Staring death in the eye, he said”No problem”

My buddy Duane and I have been going up to Ely to help with the ice harvest for the past five years. The event is a throw back to the days before electric refrigerators. While electric power reached American cities in the late 1800’s, much of rural America did not get power until FDR’s Rural Electrification program during the 1930’s. Many rural areas in northern Minnesota did not get electricity until the 1950’s. Farmers joined Rural Electric Cooperatives and in many cases had to help dig in the posts and string the wire.

Electricity revolutionized life for farmers. One of the first things they bought were washing machines. Imagine how the machine most of us take for granted, changed the life of a farm wife? Refrigeration was another life changer. Prior to freezers, farmers had to salt and smoke meats. Butchering was not done until the weather was predictably cold. Milk and other perishables could now be kept from spoiling without the labor required to maintain an icebox.

Iceboxes are pieces of furniture with insulated compartments with ice on the bottom and the food on top. A small drain hole in the bottom let the melted water out. Large ice companies built huge warehouses next to bodies of water, usually lakes, so the ice could be cut and transported into the insulated icehouses. Often the ice warehouse was serviced by a railroad so the ice could be shipped and sold across the country.

The ice warehouses had heavily insulated walls and roofs. The ice blocks were packed in sawdust. Stored this way, the ice held from the end of the harvest, through the winter and to the beginning of the next winter.

Preparation for harvesting ice began when the ice was thick enough to walk on. Crews of workers kept the ice free of snow to increase the depth and clarity of the ice. Ice contaminated by snow does not keep as well as solid ice.

When the ice was deemed thick enough, large crews of laborers were mobilized. The goal was to harvest the needed amount of ice in the shortest amount of time. The ice fields were scored using a grid system. A horse pulled a marker and a spacer guide that had short teeth to mark out the lines. Once the ice was scored, a horse drawn ice cutter cut a groove into the ice. The knife did not cut all the way through to the water. A chisel and saw were used to free the first block of ice. Once the first block was removed, the next blocks were broken off with a chisel or cut with an ice hand saw. The free floating blocks were floated to a hoist here they were conveyed to the ice house. Once inside, laborers stacked the cubes into layers and rows. Sawdust was added to keep them from freezing together.

Pictures show the ice plows usually being pulled by one horse and the horse being led, not driven from behind. Also the horse is hooked to the plow at a distance by a rope. This was done to minimize side pressure on the plow and prevent the shear from snapping off. Also a heavy rope was looped around the horse’s neck in case of a emergency. Even though the horses were shod, they were susceptible to slipping into the open water. If a horse went in, the men would grab the rope and choke off it’s wind. This caused two things to happen. It would prevent the horse from inhaling water and drowning. Second, it would trap the air in the horse, making it more buoyant and easier to haul out.

My dad told us about how they cut ice on the farm. Their ice harvest involved the whole neighborhood. All of the neighbors would converge on a beaver pond on Daggett Brooke on a cold winter day with their horses and bob sleds. A hole would be cut and chunks sawed free with one handled ice saws. He remembered times when the water was so low, there would be mud and sticks imbedded in the chunks of ice. Fortunately they didn’t need to drink the water from the ice. I’m sure these neighborhood ice harvests were common throughout the northern states.

The Ely ice harvest is a little more modern. Chain saws, minus the bar oil, are used to score the ice. Oil would contaminate the water. Also the chain saw does not cut all the way through. If it comes in contact with water, the chain will freeze. Hand saws are used to cut blocks approximately six by six feet. A line is attached to the block. The block is bounced in the water until one edge catches the edge of a plank. Once this happens a group of people grab the rope and pull the block onto the adjacent ice. The big blocks are cut into smaller cubes of clear ice about sixteen inches square. These are loaded on a sled and hauled to the icehouse on top of the hill with horses.

The horsepower this year was provided by 4 Shire horses. These horses performed admirably, given the steep grade up the side of the lake. They have to be able to work and pull together. A rope and pulley system was used to even out the load. Even so, the teamster had to be able to manage the lines to control the speed and direction of the leaders and the wheel team for everything to work correctly.

Duane and I did not supply the horses this year. It was nice to attend under these circumstances. My percherons, Mick and Bud, hauled the ice the first two years. The first year, the temperature did not get above 20 below zero. It was brutal but not as dramatic as 2011.

To set the stage for this adventure, you need to know a few things. Cedar lake is about a dozen miles out of Ely. It is at the end of a road that gets smaller and smaller and increasingly hillier and curvier. To haul a team and a sled you need at least a 20 foot stock trailer and a full size four wheel drive truck. The last three miles, before you turn into the mile long driveway, are marked by a sign ” minimum maintenance road”. In 2011, a winter with ample snow in the Arrowhead region, this portion was being maintained as a snowmobile trail.

Duane, a retired professional truck driver, was at the wheel of my Dodge one ton and 20 foot fifth wheel trailer. When we reached the place in the road where the snowplow had turned around, I asked ” So what do we do now?” Without missing a beat he said “No problem, we’ll just keep going”. Snow banks scratching the sides of the trailer, it was clear backing out or turning around were not options. “What if we meet someone”? I asked “They will have to back up” . “What about when we get to those hills?” ” Put it in four wheel drive”.

Amazingly we made it around the curves and up the hills. I noticed he was taking the curves as wide as he could and that the trailer was crowding the snow banks. Every once in a while an overhanging tree would slam into the trailer. I don’t know who winced more, the trailer’s owner or the horses. I don’t have to say, I breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the parking area. Duane wiggled the trailer around in a tight space. Soon we had the sled unloaded, horses hooked, and started hauling ice. The day itself went very well.

At day’s end we loaded Duane’s team of Belgium horses, Duke and Bud, and the sled into the trailer. Tired and cold, we said our goodbyes. Dusk was upon us by the time we warmed up the truck. Knowing what the first four miles held, I quietly took a deep breath and said a prayer. Lights on, diesel engine revved up, we set out. “God, please don’t let us meet anyone”, I said to myself.

As we approached the curve and hill from hell, I held my breath. Duane eased her on, trying to hug the outside without putting the front tire over the edge of the ditch we couldn’t see. Half way up the hill, the thing I feared most, if I had thought of it, happened. Suddenly a lone light shot over the hill and headed straight towards us. I gasped! The snowmobiler saw us at the same instant and slammed on his brakes. Unable to do anything else, Duane brought the truck and trailer to an abrupt stop. But not before the right front wheel slid over the edge. A birch tree lodged against my door. I had to crawl out the driver’s door.

We are miles from nowhere, deep in wolf infested wilderness, it’s getting dark. I check my cell phone. Of course, “No service”. “What do we do now?” I asked. “No, problem.” he said, “Start shoveling”. Ok, sounds like a plan. After shoveling the front wheel free, Duane was able to rock the truck free. Backing as far down the hill as he could, he took a run at it. The truck roared and inched up the hill. Halfway up, it started to slide toward the ditch. Stop, back up, try again. Halfway through the third try, a set of headlights appeared at the top of the hill and inched toward us. It was a pickup truck, a four wheel drive we hoped. The driver got out. A conversation ensued. The driver tried to back the truck up the hill. No luck. Now we had a truck between us and the rest of our now short lives.

“What do we do now”? I asked, starting to sound like a broken record. “Unload the sled and get the horses out”. “What if they can’t pull it”? Duane smiled “Guess we’ll have to shoot-um”. I almost said, “but we don’t have a gun” until I realized he was kidding. We slid the sled out, and unloaded the team. The horses had to scramble up and over the snow bank. The truck’s owner shook his head as he hooked the chain to the truck’s trailer hitch and then to the eveners. Duane gave the driver the signal to start backing up. He chuckled to Bud and Duke. They dug in. Snow flying from all eight feet, they hauled that pickup up and over the hill. The driver pulled over to the side at a wide spot. It was obvious there was no point in hooking his truck to our truck.

“Ok, now what”? I asked? “Get the chain, hook it to the front of the truck.” The horses rested quietly while we reloaded the sled. I shook my head. I thought to myself, “There isn’t any way they were going to pull a one ton dully and a 20 foot featherlight up and over a hill on a slippery road”. It was really dark by now. I could imagine a pack of hungry wolves licking their jowls, lurking in the dark woods just out of sight. With our options rapidly diminishing, I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

Sled loaded, horses hooked, I climbed into the truck. I double checked, yup, it was in four wheel drive. Duane steadied himself, gathered up the lines, glanced in my direction, nodded and chuckled to his team. I gently let out the clutch. The truck, wheels caught in a rut, inched toward the ditch. The horses eased into their collars. Duane chuckled again. What happened next was absolutely remarkable.

Once they felt the weight, those boys lowered their bodies and dug in. The truck began to straighten out and move forward. I grasp the steering wheel with both fists, but didn’t really need to. The horses held it straight. Snow flew from all four wheels as we roared toward the top. Inch by inch, foot by foot, Duke and Bud never let up. Duane’s steps became strides as we picked up speed. We crested the hill before Duane and the team stopped. Duane turned to look at me. He was grinning from ear to ear. He didn’t need to say anything else.

We walked the team to end of the driveway and onto the main road. After unloading the sled, loading the horses and reloading the sled, we started out. It was now completely dark so it was easy to see the oncoming head lights. I almost said “What do we do now?” When Duane said, “We ain’t gonna back up”. The cars stopped. A conversation ensued. We found a flat spot on the side of the road and started shoveling, just enough for a car. The car pulled in, we pulled by. The car went on. We backed up. The second car pulled in. We pulled by and went on our way. Fortunately we didn’t meet anyone else until we got to town.

As we approached the City of Ely, I started to breath again. I glanced at the clock. It was after 7. I realized we had not eaten all day. “How about stopping for a sandwich”. Duane said “Sounds good”
Just to test his unflappableness I asked “What if their out of coffee?” “We will have to shoot them” “But we don’t have a gun”.

That’s the day I learned that sometimes it’s best to just look death in the eye, grin and say “no Problem”.

A four horse hitch pulled the sled load of ice up the steep grade

Pulling a large block of ice from the water

5 Replies to “Staring death in the eye, he said”No problem””

  1. Ed, I think the Shires were Lisa Ringer’s and Mike Bertume was up helping her. I know Mike and Lisa were coming up there. Was that part of that Will Steger deal? I was giving rides on Sat so couldn’t come up. And by the way your stories are part of what I check out every night along with the rural heritage front porch. Keep up the good work,I really enjot them.

  2. I love this adventure and thanks for sharing it once again Mr. Ed.
    You are an innovative, progressive person sharing the past with those in the present. You make me smile.

  3. This takes problem solving to a height, depth, width,and imaginative intensity that is beyond any experience we ever had. Every one needs a Mr. Ed story to put life in perspective anywhere, anytime. I will never look at an ice cube with the same indifference again! Minnesota folks simply leave me awestruck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *