07 January 2010

Ice Fishing

Village Life
Paul Whelan

As soon as Lake Simcoe starts to thaw, the fisher folk decamp their ice huts and wait out the summer heat until the next winter freeze. Not all the huts get transported to land in time and some poorly-timed hut removals end up in the water as boating hazards. The ice huts are extremely straightforward structures which directly reflect the simple requirements of ice fishing. Most importantly, the huts have to be light so they can easily be transported off and onto the ice. Even during the fishing season the ice huts get moved around as fishers tire of their location and chop other more alluring holes in the ice.
At first and even second glance, the settlement pattern villages appear completely random. These villages do not have to follow urban planning conventions. All the careful rules that Canadians construct to regulate every aspect of our built environment are abandoned on the ice. This is somewhat due to the lack of jurisdiction. The federal government regulates navigable bodies of water. When this water freezes, the local townships and villages do not have any power over activities on the ice. This regulatory vacuum sets up some unusual situations. Local restauranteurs complain to the City of Barrie about the unregulated food (and alcohol) businesses that supply the ice huts. Beer, rye whisky and high cholesterol foods are an important aspect of ice village life. Alas the local authorities have no jurisdiction so the ribs and rye continue to nourish the villagers.
As always with humans settlements, there is an ordering pattern, but it is not based on the criteria that drive settlement on land. The ice is free and there is no shortage of prime real estate. Instead the first ordering principal is proximity to a public road so the huts can be dragged onto the ice. Public boat launches and marinas are perfectly suited. The second ordering principal is established by the fish themselves. While the idea of ice fishing may seem rustic, the fishers use sonar to locate fish which generally congregate in the deeper underwater valleys. This fish congregation is further encouraged by the release of live minnows as ‘seeds’ for attracting even more fish. The huts are scattered in response to water depth and winter fish habitat. This critical settlement imperative creates an apparent random hut placement on the frozen lake.
On the ice, sanitation is rudimentary. This particular ice village had a portable toilet. Ironically it is much cleaner than the more easily serviced toilet on shore. It might be possible that at minus 20°C and with a strong wind howling across the flat ice, the fishing holes may do double duty.

The huts themselves are tiny. They are designed to permit two or four people to sit in deck chairs huddled around one or two holes. There is often not enough headroom to stand. The design is driven by reducing the hut’s weight and heated volume. Even within these constraints there is some variety and opportunity for self expression. While ice fishing may seem a northern rural phenomenon, its popularity on Lake Simcoe, within walking distance of downtown Barrie, suggests ice fishing also has a powerful urban draw. Aside from an obvious love of fresh fish, what is the draw? Perhaps this is the ultimate thumbing of the nose at winter. The fisher people simultaneously experience the over-heated claustrophobia of an ice hut while floating on a wind-swept field of frozen water. After all, it is impossible to forget that first needle-sharp intake of breath when stepping out from the fug of a dimly-lit hut into the blinding light of a sub-zero day.

Whelan, Paul. 'Ice Fishing 2' On Site review, no. 21 Spring 2009
©Paul Whelan and On Site review

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