SI Vault
Ron Rau
December 28, 1981
Each winter the northern lake beckons with its promise of fish below and frolic above, prevailing against, and even thriving upon, the intrusion and modern inventions of man
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December 28, 1981

Frozen For The Ages

Each winter the northern lake beckons with its promise of fish below and frolic above, prevailing against, and even thriving upon, the intrusion and modern inventions of man

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The power augers are one of the new noises on the lake in wintertime. From a distance they sound like chain saws, another relatively new winter noise. Everyone in the north country now owns a chain saw. And a snowmobile.

I wonder what the Old Man thinks of all this new stuff out on the ice. I know what I think of it. Mostly, I don't like it, even if we did cross the lake in under five minutes. A half-hour walk would have been fine with me, but it would have offended my father, who relishes the fact that we are transported so quickly. I am an anomaly, resisting change. He is, after all, the one who remembers horses on the lake.

We fish away from the crowd and find only small perch. We move closer, into the crowd, and see a few bluegill scattered on the ice. We fish, unsuccessfully, until sunset, then pick up our gear, load it onto the snowmobile and head homeward. I'm still wondering about all this new stuff out on the ice. And at home. We will, thanks to the snowmobile, arrive in time for the six o'clock news. Television is relatively new to the lake, too.

The people and paraphernalia gathered around this frozen inland lake offer an interesting study in contemporary Michigan social trends. Most of the people are up from the southern counties for the Christmas holidays. Hold your left hand out in front of you, palm outward, and you have a ready-made map of Michigan's lower peninsula. Draw a line across the knuckles of your hand and anything below is known, redundantly, as "down below." Anything above is "up north." Down below are the automobile factories and, therefore, the population centers. Up north is the resort and woodland area. The lake I go to is situated somewhere on the middle knuckle of your forefinger.

Before Michigan's extensive north-south expressway system was built, the lake was much harder to reach from down below. Coming from Detroit, you had to drive through the cities of Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw and Bay City, and then through the smaller towns of Kawkawlin, Linwood, Pinconning and Standish, and then you had to slow down passing through Omer, Twining, Whittemore and Hale. Now, once you're on the expressway system, you can drive from Detroit to the lake and make only three turns.

But the expressway system isn't the only reason the lake is populated during Christmastime—and the rest of the winter, for that matter. Two other major technological innovations have helped: The snowmobile is one, television is the other.

The boys, my son and my nephew, are enraptured by both. I spend a great deal of time each winter trying to separate them from the evils of what I call snomovision. It is the posture associated with these activities that I object to. Both are done sitting down.

It would be difficult to say which has had the greatest impact on the northern Michigan woodlands. They appeared very early, and at the same time. WNEM-TV of Saginaw was the first to penetrate the Lake Huron side of the state after it built a 1,060-foot tower in 1956. Earlier, WPBN-TV of Traverse City and WWTV of Cadillac had started beaming signals into the woods on the Lake Michigan side. Full network viewing came with the addition of stations in Alpena and Cheboygan, creating a solid belt of mindless distraction across the north woods. And the migration began. Not only did people go north for winter holidays, but many decided to retire there as well. Businesses that normally closed for the winter months found it profitable to remain open. The influx of population created a winter economy where before there had been none. To the anthropologist, it might seem that television had replaced religion as the opiate of the people. TV provided an indoor diversion; the snowmobile brought transportation flexibility.

The impact of snomovision at the Bluegill Hole soon became apparent. Instead of 10 or 12 men and boys in wool mackinaws and hunting pants, there were 25 or 30 people, half of them wearing shiny nylon, rasping-as-they-walked, multi-emblemed, space-age snowmobile outfits. Water sloshed in the fishing holes with the passing of each snowmobile safari. Oldtimers, eager for a new excuse, claimed that this spooked the fish, and they cast disgruntled looks at the "weekenders."

"Water skiers in the summer and these people in the winter. They're probably the same people."

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