Friday afternoon on the St. Croix River, tension rumbled across the ice. Steve Woodbeck certainly felt it: His SUV was stuck halfway between Minnesota and Wisconsin, buried in snow. And his transmission was kaput.
“He’s an unlucky guy,” Woodbeck’s pal, Brent Delougherty said. “He’s gone through the ice on Mille Lacs, too.”
“Gone through the ice” is about the only dire circumstance that hasn’t reared its ugly head in recent days on the St. Croix as anglers have attempted to free fish houses from ice and deep snow in advance of looming deadlines for the shanties’ removal.
Similar dilemmas are affecting, or have affected, shanty owners on lakes and rivers statewide, during this, one of the worst winters in memory for fish house management.
Until a few days ago, I was as nervous as a fish-house owner can be. The shack owned by my son, Cole, and to a lesser degree by me (I’m the chief financial officer) was stuck on the St. Croix far from the madding crowd.
The plowed path we used as recently as 10 days ago to reach the shack was buried beneath hard-packed snowdrifts. And despite my best efforts to find a plow man willing to tackle the job — to smash a new road through a half-mile of deep snow — I got no takers.
One guy with a Chevy dually and a V plow summed things up for all of his plowing brethren when he said, “I don’t go on the river, no way.”
Cole and I weren’t alone in our predicament. From Upper Red Lake in the far north, where some anglers were stranded in their shacks for two days following a big storm a couple weeks back, and where entire pickups were buried in drifts, to Mille Lacs, where shanties never were pulled onto the flats this winter due to deep slush, fish house ownership rarely has seemed so much like work.
A week ago Saturday, with few other options, Cole and I descended on the St. Croix to mill around with other flummoxed shack owners.
“Perhaps,” I said, “something good will happen.”
Instead we found only stuck trucks, bent shovels and a guy in a four-wheel-drive pickup racing backward across the river, towing a Chrysler minivan.
Reaching the Wisconsin side, and emerging from the minivan, a dad and his son plodded north, mimicking as they did the fabled “final hikes” of aging natives into the Arctic oblivion.
“Our shack is up there,” the guy motioned, “about a mile.”
“Good luck with that,” I said.
Time passed, and Cole and I were left to contemplate the country crooners who warbled from our truck’s speakers their fascination with tight jeans, beer and dropped tailgates. Less frequently mentioned were cheatin’ hearts, honky tonks and prison, the rightful home turf of Hag, Old Hank and David Allen Coe. Then again, nowadays it’s all-hat radio. No cattle. No mama gettin’ run over by a train. You want pain, I thought, sing about snow.
Then, as if by divine intervention, a V plow materialized from across the river, tossing snow like confetti. Spinning big rubber and taking no prisoners, a 1-ton Ford Excursion was bolted to the steel dagger, the whole rig a real moon walker.
“It’s a miracle!” I shouted, and leaped from our truck, waving my arms.
Skidding his rig to a stop, Dean Welk rolled down his window.
This, I knew, was my new best friend.
“I need a plow guy,” I said.
So it was a short time later that Welk, chomping a stogie, his eyes narrowing behind sunglasses, rammed his big plow repeatedly into deep snow, with me trailing behind in my own 1-tonner, pulling him free when he high-centered his outfit, and got stuck.
An hour passed. We reached the shack. And a few days later — last Tuesday — we convened again at the same location, this time bringing still more friends to help load the shanty onto a trailer and get it to terra firma.
• • •
Friday afternoon I sloped down to the St. Croix once more to see what progress other anglers were having removing their wares.
As I did, I was confident my shack troubles were ended for the year. And confident, too, I wouldn’t get stuck, because I brought my four-wheeler for transportation.
The first guys I stumbled upon were Woodbeck and Delougherty, with the embedded SUV and deadbeat transmission.
Sympathetic to their plight, I nonetheless could offer no help.
Next, I met a fellow named Tony, who along with a handful of friends faced a big challenge. Days earlier, they had been fishing on the river in a portable shack, following a north-south plowed road that was perhaps 2 miles long.
But when they attempted to leave, the road was blocked by a fish house that had been abandoned.
“So we had to leave our van on the ice,” Tony said, pointing to a dark spot in the distance.
“Now it’s drifted in. We need a big plow.”
“I know just the guy,” I said.
And I called Dean Welk.
Then, cranking up my four-wheeler, I angled downriver a mile or so, hoping to meet a fellow I had watched earlier from shore who was attempting to clear a path to his fish house with a snowblower.
“Kyle Thompson,” this guy said when I pulled alongside and asked his name.
Thompson had a friend with a truck who could pull his shack to shore. But first Thompson, using his snowblower, hoped to clear a tributary road about 100 yards long to ensure the truck’s passage.
“The problem is this slush,” he said, plunging a long-handled shovel into about 8 inches of water that covered the river ice.
Yet by comparison, Thompson’s circumstances were not bad — assuming his friend showed up with the truck.
I had seen enough, and soon was bouncing across the river on the four-wheeler, headed for my truck.
It was fitting, perhaps, that I didn’t make it.
I got stuck.
This time it was Tony and his bunch — the guys who were hoping to retrieve their snow-encased van — who were my new best friends.
They pulled me out.
So it has gone this winter on the St. Croix.
And so, with luck, it won’t go much longer.