The brutal weather of the past couple of weeks has reminded me how much easier it is these days to postpone outdoors excursions until conditions improve.
Time was, that rarely happened; I usually went anyway.
I’ve written about this in the past, but the most extreme example of braving the elements I’ve experienced occurred Jan. 25, 1987, when two of us spent the day ice fishing on Lake of the Woods.
It was Super Bowl Sunday, as I recall — according to Google, the New York Giants beat the Denver Broncos 39-20 — and the thermometer read minus 47 when I left my parents’ house that morning near Roseau, Minn., for the hour-long drive to Lake of the Woods.
I was driving a Ford Escort at the time, and I hadn’t replaced a broken block heater cord that prevented me from plugging in the car. There was no way the car was going to start, I figured, but since I was up anyway, I decided I might as well venture out in the predawn darkness and give it a try.
The seats were rock hard, the driver’s-side door made a sickly “clack” sound when I closed it, and the ignition was so stiff I barely could turn the key.
Somehow, though, the engine grudgingly started. So off to the lake we went.
Accessing the lake at Rocky Point, two of us followed the ice road toward a group of rental houses a few miles offshore. We found a spot with enough bare ice to pull off the road, set up the 4×6 portable house and used a hand auger to bore two holes through ice that must have been 3 feet thick.
No GPS, no electronics, no intel; just jiggle sticks and bobbers that would require us to “hand-over-hand” any fish we caught that day.
A sunflower heater soon had the house warm and comfy, and we settled in to make the best of the day. There would be no further moves, not with brutal cold temperatures, a hand auger and 3 feet of ice.
I set the depth, clipped on a bobber and lowered an orange-and-chartreuse Walleye Hawger jig baited with a minnow into the depths.
Instead of settling on the surface as I expected it to, the bobber kept sinking.
I lifted up on the line, only to feel a fish pulling at the other end. Moments later, a chunky sauger appeared at the bottom of the hole.
The fish bit all day, and we left the lake with a limit of saugers and several bonus perch we caught from the two holes in the portable house; we didn’t catch a single walleye.
Despite the brutal cold, there was no wind that day, and staying warm inside the portable house wasn’t a problem. Just to be safe, I went out and started the car every couple of hours.
It remains one of the most memorable days of ice fishing I’ve ever experienced, as much because of the conditions as the fast action we enjoyed.
Another time two winters later, a friend and I and his springer spaniel set out in near-blizzard conditions to meet up with another friend on Leech Lake near Walker.
Visibility was marginal, at best, as my friend navigated his Isuzu Trooper along windswept U.S. Highway 2 between East Grand Forks and Crookston.
Anyone who’s ever traveled that highway in blizzard conditions knows what a treat that can be.
The sun wasn’t up, and the snow swirling around us was almost dizzying as we inched our way east. Eventually, we knew, prairie would give way to pines, and visibility would improve.
The highway disappeared at the sharp curve by the University of Minnesota-Crookston, and we plowed into the ditch.
We weren’t going very fast, but the impact of hitting the snow-filled the ditch sent the springer spaniel flying over the front seat and into our laps.
There we sat, with snow up to the the doors, engulfed in darkness and a sea of white.
I don’t remember how, but we made it to a telephone and summoned a tow truck, which had us out of the ditch and back on pavement maybe an hour later.
The smart move would have been to head back to Grand Forks, but instead, we continued east and made it to Walker without incident.
We spent the day in a heated fish house, and the walleyes turned on at nightfall. Life was good until we tried to exit the lake and got stuck on the ice road that by then had drifted shut.
Fortunately, the owner of the fish house lived nearby and came looking for us when we didn’t return to shore. He had a big chain and a big four-wheel drive and finally got us off the ice after a considerable amount of shoveling, pushing and pulling.
We drove back to Grand Forks later that night.
Looking back on both encounters, only two of many from my younger days, I can’t imagine any possible scenario in which I’d make either trip today, but I guess that’s the difference between being in your 20s and being in your 50s.
Older and less adventurous for sure, but I won’t speculate on wiser.