Look. At the far end of the lake. There are people at the Bluegill Hole. Some are standing, some are sitting, some walking around, but they all seem tiny and remote on the expanse of the ice-covered lake. I wonder if the fish are biting, if there are dozens of hand-sized bluegills scattered on the ice around the fishing holes.
Already there are two shanties on the young ice. Look closer and you can see a fire burning on the lake. Kids, probably. One of them is running toward the First Island for more fuel. An adult wouldn't run like that. Not on this ice.
Moving into the wind on the snowmobile peels my eyelids back and makes my eyes water. I look sideways at the Third Island as we pass it. The trees are bare, the land is brown and bare and ready for the snow cover. The snow is late this year, but the lake has frozen over. Three clear, crisp, starlit nights have covered the lake with two to three inches of ice.
Good thing, too, because the boys will be up to the lake in three days. Not having snow for the Christmas holidays is bad enough, but if there were no ice on the lake....
"Three inches of ice holds a team of horses," my father still says whenever it attains that thickness. Then it is safe for the horsepower and weight of a snowmobile. My father can remember when horses hauled blocks of ice, cut from the lake by two men with a crosscut saw, for storage in the icehouse on the First Island. Insulated under a blanket of straw, the ice usually kept until summer and went into cottage iceboxes. Of course, this was before electricity came to the lake. It would be grand to see horses hauling ice sleds across the lake again, but not today. Without snow cover, the surface is glare ice, smooth and slippery, dangerous even for two-legged animals.
Our snowmobile (we are riding double) fishtails and threatens to spin out, and my father backs off the throttle. Still, we'll make it to the Bluegill Hole in about 4½ minutes. I've timed it. Approaching the Second Island, I look down through the glasslike ice at the green weed beds and light brown sand bottom passing beneath us. There are now more than 20 cabins on the Second Island, one of them occupied year-round. When our family first came to the lake, nearly 30 years ago, there were only two shacks on the island. When my father first found the lake, nearly 50 years ago, there were none.
I remember the two shacks. Now the 20 or so A-frame, H-frame, duplex, triplex, uniplex, ranch-style cabins on the island, all with television antennas, offend me. They have made me old before my time. They cause me to say things to the boys like "Before those cabins were there...."
Between the Second and First Islands, the aquatic venation passes quickly below us. I can imagine that we are standing still and the lake bottom is moving. I like the glare ice. Snow will come soon enough. It always does in northern Michigan. The dense green weed bed is suddenly yanked from beneath us, and we are cruising over a clear, watery grayness—the drop-off. The word still retains a sense of danger from childhood swimming, as in "Don't you dare go near the drop-off."
We cruise to a stop a hundred yards from the Bluegill Hole and the crowd of people. This is (1) an act of courtesy on our part so as not to frighten the fish, and (2) an act of antisocial behavior, because we would rather find fish away from the crowd. There are more people than it seemed from a distance, but that isn't unexpected. It's the week between Christmas and New Year's, the week of "first ice," and a frozen lake has a magnetic pull.
My father takes the ice spud and walks toward the island. He turns right, backs up, walks forward again a few paces and stops. "Right here," he says, jabbing the steel blade into the ice. Sharp slivers explode from the impact and skid, with a tinkling noise, across the smooth surface. The air is clean and odorless, a reflective complement of the new ice.