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Traveling through the ice house ghetto

From the high view of the road overlooking AnyLake, the conglomeration of fish houses down there looked peaceful and still. And tiny. Tiny houses. Tiny people. Bright sun shining down on white snow banded on blue ice. A winter utopia.

Me? I was going ice fishing down there, and my first concern was going to be finding my friend's fish house among those hundreds of houses.

"I'm straight out from the church," he had told me on the telephone last night.

Great. From up here, everyone was straight out from the church.

"Mine's the house with the overhung roof."

Uh huh. Sure it is. Same as most of the others.

I wound my way down and drove out onto the ice, pushing my Iowa-based thoughts of vehicles falling through the ice to the back of my mind. Ice fishing up here is a sport. Down in Iowa where I grew up, falling through the ice is one, too.

"Lots of ice," he had told me. "Drive on out." I hoped his directions about the thickness of the ice were more accurate than his directions on finding his fish house.

I released my seat belt, cracked my door, stuck one leg out, the better to swim. I hoped no one was looking. I did, after all, want to blend in.

About 50 yards out from shore, the road split into three roads. I took the middle one and slid out to the instant city of homemade outhouses that had sprung up overnight.

Anybody, you know, can build a fish house. But when you're done, it's not that you built it that really matters to these people, it's what you built it out of, and how you acquired what you built it out of.

You bought corrugated roofing? How ordinary of you.

That gas heater came mail order? How ... Sears and Roebuck.

You have a conventional barn door latch? What? Can't you improvise? Use shoe strings? Old belts? Twine string?

I saw all those things as I wandered around in what by any other measure would have been some poor ghetto neighborhood.

Your roof is made of tin scraps that blew in from the tornado this summer? The walls are cut up Budweiser beer cans (labels in for more of that shiny look.)? Your stove began life as a one-pound coffee can? It smokes your eyeballs into blindness when you light it? Whoooo-eeeeee! You can claim bragging rights with the best of them, at least until next winter, at which point you have to start all over again.

I located my friend and his brother, by some miracle, as they were moving their house from one hole -- action was too slow -- to another. The two of them were in his four-wheel-drive pickup truck dragging this year's version of the perfect fish house behind them. By perfect, read "free."

It seemed there was an enthusiastic discussion going on in the cab of the truck, each of them pointing in opposite directions, their arms waving, pointing this way and that. They looked like two symphony directors leading the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.

Whoops! A close call there, they almost ran down an old fish house built out of a refrigerator.

While the brothers settled on just exactly where the fish were biting, I got out and stood gingerly on the ice, soaking in my surroundings. There may have been unspoken points to be awarded for individual creativity of construction here, but to my untrained eye, it looked more like a poverty-stricken slum after an earthquake.

A door to the left of me burst open with a bang, and a fisherman tumbled out in a cloud of wood smoke, and then another behind him. They coughed and gagged in harmony.

"Best stove you've ever made," the one said to the other, who nodded in smoky agreement, his eyes crying happily.

Another door to my right opened, and a hapless perch fish came flying out to freeze on the ice. Cat food, probably. Or a grudge killing because nothing else would bite.

My friend and his brother had by now dragged their house in and around the entire village, and were now coming back toward me. They saw me and stopped. I walked over and got the Reader's Digest condensed version of why the fish weren't biting. Barometric pressure deviations. Too much sun. Hubble Space Telescope poisoning the fish. Brother's ice auger is jinxed. Not enough sun. Republicans. Democrats. Christmas dinner was at her family's house.

Fishing is complicated. I had no idea.

Around me, what had from the high hill road overlooking this village seemed so peaceful was actually a beehive of snarling chainsaws hacking holes in the ice, gasoline-powered ice augers snapping and chewing, chisels thudding, four-wheelers tearing around, trucks, snow mobiles, cars, kids, dogs.

So the fish won't bite, huh? Go figure, nice quiet little town like this.

The brothers ended up with their house about five feet from where it had been. At least they had a nice drive.

So did I.

I went home.