On Jan. 20, my son-in-law Tom took me ice fishing on Wisconsin’s Lake Petenwell. Over the holidays, he had taken a 28-inch walleye from Petenwell, and that no doubt motivated our return.
Petenwell, a Wisconsin River impoundment, is more than 30 miles long. Even though we arrived before sunup, the lake was already dotted with hundreds of vehicles clustered in “ice villages” of 30 vehicles here and perhaps another 40 one-mile to the north. Towns of ice anglers were spread across the vast lake.
When we drove onto the lake, I’ll admit a pang of apprehension coursed my body. A well-worn “highway” on ice lay before us, and I thought to myself, “stay on the main-traveled road.” Fifty-six years ago, I had learned that lesson well.
It was a Saturday night during the winter of 1961-1962. We were SDSU students in Brookings, and we had decided to check out the dance hall in Lake Benton, Minnesota, an 18-mile drive east on U.S. Highway 14. My friends Ken, Lois, Phil and Cass were in the back seat of my 1948 Plymouth, and I was at the wheel with Helaine at my side.
As we approached the town, we could see the sprawling lake off to the northeast. The lake was heavily punctuated with the vehicles, huts, and lanterns of ice fishermen. I had never before experienced ice fishing in any form, and I was excited. “We’re early!” I exclaimed. “Let’s drive out onto the lake and see how these fishermen are doing.” No one objected, and we were soon driving among the many cars and pickup trucks. The anglers were more than willing to visit and show us their fish.
As we approached the northeast end of the fishing encampment, we saw nothing but ice in front of us. No vehicles, no shanties. “Let’s drive around for awhile before we head to the dance hall,” I suggested. Again, no one objected.
It wasn’t long before we were attempting to see how fast we could go on this wide-open field of ice. As I recall, 85 mph was top end. I soon discovered a thrilling sensation. If I cut the steering wheel hard when going full speed, the car would slowly turn sideways and then go into a wild spin! For the next two hours, we were having the time of our lives. To heck with the dance!
We were speeding sideways, out of control, when we suddenly approached a formidable snow drift. When we struck the drift sideways, the ramp-like drift launched us into the air! I don’t know how long we were airborne, but when we came down, we landed on the roof. I never lost consciousness, but when we landed, I landed on top of little Helaine. She appeared to be lifeless. For a long moment, I feared everyone was dead.
I rolled off Helaine. And then I heard giggling from the back seat. Helaine came back to life, and we soon discovered that everyone was unscathed. The upside down car doors opened, and the six of us were soon standing alongside the car. We unsuccessfully tried to roll the car back onto its wheels, but it wouldn’t budge.
Decision time. Ken would stay with the girls, and Phil and I would go for help. The lights of Lake Benton lay in the distant southwest. We later learned that we made a 6-mile hike back to town. Before we left, we noted that gas was running onto the ice. We suspected that the motor oil might suffer the same fate. We wisely decided to go to the police station, and before we headed back onto the lake with the chief and two deputies, we obtained some gas and oil from a filling station. As I recall, the police officers thought this was high adventure.
As we returned to the car, the chief asked me if I had any idea how lucky we were. My stomach turned when he told me there was open water on the lake. How we missed it was an act of God. How close had I come to killing five friends?
With all the man power, we flipped the car back onto its wheels. I then lay on the back seat and kicked the indented roof back into its normal shape. We put gas in the tank, added oil to the engine, and were pleased to discover that the Plymouth started right up.
We feared that the girls might be expelled for missing the dorm curfew, but Miss Birgee, the dorm mother, accepted my explanation.
I won’t attempt to tell you how to ice fish, I can advise you to stay on the well-worn trail when driving on the ice.