Biting Cold

With the country–and the world–locked down with the emergence of the COVID-19 virus, I caught myself thinking back to simpler times earlier this year. It was just a few months ago that I found myself with an extra day on a multi-sport trip to Alaska, when the local ski resort was closed due to bitter cold (in this case, 30 below).

Searching for something to do in those temps, ice fishing met a lot of my adventure criteria: I’d never done it, I didn’t know much about it, and it was a new twist on a familiar sport (it’s always fun when I can add a totally unknown element to something I’ve done before). Ice fishing is also an activity where the weather doesn’t really matter–because the whole thing happens indoors (well, sort of).

A 30 minute drive from Fairbanks took me to Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service‘s ice fishing hut at Chena Lakes Recreation Area. I’d booked an afternoon outing…although perhaps it shouldn’t be called an outing if it happens indoors?

When I got to the hut, I met up with our guide and joined a few other folks from out of state (well, I’m from out of state, too…or from “Outside,” as Alaskans call the rest of us). So here I was, someone from Outside sitting inside alongside new friends and trying to bring some fish topside (please resist the urge to strike me broadside).

Over the next few hours, there was enough action to keep things interesting (I could’ve said there was a lot of upside, but I wanted you to keep reading). Our guide, Aaron, was excellent, explaining the right way to jig (small upward tugs every second or two) and coaching the first timers (like me). We all caught on quickly, as did the fish–and we had a ton of bites and dozens of fish over the next few hours, using tiny shrimp for bait.

In some ways, fishing is the same no matter the season…but there were certainly differences. For instance:

  • Watch your step: Holes are everywhere, so be careful where you walk…and watch your gloves, and your phone, and anything else that you want to keep off of the lake bottom. The only thing coming up from one of those holes is a fish.
  • Catching up: Since you aren’t moving around looking for the best spot, ice fishing feels like you’re sitting at the bar with friends. In between jigs, there’s plenty of time to explore heady topics, like where your new buddy got that ‘My Little Pony’ iphone case (really).
  • Endless summer: It was 30 below outside, and 70 above inside. A 100 degree temperature swing might fog your glasses, but it makes for a shiver-free day.
  • A perfect cast: Each cast involves nothing more than letting the bait drop and sink to the bottom. So there’s no more catching your line in tree limbs–and if your friend hits you with an errant hook, you know he did it on purpose.
  • If fish could talk: Imagine swimming around in 33-degree water, getting jerked into somebody’s toasty warm living room, being passed around for some photos, and then heading back into the deep—like the trout equivalent of a Kardashian marriage. Now that’s a fish with a story.

While there are clearly seasonal differences to fishing, one thing that’s the same is that fresh fish tastes very good. We kept a few (king salmon, char, and trout), and Aaron cooked them up to perfection in tin foil with butter and lemon pepper on top of the wood stove. His recipe was simple, easy, and delicious.

If you’ve not gone ice fishing, I highly recommend it. If you’ve gone before, you should do it again. It’s a tiny bit adventurous, a super bit social, and ends in a terrific meal.

My afternoon at Chena Lakes is a great memory that has me thinking ahead to the promise of simpler times again. Next winter, if I’m staying inside and worrying about catching something, let’s hope it’s a fish.

“How’d You Get Involved in That?”

I’m back in Alaska after heading up from Virginia yesterday. I came here to volunteer at the Yukon Quest dogsled race, which is an unusual hobby for a Virginia kid, I know.

To answer a question that I hear a lot when I tell folks that I’m heading north, I got involved with mushing through a trip that I took for fun back in 2011 with Bush Alaska Expeditions. That was the start of a friendship with Wayne and Scarlett Hall, and their son Matt, and we’ve been in touch ever since. I’ve been back to mush, but also to volunteer and to learn more about the unique culture up here.

It’s fair to say that mushing is not super popular in Virginia. I may be the only person in the state that owns a mushing parka–although two friends from the Quest trail are from rural Virginia, so maybe there are three of us?

I hadn’t heard of the Yukon Quest 1000 mile race before my 2011 trip. Since then, I’ve worked at the checkpoint in the community of Eagle a handful of times and helped out Matt (a Quest competitor and former champion) along the trail a few times. It’s very rewarding work, and I always come away inspired by the dogs, the mushers, the people around the race, and the communities.

It’s not glamorous work, but it’s work that has to happen for the race to go.

Another thing that people probably think (but usually don’t ask) is “so why would you want to do that?” It’s an understandable question, as there is a lot of intensely cold weather, catching sleep whenever (and wherever) you can, and working mostly in the dark (there are only about five or six hours of sun this time of year). But there’s an authenticity to this experience that’s hard to explain. Choices matter, feedback on those choices is immediate, and teamwork jumps a lot of traditional boundaries.

Mushing is the way the world used to be up here (and still is, at least for some), and coming up to the Yukon is a fantastic opportunity to get a glimpse into that. If I missed getting up here, I’d really miss it.

All of that said, it’ll be 21 below at the race start on Saturday, so I’m kind of glad I own that parka.