A Hitch at Hatchet Lake

Hatchet Lake is frozen over most of the year.  It’s that far north.  A fly-in fishing camp on the lake opens in late June.  It’s risky trying to fish there too early.   Two men found that out.

They were among a dozen men who flew to Hatchet Lake Lodge in mid-June one year.  Patches of open water were visible from the windows on the plane.  Ice covered most of the lake.  The float-equipped Beaver landed on one of the few bays with open water.    The season for this wilderness lodge was still a few weeks away.  These men were pushing it.

The group was there for three days of ‘get-away’ planning meetings . . . and some recreation.

Work done, the group woke to their reward — a day of fishing on the wilderness trophy lake.  They would leave for home the next day.  Two people were assigned to each boat.  First Nations guides supplied by the lodge handled the 20-foot aluminum boats.

Henry and Andrew were paired.  Back home, they had adjoining offices and got along well.  They were looking forward to relaxing and fishing together.

Each pair set off in a different direction, local guides at the helm.  This was an ideal lake for those devoted to fishing.  The ice cold water would ensure the flesh of the fish was firm and tasty.

At noon, the teams met as arranged for a ‘shore lunch’ on a tree-covered island.  Fish caught that morning were pooled and prepared for lunch.  The visitors had never witnessed such a lunch, nor the main cooking implement used.  It was three feet wide, shaped like a huge, deep gold pan.  Under it was a roaring campfire.  A dozen one-pound bricks of lard were thrown in. When the melted lard became bubbling hot grease, two-inch cubes of Whitefish and Northern Pike were tossed in to cook.  One bite and those assembled quickly lined up for seconds.

Fishing that afternoon would be a competition.  The boat with the biggest fish and the most fish would win both a suitably gaudy trophy and, more important, bragging rights.  Off the teams went in all directions, in persuit of glory.  The temperature was just above freezing.

The guide in Henry and Andrew’s boat, a confident twinkle in his eye, pointed off into the distance across the lake to the other side of a peninsula.  The guide’s English was marginal; his two passengers presumed he was pointing to an ice-free bay beyond the point of land.  Off they went.  Their route would take them along the edge of ice still covering most of the lake.

Andrew and Henry were huddled over, one on the middle seat, the other at the front, their backs to the bitterly cold wind whipped up by the speed of the boat.  Both men were facing the guide, as he sped the boat across the lake.  Soon, the nearest land was at least a mile away.

Suddenly the guide cut the engine.  The sounds coming from his mouth had the unmistakable tones of a heart-felt curse.  He shook his head, and pointed forward.

Henry and Andrew poked their heads out from their parka hoods.  They looked around.  Ice was everywhere.  The two found it hard to believe; the last they had looked the boat was in open water.  Now they were surrounded by ice.  The guide eventually was able to explain the wind had come up strongly and quickly, and changed direction unexpectedly.  It had blown ‘pack ice’ across their path and behind them.

They were trapped!

Andrew looked at the ice.  It seemed ‘rotten’, that is, it appeared broken into small pieces.  Using gestures and sounds he managed to ask the guide why not run the boat up onto the ice and then push it to an open stretch of water 100 yards or so away?  Andrew reasoned the boat was aluminum, so it would be light enough for the three of them to handle.

The guide shook his head.  He pointed to the ice.  Andrew reached over the gunwales with a paddle and poked the ice.  It was loose.  No walking on it.  He could hear a light tinkling sound coming from it.  He reached over and grabbed a chunk.  It was round, irregular, and about the diameter of a coffee mug.  He lifted it.  It kept coming and coming.  Finally, Henry and he were pulling.  What came into the boat was a shard of ice almost four feet long.  The light tinkling sounds they were hearing were coming from millions of shards of ice clanking together like wind chimes . . . uh, water chimes. Only a few inches of ice was poking above the water.  Most was below, like millions of tall skinny icebergs.  All of the ice as far as they could see was the same, the guide assured them, using of bits of English and his aboriginal language and many gestures.

The ice could not be walked on, boated on or pushed through. And it was starting to get dusk.

Henry and Andrew looked at each other, and started laughing.  Between them, they’d caught just one eight-pound Northern Pike all day.  They talked about what that fish would taste like raw, eaten in the boat as they sat there overnight, waiting for the ice to shift again or hopefully for help to reach them.

Andrew asked the guide, “Lodge?”

The guide gestured with his right thumb over his shoulder.   Even the boat was pointed in the wrong direction.  The boat couldn’t be turned around; it was caught fast in the pack ice.  And starting the motor would draw ice into the propeller, likely destroying it.

Both men looked to the guide for . . . uh . . . guidance.  The guide sat there unscrutable, scanning the sky, his dark  eyes sqjinting, almost closed.

Henry and Andrew finally managed to ask the guide whether they might be forced to stay overnight.  The guide just shrugged.  Then, attempting to be helpful, he gestured to an island implying they might possibly drift over close to it before nightfall.  Andrew and Henry didn’t consider it the good news that the guide seemed to be trying to make it out to be.  They were already cold and the backs of their parkas were wet from spray thrown up earlier by the boat.  Neither relished the prospect of spending the night in the boat in below-freezing temperatures.  And building a campfire and a crude shelter, with no tools, no tarps, no bedding and no cooking supplies would not be much of an improvement.

But they did have the fish they reminded each other.  They laughed again, nervously this time.

The daylight faded further.  The guide sat at the transom, his face placid and focused beyond Henry and Andrew.  Then he sat up.  The fur around the hood of his parka stirred uncertainly.  He gestured behind them.

Henry and Andrew turned around.  A slight breeze had opened a path through the pack ice at the front of the boat.  It was about five feet wide and zigzagged off into the distance.  Other pathways seemed to meet it from time to time.  Some reached open water near the shore of the mainland.

The guide started the motor.  He gently turned the throttle, moving the boat forward slowly, concentrating hard to avoid getting ice in the propeller.  Finally, the boat reached open water.

The guide stopped the boat and idled the engine.  He managed to explain that a breeze had come up and, luckily, from the right direction.  It had shifted a lake full of ice.  Huge!  In the process, pathways had opened in the pack ice, allowing the boat to reach shore.  He didn’t explain what might have happened had the breeze come from the wrong direction.  Andrew and Henry didn’t ask.

When they reached the lodge, the guide became the proud owner of the eight-pound Northern Pike. Henry and Andrew didn’t win the fishing contest . . . or bragging rights.  But they did have story-telling rights.

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