SideLines: Walking on water to get a story

It’s not something people do every day. At least not me.

Last week, I did a story about ice fishing. Although a lot of my relatives are into fishing, I’ve never been a big fisherman. I’m talking about regular fishing where you can see the water, the sun is hot and the mosquitoes are everywhere. The only thing I knew about ice fishing was from that movie “Grumpy Old Men,” where Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Burgess Meredith trade nasty quips while fishing in a little wooden hut on the ice.

To get the story, I drove out to Shabbona Lake. I probably should have gone on a weekend, but since the weather wasn’t cooperating, I had to go on a Tuesday morning. I was pleasantly surprised to see about a dozen trucks parked near Pokanoka’s Cafe. Besides a few retirees, there were guys taking the day off from work and a handful of construction workers who work during the summer and fish in the winter. I only saw men, no women.

To get a good picture, of course, I had to go out on the ice where the fishermen were. That’s the part I wasn’t so sure about.

Both Denny Sands at the park’s bait shop and park superintendent Kerry Novak assured me the lake was perfectly safe to walk on.

“This ice is 20 inches thick,” Denny told me, adding that it’s solid enough to hold a truck.

“You really have the feeling you’re walking across your front lawn,” Novak said.

I know it all made sense, but I couldn’t help it. My fear dates back to another movie, “Houdini,” in which Tony Curtis is handcuffed and sealed inside a trunk being lowered through an opening in an ice-covered river. Although Curtis’ character escapes, the current carries the trunk downstream, away from the opening in the ice. As he struggles to find the opening, Curtis’ character can only breathe through little pockets under the ice.

(It would have been a much shorter movie if he hadn’t found the opening.)

That scene has haunted me for years. Whether it makes sense to anyone else, a fear is still a fear.

Gathering my courage, I ventured out to the nearest fishermen, several hundred yards from shore. Even though it was just as solid as everyone said – thanks to the snow, the surface was actually more crunchy than slippery – I was still aware I was on a frozen lake. It’s sort of like being on a plane. I don’t care how safe it is, the few times I’ve flown, I was always aware of being high above the earth.

I was just starting to feel comfortable when a fisherman warned me to be careful of holes drilled into the ice. Most holes, he said, are about four inches wide, but you can’t see them because they’ve been covered with new snow.

With that in mind, I very carefully returned to shore. About halfway, I stopped to look around. It was a little spooky, but also amazing, knowing I was standing in the middle of, and on top of, a huge lake. A few weeks from now, this won’t be possible.

On Feb. 22, the park will hold a special night for ice fishing, staying open about four hours later than normal. “It’s quite a sight,” Denny told me, “seeing all those shanties lit up at night all over the lake.”

I’ll bet it is. In fact, I just may have to see it for myself. Although I’m not going all over the lake like Denny said he has, I will be tempted to walk around a little.

Or then again, maybe not. We’ll see.

Anyone thinking about doing the same probably shouldn’t go alone. That’s not fear speaking, only common sense.

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