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Many years ago now, a few citified friends and I embarked on an exceedingly Minnesotan winter pilgrimage. The enchantment of the holiday season, if not this year's mushy ice conditions, inspires me to retrieve from the deep the testimony I recorded at the time.


Like many ordeals, it began innocently, amid festive spirits. Several weeks ago some friends and I resolved to plot a wintry adventure, a fearless plunge into the deepest end of the season.

Our initial plan called for minimum hardship — a rustic cabin nestled in snow-frosted woods, groomed ski trails, a huge stone fireplace, a sauna and hot tub and, in a playful nod to Minnesota stoicism, access to an icehouse, where we could idle away an hour or two harvesting a fresh walleye dinner.

Fate seldom deals gently with naiveté so extravagant as this. But we didn't see its wrath descending — not even when, discovering that cabins with hot tubs and such ought to be reserved by the Fourth of July, we confidently discarded creature comforts and settled for the icehouse alone, a "four-bunker" on beautiful, limitless Lake Mille Lacs, conveniently located three miles from the rental office.

Three miles from shore, to be more exact.

I admit that a shadow of discouragement crept across my mind as we drove out onto the frozen wilderness in the lowering dusk, over the rickety bridge that spanned the jagged break in the lake's ice, and then on and on into the white vastness, along a glistening snowplowed path the driving wind was closing behind us even as we passed.

Clearly, certain elements of our surviving plan would have to be revised, notably the part about jumping in the car and zipping down to a local tavern should the fishing prove slow. But just then our destination came within view, a community of perhaps two dozen icehouses clustered like a wagon train on a featureless prairie. Surely, I calmed myself, scores of seasoned Minnesota anglers would not come to such a forsaken place unless it were a watery El Dorado — unless far below us lay a lake bottom paved with hungry walleye.

And the night fell, and the wind rose.

Like many Minnesota rationalists with little or no experience in ice fishing, I had, until that night, long been puzzled by the sport, wondering what the fun could be in sitting motionless for hours without end, watching a still more motionless bobber floating in a dark, six-inch wide hole. But after three hours of actually doing this — in a drafty icehouse about the size of the sauna I'd originally imagined; after learning that the principle action in ice fishing is checking one's minnow; after beginning to worry that my bait was holding up better than I was — after all this the truth was suddenly revealed unto me.

What's the fun in ice fishing? One might as well ask what fun medieval pilgrims found in trudging barefoot to Jerusalem, or what kick Eastern mystics derive from hair shirts and self-flagellation.

The secret that tens of thousands of Minnesota ice anglers share is this: Ice fishing has nothing whatever to do with "sport" or "fun." It is an exotic Minnesota rite of mortification, preparing the ice fisher for life's pangs, disappointments and tedium.

It's especially good for tedium.

Pride is the congenital defect of our species, but pride doesn't last long in the cleansing atmosphere of an icehouse (strictly metaphysically speaking, you understand). "Man is born unto trouble," scripture assures us, and no one knows it better than a fishless ice angler tangled in monofilament line like a fly in a web.

But while the way of ice fishers is hard, they are rewarded with correction and understanding. Sometime during the night we initiates lost our way; we broke out a deck of cards and started a poker game. Three hands and five full houses later, we discovered that one among us had mistakenly brought a pinochle deck.

Our former, uninstructed selves might easily have attributed this to, oh, say, stupidity. But hours on the ice had prepared us to recognize a message from on high when we received one, even if a blockhead had delivered it. We purified our hearts and turned back to our fish holes.

With dawn came our first rewards, two 6-inch perch. We rejoiced, pushed open the door, and consigned our providential catch to the walkout freezer. But again our hearts hardened. We started discussing the snowplow's morning run, and the resulting open iceway back to town. What harm could there be in a quick trip to a cafe, a hearty breakfast, a warm bathroom?

No sooner had these heretical sentiments escaped our lips than the liberating snowplow rumbled past our door. Past our door and over our fish. When the wailing and gnashing of teeth subsided, our escape route had vanished again beneath the drifting snow.

Were our haughty spirits broken? And how. We spent the rest of the day devoutly fishing, and caught four more small perch. In midafternoon we broke the breading package and gratefully dropped four fish chips into the frying pan. Only then, with our proud hearts convinced that the world, after all, is not our oyster, or even our walleye — only then did the still waters beneath us come to life. Suddenly, unbelievably, one in our party pulled a three-pound wonder from the deep, after 23 hours.

And the miracle worker spoke, saying, "I think I'll take this one home to the wife."

And silence descended, drowning out the whistling wind. And the fisherman looked around the room and rethought his position.

Skeptics may doubt me, but I swear every word of these wonders is true. And I suspect we are, all four of us, better human beings for having seen these signs. And I'm positive that the damage to the fish population was slight.

D.J. Tice is at doug.tice@startribune.com.