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Dropping Lines Through the Ice

I HAD never been ice fishing before. Such an admission is sacrilege to many Mainers. "Ice fishing is something you do," my neighbor Earl had told me, grasping at ways to make the Maine winter more palatable to this transplant from New Jersey.

Earl is 70. He can drill a hole with a hand auger, through 18 inches of ice, in 10 minutes. Then he sits on an inverted bucket, lowers his line, and waits, unmoving, while a soft snow settles over his woolens and he becomes indistinguishable from the landscape which surrounds him. Sometimes he even catches a fish. But usually not.

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"It's a social experience," Earl explains. But when he is ice fishing, he is not part of any society. It's just him and the bitterly cold Penobscot River, which flows in darkness a foot and a half beneath his feet.

It's a social experience. That must be the attraction. I know it's not the prospect of success, because I've never seen such an unlucky bunch of fishermen in my life. I have watched small communities of them, sitting by their holes, or standing at a distance from them, feigning disinterest, rubbing shoulders, sniffling, doing the slow two-step of the incorrigibly cold.

But only rarely have I seen a fish come forth from one of those holes, and when it does, the reaction is one of acceptance rather than jubilation - as if the person fishing were receiving modest remuneration for a job that somebody, after all, had to do.

Why, then, did I go out? It wasn't exactly my idea. The river was frozen to a gray brittleness on a five-below day. A biting wind swept the merest dusting of snow across its rigid surface. The river banks were lined with the dark, denuded swamp maples which looked deader than doornails - dormant beyond recall even for springtime, which seemed interminably far away. As if this weren't enough, I was swamped with work that had to be done that weekend.

But instead of doing it and staying in the warmth of my home, I was electing the discomfort that awaited me out on the river, not to mention the likelihood of failure. And I blame my irresponsibility not on the likes of the unconvincing Earl, but a 17-year-old friend whose enthusiasm over the course of weeks had worn me down. "We have to go ice fishing," he kept repeating. "We have to."

Thomas had never been ice fishing either. But he had saved enough for three ice fishing rigs - "tip-ups" - and bait. I borrowed a hand auger from a friend, who assured me that ice fishing was fun and that soon after a few cranks of the auger I would be sitting down to steaming bowls of pickerel chowder.

Filled with the zeal of the recent convert, Thomas led me out across the icy wasteland. Bundled from head to toe against the cold, and laden with the appurtenances of the craft, we made slow progress across the river. Finally Thomas stopped, peeked out at me over the scarf wrapped around his mouth and nose, and, with wind-generated tears frozen to his eyelashes and cheeks, declared "Here!" as he pointed down at the ice.

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I turned the auger against the ice, but it skipped and skidded out from under me, its blades dull and rusty. So we fell to our knees and chipped away with a hammer, giving the auger better purchase. It took both of us to operate the thing - one to turn and the other to hold it steady. For 45 minutes we went at it, grinding our way through the ice, pausing at intervals to scoop the shavings out of the hole. I did most, well, all of the complaining - my fingers and toes numb with the cold, the tip of my no se growing red with windburn. I couldn't at the moment conceive of a less constructive activity. But when I looked up at Thomas, his eyes almost frozen shut but still sparkling with anticipation, I couldn't help but wonder whether this wasn't the most important thing in his life at the moment. For me it was an assigned task, performed at the behest of someone I cared very deeply for; but for him it was an expression of who he was, of what being happy meant to him.

As if to affirm me in this realization, the auger suddenly plowed through the last thickness of ice. Thomas let out a spontaneous "Yeah!" as the river surged over the top of the hole.

For my part, I had been so intent on getting the job done that I hadn't noticed that the wind had died down and warm blood had returned to my extremities. I scanned the bank of the river, looking at the small, old clapboard homes, smoke curling from their chimneys, some of which drifted our way. Sweet smoke. Someone burning apple branches. It filled me in a way that would have persisted even if I had been out on the ice alone. But I was not alone. I was with a boy, helping him fulfill his heart's desire.

Thomas broke my reverie. "What's the matter?" he asked, prodding my shoulder. I stood up and turned him toward the shore, pointing to the snowbanked houses and the maples. Together we listened to the silence. "Don't ever forget this moment," I finally said to him. "This moment when others are responsible for your happiness."

We didn't catch any fish that day. And Earl knew long before I did that we didn't need to.

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