With thousands of miles of wilderness, there’s space for everyone to do their own thing, together or in solitude

“What the hell is this,” I wondered out loud as Christine and I traveled east to west across Minnesota on a cold January day. Fourteen degrees below zero, the digital vehicle temperature thingamajig told us. A brisk and beautiful day, the hotel clerk noted, with the Scandinavian accent that suggests intimacy by bloodline, with cold weather.

We left the city lights in the rearview mirror as the sun was beginning to make a showing and shortly found ourselves in rural country — farms with milk cows coming out of barns after the morning milking and bundled up farmers raising a hearty hand as we passed. Open country interrupted by shelter belts and small, medium and large lakes as if they had been scattered by thrown handfuls in the beginning.

Some lakes were inside the city limits of the small towns we drove through. On the outskirts of a small town, we saw the apparition that brought the question. Christine stared hard out the window and quickly determined an ice fishing derby was in the making. A lake of perhaps 300 acres was covered in people ice fishing.

We looked at each other and wondered about the same time; is there enough ice to hold them all? Evidently, there was as a sign announced a derby was sponsored by the town and several nonprofit organizations. It seemed unlikely they would promote folks crowded out on the ice if a trip to the bottom was likely.

Having brought no ice fishing gear, we didn’t stop, but I started to chuckle as we drove on. “What?” Christine asked. “Remember me telling you about running into those people last week,” I replied. She broke out in a grin, immediately understanding the humor.

Before leaving Alaska, I had a day off midweek and chose to spend it hauling a sled full of ice fishing gear out to a spot on a favorite lake, where I would catch a few big fish. Having done it so many times, it seemed a mortal certainty.

There were no vehicles in the parking area before sun up, but some people had been braving a drive across the lake, and it appeared that at least one vehicle had started across the ice before I arrived. I didn’t trust the ice, and besides, the mile out to our favorite spot always provided plenty of interesting things upon which to muse. A trail where an otter had made way by running and belly sliding, as they do, right over the set of coyote tracks that skirted the lake, occasionally pushing into the bank brush that evidenced a fair rabbit population.


Before reaching the special fishing hole, a raven perched near a nest situated on a cliff above the lake, greeted me with boisterous cawing. The smart bird probably recognized me as a potential provider of food morsels if he played his cards right.

My path followed close to the shoreline and shielded the pickup parked right at “my spot” until I came around a rock outcrop maybe 70 yards from the truck. Thinking I would give the other ice fishers plenty of space, I stopped about 50 yards away, pulled my ice auger off the sled and poised it to drill a hole.

“Hey,” one of the people at the truck hollered, “you got the whole lake to fish, why do you have to be so close.” The brief exchange involving our respective ancestries and relative flexibility is not fit for print. Suffice to say, it was heated and, in retrospect, ridiculous for a couple of adults.

But, it worked for my antagonist. I said the hell with it, loaded my auger back on the sled, and headed for my truck, too angry to attempt fishing anywhere else. I made it about halfway back before it occurred to me that the fellow had it right, I didn’t need to fish there, and I probably would have felt the same way if the roles were reversed.

When we drove by the amazing congregation of folks ice fishing on that Minnesota lake, I couldn’t help but think about how funny it would be for those people to have witnessed the disagreement over fishing too close, some 50 yards apart.

Ice fishing may be the most readily visible example of how outdoor experience is what it means to the individual. Christine and I enjoy the solitude of the wilderness areas on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where one cannot use any sort of apparatus that has a motor. No snowmachines, power augers, or even a chainsaw.

That means that on most any winter day we can snowshoe a few miles onto a lake and not see another person or any sign of human passing except the snowshoe prints in our wake. When ice fishing, my favorite view when I look up from the ice hole is an enormous expanse of ice covered by unblemished snow, and not much else unless it is a coyote, lynx or wolf crossing in the distance.

And yet, besides that, our experience is markedly different. Christine loves erecting her portable ice shanty over the hole drilled in a chosen spot, and firing up her propane heater in front of her camp chair. She’ll drop her favorite orange lure down the hole and jig with one hand, while reading a book with the other. Sometimes she’ll fall asleep and be awakened by the tug of a rainbow trout or arctic char.

I’ll have drilled numerous holes within throwing distance, to access different water depths. I park my chair over the first hole drilled, and drop my silver spoon — not my inherited wealth but an oblong, metal lure. I’ll sit facing downwind, most often that corresponds with facing the sun, and soak in whatever warmth it brings. It isn’t silent, but with the white powder covering the ice, it is about as close as one can come to the absence of annoying sounds, instead I’m invited to listen to the swoosh of wings overhead or an otter breaking through a breathing hole. For me, a midwinter slice of heaven.

Then there is the Brainard, Minnesota Jaycees’ annual ice fishing derby held on Gull Lake. It is an enormous nonprofit event that hosts somewhere around 10,000 ice anglers. For three days before the January event, volunteers drill some 20,000 ice holes for the participants on roughly 250 acres of the lake.

In the end, the way individuals pursue outdoor adventures is as varied and diverse as the folks that do it. With its tremendous variety of public lands, Alaska is uniquely qualified to satisfy most any way one might choose to pursue the outdoors, a fact that I need to remind myself of, lest I begin to take it for granted.

Steve Meyer | Alaska outdoors

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter who writes about guns and Alaska hunting. He's the co-author, with Christine Cunningham, of the book "The Land We Share: A love affair told in hunting stories."