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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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January 17, 2020

1/11/2020 7:30:00 AM
The Lake Where You Live
A slushy slog
Ted Rulseh

It has been an odd winter. As I write this the snowmobile trail across Birch Lake remains closed; the ice can't be trusted. Over the weekend three snowmobilers broke through on Lake Nokomis; two died.

I normally enjoy winter, get out for long walks, drill holes in the lake and jig for panfish. Yes, by the end of February it gets old, but I have no urge to be a snowbird.

This winter is different. It hit me, hard, when I wasn't looking, back in October. Half of that month felt like January, snow included. Then came the real sucker punch, arriving home from Thanksgiving to a driveway filled with 10 inches of heavy snow. Then three days later another bunch. And more after that. And after that.

So I've been doing the thing that makes the least sense of all: getting mad and trying to fight it, threatening to just hunker down and wait it out. My ice fishing reels remain shorn of line. I haven't been down to the lake since mid-November. That is, until today, Jan. 6, late afternoon.

The half-dozen steps down from our back deck looked like a featureless snow-covered slope. So did the long stairway down to the lake, my insulated boots only now and then feeling wood. The red canoe leaned against a shoreline tree had the shape of a French baguette ready for baking.

At the lake's edge I stepped through a three-foot-wide patch of water, just inches deep. Beyond that a short stretch of ice lay bare, plenty sound. Birch Lake had about five inches of solid ice as of maybe Nov. 20. It still does, but now it's well covered.

The snow wasn't as deep as I expected, just a foot or so, but the last 4 or 5 inches consisted of the heaviest kind of slush. The walking was rough, the snow crust holding up for just an instant until my full weight came down on my boot. Then, squush. Every step the same.

After a hundred yards or so, staying over shallow water, just beyond the brown, downward-bending remains of bulrushes, I stopped to rest. The low, bright sun directly behind cast my stark shadow more than 30 feet ahead. The snow lay mostly unspoiled after the previous day's four inches. A few deer had made deep, slushy hoof prints.

Far from shore some brave soul had left the track of a snowmobile or a four-wheeler, I couldn't tell which. Even if the trail were open, I can't imagine travel by either means would be much fun.

I haven't written the winter off. I still take my almost-daily walks. I might yet relent and try ice fishing, though I would not relish shoveling that slush away from the holes. What I really want, though, is to get in a car with my wife and drive south, anywhere, as long as it's the heck out of here. We've had two and a half months of winter already. Only 3.75 more to go.

Speaking of lakes in winter, I talked about that subject recently on Wisconsin Public Radio. You can find the program at

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, "A Lakeside Companion," published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at trulseh@

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