Early in January, sometimes on the very first day, a pop-up village appears in the middle of our small town in western Maine. One day there is nothing, the next, 20 or 30 houses. They seem to come out of nowhere, like toadstools after a rain, last about two months, then disappear one night, taking the village with them. The houses are small yet, like any house, have roofs and walls and windows and doors, and sometimes are carefully decorated inside. And these are the only buildings I know of that have a foundation not of wood or granite or cement, but of ice.

Ice shacks and the villages they create are an important part of life in a place like Maine, or in any of the other small towns in the northern tier of the United States. Unlike other communities, these villages have just one activity and purpose: to make ice fishing possible and more pleasant than it otherwise would be. On our pond, the ice-fishing season runs from January 1 to March 31, and on almost any day you can look across the pond and see fishermen puttering about in the village. Why, you wonder, would anyone subject themselves to those temperatures, the exposure, just to land a fish? The reason is that ice fishing is a refusal to give in to winter. When you live in a place with as much winter as this, a place where a pond can be frozen solid for one-third of the year, one has to find a way to cope. The ice houses make it possible not only to resist winter but to enjoy it.

On a Saturday last February, when it was 8 degrees outside and a brutal northwest wind swept across the pond, the village expanded, becoming a wicked-cold Woodstock, because an ice-fishing derby was under way. The village, complete with vehicles and roads, swelled to perhaps 300 people, about 150 of whom had signed up for the derby. At 300, it was larger than some of the hamlets in our county.

I took a stroll through the village that day. The shacks ranged from the barest —  four walls, a roof, a window, barely a floor — to impressively elaborate. As I walked by one of the latter, I admired its construction: 8-by-12-foot walls of ribbed-steel roofing panels over a 2-by-4 frame, with a roof slope of about 2 inches over 12 to shed the wind and snow. Waved inside by a friendly fisherman, I discovered a toasty space, thanks to the wood stove blazing in the center of the shack. There were three of us inside at first, and then eight, but homey all the same: food on the stove, plenty of supplies, pictures in frames, shelves, electrical wiring for a generator, even curtains on the windows. One could happily survive winter in a dwelling like this — not that anyone has, except in tales invented by old-timers.

The next day the village had lost half its population; by the first of March, it was a ghost town; in another month, there were no shacks and no trace that a village ever existed. Our pop-up villages are a reminder that winter, even in western Maine, is temporary. Someday, the pond will thaw.

Date Mounted: 1.1.14 | Duration: 60 days