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Icey Fishing

Updated: May 28, 2023

It was around 1984 and my son, PJ, was 2 years old. I decided to go to Lake Louise to fish for burbot and lake trout in an ice house that we were going to drag out onto the ice with our snow machines. We loaded into the truck and drove through the beautiful Matanuska Valley and past the glacier and stopped at Sheep Mountain Lodge for a burger with a view.

As we approached Eureka, the temperatures dropped to about 0 degrees but it was still very beautiful like most cold days in Alaska are. We stopped at the turn-off to Lake Louise and had a cold beer at the first restaurant I ever ate in when I first came to Alaska. It was another 30 miles down a long and bumpy road before we reached the Wolverine Lodge. A fellow named Tree and his wife, Kathy, ran the place with their small children. They gladly rented us a room for the night.

We got settled into our temporary home and then started getting the fish house and fishing gear ready. We towed everything out to a small island and drilled a couple of holes before pulling the fish house over top of them. It was still very cold outside, around 5 below zero, so we started a propane heater inside the fish house to stay warm. We also sipped on some peppermint schnapps for some added warmth in our bellies.

After a few hours, it got dark and we decided to head back for dinner and to rest in our rooms. We had a few more sips of liquid encouragement at dinner which made my friend, Roy, and I decided it was a good idea to double up to check on our fish house while leaving the girls and kids at the lodge.

I'll remind you that I had just recently moved to Alaska and I was unfamiliar with the area before telling you the rest of this story... Everything was going well at first. We stopped to gaze at the northern lights, sip our schnapps, and laugh about the good times. We loaded back onto the sled and ventured further to our fish house. As we rode along I started to hear our muffler blowing bubble noises. For those of you that are not mechanically inclined... that is not a good sound to hear.

I felt my the cold creeping up my body, starting at my does, and before I could realize what was going on, the snowmachine was underwater, leaving Roy and me floundering to get out of the ice bath. We frantically tried to swim from the opening to find a hard ice shelf. Our bodies were dropping in temperature quickly and we couldn't find the strength to pull ourselves out of the water. Roy said he would go under the water and push me up onto the ice and then I could pull him out. Without hesitating he submerged his head under the thick cold water. I felt him push up below me and I clawed at the ice like a rabid animal, finally making it to the surface. Quickly I took off my jacket and used it as a rope to pull Roy out.

We ran to shore as quickly as we could and realized we were at the end of a road where a small creek entered the lake. This is what made the ice weaker but we hadn't noticed it in the dark of night. Completely drenched, the water freezing and making our clothing stiff, we started to run up the road back toward the lodge. As we ran we dropped layers because they became too wet and heavy to keep a decent speed. We saw headlights in the distance and our spirits would lift, thinking we were saved, but then they'd turn down a road just far enough away that they couldn't see our dark silhouettes.

About 3 miles into our frozen and terrifying journey we recognized the road that led us back to the lodge. Our legs and arms were frozen, making us fast walk like a tin-man. We started to become delirious due to a cocktail mix of hypothermia and peppermint schnapps. We were stumbling, laughing, and hanging on to each other when a truck finally came into view. Two locals threw us in the back of the truck like a chord of wood and raced down the road back to the lodge and drug us up the stairs to our rooms. Each step made a loud "THUD" noise as our bodies uncooperatively bounced against each step.

They drug us close to the fireplace and began beating the ice shell off of us with a hot fire iron. Eventually, we were warm enough to get our frozen clothes off and make our way to the shower. We warmed up slowly and then true to our wild boy's nature we went back downstairs to the bar where we rang the bell in a shout of victory and survival. We laughed at the fortunate turn of events and shuddered at the thought of the alternative ending to this story. There were only a few other locals in the bar as we merrily rang the bell but quickly realized our wallets were frozen solid in our jackets hung by the fire. The bartender kept a very close watch on us while we got our money to pay our growing tab.

The next day, I decided to give my fish house to a local if he would be willing to help me get my machine out of the water. Overnight the air warmed up and there were a few fresh inches of snow on the ice. Our tracks were covered and we couldn't find the opening that had tried to pull us under the night before. We cautiously walked around the water's edge near the creek, searching for something that would point us in the right direction.

You may be thinking that the schnapps was a bad idea and you're not wrong but I was grateful for the schnapps the next day because I saw the top of the bottle peaking through a new ice layer. I knew the machine must be closed! I tied a rope around my hips and laid on my belly to slowly crawl out towards the empty evidence (the schnapps bottle). As I scooted along I would wipe the fresh snow away so I could see down to the bottom of the lake until I saw the shimmer of my machine, soaking in an ice bath.

I chipped a hole big enough to get a tow hook through while the local and Roy got some straps and long ropes together. I felt like I was playing a cold version of the claw game as I tried to latch the hook on the machine's bumper while my hands froze to the familiar cold I experienced the night before. Eventually, I was able to hook the sled and the boys tied the other end to the back of my pick-up truck. With a rev of an engine and the sled came crashing through the new layer of ice onto the shore. We lifted it into the back of the truck and returned to pick up our gear and the ladies.

A few weeks later I heard a rumor that someone rented the same room we were in and took the same trail we did. Sinking their sled into the same opening by the creek. Another close call in the book of OC, Learning the Land... the Hard Way.

This memory is dedicated to my good friend, Roy P. Lake. RIP.

~ Paul O'Connor aka "OC" aka Outlaw of the North aka Man with 9 Lives aka one lucky SOB.

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