Factoring in windchill, the afternoon temperature will rise to minus-20 degrees. Yet, here we are: a vast sea of humanity spread over a square mile on Brainerd's Gull Lake.
A group of guys proudly sports Styrofoam cowboy hats. It's a hint they drove 1,000 miles to stake a claim among 21,000 holes drilled for the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice-Fishing Extravaganza.
"We come for the good-looking girls," jokes Rich Hepner of Casper, Wyo., knowing full well you can't tell an hourglass from a beer gut. People shuffle by, barely visible beneath bulky bundled layers.
The Wyoming group of four to six friends has made the road trip for seven years, starting on a whim because the world's biggest ice-fishing contest sounded "like a kick." It doesn't hurt that they won a snowmobile in their second year, but they say it's the fun-loving spirit of fellow anglers that keeps them coming back.
The other 7,000 participants and 2,000 onlookers would probably agree. The contest feels like a winter equivalent of the State Fair: big crowds, funny attire, pure spectacle. There's even the on-a-stick theme (fishing poles) and booths selling cheese curds.
A few weeks later, an estimated 14,000 people drive to Walker, an hour north of Brainerd, for mid-February's Eelpout Festival. It's Minnesota's answer to spring break. The lighthearted spirit -- and a mission to have fun despite chapped cheeks, drippy noses and ice-cube toes -- generates a most welcome winter warmth. Together, they offer a good hook for seeing these summer hubs dressed in white and enough laughs to freeze a grin to your face.
Bundle up for Brainerd
Full disclosure: I don't ice-fish.
I'm clearly a poseur when I add pajama bottoms inside my already doubled-up layers and clutch hand- and toe-warmers for Brainerd's brutally cold contest day. Still, it's worth it for one of those knock-it-off-your-list, only-in-Minnesota experiences.
Throngs of people show up toting poles, sleds and gear. They trudge down an American flag-draped avenue of ice leading to Hole-in-the-Day Bay. It looks like that famous slow-motion astronaut scene in "The Right Stuff." But no dramatic movie score.
Instead, a radio station blares a version of "Rawhide!" (Rollin', rollin', rollin' Rawhide!) with lyrics changed to "Giddy-up, Walleeeeeeeyyyyeee!" When the starting cannon booms, it's like a scene from the Oklahoma land rush.
Funny scenes seem to play out no matter which direction I look. One group gleefully flies signs identifying themselves as "Happy Hookers." A local man, dressed in a mountain man's fur hat fishes from the cushy comfort of a La-Z-Boy. More than one participant thaws a frozen can of beer over a portable space heater.
The contest, celebrating its 20th year in 2010, has raised more than $1.5 million for Confidence Learning Center and other charities. It's also made Brainerd's chapter of Jaycees, a service organization for adults under 40 years old, one of the nation's most active.
Participants love that many top prizes don't require a trophy catch, but the excitement of landing a good fish is always infectious.
A group quickly huddles around a woman who reels in a furiously flopping walleye. She races to the weighing tent, her husband helping her to navigate the chunky snow and ice without upsetting the bulky bucket water and walleye. She excitedly shouts, "This one's mine!" and swats him away.
Walker's spring break
At Walker, it's rare to actually see the ice-fishing. The spectacle here is driving onto Leech Lake with hundreds of ice houses, from bawdy pink palaces to retrofitted school buses and two-story houses. Many encampments compete to earn first-prize. They add mini-golf courses, gigantic inflatable beasts, hot tubs, anything that helps them stand out and gain attention.
It's spring break on ice, Mardi Gras Minnesota-style, or a touch of WE Fest in winter.
"The party's the same," says organizer Jim Gerchy. "You just have to wear more clothes."
With kids in tow, we skip the bikini contest (mercifully in a tent) and focus on games in the city park such as 'pout races. Then we watch in utter fascination as men and women plunge into frigid waters as we shiver next to 4-foot chunks of lake ice. They're raising money for the community. Some gamely dress in Hawaiian shirts, business suit coats and shower caps. One group from Akeley, Minn., takes the plunge together costumed in flannel as Paul Bunyan's full gang.
The Eelpout festival has been running for 31 years, sparked as a tongue-in-cheek stab at more serious ice-fishing contests. Instead of prized walleyes lovingly returned to their native waters, anglers pile the striped eelpout gawping into a pile.
We sample this "freshwater cod" deep-fried and served with sauce, but it's like eating bullheads at Waterville's Bullhead Days. Once is enough.
The hubbub disappears quickly on the outskirts of the eelpout village. A kite-skier gracefully drifts past, a bright spot on an immense blue-sky day. And despite this possibly being one of the area's biggest weekends of the year, it's easy to find that hushed winter calm as we head out of town and back to the windy roads of the Chippewa National Forest.
St. Cloud-based freelance writer Lisa Meyers McClintick blogs about Minnesota and Midwest travel at www.10000Likes.blogspot.com.