Ten-year-old McKenzie Ward turned her head as she usually did when her best friend Otis suggested a spitting contest. It might be interesting to see how far they could spit a mouthful of water before it froze, but she had more important things on her mind.
They, and dozens of other eager kids had already climbed all over the city fire truck borrowed for the occasion. Kenzie and Otis were now sitting on two up-turned five-gallon buckets in front of a hole in the ice, waiting for the noon whistle blast from the fire truck to kick off the annual ice fishing contest on Deep Lake. The temperature that January day was a balmy three degrees Fahrenheit. Dressed in parkas, snow pants, and heavy boots, they had one short ice fishing pole between them, already rigged with one of Gramps’ special hand-carved and hand-painted lures. Neither had any doubt that among the couple of hundred experienced adults and bunches of kids like themselves huddled around dozens of holes in the ice, the two of them would haul in the biggest walleye of the day.
There was a carnival atmosphere in the air, with laughter all around. There was also lots of stomping of feet in efforts to keep warm. Most of the adults were gathered around open holes in the ice and drinking something from steaming foam cups. Kids chased each other and skidded and slid in mock danger of getting too near the deep holes. Music played from battery-operated boom boxes and poured from open-doored pickups scattered across the lake. With at least a foot of ice, driving on the frozen lake was not hazardous. Dozens of small fish houses were placed strategically by veteran fisher-folk who spent many hours on the lake over the typical winter. Some of the fish-houses had small stoves in them for keeping occupants warm. They also had carpeting and padded benches, and always a card table in case a game came up with drop-in visitors.
The annual ice fishing contest was the big winter event in the small town of Deep Lake, Minnesota.
The contest brought many visitors, but they never stayed long in the severe cold. Winter in Minnesota is something you have to grow up with to fully appreciate.
When the spitting challenge suggestion failed, Otis asked, “Okay, how about ugly faces?”
“You’re on,” and Kenzie yanked off her mittens to pull her cheeks out in an open-mouthed grimace. They flapped their tongues at each other and rolled their eyes, trying not to laugh while also trying to look as ugly as they could.
“Fweeeeeeet!” screamed the whistle on the fire truck at noon on the dot.
Kenzie and Otis grinned and blinked with ice-encrusted eyelashes, pulled on their puffy mittens and both yelled, “Dibs!”
Kenzie reached the pole first and dropped the hook-loaded lure into the frosty water at the bottom of the deep hole. A spring bobber attached to the line smoothed out the jerkiness of jigging the swimming lure up and down and helped detect when fish took the bait.
All over the lake noise abruptly stopped and fishing began in earnest. Prizes included a much-desired brand-new snowmobile with all the trimmings, lots of fishing gear, and some hefty cash prizes, too. Hundreds of eyes peered into deep holes in the ice with greedy and anxious hope.
Twenty feet to the left of Kenzie and Otis someone heaved a medium-sized walleye onto the ice with a mighty roar. Also nearby, a kid they knew pulled in a tiny sunfish. Snickers drifted across the lake as others did the same thing.
Kenzie felt something touch her line. Fish are lethargic in the winter, so she wasn’t surprised that it wasn’t a hard hit. She jiggled the line and watched the bobber as it slowly sank under the water. Hanging over her shoulder, Otis grunted and Kenzie elbowed him out of her way. “I got something,” she said. She started to pull in the line. “It feels weird—and heavy.”
“Oh boy,” mumbled Otis, “you probably got a tree or an old tire or something. You shoulda let me be first.”
Kenzie tore off her mittens and fell flat on the ice. She reached down into the hole to free her hook and grabbed what she thought might be a branch. She pulled it up through the hole and stared along with Otis at a brown and wrinkled human hand that laid there on the ice wrapped like a gift in her eight-pound fishing line. The arm it was attached to trailed back down into the dark and frigid water.
--Gloria VanDemmeltraadt is the author of 4 nonfiction books, teaches classes on life story writing, and speaks to groups on a variety of topics. Her newest adventure is in the fiction world, and her Cozy Mystery novel, Danger in Deep Lake, was recently released to great reviews. A sequel is already in the works. Contact Gloria through her website: gloriavan.com.