For ice fishermen on northern Michigan’s frozen lakes, it’s easy to feel like climate change is a world away. But it’s only a matter of time before a warming planet transforms the tradition.  

By Ben Ratner

Amid the frozen Michigan fields—past the homemade signs for hubcaps, hard cider, and firewood—lies Houghton Lake. Surrounded by forest and farmland, it  is one hundred miles from the state capitol and two hundred from the state’s population centers. The lake borders a town of four thousand people and a “census-designated place for statistical purposes” that just breaks seventeen hundred. U.S. Route 127 appears to give up right around here; after barreling north from Tennessee for seven hundred and fifty miles, the highway ends. In the middle of Michigan, there aren’t many people or cars.

A collection of tiny shacks is scattered across the middle of the lake. The landscape here loses its color when the snow falls and temperatures plummet, and the shacks are blips on the radar, disrupting the otherwise white horizon like dark smudges on an old photograph. It’s only after stepping out onto the nearly two feet of ice covering Houghton Lake that you see specks moving between these smudges and realize: people are out there.

The march from shore to the shanties, as the lake shacks are known in the lingo of ice fishing, is both arduous and mesmerizing. There is a single track that has been plowed through the snow; it runs in a straight line from the parking lot, connecting the world of pickup trucks to the world of walleye. My walk was directly into the wind. It swirled wildly, kicking up snow on the surface of the ice and creating a sound like static, somewhere between a hissing and rustling. It was unlike anything I had heard before. Though the shore was easily within sight, it felt as if I had left it far behind. All that existed was the tundra, the wind, and the shanties. With my head down, I trudged closer to what looked like a lunar colony.

When I finally reached the shacks at the end of the path, I spotted two figures hunched over a spot on the ice. It was a father and son, peering into one of the many holes on this patch of lake, each sporting sunglasses and serious expressions on their faces. The father was dressed in camo pants, a camo baseball cap, and a massive blue jacket. He wasn’t wearing gloves. He wouldn’t tell me his name, but he did explain what they were doing. Gesturing for me to kneel down on the ice with them, he jumped without warning into a crash course. The wind was howling and at times I could barely hear him, let alone keep up with the barrage of terminology. But as the words streamed by, I began to learn the mechanics.

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Photo by Ben Ratner.

Ice fishermen drill holes in the ice, often  a couple of feet thick, with a hand-crank auger. On top of the holes, they set up fish traps known as “tip-ups.” Tip-ups have orange flags that tip up when a fish has nudged the bait hard enough, or when the wind has gotten too strong (a false alarm). For an ice fisherman, the sight of a bright orange flag breaking through the whites and grays of his surroundings is among the most exciting moments of a day. When one goes up, fishermen emerge from their shelters and huddle over the trap for inspection. That’s how I’d found the father in camouflage and his son. But this is a rare event. Fishermen spend most of their time sitting in their shanties, huddled up for warmth. Waiting.

That the world of ice fishing seems to exist on its own faraway planet is one of the great attractions of the pastime. It is precisely the slowness of this world that draws people in, for the fishermen of Houghton Lake and many other lakes across America seek reprieve from the exhausting pace of their lives. One man told me that much of his time is consumed by a “high-stress job,” to which ice fishing provides much-needed relief. “It keeps you grounded,” he explained.

I trudged further out onto the ice and met a man named Sean and his son Andrew (so thoroughly bundled that only a small section of his face was exposed). They were operating out of a pickup truck and had just minutes earlier caught a two-foot-long pike. Sean, born and raised in Michigan, echoed the first man’s sentiments about the value of getting away from it all. Gesturing to the miles of frozen expanse: “You slow down from the rat-race of everyday life, man.” He had a grin on his face. “Being on the ice, it’s peaceful. It’s us.”

He went on to tell stories from many years of experience. “I’ve been ice fishing most of my life,” he said proudly, “probably since I was eight, seven, ten, I don’t even know… I was little.” His dad took him out from a young age and, once he got old enough, Sean started ice fishing on his own. “Now I’ve got him,” he told me, gesturing at his son, who was trotting back to the car carrying a dead fish in his arms. It was easy to imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when Andrew, standing atop a frozen lake, would say the same thing about his own son.

That’s what had dragged me out there in the first place—to think about the future of winter in the state I call home, and what climate change might take from us. I thought back to my first interaction of the day. I’d barely made it a few steps onto the ice when I ran into a woman named Cassandra, whose dogs introduced us. I made an off-hand remark about how cold it was while pulling on my heavy-duty gloves. Given the beating we receive from Mother Nature each winter, I figured a fellow Michigander would appreciate weather-related small talk. But rather than commiserate, Cassandra looked at me and smiled.

“Today’s balmy,” she’d said.

 

Three states away, a few months before my visit to Houghton Lake in March of 2019, two people fell through a South Dakota lake while ice fishing. One of them, an eighty-nine-year-old man, did not survive. Even in the middle of December, the ice was too thin. The local sheriff’s office issued a warning to all fishermen in the area: “take extreme caution,” they told regional news outlets. This winter has been warmer than the last.

Ten days earlier, in central Minnesota (two states over), a couple of friends set out to fish on Fish Trap Lake for the afternoon. But the ice wasn’t thick enough there, either. The town’s news station interviewed a friend of theirs the next day. Fighting back tears, that man told the journalist: “They did everything together. And they unfortunately found a bad spot in the water and they died together.”

A month after my trip, on Michigan’s Lake St. Helen—just nineteen miles from Houghton Lake—another fisherman nearly met the same fate. As he was changing locations on his snowmobile, the ice gave out from under him. Within minutes, the water’s frigid temperature had drained him of his strength. By some miracle, he managed to dial 911 and was rescued by first responders before drowning. It was early January, and yet that fateful patch of lake had been completely unfrozen just two days earlier. The local fire chief warned the town: “Looks can be deceiving.”

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Photo by Ben Ratner.

Horror stories like these are still rare, but they have become increasingly common in recent years. And they’re part of something much bigger than just a handful of accidents. John J. Magnuson, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, knows this well. He can talk about lakes for as long as you’ll let him, probably because he’s been studying them since the 1950s. A longtime Midwesterner, he spent part of his career studying commercial fisheries in Hawaii. But he and his wife began to miss the seasons; one in particular was woefully absent. He’s been in Wisconsin ever since, enduring the cold and helping train the next generation of scientists. “I used to complain that the people who didn’t like winter didn’t know it well enough,” Magnuson tells me with a laugh.

Magnuson knows winter. He knows about the deaths on the ice. But it’s the long view that interests him most. Earlier this year, Magnuson and a number of other scientists published a study in the journal Nature Climate Change. Their goal was ambitious: to “provide the first global estimate of how many lakes are likely to lose annual winter ice cover as the climate warms.” The analysis was comprehensive, implicating tens of thousands of lakes throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It used hundreds of years of ice phenology records (chronicling freeze and thaw cycles) and assembled a range of variables to analyze each lake: surface area, depth, volume, shoreline complexity, and more. After their research was complete, the findings were gloomy. “Our study,” they wrote, “illustrates that an extensive loss of lake ice will occur within the next generation.”

One variable stood out as most responsible for the coming disappearance: air temperature. Magnuson and company estimate that, even if the world achieves the goals of the Paris Agreement (a two-degree Celsius increase), more than thirty-five thousand lakes will experience “intermittent ice cover,” which refers to a moment when predictably frozen lakes are no longer able to freeze consistently. That’s double the current number, and it shoots up with little or no intervention. Intermittent ice can be what the scientists call “a harbinger of permanent ice loss.” Even assuming a very optimistic climate mitigation scenario, the authors of the study forecast that between twenty-seven thousand and forty-eight thousand lakes will lose winter ice cover entirely by 2080.

When the ice goes, so too will the communities of fishermen that flock there in the winter months. The coldwater fish they seek (like brown trout and landlocked salmon) will disappear, and toxic algae blooms will intensify. Magnuson’s study thus offers a somber prediction: that the grandchildren of millions of Americans may never experience the joys of a frozen lake. Across the country, this is already becoming true. In Minnesota and Maine, long-running ice fishing tournaments have been cancelled over the last few years—a new reality for states that pride themselves on keeping this winter tradition alive. “You just kind of roll with the punches,” one tournament organizer told WCCO Minneapolis. As climate change extends its reach across the world, the lakes of the United States are feeling it. The ice, once dependable, is receding.

 

When I asked the fishermen of Houghton Lake about this trend, they were unconcerned. They explained to me that, as long as they’ve been fishing around here, any warm winters are always followed by cold ones. “It’s just cycles,” Sean said as he and his son searched their truck for another trap. “If you look in the history, it’s up and down. We’ll have bad years, we got a good year this year, maybe next year will be another good year… I don’t think it will ever disappear.” He pointed to the ice beneath him; it was more than two feet thick. “I’m not really worried about it.”

Kurt, the owner of a local bait shop, was wearing two baseball caps and blue jeans when we spoke on shore. He’s proud of his business—it thrives in the winter—and isn’t worried that the stories of people falling through the ice will reach Houghton Lake. “It’s roughly thirty inches of ice right now,” he explained. “Last year, I don’t think it made it below sixteen inches. So it’s cyclical…It varies.”

To an extent, the data backs this up. Kurt’s bait shop keeps a record of “last ice” (the final day that ice covers the lake each winter) that goes back to the 1950s. It’s faded and stained, but the numbers are all there. Although global temperatures have risen steadily since they started recording, Kurt is right: last ice at Houghton Lake has not shifted noticeably.

In fact, the fishermen here will be some of the last to feel the effects of climate change on America’s lake ice. Though it is the state’s largest inland lake by surface area, Houghton Lake has an average depth of just seven and a half feet, making it one of the shallowest of its size in the Midwest. The lake also sits at a higher elevation than many others, which can make the air a full five degrees colder than a town just thirty miles south. These factors, which Magnuson’s study listed as the second and third best indicators of declining ice, shelter the people of Houghton Lake from feeling the worst of things. For them, the climate has changed only imperceptibly.

On our current trajectory, the end of American ice fishing will, with few exceptions, begin in the South and proceed north toward Canada. The largest, deepest lakes will lose their winter ice cover first. If the warming continues, many more will suffer the same fate. Shallow, inland bodies of water like Houghton Lake will, for a while, remain fishable.

But not forever.

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“It’s sort of like noise driving out the melody,” Magnuson tells me. He’s worried that we are distracted by the present. Rapid climate oscillation in the short term, he explains, makes it seem like the weather is predictably alternating between warm and cold. This gives the illusion of stability. But the long-term trend shows something much different: ice cover in the surrounding region has declined significantly. In a thirty-year period since 1975, the average duration of ice cover dropped by up to four days per decade. The freeze dates were later and the breakup dates were earlier, moving at a pace many times faster than the historical, one hundred and fifty-year trend. This is the course we’re on. In other words, the climate in this part of America isn’t cycling. It’s spiraling. And although the people of Houghton Lake cannot yet feel it, the ice here, too, will eventually begin to crack.

But that’s exactly the problem. How can you begin to grasp a threat when all of your senses tell you something different? Take Madison, Wisconsin—Magnuson’s hometown. Winter is cold as hell there; even locals think it’s brutal. If you stepped foot outside during the 2019 polar vortex, you would have felt the fifty-below temperatures that closed the public schools for four straight days and forced the U.S. Postal Service to suspend its mail delivery. It was colder than Antarctica that week. If you had looked around, you would have seen massive piles of snow in the streets and layers of ice covering the surrounding lakes. In their world, the pressing threat was frostbite, not warming.

This is the challenge that faces the fishermen of Houghton Lake. For as many winters as they can remember, their trek out onto the ice has been as I experienced it: frigid. The feeling and sound of wind swirling, their shanties the only evidence of human civilization—few people are so immersed in the environment. They take pride in this intimate relationship they have with the natural world. For the fishermen, their daily encounters with this frozen climate are deeply personal. As Sean told me, It’s us. And from what they see, there have been no drastic changes. It’s been cold and still feels cold, despite what the studies forewarn.

This is the challenge that faces so many of us. The destruction is real, yet it occurs in slow motion, and, for many of us, in a faraway land. It has already struck in the form of drought and flooding. But the sensational, widespread catastrophe that we call “disaster” still feels distant. Climate change is no atomic bomb: there will be no grand explosion that jerks us awake, no single flash of light that leaves behind smoldering cities and deformed victims. Instead, it has created what the author Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.” The damage climate change is inflicting will be spread across generations, steadily intensifying, yet rarely dazzling. And so until it strikes our own backyards or of those we love, until something tangible is taken from us, the wreckage will remain abstract.

 

Back on shore, I made my way over to the day’s fish fry. It was at Back Door Saloon, a local bar and grill just across the street from the lake. Just about every adult there had a drink in hand. The mix of banter, music, and NBA games was deafening. On the back patio, a group carrying buckets and rods congregated around space heaters and plastic picnic tables. Fishermen were gutting their morning catch as Kurt announced the results of the day’s contest. He was still wearing his two baseball caps, one directly on top of the other. Envelopes of prize money in hand, he yelled out the names of the winners for each of the categories. Each was met with whooping and hollering.

The people I met there explained to me ice fishing’s importance to Houghton Lake. It’s the lifeblood of winter tourism, attracting travelers from across the United States and Canada. Ten thousand people flock to the lake each year for an event called Tip Up Town USA, which the local Chamber of Commerce has deemed “the premier ice fishing festival in north central Michigan.” The town depends on the lake freezing over. One woman, Adele, explained: “Without ice fishing, the population would drop even more…It keeps people coming to the hotels, it keeps the bait shops open, the gas stations going, the restaurants going.”

According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, more than a quarter of the Houghton Lake population lives in poverty. Without the influx of money that ice fishing brings each winter, there’s little doubt that number would swell. But she insisted that the importance of ice fishing goes deeper: “It’s not just to keep the businesses going.” No, she tells me, something more fundamental would be lost.

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Photo by Ben Ratner.

Adele spoke to me of the next generation. This, she said, is a source of pride for the ice fishing community in Houghton Lake: passing on the tradition so that it survives into the future. Nothing else can bring people together like this, she explained. She’s fond of a story from a recent competition: both a ninety-four-year-old woman who has been fishing since the 1940s and her five-year-old neighbor caught fish in the same day. The image of these two people—beginning and ending their lives venturing out onto a frozen lake—brought something home. I thought of the father-son pairs I met out on the ice. Now I’ve got him.

I had walked out onto the ice that morning because I wanted to understand climate change as something other than a threat to the world’s coastal cities—not because they are insignificant, but because they are too significant. The inhabitants of these places, like New Orleans and the Maldives, are on the front lines. They see the menace before them; they feel the clock ticking as the seas rise. But a town nine hundred miles from the nearest ocean, surrounded by snow in the middle of winter—what was there to learn? It was on the ice with the people of Houghton Lake that I finally understood: in a world that keeps on warming, the greatest hurdle we face is that of our own imagination.

The sun had nearly set as I left Back Door Saloon. I said my goodbyes and headed toward the snow-covered parking lot, the chatter fading as the doors to the patio slammed shut. I was met with a frigid blast of wind, which had not yet relented. As I turned onto Route 127, still basically deserted, I passed bait shops and car dealers and laundromats, all closed for the evening. The sky was a dark orange and growing murkier as I continued south. Soon, the town faded from view, and the empty shanties became smudges once more as night closed in around the lake—frozen solid, for now. ■

 

 

Ben Ratner is a musician, amateur cook, writer, and proud Midwesterner. He enjoys talking to strangers and has been to every park in Ann Arbor, Michigan—his hometown. He now lives in Detroit.

Cover image by Ben Ratner.

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