©Bert Gildart: Stringing a net beneath 70 feet of ice in -30°F temperatures, and then returning to a remote Athabascan Village located immediately adjacent to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with well over 200 pounds of fish should certainly rank as an “extreme” experience.
For me it was the ultimate ice fishing experience, and I’m reminded of it now as I’ve just enjoyed some darn good outings with my group of Grumpy Old Men . What’s more, we’re soon to depart on another Airstream adventure , and such outings seem to prompt reflection.
But serving as even more of a reminder was a telephone visit this past weekend with my very good native friend, Kenneth Frank, of Arctic Village, Alaska , the man who invited me to accompany him several years ago. Whenever we visit long distance, as we’ve done many times over the past 18 years, we always visit about some of our many adventures together, none the least of which was our trip to Old John Lake on one very brutal Arctic day.
To better envision the setting, first you must fly to Fairbanks, then transfer to a small nine passenger bush plane and fly to Fort Yukon on the Yukon River. This is the latitude designating the Arctic Circle, that point at which the sun neither rises nor sets on the day noted by the equinoxes.
But we were flying further north; we were flying yet another 100 miles north to the Gwich’in Indian village of Arctic Village, inhabited by a group of about 80 men, women and children. Here, because we’d be so far north, in winter, the sun is obscured far longer than just the one day experienced at Fort Yukon. Here the sun is obscured for months.
In this setting live the most northern of all Indian groups, virtually all of whom we know from having worked in a summer school teaching program there in the early 1990s.
Residents befriended us, and now we continue to remain in constant contact, once having spent four months on the Yukon in our Johnboat visiting Kenneth and Caroline and other Gwich’in Indians in other villages, all of whom we’ve come to know well. But Arctic Village is the point to which Janie and I returned for my extreme ice-fishing trip
This particularly ice fishing trip, however, was made in November, and several days after Janie and I reached Arctic Village, Kenneth and I loaded his two snowmobiles, then rode them over Datchanlee Mountain arriving 13 miles later at Old John Lake.
The temperature was -36°F, and on this late November day the sun just barely rose above the level of the horizon, where it then floated for several hours before dipping down below the horizon to create what is known as Civil Twilight.
“Look hard and enjoy it,” said Kenneth. “In another week the sun will be gone and we won’t see it until February.”
Time was critical for Kenneth that day, but first he tested the ice by walking out about 100 yards, listening for any signs of weakness. Satisfied, we drove the snowmobiles to a point where he said he knew from summer experiences that a drop off existed.
Kenneth then dug out his ice auger and we took turns drilling 10 holes over a distance of about 70 feet. The holes were all in a straight line facilitating placement of a net beneath the ice. To do so, Kenneth then took a pole about 12 feet long, attached one end of the net to the tip, and then shoved it to the next hole where I was waiting.
Reaching into the water, I’d grab the pole with net, anchor it until Kenneth moved up to where I was, then we’d repeat the process with Kenneth now shoving the pole toward hole number three where I was again waiting–and looking.
In this way we positioned a 70-foot-long net beneath the ice, which was weighted on the bottom to keep it open, giving it (if you were underwater and could see it) a fence-like appearance.
Then we returned to Arctic Village. By now it was dark, and northern lights blazed overhead, creating all the light we needed to find our trail.
Next day Kenneth and I again returned to Old John. We cracked open the holes now skimmed with ice with an ax, and then grabbed the far end of the net. We attached a 70-foot-long rope so we could easily reposition the net later by pulling. Then Kenneth pulled the net up through the ice at the far hole.
“Anchor the rope,” called out Kenneth in the clear Arctic air. “Then come see what we’ve got.”
Walking over to the net I could see fish of various species to include lots of whitefish, trout, and one Kenneth called a lush. When finished Kenneth and I calculated he had about 250 pounds of fish that would augment his supply of caribou meat and so feed his family.
I’ll never forget the experience, nor will Janie and I forget Kenneth, Caroline, Tishina, and Crystal–his entire family–who once visited us here in Montana. They remain among some of our best friends and we are hoping to see them again this summer.
And then, who knows, perhaps we’ll plan another extreme ice fishing trip, or perhaps a river-boat trip to Old Crow, Yukon Territories , where the Gwich’in Gathering will be held this summer.