Out on the Ice

My first step is cautious and distrustful. In front of me are dozens of fishing shacks. Even more fishermen – and they are mostly men – casually stroll around as though they walk on solid earth rather than the frozen top of Lake Monona. The blinding glare from the snow and ice in the winter sun is matched by the glow of the blaze orange snowsuits that constitute ice fashion. Swallowing hard, I step out to join my husband in the crowded metropolis atop Monona Bay.


In the winter, a city-within-a-city forms in Madison, a kind of wintery Christiania fueled by cans of Miller Lite and cases of Leinenkugels. Ice fishermen take to the bay as soon as the ice forms and remain there long after it seems safe to do so. It’s not unusual to take John Nolen Drive on an odd 70-degree weekend in early April and see fishermen wading through the melt of winter’s remains, clinging to their poles and swinging a 5-gallon bucket. With your car windows down breathing deeply of the warm air, the sight of ice fishermen shatters the reverie, reminding you that spring rarely arrives in Wisconsin before late May.

That morning, our friend John had pulled up to our downtown condo in a blaze orange snowsuit behind the wheel of a Jeep. I’d never seen him in anything but his white doctor’s coat. Originally from Hawaii, John had taken to Wisconsin with gusto, and he was eager to show us the ins-and-outs of his favorite winter pursuit.

Like any city, the ice shack community offers its own amenities. Not the least of which is the camaraderie built of hours staring into a hole and jiggling a fishing line. Portable televisions trick out the more luxurious shacks while other people, usually sitting on buckets or in camp chairs, make-do with a scratchy radio signal. But there’s also a hot dog stand.

John helps me find a spot, and I hand-auger a hole through the ice. It’s just as hard as you imagine, and despite the cold, I find myself red-faced, sweaty, and quickly passing the device on to my husband to finish. He also threads the still-wiggling maggot on my hook, his normally placid – despite – what – his -wife – thinks – are – disgusting – bugs – and – critters face screwing up at the task.

The view from atop my overturned bucket is among Madison’s finest. The whole of downtown spreads before me  – the soaring capitol dome topped with the gold Lady Wisconsin statue that so many people mistake for our other lady, Lady Forward, at the capitol’s base; an early 20th century minty-colored boathouse; and the Jetsons-meet-Frank Lloyd Wright Monona Terrace  – strung out along the shoreline of Lake Monona. A similar cityscape is visible from the car on John Nolen Drive and is the one you take new visitors to see, but it passes too quickly to really enjoy at 45 miles per hour.

The real prize, though, is the open expanse of ice. It stretches for a few miles in each direction, broken only by sections upheaved by ice quakes. In a city of familiar streets, a new piece of terrain to explore, albeit temporary and often bitterly cold, is the real magic of the season.

After two hours on the ice, I’m freezing. Walking back toward shore, I smile at the hardier fishermen who got there before me and will leave long after. Nothing about ice fishing seems urban yet here I am, in the middle of Madison clinging to a pole and swinging my bucket.












The End of the World

Some believe the world is coming to an end today.

We’ve thought this before. In 1844, William Miller saw the apocalypse predicted in scriptures. A farmer in upstate New York (a center of the revivalist spirit), Miller used Biblical prophecies to calculate the second coming. He offered a new interpretation of the Book of Revelation, arguing in contrast to others that the events it described had yet to happen (earlier readings had seen these events happening in the past). Further reading led him to believe that Christ’s Second Coming was “near, even at the door, even within twenty-one years, – on or before 1843” (Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller, Boston: Joshua V. Himes, 1853, 79).

Miller gained a following through his book, Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, About the Year 1843,  and lectures. At its peak, his followers, known as Millerites, numbered more than 50,000. Some of his most zealous followers fixed a precise date for Christ’s return: March 21, 1844. When that date passed uneventfully, they recalculated and put forth a new date: October 22, 1844. That day, too, passed anticlimactically and came to be known as “The Great Disappointment.”

The Millerite movement mostly broke up after these events. Many returned to their former churches while still others formed the new Advent Christian and Seventh Day Adventist churches. And another group under the leadership of Benjamin Hall migrated west from Massachusetts and founded a successful religious colony

William MillerSource: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Miller_(preacher)

William Miller
Source: Wikipedia

in Germania (Marquette County), Wisconsin. It thrived for more than fifty years.

Why Your Ancestors Settled in Cold Places

Hoar frost at Blue Mounds State Park last winter

Hoar frost at Blue Mounds State Park last winter

The earliest account of a Wisconsin winter was written by fur traders. In 1659, Pierre Esprit Radisson and his brother-in-law Sieur de Groseilliers spent the winter near Lac Court Orielles with the Hurons and the Ottawas. With the ground frozen solid and the snow six feet deep, food was scarce. They first ate tree bark that they boiled for 2 hours to make it soft. Then, they ate their dogs. It was so cold that several of them died from exposure. Ten years later, Jesuit Father Claude Allouez complained of bitter cold that he said literally almost froze his nose off. This certainly wasn’t Wisconsin’s first – or last – harsh winter, though.

The winter of 1881 was also really bad. That’s the year Laura Ingalls Wilder made famous in her book The Long Winter. In February, train service in and out of Milwaukee stopped, stranding city residents for four days. Snow cut Pewaukee off from the rest of the state for two weeks and snow in New Berlin reached 11 feet in open fields. The only people who got in or out were hardy young men known as the “Snowshoe Express” who carried news on foot from town to town.

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And yet despite all this, people still came to Wisconsin to live. Hundreds of thousands of them. After one winter, wouldn’t you have kept going?

It certainly helped that most of Wisconsin’s early settlers and immigrants came from cold places themselves. Was the winter in Wisconsin really any worse than the winter in Norway or Germany? Or how about upstate New York?

The warmer options were also a bit more limited until the late 19th century. Arizona, that favorite state of snowbirds, didn’t even become a U.S. territory until 1863. Texas wasn’t sure if it wanted to be a state or an independent republic until the mid-19th century. Things were a bit more settled in the north.

And the south had its own dangers, too.  You might freeze your nose off in Wisconsin, but at least you wouldn’t die of yellow fever or malaria. So there were actually a few advantages to living in a climate cold enough to kill off the mosquitoes that carried deadly diseases.

Most important of all, though, Wisconsin had the right look. The rolling hills west of Madison attracted Norwegians who were struck by the area’s resemblance to southern Scandinavia. The Swiss loved the green hills of what is today Green County.  Of course, anyplace might look inviting to people who’d been crammed on the lower decks of a ship for six weeks. But countless letters home described a new Wisconsin place that recalled a beloved landscape back home.

Some immigrants were foolishly optimistic about the weather, though. In 1848, German immigrant Dr. Bock predicted that since Wisconsin was at the same latitude as Italy, he was sure the sun would melt all the snow in his new home in just a few days.  Bock’s illusions were quickly shattered his first winter.

Others, like Albert G. Tuttle of Connecticut, who came to investigate Wisconsin for a possible move, found January to be bitterly cold but assured his wife that December had been the “pleasantest month of that name he had ever seen.”

And maybe that optimistic view of winter—that this one won’t be so bad—is part of what brought people here and why they stay. Winter is part of what it means to live in Wisconsin (and all northern places). We take a certain amount of pride in our ability to survive it. We thrill in our experiences getting home in blinding snow. And laugh at other places in the country where an inch or two of snow incites panic and citywide shutdowns (looking at you, my hometown of Seattle).

So thank your ancestors for settling somewhere cold. They may have kept your bloodline safe from yellow fever, and they’ve given you plenty of reasons to feel superior to those who live in wimpier climates.


Feasting on Lutefisk

You may think there’s only one traditional fall feast … but you’d be wrong. Meet the lutefisk supper, a fall and early winter tradition in the Upper Midwest. You can find these pungent fish meals in church basements, community centers, and unsurprisingly, at Sons of Norway lodges all over Wisconsin and Minnesota.

2011 Madison-102

Lutefisk chef - a very smelly job

Lutefisk chef – a very smelly job (note the plastic-covered walls – this is a smell you don’t want to linger)

Personally, and despite my Scandinavian heritage (don’t tell anyone), I don’t go in for the jiggly lye-soaked cod drenched in butter. Some might say it’s an acquired taste. I’m just there for the lefse. Rolls of it, piled high in pyramids on plates at both ends of the table. A little cranberry sauce spread inside or some butter and sugar, and I’ve got all the tradition I need.

Lefse! Now we're talking!

Lefse! Now we’re talking!

Read my story on the culinary tradition of the lutefisk supper on Smithsonian.com