MILLE LACS, MINN. — "No seat belts on in case we go down," ice-fishing guide Kristine Szczech said. "Keep your windows cracked to get out."
Our all-female caravan crunched over the frozen waters of Mille Lacs in the pitch-dark Minnesota evening. The snow was blowing sideways, and the temperature had dropped to 10 below zero. As we searched for our ice fishing shacks, we could hear the sound of ice booming below the vehicles.
"Are those cracks?" my friend Kristin Benson asked.
"No," I answered, "just the ice shifting."
Benson stared dead ahead, white-knuckling the wheel. She had never driven on a frozen lake.
Afraid? Absolutely not. I was thrilled to be ice fishing again. I grew up in an ice-fishing family. But many women have never gone ice fishing or driven on ice, including five in our group of 10. People often ask why when you talk about ice fishing. For me, it's the magic of a fish appearing out of nowhere through ice, like a rabbit out of a hat. Of course, there's also the pleasure of being outdoors, taking in all the super fresh air.
Last winter, I joined a program run by the Minnesota chapter of Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, a nationwide group that attracts 20,000 women a year to its events. The group's goal is to get women to learn outdoor skills in a safe, supportive environment.
Our two-day odyssey took place on Mille Lacs, about 100 miles north of Minneapolis. At more than 200 square miles, Mille Lacs is one of Minnesota's largest inland lakes. And it's venerated when it comes to the walleye, the lake's most sought-after and tastiest fish.
To locate our ice shacks, we drove our five vehicles about three miles out on the lake.
After driving for 30 minutes, I had the uncomfortable feeling that we were lost.
Out of the inky night came the headlights of a tow truck driven by Ben Sanftner, of Mac's Twin Bay resort. "You OK?" he shouted. In the winter, he takes care of the ice shacks owned by Mac's Twin Bay. He led us to shacks F and B.
We unloaded food and fishing equipment into our shacks, which contained carpeting, propane heat, beds and indoor toilets.
Each shack was an eight-holer. "Don't step in the floor holes," said Szczech, who quickly set up lures and splashed fishing lines into them.
I grew up calling them ice shacks, but they're also called fish houses or ice fishing houses. Back then, they were bolted sections of plywood to keep the wind out. Some are still plywood, but you can pay more than $15,000 for a customized "private."
When you rent or own a shack on Mille Lacs you become part of a deeply obsessed community of winter fishermen; more than 5,000 shelters sprout on the lake from December to February.
At 6 a.m. Saturday, I walked over to Cabin B for caffeine and to chart our course with Szczech. On my way back, I stopped to take a snapshot of our shack. I didn't know someone was taking a picture of me photographing the shack. Shifting to focus, she momentarily forgot about the holes. That's how Isabel Subtil, a native of Portugal, baptized her right leg in the gelid waters.
Subtil removed her right sock, which had frozen, and changed pants. She was lucky. You can break a limb that way.
Five of us piled into three vehicles, including a demo ice fishing ATV called the Wilcraft. The rig, which looked like a Mars rover and a fold-down camping trailer, has holes in the floor for fishing.
To catch walleye on Mille Lacs, you have to know where they live. And Szczech did. "We're heading toward the mud flats," she said.
A mud flat is a mucky, flat-topped hill that rises 6 to 10 feet higher than the lake bottom. Flats are rich with organisms that attract smaller baitfish. Bigger fish feed off them.
About an hour later, we arrived at the flats. Szczech used an ice auger to drill three holes.
She then drove the Wilcraft over it, centering on the holes.
"The depth finder helps you hone in on the fish," Szczech said, adjusting a TV monitor.
"How do you know if you have a fish?" Kristin asked.
"There's a tap, a pull," said Szczech.
I eagerly awaited a fish. Two hours later, I hadn't caught one, but I knew those tricksters were down there. Occasionally, I'd see a prickly finned walleye checking my bait.
After a day in the cold, it was a lovely thing to return to a shack that was steaming with sublime food smells.
Subtil was preparing cataplana, a layered fish dish famous in the Algarve, the southern region of Portugal. She also supplied three bottles of superb Portuguese wine. We slept well that night.
On Sunday morning, I awoke to light snow. Our mission was to head north on the lake toward the Boot Flats. The light was so flat that there was little definition between snow and horizon, and if there was a road, it had been blown out by drifts of snow.
Before we knew it, we were stuck. Soon, Minnesotan Jerry Kral showed up. With ropes and shovels, we spent the next hour digging us out. The trailer finally budged.