Every day last week I rode my bicycle on a trail that runs behind the hospital and then along a side channel of the Mississippi River. Even though it’s been a mild late autumn, fishermen were already on the ice, either putting in tip-ups for bass or jigging wax worms for bluegills. It made me wonder who was crazier, the cyclist who continued to ride even though temperatures were in the low twenties or the guys who ventured out onto first ice just to catch a few fish. After recalling the times I’ve gone through the ice, mistakenly believed I was going through the ice, and feared I might go through the ice, I concluded the dumb one for once was not me. 

– When I was eight years old, my dad and I, along with my uncle, my cousin, ice fished an oxbow of the Wolf River. It was early spring. The ice right along shore was punky, but ice in the middle was still thick and firm. Someone had placed a long plank from shore out to the good ice, and we had used the plank to get to our fishing spot. On our return to the car, my cousin was first to shore. My uncle was crossing the plank, and my dad was waiting his turn. I walked up alongside my dad, and our combined weights put us both through the ice and into the river. The water was only four feet deep, so we were cold but in no danger. It was not until my cousin and I were adults that he told me he’d hidden behind a tree so my dad and I wouldn’t see him laughing. 

– When I was a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I lived in a house on Hancock Street. Hancock is east of the Capitol and a fair distance from campus. The walk to school took forty minutes, but in the winter I shaved ten minutes off that time by walking across the ice on Lake Mendota. On Tuesdays I had a physics lab until 9pm, so on those nights I crossed the lake alone in the dark. A huge expansion crack ran the entire length of the lake, and it created a two-foot hump of ice and snow on what was otherwise a flat frozen surface. Just as I was climbing over the expansion crack, I broke through the ice. For a brief moment, I thought I was in serious trouble. Even if I was able to crawl out of the water, I’d be soaking wet and a quarter mile from the nearest shoreline. In zero degree temperatures, I might not make off the lake before hypothermia set in. As it turned out, however, I hadn’t actually fallen through the ice. Water had seeped through the expansion crack and created a small pond atop the frozen lake. A thin layer of ice had formed over the pond, and it was this ice that I’d broken through. I dropped through the first layer of ice into a foot of water before landing on a second layer of ice. I got wet only up to my knees. Once I realized what had happened, I ran home as quickly as I could and suffered only cold feet and frozen pant legs.

– When Clare was five years old, she and I went to Shaeffer’s Landing in Brice Prairie to see whether the ice fishermen there were catching anything. When we arrived, no one was fishing, but Clare still wanted to walk on the ice. Fifty yards out, I put my hand down an open fishing hole and discovered the ice was only two inches thick. Two inches should support an adult male, but I immediately told Clare to stand away from me and start walking back to shore. She wanted to know why, and I told her that I did not want her standing next to me if I broke through. She immediately asked, “What should I do when you fall in?” I told her to carefully walk to shore, then run up to one of the houses to get help. We both made it safely back to the car, but I could not have been more proud of my daughter. Whereas I was thinking one step ahead, she was thinking two.

Steven Simpson