By ANDREW CREMATA
I’ve been eyeballing that frozen lake for months. It started in February when a heat wave boasting record high temperatures pushed the mercury to a balmy 50 degrees. Needless to say, I spent that remarkable, bright-blue day fishing with friends. I even ended up with the first fish of the season, a mighty four-inch long sculpin, and a Dungeness crab that was far more edible.
These are undeniably exceptional results for a time of year when Skagway’s diehards are usually huddled indoors trying to ignore the moaning winter wind, and privately cursing when they get an email from a seasonal friend in Mexico asking, “How is your winter?”
This year was different. In many ways it was a winter that never fully developed. So, throughout the season, I took note of my favorite spring-time fishing hole for trout on each and every trip north to Whitehorse.
Not long after the last trout of the season is safely tucked into a bed of ice, the wind changes direction. Yellow leaves turn brown and cover the ground with a crunching carpet. Then there is snow, and wind, and cold. The lake begins to freeze, at first glazed with clear ice and soon covered in white snow.
It becomes lifeless to the eye, monotone and drab in the dusky light of winter. It also becomes a solitary thing, white and endless. It is a drastic change from its summertime character when the lake is an intricate web of waves, eddies, and currents alive with birds, insects, fish, and predators.
The lake as a singularity has a beauty of its own, and it’s hard not to slow down the truck at some places along the highway to take in the scene, and attempt to ascertain when the ice will begin to give way to the sun’s advance. In mid-April, I noticed a chink in the armor.
There was a small section of the lake near the shore that was beginning to thaw. While it was obvious the lake would not be clear of ice for at least another month, it did mean there might be a chance to get the line wet far earlier than in any other year. I made plans to try my luck the following weekend, hopeful there would be enough liquid water to make a short cast.
Being a man, I have always had to learn things through trial, error, and stubborn stupidity. There was a spring day many years ago when I wanted to try fishing in a new spot. It looked like a great place for catching grayling but, even though the creek was thawed, there was a great deal of snow on the ground that I would have to traverse in order to reach the bank.
My common sense told me that the snow would most likely be deep. A little voice whispered that 215 pounds would surely be too much weight for the soft confection to bear. I looked down at the tennis shoes on my feet and figured show shoes, or at least a pair of Ketchikan sneakers, would have been a better choice of footwear.
Then I asked myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and grabbed my fishing rod, cautiously advancing toward the creek.
Everything was fine at first as the snow seemed packed down enough to hold my weight. I steadied myself on a tree, and before I knew what was happening I was buried up to my chest. The next 10 minutes of my life were spent negotiating a method whereby one could free himself from an icy straightjacket. When I did get free I was cold, wet, sweating, and exhausted. Worst of all, I didn’t even get to fish.
Now I understand that when traversing snow in the springtime along the lakes, by going in the morning it’s easy to walk along the surface. This is because the snow melts during the day but refreezes at night, creating a hard crust that will support even my substantial weight.
By 7 a.m. I was working my way over the snow toward trout. I could already feel the bend in the rod and taste their deliciousness. From the road, the lake appeared as though it was still covered in one massive sheet of hard, white ice. However, there was one small stream’s delta where warm water carried down the mountain had thawed a small, almost-hidden nook.
The sound upon the lake was as stark as its surface was barren. Not even a subtle breeze could rustle the withered, rust colored leaves that still clung to the bare branches of aspen lining the shore. I heard the stream at a distance, humming low. As I approached it became a muted gurgle.
There was enough area to cast along a perimeter of ice about 30-feet out. I was surprised by my accuracy on the first toss. I let it sink and gave it an irregular retrieve.
As is often the case when alone and surrounded by unadorned simplicity, my mind started to quiet. And as I stood on that shore casting with ritual precision, time fell away.
The sun came up over the mountaintop across the lake and the whole surface lit up like newly washed white sheets hung out to dry. I could feel the sun’s rays on the skin of my face and hands. Ripples of clear water flowing away from the creek’s mouth began to shimmer, and each tiny wave projected undulating ribbons of light on the rocks below. The lake groaned in the sudden heat, the ice stretching and yawning under a bright morning sun.
It was at that moment I saw a trout. Not on the end of my line as I’d hoped, but merely surfacing with a gentle twist of its tail.
I suddenly woke up a little myself, and spent the next hour trying to figure out what might convince that lonely lake trout to partake in his breakfast. As it turned out, it was still too early to catch a trout, for me anyway.
I knew I had to make my way back up to the highway before the snow became too soft, so I left behind my solitude. It will still be there next weekend when I plan on making another icy sojourn, and quite possibly the week after that.
The trout may not be so lucky.