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The Ice Kings of Lake Champlain

3/7/2007

New England, I apologize.

Colorado, my bad. Sorry about all that snow.

I'm the cause of global warming, and all the winter screw-ups. Me my ownself.

The scientists are blaming El Nino for the wacky winter weather, but it's only because they don't know where I live. And they have no idea what I did to cause this.

I bought a snow blower at Wal-Mart. I knew the moment the check cleared, winter would never be the same.

I bought the one with the 3-stage "Jet Chute" precisely calculated to shoot the snow in a huge arch from my driveway, overtop my lawn, landing exactly in the middle of my New England Patriot loving neighbor's driveway. I got Buffalo Bills Booster of the Month award for that calculation by the way.

It was my preparing for winter that practically guaranteed it would never arrive. You want proof. Saturday, Jan. 6, 2007 around noon, I'm standing in my garage looking at my turbo snow-removing rig … in shorts. It's 70 degrees out.

In fact, December was the warmest ever in the Northeast. Not normally a problem, except for one tiny fact; The ESPNOutdoors.com chief editor guy in Arkansas wanted me to do a story about ice fishing on Lake Champlain … and he was getting cranky.

Didn't matter that the whole crust of the freakin' planet was warming under my feet … a deadline is a deadline … and I better come up with a story about fishing on ice … even though the ice on Lake Champlain that they fish on was technically still called water … and that instead of slipping around on ice trying to catch fish they were actually catching fish from boats.

Ring. "Hello."

Me: "Is this the U.S. Department of Weather joint that tells us when weather stuff is supposed to happen." Thanks to Google, I found the guy in Vermont who has the high-level government job of sticking a thermometer in Lake Champlain.

Fed weather guy: "Uh … this is the forecast unit … who is this."

Me: "mumble mumble mumble" Since the feds have still not approved my IRS 1040 tax return thing, I try not to be too specific. "Hey any chance you can tell me when Lake Champlain is going to freeze up solid like."

Fed: "I can't do that."

Me: "Isn't this the forecasting place, I just need you to forecast when the lake will ice up."

Fed: "Where did you say you're calling from."

Me: "Er … Arkansas." I'm actually in my garage putting a blue tarp over the snow blower in a last ditch attempt to make New England cold. "Can you at least tell me, is it cold up there … ice cold."

Fed: "Hang on, I'll check."

I hang up. Hang on is fed speak for Time to get the Phone Tap/Tax audit going.

Back to Google. Key words, Lake Champlain and view. Up pops something called The Kings Inn.

Ring.

"Good afternoon, Kings Inn, this is Michele."

Me: "Hey Michele, this is mumble, mumble, mumble (don't know how close she is to Vermont or if she happens to know the weather guy) any chance you can see Lake Champlain from where you are?"

Michele: "Why yes, we're on a hill overlooking the lake."

Me: "Great, can you see the lake now."

Michele "Yes."

Me"Any ice on it?"

Michele "No …some ice in the bay … but nothing on the main part of the lake. Going to be a few weeks before that happens, IF it happens."

Me"Thanks Michele … I'll call you back in a couple of days to see how the ice is coming."

Michele "Er … ah … who is this …"

I hang up, it's the small talk that usually gets me in trouble. And by the way, if you are keeping score: The zillion-dollar Weather Forecasting Joint — 0, Michele —1.

So for the next month or so, I call Michele every other day about ice on Lake Champlain, by the second week she knows my real name seeing that I had to make a reservation at her Inn, mainly to appease the cranky editor in Arkansas that I was actually working the story.

And then it happens … the call came through … not from Michele, but from The Lord of the Lake, a guy who has been fishing the ice there for the last 68 years.

Me and the boy were eating lunch at a place that advertises "Burgers as big as your head" and my son had his head down on the table in an attempt to see if indeed the burger did match his noggin. Not sure the burger lived up to the bill because I could still see one of his ears behind it.

Off goes my cell phone, and on it, Jim Guyette, Sr. from Port Henry, N.Y.

"Don Barone … it's fishing time."

I hang up.

"Eat up son … the Lord of the Lake just called."

"And what pray tell, did the Lord have to say," says my son as he is now trying to fit his Buffalo Bills baseball cap on the burger.

"The lord says …we have ICE."

Part II

Part III

Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN. Other stories of his are available on Amazon.com. You can reach him at Don.Barone@espn.com

Thurman Cross of Poor Man's Shanty Rentals. Don Barone

"You Thurman."

"Yep."

A snowmobile, called a sled in these parts, zooms by pulling a green contraption on skids that has a windshield and two old bus seats bolted to the floor. Four guys bent over to escape the wind are hanging on for dear life as the sled plows through a snowdrift and heads out onto the frozen lake.

Thurman, still swaying to the beat says, "That's an Ice Shanty Taxi … take you anywhere you want to go out there."

Thurm (as it's stitched on his snowmobile suit): "Never seen it as bad as it is out there today … 12-14 foot snow drifts … we just had a blizzard come through back last weekend ( I know he's not lying, when I dialed up weather.com last weekend they had avalanche warnings posted for the area, I printed it out for the cranky guy in Arkansas)

"I called up a bunch of my customers to cancel but they wouldn't have any of it … weather's killing me … last year no ice at all (not MY fault then) … this year nothing until a few weeks ago (right about the exact day I sold my snowblower on Ebay) … everyone's been hurting," Thurman says.

I know that through my numerous weather updates from Michele, who has lost a ton of ice fishing reservations. Ice is important in Port Henry.

"It means the world to us, it gets us through the slow time," says Barton Swan, whose family has been renting Ice Fishing Shanties on the lake for 50 years. "People come here to ice fish and spend their hard earned dollars at the restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores. Without any ice it is pretty desolate and kind of depressing actually."

"Gotta go," Thurm says banging his hand on the side of the minivan, obviously not knowing I have Elvis on Repeat, bouncing over ruts of ice and snow, and dodging the never ending screaming ice taxis, I find a parking spot between two huge Ford 350s, one with New Jersey plates, one with Pennsylvania plates, both pulling trailers hauling four sleds each.

As I'm pulling on my fourth layer of clothes, Thurm walks over and hands me a calender, "It's my advertising," the calendar says Poor-Man's Ice Shanty Rentals and has an owl in a tree on the front cover. I don't ask.

"Thurm, you see Jim Guyette today."

"Yep."

I take another calendar, "He's in Bryantsville."

"Bryantsville … where's that."

"Out there." And I follow Thurm's black gloved hand and turn to see a white expanse with tiny dots. Lake Champlain, frozen, for as far as I can see. And scattered throughout … dots.

"What's that out there."

"Ice shanties … I've got 27 out there and they are all filled … must be a couple hundred in all. Those are the ice shanty towns … The Lord of the Lake is on the west bank of the east channel about ¾ of a mile out."

As if on cue, a long black sled zooms up pulling what looks like to be a green wooden dog house, "Donnie will take you out to him, climb in. Just watch your head on the nails."

And so I sit, perched atop wood sled rails, scrunched inside four plywood sheets cut to make up the roof and sides, held together by some 2x4's, nails sticking out, sitting on a bench of 2x4x10, snow billowing in through the open hole in the back where a door should be, barreling 35 mph through snow drifts, over clear ice, banging in and out of hundred's of wheel ruts as a snow covered Donnie delivers me to The Lord of the Lake.

Bryantsville, N.Y.

Go ahead, Mapquest Bryantsville, New York. See what happens. I'll wait.

Didn't think so.

You'll get the same results if you look up East Channel, N.Y., or West Channel, N.Y., Buoy, N.Y. There's even The Hole, and a little bit further up the lake, the ice shanty town of Sowhole.

But they're there. I know, because I'm standing on Main Street of Bryantsville.

Off to my left, a bright yellow shanty, to my right a teal shanty, "It's blue … blue says the owner," I worked in Miami, it's not blue. Red ones, green ones, beige, there's a shanty sided in shinny metal, even one that has a mural of a stream painted on its side. Not to mention a pick-up truck camper stuck onto a wood sled or a 12-holer that is really a 13-holer if you count the open porta-potty seat in the corner.

Main Street … paved of snow and cracked ice. Below my ice griping equipped snowboots, 14 inches of ice laced with fine lines, white frost and tiny bubbles. Below that, 46 feet of the frigid waters of Lake Champlain.

I'm standing about a mile out, on top of Lake Champlain. A half a mile or so that-a-way, the shoreline of Vermont. The other way, the lake banks of New York.

And it's magical.

Somehow life is ablaze on this huge ice cube floating on Lake Champlain. The daylight is of a pure whiteness, with a hint of blue at the edges. The snow, a white sheet dotted with patches of yellow out back of most of the shanties. The air tinged with a cold that awakens your sinus, on it floats scents of bacon, sausage, pancakes, burgers, and green peppers frying alongside onion slices as people everywhere grill on the ice. Fire and Ice, Port Henry style.

And laughter.

Shanty doors open and close, conversation and heat billows out. Old friends telling old tales and fishing lies, all while staring at each other's brightly painted sleds and four-wheeler's.

Respectful tales of "Doc's dog" and his seemingly supernatural ability to go into the woods around the country club and find the golf balls the "rich summer folk hit into the rough and just leave there, shot many a game with Doc's dog's balls (his wording NOT mine)."

Questions fly about Smelt and sons, wives and daughters, the high school's girls basketball team, and missed fishing buds now gone forever.

And there is a sadness. Felt, not heard. Because everyone in Bryantsville, and the other towns built on the lake, know this time is to be savored, for in a very short time, all of this will be gone.

This annual Brigadoon of Ice, soon nothing but waves.-->

For more information on all things Port Henry Ice Fishing related, go here: www.porthenry.com