Last March, I took my boys ice fishing. I would like to report that I did so willingly, buoyed by fatherly love and devotion and genuinely thrilled at the chance to spend the day huddled and shivering atop a frozen-over lake while my young sons hauled in perch, drank hot chocolate and said things like, “Gee, Dad, thanks so much for taking us ice fishing. And for everything else you do for us.” But then, that would be a lie.
It wasn’t so bad, really: My boys caught (a) fish, no one fell through the ice, and the head cold I suffered shortly thereafter did not develop into pneumonia. Measured against these metrics, you could even say it was a rousing success. Did I mention it was raining?
But through the magical prism of time, the whole episode makes me feel slightly nostalgic, even as it causes me to marvel at the unique Vermont species of human that, as winter progresses, seems willing and even eager to engage in increasingly suspect behavior. I mean, really, ice fishing? I totally get the other type of fishing (what to call it? Non-ice? Liquid? Sane?): A summer’s day, a nice breeze, a cool beverage, perhaps even a little nap while my bait goes ignored. Where, I ask you, does ice fit into that equation, other than as insurance against warm beer?
Then, barely two weeks after I went shiver…er, ice fishing, I found myself plodding through the snow carrying two five-gallon buckets of maple sap. Now, you may not know this, so I’m going to tell you: A gallon of sap weighs about eight pounds. Ten of them weigh 10 times that, which is… well, my math ain’t so hot, so let’s just say a heck of a lot of pounds to haul through two feet of snow.
It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, which meant that to get a gallon of finished syrup, I’d need to haul another half-dozen buckets. And then stay up most of the night crouched over the evaporator, boiling down the sap while my wife and sons slumbered snugly under down comforters, no doubt dreaming of pancakes with fresh maple syrup, the meager return on my sleeplessness. A gallon of syrup sells for somewhere around $45. I’m not sure what a night of sleep is worth, but by about 3:00 a.m., $45 seemed like a screaming deal.
Still, when it comes to questionable behavior in winter, I’ve got nothing on the contestants in the Primitive Biathlon held annually in Jeffersonville, Vt., just down the road from Smugglers’ Notch. Now, if you read the word biathlon, and imagine a Lycra-clad Nordic skier whisking through the forest with a small-caliber rifle slung across his or her back, all grace and speed and athleticism, I apologize, because I’m about to forever tarnish this glorious image.
Instead, at the Primitive Biathlon, competitors don the attire of yesteryear (read: animal skins), gather up traditional muzzle-loading rifles (optical sights not allowed; spectators encouraged to take cover), and strap into antique wood-framed snowshoes before stepping onto the two-mile course.
Ice fishing, hauling buckets of sap through snowdrifts, tromping through the woods in wool and leather whilst carrying antique weaponry: It all sounds a little crazy, and maybe, in some ways, a little desperate. And yet, it is a reminder of what I love about a good Vermont winter (besides the skiing and riding, of course). It is a reminder of the challenges winter presents, both physical and mental. And it is a reminder to embrace winter not in spite of the absurdity it inspires, but because of it. These illogical pursuits are the means by which we find our way through those cold months, by which we make our mark on the season. They are both character building and proof of character, and their ultimate value cannot be measured in the number of fish caught, gallons boiled, or targets hit.
Which reminds me: Anyone got a muzzle-loader I can borrow?
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