There are many things to enjoy about a frozen lake. For Patti See, it’s a bonfire built, improbably, on the frozen lake.
The first Saturday in February and March, Lake Hallie taverns sponsor an ice fishing contest that attracts adults, kids and dogs for a day of competitive fishing and good fun. The lake becomes a village of shacks with an identifiable ice road down the middle—snow rutted by vehicle after vehicle filled with anglers out here to catch Northern or bass, though most settle for panfish.
As a kid I often ice-fished with my parents. I sat patiently on an overturned bucket and stared through a hole no bigger than a Frisbee. But the highlight for me was always a roaring fire on the ice, not lacing a waxy—an enormous maggot—onto a hook with my cold fingers or attempting to cut through a foot of ice with a hand-auger.
The first winter we lived on Lake Hallie, I researched how burning logs create enough ash to form a layer between the hot coals and the ice. To appease my city slicker husband, I agreed to build our fire close enough to shore so that if the ice cracks and we all tumble through (Bruce’s fear), we just stand up to save ourselves.
The day of our first fire-on-ice gathering, my twenty-year old son and I construct the fire together long before guests arrive. Alex leaves for Basic Training in a few weeks and tonight is his send-off, so aunts and uncles and cousins and grandpa can all have a chance to say goodbye.
Alex and I carry down brittle pine branches and chunks of oak from our covered woodpile. He carefully makes a “log cabin” structure and narrates as he adds log after log: “You want good air movement, and you don’t want the whole thing to collapse.” I’d never thought of either of those points. That’s why he’s the Eagle Scout and ROTC cadet, while I’m the writer who pontificates on the grandeur of a glowing bonfire on ice from her youth.
Tonight I have a few surprises for Alex: a cake adorned with plastic Army men and a shoveled path across the lake lit with dozens of luminaria to light our neighbors’ way. This is such a fancy name for paper lunch sacks full of sand with a stub of candle inside. When the luminaria are all lit on this dark January night, they live up to their name. A word as breathy—breathtaking—as they look tonight.
My son is a man now, no longer wowed by things a boy might be. Still I want his party to be memorable—if that means Alex laughing as his tipsy 85-year-old grandpa licks frosting off of plastic GI Joe boots before devouring his slice of cake or Alex recalling a glowing bonfire on ice when he’s sweltering in Fort Benning, Georgia for four months.
Tonight our fire takes a little nudging to light, but when it finally catches all guests ooh and ahh, and stamp their feet and drink their beer and pass around Peppermint Schnapps with hot chocolate.
Kids snap pictures and instantly post them online. “It’s a fire . . . on a lake!” one writes. This makes me smile: what was a common occurrence in my childhood—a break from the monotony of ice fishing—is now a novelty worthy of tweeting.