SEVERAL TIMES ALONG a path I have followed for more than 60 years of rambling around north Wisconsin, I have learned that you don’t want to mess with cold, near-freezing water.

Some adventures I’ve been a part of were humorous and indeed, once the adventurers returned home safe and sound the stories down through the years were laughed at over and over. However, the underlying thing I think about is that while the stories might have been funny after the fact, there is nothing funny about cold water incidents that could have turned tragic.

My first serious encounter with cold water that could have been deadly occurred when I was 13 years old and my oldest brother was 20. We were duck hunting on the second morning of the season. It had turned single-digit cold during the night and our chosen lake was partially skimmed over with quarter-inch thick ice.

No problem. We canoed to a blind bordered by open water. Our cousin and uncle were in a blind not far from us. About 9 a.m., we decided to pull up stakes. While picking up decoys, a flock of teal flew straight at us. We fired our first broadside shots at them and as I pumped in a second shell, my back hit the water.

That water was icy. Long story short, my cousin paddled his canoe to us, towed us and our canoe to shore where we hastily dumped out lake water, grabbed our decoys and paddled like mad for home. We survived, but it was a wake-up lesson I have never forgotten.

On another occasion, when my son, Brooks, was about 10 or thereabouts, he went ice fishing Christmas day with several of my cousins and uncle. The lake they were fishing was one of those shallow water bodies with no hard bottom, only silt going clear to China.

Some of them had fished it the day before and wary of the many springs there, had packed trails in wagon wheel spoke fashion. It was a cold Christmas day, a bit below zero. One of my cousins had a flag up and with Brooks as the gaff man, walked a spoke to his tip-up, caught a big northern pike and started walking back to a packed-down gathering spot.

Instead of following my cousin, Brooks started walking in the slushy, deep snow to the side of the path. Bloop; down he went. Out of pure natural reaction, my cousin reached over, grabbed Brooks by his coat collar and hauled him out of the lake. 

You would think the fishing party would have had sense enough to go home, get Brooks in dry clothes and warmed up, but no. With Brooks staunchly refusing, members of the party shed this piece of clothing and that piece of clothing, got the kid redressed and warm, and fished for several more hours. Thinking about that escapade still gives me shivers.

Speaking of good sense, there was an occasion when my regular fishing partner, Doug Drew, and I decided to go ice fishing on Big Muskellunge Lake the day after Thanksgiving. Doug had checked the north side of the lake in the morning and had found it ice-covered.

We were smart enough to take two 50-foot ropes with us just in case and we had planned to carefully spud our way out to make sure the ice was thick enough. Upon arriving, we saw another angler, a guy much bigger and heavier than us, already fishing. Naturally, geniuses that we were, we figured if the ice was thick enough for him, it was thick enough for us.

I headed out while Doug readied his gear. I walked to where a drop-off went to 15 feet from 10 in a hurry. Thunk, went my spud. Another half-thunk and, uh oh, the spud was through the ice. At most, the clear ice was 11⁄2 inches thick.

You would think two guys with college educations would be smart enough to go somewhere else where a lake with thicker ice would have been a safer choice; not these two geniuses. We fished. Each time a flag went up, only one guy went to the hole with the other guy ready to throw a rescue rope. We did a lot of tiptoeing on that ice and when dark came, we pulled out and, maybe, thanked our lucky stars a little that God does indeed look out for fools.

Occasionally, an encounter with extremely cold water is simply funny and stories told for years afterward can be met with legitimate laughter. Such was the case one year, when my dad and I were deer hunting in late season along Plum Creek.

I was sitting on my stand as directed by Dad, while he went off on a one-man still-hunt drive around me. At the creek, he decided to cross and push a thicket on that side. A good-sized log lay across the creek at that point and with his rifle unloaded, he started to walk across.

Not a good idea to cross a slippery, snow-covered log above 2 feet of rushing, icy water; down he went. Minutes later, he was back at my stand. We put together a stack of dead tree branches and pitch stumps to build a fire that soon roared 6 feet high. I found it sometimes expedient in later years to mention that episode when I, even in my 60s, sometimes still received lectures from Dad about not doing foolish things around icy waters.

One more quick story about what two of us thought of as a world-class icy water prank. In our high school days, a late March evening, my cousin, Brian, and a friend, Eddie Wenham, and I hauled a pickup truck load of firewood to Uncle Neal’s cabin on Plum Creek.

It was twilight when we finished unloading, at which time Eddie and I sprang our trap. Eddie had a fake $10 dollar bill, one looking genuine on one side with someone’s advertising on the other. We offered the money to Brian if he would strip and jump into a 6-foot deep swimming hole by the cabin. Glancing at the real-looking side of the bill, he took the bait.

In he jumped. Seconds later, he came out already turning blue. Grabbing the money, he saw the fake side, realized he’d been had and quite within his rights, swore he would kill us. We took off running, but do you know how hard it is to run when you’re bent over double laughing?

Bottom line: later it may seem funny, but seriously, never take near-freezing water for granted. 

Cold water is no joke to an outdoors person.