Cold, alone, and waiting - ah, the good life

To most people, the idea of spending hours and hours entirely alone is pretty foreign.

Then there's the idea of spending those hours inside a tiny, sometimes-smelly, often-chilly room with little to do except sit and wait.

Oh, and then there's the fact that getting to this room requires driving a heavy vehicle out across ice that's cracking and shifting. Now you're down to a pretty select few who'd be interested.

But to a whole culture of people up here in the middle of Minnesota, this combination is just a few steps shy of heaven.

Welcome to the ice-fishing capital of America.

Ice fishing is found everywhere from Michigan to northern Nevada to Alaska. But nowhere is it practiced with more fervor and local flavor than here on Lake Mille Lacs (pronounced mul-LACS).

They call it Frostbite Flats, and out on this 360 square miles of ice there are entire subdivisions of ice-houses- some 5,000 in all.

The plowed roads run for miles across the ice - and are often as wide as four-lane highways. Some even have stop signs. Neighborhood names include Flamingo Reef, Sloppy Joe's, and the Gator Hole.

"Ayep, we're a different breed," says Dale Hauble, a bricklayer who's been happily holed up in his garden-shed-sized ice-house for three days.

His domain isn't without the basic comforts. It's equipped with a small four-burner stove, a cube refrigerator (powered by a generator outside), a black-and-white TV (with spotty reception), and two bunk beds - one for him and one for his dog, Ranger.

There are even little terrycloth curtains on the two windows.

And there are the four ice holes - one in each corner - which Mr. Hauble could almost reach from his bunk.

During the hour or so this visitor was there, the fishing lines that descended into the icy depths didn't show any signs of luring the fish.

But then Hauble says life out here is about more than fish.

"Sometimes you never catch anything," he admits, slowly twisting his handlebar moustache, "but that's OK. I just like being out here, alone, with Ranger by my side."

Now, there are a fair number of folks - mostly men - who do ice-fishing just for the fraternal frolicking of it all. They drive up to their rented ice-house after work on Friday armed with poles, hot dogs, and coolers.

And they return Sunday bursting with big stories, like the one about Bob mistakenly dropping a pack of bratwurst down an ice hole - only to have a 40-pound walleye leap up through the hole with the bratwurst in its mouth.

And then there are the T-shirts that sum up wishful thinking of the weekend: "Women love me, fish fear me." (Many ice-fishing trips are pretty well devoid of both.)

But it seems that the more devoted practitioners - the ones who own their own ice-houses or have been coming every winter weekend for years - are here for more substantial, even philosophical reasons.

"There's no reality out here," says Hauble, reveling in the lack of crime or even any lawn to mow.

There's also the strong community sense among people who have just 12 to 24 inches of ice between them and the dark depths.

"It's like the old days - like 'Little House on the Prairie,' " Hauble says, adjusting his camouflage cap. "When there's a knock on the door, your first reaction is, 'Come on in.' "

People here also seem to revel in the physical challenge of it all. In fact many prefer harsh winter to mild summer. Hauble tells of snowstorms so ferocious that he has to tie a rope to the ice-house door when he goes out to the truck - lest he lose his way in the zero-visibility bluster

But there have been changes in the 25 years since Hauble started coming here. In the summer, he and others now use global-positioning-satellite devices to mark the best fishing spots in their boats. Then when winter comes, they have their ice-houses towed out to the same spot.

There are also new-fangled video cameras some fishermen drop down their holes to peer around for fish. Hauble, though, doesn't use these: "We want to have some fish left over for our kids and their kids don't we?"

Passing down the traditions of ice fishing is one of the joys. A couple of houses over, Steve Kennedy is out for a couple days at the family ice-house with his second-grader, Patrick, who hums to himself while playing solitaire on a bunk.

"Even over at the Mall of America there's gangs," says Mr. Kennedy. "But my son?" says the proud father with a smile, "the worst that'll happen to him is he'll get in a fishing gang.."

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