In 1989 I lived on an island in the middle of the Wolf River, just upstream from Gill's Landing in Weyauwega, Wisconsin. It was a heavily wooded island, with deer, possum, muskrats, owls, and other wildlife abounding. There weren't but ten or twelve other houses on the island, and the folks who owned them came only on weekends and holidays. It was quiet and peaceful out there; I hated to leave for work in the morning, and I couldn't wait to get back at night.
I had agreed to rent this place sight unseen before I moved up there -- though not before asking several astute questions over the telephone, such as, "If it's on an island, how do you get there?" I was told that I could row or paddle across in the summer, and that in the winter, once the river had frozen over, I could simply walk across. That didn't sound too bad, but one thing did trouble me: "What happens in the fall when the river's starting to freeze over and you can't get a boat across anymore but you can't walk across yet either?" Well, I was told, that part's a little trickier.
Having grown up in New Orleans, where a snowball is a cup of crushed ice with syrup on it that you eat in the middle of the summer when it's really hot, I have to admit I had no idea what I was getting into. I was 24 or 25 years old before I saw my first overcoat, except in movies and catalogues. Here in New Orleans, people start shivering, simultaneously, when the mercury hits 60 degrees.
I did feel a bit awkward when I first arrived in June, and began paddling across the river each morning dressed in a suit and tie. And I did get a few strange looks from the fishermen in the area, who were no doubt chagrined to find themselves outdressed. But, eventually, that daily sunrise canoe trip became a part of my routine, and I myself became a fixture on the river. ("There goes that guy in the coat and tie.")
One morning in the middle of November I woke up to find a little crust of ice, about a foot wide, running along the shoreline. The next day it was gone, and the next day back again.
Over the next few weeks the ice crept outward from both banks of the river. Some days it was just a thin film that my boat could slice right through; other days it was a barrier that I had to chop and whack and chisel my way through to reach the open water in the middle. As the ice got thicker and thicker, extending farther and farther (yet still remaining unsafe to trod), my crossing got more and more arduous. The two minutes of perfect serenity I had enjoyed during my summer passages had become a forty-minute ordeal. This was the trickier part.
Then there was a cold snap, and for a week we had subzero temperatures reaching to 60 below with the windchill. The river froze up good and solid, and I was able to walk across to my car. For several days I dragged the boat behind me on the ice, in case I should hit a soft spot; when I had doubts about the thickness, I would push the boat along in front of me, just to be on the safe side. After a week and a half of that, I began to feel pretty confident.
And so, the next morning, as I walked out to the river, I asked myself, Do I really want to drag that boat along with me today? Wouldn't it be a lot easier just to leave it behind? Well, maybe just one more time.... As I neared the other side, I noticed that the ice in front of me looked much thinner than what I had just crossed. But the temperature was still well below freezing, and I had crossed here just the night before without any problem. My instincts told me no, but my mind said yes.
I've never been so cold in all my life. One step forward and I had plunged through up to my chest. I tried to pull myself back up on the ice, but there was nothing to grab on to. The rope to the boat -- thank God! -- was still wrapped tightly round my glove; I threw my leg up on the ice and pulled myself out with the rope. Without that boat, I'd have been in a real fix.
All the while, I had one thought only on my mind: to get back to my house as fast as possible and shed those soaking, freezing clothes before frostbite or hypothermia could set in.
That was the only thing that counted. I knew I was cold, but I couldn't feel it; I knew I had hurt my leg, but there was no pain from the garish green bruise that would run the length of my thigh.
I can't say that my life flashed before my eyes at that moment, because it didn't. But I can say that a couple of things occurred to me, thawing out in a piping hot tub, that might not have otherwise. The first is that, if I were as single-minded in all my endeavors as I was in getting out of the ice and back to my house, there would be no limit to what I might accomplish. The second has to do with false security: I wouldn't have taken that last step unless I had had reason to believe that the ice was safe. My instincts contradicted my reason, yet I convinced myself that there was no danger.
There is a thin layer of ice that supports all of us in our daily lives -- made up of myths, half-truths, and misconceptions. We walk about on it oblivious to the precariousness of our situation, and to the cold, deadly reality that lurks beneath. It might do us all good to fall through once in a while and be shocked out of our complacency. If anyone out there is looking for a dose of sobriety, why not drive out to Gill's Landing on the Wolf River in Weyauwega? I'll be happy to tell you where to cross.