Ice-Fishing

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Sakhalin Island, Russia
By Rowena Lambert

Rush Hour: a snowmobile on the Sea of Okhotsk
Rush Hour: a snowmobile on the Sea of Okhotsk
As we hurtled past snow-covered fields at 120 kilometers per hour on an icy road, Jen and I exchanged looks. We were familiar with the high road traffic accident statistics on Sakhalin Island, and frankly, didn’t want to become one of them. In the driver’s seat, Sascha, our local guide, cheerily hummed along to the Russian rock blasting from the speakers.

“Are there no seatbelts?” Jen had asked tentatively when we got in the car.
“I will not crash!” Sascha breezily assured us.

We were not exactly reassured.

It was just after dawn on Sakhalin, a Russian island off the Siberian coast. A group of five of us had booked a guide and equipment and were going ice-fishing on the Sea of Okhotsk. It was a beautiful clear day and the bright blue sky was gradually losing the last traces of pink on the horizon.

We arrived in one piece after our death-defying drive and bundled ourselves up in the spare coats, hats, boots and dungarees Sascha had brought for us. It was -10 degrees Celsius, warm for a Sakhalin winter, but nonetheless chilly when you’re sitting out on a frozen sea for hours, so we didn’t stint on the gear. We piled on layer after layer like children raiding a dressing up box until our arms stuck out from our sides and we had to roll along like gangsta rappers because our legs were so insulated. The clothes were definitely chosen for practicality rather than aesthetics and we certainly wouldn’t be winning any fashion awards in our motley work gear.

“At least we’ll never lose you,” Richard told Lorraine, who was modelling a bright orange one-piece jumpsuit.

Christian looked very fetching in a stylish fur collar and some nifty camouflage prints, which were about as much camouflage on a glaring white ice sheet as Lorraine’s eye-watering orange boiler suit. I was given a terrorist-style black balaclava with eyeholes, which would have been useful had I wanted to hold anyone up on the ice but made me feel like I was being smothered.

Feeling like astronauts in our weighty boots and Michelin Man outfits, we trooped down to Lesnoye beach, which looked like a lunar landscape. The ice was over a metre thick and stretched out 20km or so from the shore. We piled onto a big sledge on the back of a snowmobile and were towed across the ice until we reached a spot a couple of kilometres from the land. The ice was covered in thick snow and was a lot less smooth than one might expect, and we bounced along over the lumps and ditches.

ike Bondi Beach: throngs on the ice
ike Bondi Beach: throngs on the ice
Sascha opened his bag and – like a weird Russian Mary Poppins – pulled out a hand augur. It looked like a giant corkscrew and was used to bore holes in the ice in much the same way as you’d open a bottle of wine…if the bottle was the size of a car and the cork a metre thick.

I liked the drilling. It was strangely satisfying to whirl the handle with all your strength and watch the slushy water rush up when you’d drilled through. My patch of ice looked like Swiss cheese with all the holes I’d made. We set up little wooden stools next to the holes and dropped down a metre and a half or so of tough translucent wire with hooks, which was attached to a plastic handle with orange bobbles on. As is perhaps evident from my lack of correct terminology, I was no pro when it came to the fishing portion of the programme. The drilling, yes, I could get to grips with that, but the fishing…not so much. It wasn’t that it was difficult: you just had to sit mindlessly for ages until you felt a twitch on the line, then yank it up, hand over hand, as fast as possible to find a small saffron cod or smelt wriggling on a hook. Call me a wuss (and everyone did, so you would be in good company) but I hated to see the fish writhing and dying, so whenever I caught one I would slip it back into the hole. Sascha tutted and shook his head in exasperation at my wimpiness, but the fish were so small and I felt sorry for them having survived the icy blackness down there only to die on the ice.

So the fishing itself was not my forte, but it was fun to sit and contemplate the mountains and frozen wastes while sipping a bevy. It seems that for Russians, fishing is simply drinking with a rod and line in your hand, and early on in the proceedings Sascha pulled out a couple of bottles of vodka and vintage cognac “to warm us up.” Why people bother with scarves and hats when you can warm the old cockles with a shot, I don’t know.

New Curtains Anyone?: fish drying in a window
New Curtains Anyone?: fish drying in a window
After a few hours of um, intense, uh, fishing – if that’s what we’re calling drinking these days – Sascha’s mate Vladimir set up a little stove on the ice and began to cook the fish. The stove did seem like a bad idea – one that might lead to a sudden whoosh of melting ice and us all ending up in the sea, like in a cartoon – but apparently the ice was thick enough to withstand the heat. You can drive a big car onto the ice and park it with the engine running and the ice won’t crack, or so they tell you. I have a healthy respect for ice since reading “Little Women” when I was a kid, and this was corroborated by the stories my Russian friend Valery told me about the occasional fisherman floating away on patches of ice that break off towards the end of the season. They venture a little too close to the edge of the ice sheet, drill their hole and sink their line, and suddenly find themselves bobbing around at sea on their own tiny icy island, waiting for a helicopter to come and rescue them.

Richard, Jen and I wandered off for a look around and a snowball fight, which degenerated into a pushing match and collective cold wet slush down the backs of our necks. There were hundreds of tiny pockets of people scattered around the icy landscape, all of them huddled over little holes. It was like the Siberian equivalent of a beach scene. The fish were either cooked there and then, or – more commonly – taken home to dry out in lines strung up across windows. They were then salted and eaten with beer or sold at street stalls.

After our ice picnic, we packed up the stuff and hitched a snowmobile ride back to the cliffs. We shed our millions of layers and got back in the car for another white-knuckle ride back to town. By this point, I was too warm and sleepy to care much and dozed off, dreaming of the hot bath that had my name on it.





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