By Heidi Myers
On a Saturday morning in early January, I was up at 3 a.m. Worry and duty awoke me, and I summoned my husband to help gather breakfast sandwiches and a Thermos of hot chocolate. If I know anything about teenage boys, it’s that you can’t lead with emotions and concerns.
A bag full of food, however, might let you see the whites of their eyes long enough to assure you of their welfare. It was still dark when we left the house. We took back roads that followed the river until that river led to the lake.
My husband and I have co-parented with mountains, rivers, lakes, and forests. When our boys were little, I’d wake early, pack a stove, water, mugs, and cocoa mix and we’d snowshoe up hiking trails until their little legs begged me to stop. And there, we’d warm the water and stir in the chocolate—enough sweetness to encourage the trip back down.
As my husband and I drove in the dark that night, I thought of our trip to the south end of Lake Willoughby one hot summer day when my son Nolan was much younger. He had found a spoon lure and line in the water. He attached it to a branch and was catching multiple rock bass, cast after cast.
His passion was never built from fancy fishing excursions or high-priced gear but rather from appreciation that lakes, streams, and ponds; forests and fields were the only playgrounds we could afford. Every season marked a new adventure from turkey hunting to ice fishing.
Now 15, Nolan had decided to spend the night camping out with two friends on the ice that covered the waters of Lake Memphremagog. The occasion: The Northeast Vermont Bass Anglers was hosting a tournament. The rules of the game looked like this: pike tournament, $25 entry, cash payout to the top six, fish from 12 a.m. to 3 p.m.
With that, three teenagers, as wild as anything they might encounter, journeyed onto the ice just before dusk on a Friday evening. They left with a pop-up shanty, an ice auger, a bucket of tip-ups, a small propane heater, a bag full of venison, a cast iron frying pan, a few collapsible stools, and some battery-powered LED lights, the penchant for adventure leading their way.
It had been twelve hours from when we had dropped the boys off. As we traveled alongside the lake my mind raced with a million thoughts. The anxiety of allowing your son to camp out without even the ground below him conjured flashbacks laced with guilt. Should I have allowed such recklessness?
As my doubts turned to confidence, we turned the corner into an old mill adjacent to the railroad and could see the lake beyond. A glow of lights and lanterns lit the ice. There was a community of frosty fishermen, population 116 —that’s bigger than some towns in the NEK.
Ice fishing is downright Yankee ingenuity at its finest. There is no proper setup or equipment. You’ll find old campers, wooden huts, and portable shelters that make pitching a tent look complicated.
Often, an industrial-style sled is used to transport gear across the ice. Though I assume that an older crowd (which was most of what surrounded these three boys) might have more sophisticated interiors in their shanties, what I found in my son’s shelter was quite on par, arranged with the housekeeping of a teen. It was clear the focus was on the fishing in both appearance and attitude. The sustenance was quickly removed from my hands and my presence was dismissed until afternoon pickup
When we returned at day’s end, still no fish were to be seen. Everything reeled in was deemed too small and tossed back. But there was no disappointment on their faces, either. Instead, the open conversation revolved around revised strategies.
We often think of the Northeast Kingdom as this economically deprived region that lacks infrastructure and progress. Some people look at its residents as uneducated traditionalists who lack modern etiquette and refinement. But for all I’ve compromised in living and raising children here, whether that be career, income, education, or housing, I’ve gained.
That bounty is reflected in my children’s understanding, respect, and pure passion for the natural world. The rugged landscape and a flat economy bode well for land protection because to live here you must revere one and learn to deal with the other.
What’s often missed is the presence of community. The desire to live in a place brings unity more than the decision to live in a place. We desire to live here despite the challenges of climate and geography and the lack of access to amenities. We don’t, however, decide to live here for job opportunities, economic prosperity, or ease of lifestyle.
That commonality connects us in the same way as the first icing over of a nearby body of water caused three teens to spend their first real taste of freedom in nature. On the ice, we are removed from all that disconnects us.
I saw with my own eyes the lost art of shooting the shit resurface between crowds from one shanty to the next, expectations and results were traded for existence and solitude, and the constant surge of data and media replaced by the visceral appreciation for small tokens like a tip-up or a hot beverage.
The laurels of ice fishing still rest in a reliance and trust in nature which earns even the poorest a moment in time to be lakefront property owners. And if victory doesn’t take the form of a weighed fish, contestants take home resilience, hope, and camaraderie.
If that all sounds too romantic, the pragmatic look to such tournaments as a way to reduce the abundance of Northern Pike, an aggressive predator that threatens native species. In short, one could argue that good fishing makes for good fishing.
While the rest of the world works tirelessly for more: more things, more accolades, more unnecessary, I rest confident in less. The Kingdom’s intentional desire for less development, less noise, and less wealth has made it the richest place I know to raise a family. For a weekend, my son had the best view of the lake that money can’t buy.
Heidi Myers is the founder of the Rasputitsa Gravel Ride and Associate Dean of Marketing at Sterling College.