Friday, May 13, 2011

Close Calls - Episode Three: The Iceman Cometh!

Porcupine Lake [map] was about 2 miles from my house in Spruce, Wisconsin. It was the place of countless hours of fun: fishing, ice skating, skipping rocks, and even swimming. Why “even swimming,” you ask? Because nobody swam in Porcupine Lake. It was notoriously murky and bottomless. It was rumored that a teamster once drove his horses into the water, they got stuck in the muck, sunk, and drown! I could write a couple of Close Calls episodes on our foolish escapades on ol’ Porky, but this story revolves around a frigid January 2nd – one of those days after New Year’s Day that is brutally cold. One of those times that when the high temperature reaches single digits after weeks in the minuses, you say “Hey, it’s not too bad out!”

My neighbor Jim was a super cool guy who let me use his Suzuki 4-wheeler at will. [It must be noted that I could devote pages to Jim [RIP] – a man who served as a big brother to me. I didn’t realize it until later in life, but Jim was a very significant person to whom I was to become. I hope you know that Jim, wherever your spirit may roam.]  On this frigid January day, my cousin Andy from visit was visiting from Escanaba, Michigan. I had a few years on Andy – I figure I must’ve been about 14 or 15 and Andy 10 or 11. We made the abundantly unwise decision to hop on Jim’s 4-wheeler and go for a spin. After bundling up in our ski masks, snowmobile hats, Sorels and chopper mitts, we headed over to Jim’s and cranked up the Suzuki.

This particular January was cold, but there wasn’t much snow. Also, the sub-zero temperatures came quickly and froze Porky over like glass. I knew that the lake was covered in pristine ice and made that our destination. Once we got there, we noted there were a handful of ice fisherman near the boat landing, but the rest of the lake was wide open. The lake is roughly 2,000 feet long by 1,000 feet wide. It has a tiny inlet to the north, but is mostly spring-fed with a larger outlet to the east. Andy and I had a blast as we would gradually gain traction and increase our speed to full and then put on the brakes and slide across the lake. With the brakes on and a little body English, we could get the ATV to spin many, many times. This was about as much fun as two young boys could ever have and we must have done it for a half an hour or more until we decided to seek out a new adventure.

It was my idea to head for the lake’s outlet. Looking at the picture from Google maps, you can see how the outlet stream narrows and gets a little crooked. What does this mean? This means open water my friends, but my teen-aged brain didn’t consider that possibility and I throttled the Suzuki with full acceleration and started down the outlet.

We may have been a couple of hundred feet off of the lake and rolling like the wind when I spied open water ahead. Fudge!! I slammed on the brakes but nothing – Nothing!! – happened. Remember, the lake was like glass and so was the beginning of the outlet – there was little traction to be had! We slid and slid. Time stood completely still. To this day I can remember every second like it was a week. As we slid, the 4-wheeler gradually spun and soon we had done a 180 and our backs were facing the open river. We finally came to a stop – our backs still facing the open water which was now just mere feet behind us. I twisted the throttle and tried to get us away from the opening, but slowly, surely, I heard a horrifying CCCCRRRAAAACCCKKK!! The ice gave way and soon Andy and I were under water. Every fear that I had ever had about being on thin ice had just become a reality. Could we get out? Would we freeze to death? Would the current carry us downstream under ice? Yikes! You get the picture: a pretty frightening scenario to be sure! (Dreams of that echoing crack still wake me in the middle of the night, heart pounding, in a pool of my own sweat.)

The good news was that I could touch bottom, however barely. I tried to pull myself up onto the ice, but the ice would break or my hands would slip off. I finally got to a spot where the ice was firm and I was able to flop my body up over the edge. Honestly, at this point, I was only concerned for myself and not Andy, but I believe he did something similar and got out of the ice about the same time I did. He was probably luckier, because I’m not sure he could touch bottom as much as I could. Once both safely out of the water, we went into another state of panic: we were drenched and our boots had come off trying to get out of the river! We were standing partially in stocking or bare feet on solid ice about a half a mile from any other humans on a sub-zero day! The 4-wheeler remained in the water floating wheels up. It got stuck on some other ice chunks and remained in place. I knew at this point that we had to get moving and move fast or we could get hypothermia. I remember making a beeline back to the ice fishermen with both of us saying the whole way, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! What are we gonna do?!” and "Don't stop moving!"

You think my stories over? Not yet. Get this...

We finally made it to a fisherman sitting there on an upside down bucket. I said “Mister, can you please help us? Our 4-wheeler cracked through the ice on the outlet and we are freezing. We live 2 miles away. My mom owns Goatsville tavern.”

“Hmm. Goatsville, huh?” he says. “I’ll give you a ride home if your mom gives me a 12-pack of beer.”

“Yes! YES!” I say. “But we need to go now! We are frozen!”

We made it to the landing and his truck and were, by now, really cold. During the 2-mile ride back. I can recall him calling us stupid kids and scolding us nearly the whole way. As soon as we walked in the door I said, “Mom, give this guy a 12’er!  Andy and I have to get warm!”

We headed upstairs, peeled off our soaked and partially frozen clothing and took turns in a warm bath trying to get our feeling back.

Finally dry and warm, my panic now turned to Jim. What the hell was Jim going to say to me for submerging his ATV in the river?! Did I ruin it? Would it ever run again? My fears were allayed when I finally got to tell Jim and rather than rant at me, he chuckled and shook his head!! He thought it was pretty funny that we were just stupid kids being stupid kids! Wow! I told you in paragraph two that Jim was a pretty cool guy, didn’t I?!

The final chapter in this story is that Andy’s dad (my Uncle Lynn) had come down to pick up Andy that same day. Uncle Lynn was a big dude and we knew we could use his size and strength to get the vehicle out of the creek – as long as he didn’t get too far out on the ice! We took some rope back to the lake and found a solid piece of wood a couple of feet long. I sidled carefully near the opening and tossed the wood, with the rope tied around the center, around an axle of the quad. Uncle Lynn standing near the creek’s edge, began to the tug the rope. As he pulled, the ice would break around the 4-wheeler. When it finally got to firm ice, we used a long branch to get underneath the floating quad and pried it up over the edge. As it raised up out of the water, Uncle Lynn gave a Herculean pull on the rope and finally it popped up onto the ice.

Like an idiot, I tried to start it. Of course it did not. Once Jim got it, he took it to his garage where he let it warm up and he disassembled much of the motor and let all the water drain out. After a few days, new gas and new oil, it fired right up!

Whew! Another close call and from SO many angles too.

One last note: it was a close call for me and Andy, but when I finally got around to tell my mom that the ice fisherman demanded a 12-pack of beer to take us home, I swear she was going to find him and maim him. Somewhere, somehow, that schmuck never realized just how close of a call this was for him too!

What a jerk, amirite?

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