ice. There, at the bend in the stream, are a cluster of trees with yellow ribbons. They have names on them, and dates. I touch and read each name aloud. CTR Corey J. Dodge RIP 2015. CPL Dustin J. Libby RIP 2000. SFC Aaron Henderson 2012. RIP SSgt Jessica Wing 2012. RIP SSG Christopher Gelineau 2004. RIP SPC Beau Beaulieu 2004.
There are other names, too, on that wooded, snow-covered trail by the ceaselessly rumbling brook. It seems far from the open surface of the pond with its revelers and roaring augers and humming snowmobiles, but they are one and the same.
Back on the ice people continue to walk out on the pond with pack baskets full of gear, or baby carriers with rosy cheeked infants. Mittened toddlers shriek as Maynard the Moose rides by and gives them the high five. (His name really is Maynard, too.)
I see a neighbor from my street. He mentions others that have made the trip from our village, and we are with my husband’s daughter and two grandsons. “Looks like we emptied out Otter Creek,” he laughs. We look at the throng on the ice, and realize it is twice as large as the population of our village.
The weigh-in goes on until three, and right around that time everyone begins to pack up and move off the ice. We only saw one flag all day, and it wasn’t ours. There had been a flurry of action out beyond the island, so fish were biting, but we did not care. We went home empty handed, but not empty hearted.
House in the Woods www.houseinthewoods.org
Great Pond Outdoor Activity Center, Great Pond, Maine
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