Onto Thin Ice: A personal account of my trip onto Green Bay

DISCLAIMER:  This entry has precious little to do with hiking, trekking or mountaineering

By most standards used to judge the average American, I think I could reasonably be categorized as someone willing to take on a certain level of risk when in the outdoors.  I have done multi-pitch rock climbs.  I’ve walked over snow bridges spanning man eating crevasses while climbing Mt. Rainier.  I’ve practiced ice climbing in the Himalayas.  More to the point, I’ve been on several expedition style climbing trips where I haven’t changed my underwear for 2 weeks at a stretch (kids, please don’t try this at home).

But nothing in my background had prepared me for a recent foray onto Green Bay.  As mentioned, perhaps ad nauseum in previous entries, my wife and I moved to northern Wisconsin within the last year.  For her, it was a return to her childhood home.  For me it was entering a land I had only visited for brief periods of time knowing that I was a tourist and could return home, quickly, if need be.  I recall one winter visit when our kids were young – we advertised it as a guaranteed sled-fest.  Lots of snow and hills on which to sled were assured.  Our kids bought it.  Unfortunately, the thermometer on the tree in the backyard of my in-laws house never went above -10F for the entire time we were there.  Day or night.  I am not kidding.  We didn’t allow the kids to leave the house for fear of frostbite.  No sledding occurred.  They were totally pissed.

But, I digress.  My wife recently mentioned to me that we were going to a birthday party “on the bay”.  The ensuing conversation went something like the following.  Me: “Oh, what restaurant is the party at?”  She replied: “No, it is on the bay”. Me: “Isn’t it kind of dangerous to have a boat out on the water when there is ice, remember the Titanic?”  She: “Ha, ha, there isn’t going to be a boat”.  Me (now starting to get panicky):  “What do you mean “no boat”?”  Yes, as it turned out we were invited to a birthday party out on the bay, on the ice, to which we were supposed to get, by WALKING.  I immediately felt my bowels begin to loosen.  I grew up in Philadelphia.  If you walked onto an ice-covered body of water there, you demonstrated that you had, as your mother would tell you, “not an ounce of sense”.  In Philadelphia, you only walked on ice, perhaps, when it coated the sidewalk.

As it turns out, things are different in Wisconsin.  Here, it is more of a religious experience.  By this I mean that people regularly WALK on the water, their only concession being to wait till it has hardened up a tad.  It is a transformative experience – in Winter, huge swatches of “land”, previously only accessible in a bathing suit, suddenly become available for outdoor recreation – snow mobiling, fishing, motorcycle racing (yes I said motorcycle racing), alternative road ways (why take your car on a circuitous route that uses a road meandering around the bay when you can just cut straight across it and save valuable time?), etc.

But, back to the party.  I was in a quandary.  I really like my wife’s friends who were hosting the party and I didn’t want to seem like a wimp but, it was out on the water/ice and I didn’t want to get wet.  I came up with several strategies for ensuring my survival – on the way out to the festivities, I could follow in the tracks of any large vehicles driven out on the ice – if they didn’t go through, the odds were that I wouldn’t, right?  Then, while out there, I would stand next to “the guys”.  I learned early on when first meeting my wife’s friends many years ago that, while I had the look of the guy on the high school wrestling team needing to gain 5 lbs before the meet to make it to the welterweight class, her friends’ husbands generally all looked like they were ready to play middle linebacker at some D1 school.  Anyway, at least I now had a few strategies for surviving the party.

Interestingly, when it came down to it, it was my wife who blinked first.  On the fateful day, we parked our car, on land, but by the bay, got out and went down to the beach.  The next step was to start walking out on the ice.  From one perspective it looked like your basic, very flat snow covered field.  Except that in the distance, large Great Lakes freighters were moored at the local shipyard ready for winter refurbishing.  My wife bleated “do we really want to do this?”  At this point, I knew we had to throw caution to the wind.  We had crossed the Rubicon, etc.  Which means we had been spotted by her friend– far out from the shore near a pickup truck and 2 ice fishing shanties, and she had started walking towards us.  So, we couldn’t just slink away.  I chose possible death by drowning over social humiliation, and I started walking out onto the ice, ignoring my wife’s whimpering.

Remarkably, the ice held and we made it out to the party.  A bit further out, somewhat close to the shipping channel the Coast Guard tries to maintain, were other shanties where ice fishing was in progress.  Where we were, a Wisconsin winter party was in progress – cans of beer (no need for refrigeration), Wisconsin cheese, venison and duck sausage.  Since moving here last Spring, I had become quite fond of venison sausage (and venison bacon) so I was happy with the food options.  Gradually I forgot where I was until, that is, another one of the party goers, hearing of my initial hesitancy to be out on the ice said “well, it isn’t more than about 20 feet deep here, we’re not in the shipping channel”.  I didn’t find this comforting – I figured I could easily drown or at least go instantly hypothermic in 5 or 6 feet of water, so 20 feet wasn’t more reassuring.  In fact, it was rather alarming.

The ice shanties were very impressive – equipped with a wood burning stove, a solar charger for electricity, a porta-a-potty and bunk beds –  they were very comfortable looking.  All designed and built by our host.  However, I have to admit that the combination of a wood burning stove in an accommodation sitting over 20 ft of water presented me with another cognitive, as well as intestinal, challenge. How do you reconcile fire and ice?  Wasn’t the stove going to start melting the ice?  My way of resolving this dilemma was to hypothesize that the shanty would probably float when/if it broke through.

In the end it all worked out.  We survived.  And, I got to play my first round of ice golf on a course laid out on the bay.  By my reckoning I shot 4 over par.  It all came to an end however, when I sliced a shot on hole #3 and, by my wife’s estimation, came a little too close to the shipping channel (what good is a golf course without a water hazard anyway?).  Shortly after that, my wife extended our thanks to the hostess and made plans for them to go to Green Bay on Monday (the city that is, not the body of water) for lunch.

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