How to make a hole in the ice

No water? No sweat. Here's how to break the ice at the cottage

By Tom CarpenterTom Carpenter


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When I was a boy looking out across the wind-riffled water in front of the cottage, I asked why there were calm patches where the breeze seemed not to touch. Those places, I was told, were where the sawyers took ice from the bay in the wintertime and left only the smooth water behind. This information was offered with a perfectly straight face, just as it had been passed on to my mother in her childhood and probably as it came down to my grandfather from his father, James, the man with the twinkle in his eye in all the earliest family photos.

I believed the ice-cutting explanation implicitly; I knew all about the ice cutters, mysterious dark-clothed men who I imagined working through the winter, cutting up the bay and stashing it away in heavy-walled ice houses that they filled to the eaves with sawdust and chunks of frozen lake.

My earliest memories include the icebox on the back porch, and my older sister still remembers motoring down the channel to Charlie Vesair’s for a block of ice that he retrieved from storage and slid down a ramp to the waiting boat. My grandfather’s “sleeping cabin” was, I knew, the old ice house.

Nowadays, the only people who need to make holes in the frozen lakes and rivers are ice fishers—and cottagers. If you visit the cottage in the winter you’ll probably haul in your drinking water. Yet for everything else, that same endless supply of lake water is still right there. All you have to do is get at it. The only question is how?

Frankly, those people fishing on the bay aren’t going to be much help. Today, the well-equipped ice fisher has, in addition to an under-ice sonar, GPS uplink, and battery-operated bum-warmer, an internal-combustion ice auger. These make boring a hole in the ice a breeze. Unfortunately, given that they cost anywhere from $430 to $760, it would be cheaper to call a taxi back in the city and have the driver deliver two or three 20-litre jugs of water to your cottage door.

No, your serious options are as follows: manual ice auger, ice chisel, chainsaw or perhaps some combination of all three.

If you have one handy, go with the chainsaw. Unless you seek the silent pleasure of boring your way through the ice on a still winter’s day, fire up the infernal machine and make short work of the task. You’ll be gratified by the ease with which the chain cuts through ice; in fact, it’ll probably spoil you for the next time you have to spend an afternoon cutting oak logs to stove lengths.


This article was originally published on January 2, 2000

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