By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, January 25, 1936.
“Oh, Canadaw,” sang Jimmie Frise, “de dum, de dum, de dum. Dum, dum, de dum…”
“Brrrrrr!” said I.
“As a matter of fact,” said Jim, “there are a lot of people living in Canada and calling themselves Canadians who ought to get the heck out of here.”
“Indeed,” said I.
Yes,” went on Jim, “they ought to go on back home to England, Scotland or Ireland or wherever their misguided parents came from. Or else they ought to migrate to California or some other sissy clime.”
“Is that so?” I argued.
“If a person finds,” said Jim, “that he can’t stand the climate, if he comes to the conclusion that a mistake has been made, even after two or three generations, he ought to quit beefing about the country and go on back home.”
“Home,” I snorted.
“Yes, home, wherever that is,” declared Jim. “Because to tell you the truth, there is not, in the whole vast round world, a more beautiful, entrancing, satisfying country than Canada. Where else can you show me a land where, without moving a muscle, you can enjoy the luscious beauty of the tropics in summer and the glorious splendor of the Arctic in winter? Less fortunate people than Canadians, and by Canadians I mean those who can take it, have to go to Switzerland in the winter for a little skiing, and then move a thousand miles to the south of France or Surrey or County Antrim for a little beauty in the summer?”
“A Canadian,” I admitted, “has to have a versatile hide.”
“Instead of agitating for more population,” stated Jim, “I recommend that we comb out of the country all the belly-achers who bawl all summer about the heat and who squeal all winter about the cold.”
“I wasn’t squealing,” I informed him. “I was merely saying that I would be glad to see the first of May. Which, by the way, Jim, comes on a Friday this year. That means, we leave Toronto Thursday night to be on the trout stream at sunrise Friday. And we’ve got the whole three days for the opening of the trout season!”
“It often puzzles me,” mused Jimmie, “that a man as fond of fishing as you are doesn’t go ice-fishing.”
“Ice-fishing,” I replied, “is for them as likes it. First of all, there is the long drive over wintry roads up to some place around Lake Simcoe. Then there is the locating of some queer old duck who owns a few fishing houses. Usually, you spend about three hours trailing him around a village of seventeen houses, and when you do find him, he has rented all his houses for the day.”
“Then,” said Jim, “there is the long walk, with icy wind digging in under your chin and forcing you to shut your eyes, while you cross glare ice two miles to the right spot where the fishing huts have been placed.”
“The huts,” I said, “are about four feet square. Inside is a bench, a stove made out of a gasoline can, and a hole in the ice about the size of a suit-case.”
“Correct,” said Jim. “And you inhale wood smoke from the gimcrack little stove; and if you check it down, you freeze; and if you let it burn up, you smother.”
The Herring Hole
“Yes,” I agreed, “and you sit, bent over in that tiny little shack, with nobody to talk to. And you dangle a line from your hand, baited with a minnow, down into the green depth. That shadowy, mysterious green depth; and hour by hour, as you sit there bent over, sniffling, coughing and peering, suddenly, suddenly your heart stands still…”
“A shadow,” said Jim. “A ghostly shadow stirs in that jade-green depth. Suddenly, like a streak of silver, a herring, soundless, swift, dreamlike, darts like a flicker of light, across the dimness!”
“Then,” I cried, “two, three, twenty, fifty, a thousand! The herring streaming, silent, soundless, glorious, beautiful, across your vision. Jimmie, let’s go! When can we leave for Simcoe?”
“We could leave now,” said Jim, distastefully eyeing his drawing board.
So we went, and through a dry blizzard that tinked small countless flakes of snow against our windshield, we drove up Yonge St. and far east around the bottom of Lake Simcoe and drew rein at one of those little villages which in summer are so busy, and in winter, so silent, sleeping.
At the gas station, we asked who owned fishing huts for rent and were given the name of a gentleman who spent part of his time snaring rabbits, part of it cutting wood, and the rest of it renting fishing huts. And as was expected, we spent all of an hour tracking him down in that hamlet of eleven silent white houses. We located him at last at the gas station, where he had been all the time sitting in the back, but nobody had noticed him.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “I’ve rented four of my five shacks this morning. But I have one left for this afternoon, and I was figuring on doing a little fishing myself. But I’ll let you have it, rather than see youse disappointed after your long drive.”
“Have they been catching any fish this last while?”
“It was real good about two weeks ago,” said he. “But they are getting plenty right now. I wouldn’t be surprised when we get out there to find they’ve had a record catch. This here hole I will take you to, there was 400 herring taken out of it three days ago.”
Jim and I exchanged a look. It was a matter of moments for Jim and me to change out of our city clothes into our mackinaw coats and leather topped rubbers. And all arcticked up, we joined the old man for the tramp across the icy waste to the fishing huts visible far out on the lake. There were about fifteen houses clustered together. Like dots they were in the afternoon blizzard. The wind raked across the ice and gathered a sort of concentrated chill. In us, the wind found something to cuddle to, for warmth. It fairly embraced us.
“Chah,” we breathed through bare teeth, bowing our heads and following the rapid footsteps of our guide.
The wind was stronger than ever, and by the time we got half way out to the fishing huts. I was for turning around and heading for any of the various parts of Scotland from which my misguided forebears came. I would even eat haggis. I would even sit, in a kilt, on the top of Ben Lomond.
But though I felt my brain congealing and trying to push, like the cream on a milk bottle, out the top of my head; and though my ears went numb and my cheeks ached with cold, we finally reached the fishing huts, and at our approach, a hairy-chested man in his undershirt stepped out of one of the tin shacks to welcome us.
“How’s she doing?” asked the old man guiding us.
“I got six herring and a whitefish,” said the stranger.
“Anybody else doing anything?”
“Everybody’s got a few,” said he. “There’s going to be a blow. You can tell. The fish are heading out deep.”
“Well, anyway,” said our guide, leading us down past a double row, a sort of street, of fish huts to one at the far end.
He lighted the gasoline can stove with kindling, I struggled inside the tiny cubicle to warm my frigid members, and the old chap, with a big chisel fastened to a rake handle, jabbed away the fresh ice out of the fishing hole in the floor of the hut. He scooped out the cracked ice and checked off the stove.
“If she don’t show you any fish in half an hour,” said he, “I’ll stick around and move you to a fresh hole. I know a hole over here a ways where two weeks ago, a party of us got 400 herring.”
Removing our heavy coats, Jim and I sat in the little hut, side by side, and prepared our lines. The lines were wound on a stick bobbin, and on the hook we impaled an inch-long minnow of which our guide left a lard-pail full.
So far back in our language that the schools think nobody but scholars are interested, there are tales of dragons and monsters inhabiting the depths of the sea; of Beowulf is one, and of the chill and slimy clasp of Grendl is another; and since we all come from little islands hemmed about by the sea, and since rooted in our very souls are the tales of the sea, and the dark humor of the sea, and the darker fear of it, there is a curious homesickness that touches us as we sit in the fishing hut watching down into the depths. For the first few moments of mesmeric staring in the window through the ice of a fishing hut, we are of this time and of this place; but presently, the faint forgotten legends of our blood begin to stir. That dim green window in the ice beckons. Down in its eerie kingdom, dreams abide. Within an hour of watching in that jadey half-light, a man goes fey. He is half tempted to lean a little too far forward, to pitch down and dive forever into the adventures of the past and of the future.
“Jiggle your bait,” said Jim, thickly, after the first hour.
“I haven’t seen so much as a mudcat,” I husked.
And for another half hour, we sat, jiggling and staring.
“Some, wind,” said Jim.
“It’s a gale,” I admitted. “I hope it will be behind us and not against us.”
A rap on our door roused us from our dozing.
“They’re biting over a bit,” shouted the old man. “I’ll go cut a hole for you. Get the shack on the runners.”
We donned our mackinaws and went out into the hurricane. Dusty snow was whirling and dirling. The houses next door were half obscured by the rushing mist of snow. The sleigh-like runners on which the fishing huts are moved about from place to place were leaning against our shack. With a shovel, we broke away the snow packed around the bottom of the hut. With a skillful tilt, Jim hoisted one end of the shack on to the runners.
“Where to now?” I cried, looking about for our guide. But in the blizzard he was nowhere to be seen. Out of all the other little shacks, merry smoke curled and eddied.
We shoved the little shack down the aisle of houses, the wind helping us. We turned it, and shoved it back. No sign of our old friend.
“Where’s he gone?” asked Jim, peering into the blast.
“Well, I’m not going to freeze,” I said, “let him come and get us when he’s ready.”
And I got inside the shack and fed a few more sticks into the fire. And in a jiffy, Jim joined me.
“Some climate,” said I.
“We’ll get fish in the next hole,” said Jim, unbuttoning his mackinaw. “You never get fish in the first hole, ice fishing.”
“Jim,” said I. “we’re moving.”
“So we are,” said Jim. “Maybe the old gent is pushing us to the new hole.”
We felt the house gliding smoothly across the ice, with tiny ribby sounds.
“Let him push,” said I.
“Seems like quite a long push,” said Jim, reaching up to unlatch the door.
A Terrific Splash
And then I knew, by the smooth, racing, pebbly, humming sound of our runners on the ice that no human hand was pushing us.
“Kick her open,” I shouted.
“The button outside must have dropped,” cried Jim, thumping against the door. In the eerie flicker of the small fire, I could see he was putting his weight into it.
“Jim,” I bellowed.
For now I knew the wind had us, and the sound of the runners on the ice rose to a high and throbbing hum. The tiny shack seemed to lift like an ice boat on the arms of the gale, and loved it.
“Jim,” I cried, “get a pick. Get anything. Kick a board out.”
“That’s what I’m doing,” grunted Jim.
But the men who build fishing huts are lazy, patient men. When they nail on a board, they nail it on. We kicked. We joined forces and shoved. We rocked it. But we could not rock it over.
“Take it easy,” shouted Jim above the throbbing sound of the ice racing underneath our runners. “The whole lake is frozen over. Sooner or later we land up with a bump on shore.”
“Very well,” I agreed, “let us sit back and enjoy it. Do you suppose such a thing as this ever happened to anybody before?”
And Jim gallantly leaned forward and fed some more kindling into the stove.
We bumped over ridges, we careened over drifts. We slowed up and then gained speed. The wind had us, and the wind did what it liked.
“How far can we go?” I asked.
“If we hit the narrows,” said Jim, “we can go up Lake Couchiching. And if we go through a few locks, we can get down the Severn to the Georgian Bay. And once we are out there…”
“Jim,” I said, “I think I heard voices.”
We listened. Undoubtedly, there was shout.
“Hey,” yelled a voice, and something struck our walls.
Zip, said the runners. Zip, zip, and then a terrific splash.
“Good-bye, Jim,” I roared.
For green water was gushing up the hole in the floor through which we were lately fishing, and the big home-made sled on which the house had stood, started slipping away from under us.
Then outside, voices shouted unintelligibly. In chorus, Jim and I replied. We felt the fish house heave and fall, and we were flung on our backs as it rolled over. We heard a hand scrabbling with the button that locked us in.
And then glorious daylight burst upon us.
Jim was first out. The scene that met my gaze was enough to freeze an Eskimo’s marrow. Seven men with a team of horses were grouped about in attitudes of astonishment. They were cutting ice, and wide lanes of green water gaped before us. In one of them, our sled bobbled peacefully. And our shack lay on its back on the edge of the perilous gulf.
“Gentlemen,” I said to the group of rescuers. “On behalf of both of us, I wish to express our thanks.”
They grinned at us eagerly, and the two nearest us shook their heads.
“No spik,” said the first man, and the others added, “no spik.”
“Don’t speak English?” I asked.
“No spik,” they all agreed heartily. Such big, ruddy men they were. With wide faces and glowing cheeks and an air of might about them. The blizzard seemed to be agreeable to them, the way they stood up to it, eyes open.
“No spik?” I asked. “What are you? Italiano?”
“Suomen,” said the first one, and all the others nodded their heads and added “Suomen.”
“Finns, Jim,” I translated. “And I guess that dim shadow over there is land. What do you say if we head for land?”
“Land, ho,” agreed Jim.
So we shook hands, mitts and all, with our seven friends, and walked for the shore while they stood and gazed with amazement.
“Jim,” I said, as we neared what was undoubtedly terra firma, “what do you say if we hand this country over to the Finns?”
“Let’s stick around until May,” said Jim “before we decide.”
Editor’s Notes: Gimcrack refers to something that is poorly made but looks nice.
Mackinaw coats would be the traditional outdoorsmen outfit of the time for the winter.
Ben Lomond is a mountain in Scotland.
A lard-pail was a large metal pail lard was sold in at the time, like a paint can.
Ice cutters would be out cutting blocks of ice in the lake for storage in ice houses for the use in ice-boxes or other uses throughout the year.
This story appeared in Which We Did (1936).