My ice-fishing photo assignment was scheduled for February 28, 2020, just a couple of weeks before New York state would go into a lockdown. This was my last assignment for the Explorer before the pandemic hit. There were just 68 COVID-19 cases in the U.S. at that point, according to a CNN report. There was still little indication of what would be ahead.
As a result, I wasn’t concerned about COVID-19. Instead I was wondering if my assignment to join some ice fishermen would happen. Weather was threatening to cancel it. A snowstorm had brought with it strong gusts of wind and plenty of snow. It felt like the kind of day when you hunker down at home by the wood stove and wait for the temperatures to warm up before heading out to fish or ski or snowshoe.
But when I texted guide Matt Burnett about meeting up that morning, he confirmed the trip was still on. His client, who was kind enough to allow writer Tim Rowland and I to join for a story, was an avid angler who had travelled from Vermont to catch some fish and experience the remote feeling of being out on an Adirondack lake in the heart of winter. He wasn’t to be deterred by the harsh conditions.
When Tim and I arrived at Osgood Pond to find the anglers, the scene on the shoreline was snowy, but had become more calm and didn’t feel that different from an ordinary winter day. But out on the ice, the storm kicked it up a notch again and it felt more like a blizzard. Visibility was limited as wind blew the snow horizontally over the ice.
The conditions and the setting made the area feel extremely remote and the scene very wild. There were no other people on the lake. It was refreshing. The day had an old-school Adirondack feel to it.
The assignment was also different from many I’ve had at the Explorer. Often I’m on skiing or hiking trips where I’m moving through different landscapes. This assignment was pretty still. It felt good to not have to ski faster to get ahead of a trip companion for a shot, or hike faster to catch the sunrise before it was too late. The only change in the landscape came when the storm’s temperament changed.
Yes, it was frigid, but bearable because we were dressed appropriately. When we did get cold, we could go into the ice shanty to warm up or grab some venison dogs or a warm drink. Matt grew up in Long Lake, so he’s been ice fishing his whole life. For him, the experience was as much about socializing and enjoying the outdoors environment as it was about fishing. He knew how to make things comfortable.
Little did I know when I did this assignment that it would be my last bit of on-the-job outdoor freedom before the pandemic changed everything. Soon afterward, I would no longer be cramming into warming huts with other people or sharing rides to ski trips or hanging out in crowds. Instead, in the weeks ahead, I spent my time figuring out which masks were best to wear on the job, where I could get hand sanitizer, and how far apart I should be standing next to other people.
Luckily, most of my assignments are outdoors. My next assignment where I spent much time indoors wasn’t until late May when I toured the Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake. On that trip I was greeted by a woman who opened the door using a paper towel, so as not to touch it and potentially pick up germs. I was then asked to sign a form to confirm I hadn’t had a fever or COVID-19 symptoms before being allowed into the main part of the building. As it turned out, this was my next assignment with Tim after that ice-fishing trip. And we were the first visitors the lab had had since March. So much had changed between those assignments. Looking back, I’d take those single digit temps, howling winds, and blowing snow on Osgood Pond any day. Luckily, for those of in the Adirondacks, we still have that option.
Behinds the Lens is a regular column by multimedia reporter Mike Lynch about photography and his assignments. It appears the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month.