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Horsepower, ingenuity pull last remaining fish house from Little Bass Lake

BEMIDJI – Call it the Last Fish House in Northern Minnesota.

Just don’t call it on ice (not anymore), an easy haul (it wasn’t), or in pristine condition (minor dings). Not after Thursday, at least.

The first eighth-mile went swimmingly. Two 1,500-pound Belgian horses hauled the fish house, on its trailer, across Little Bass Lake on a cloudless, wind-free and cold Thursday morning. Powder flew, the horses ran, and a foursome of men struggled to keep up. But as the beasts approached Joe Dahlby’s land, a right turn was required.

Then, it got ugly.

“They’re demoralized,” said Ivan Stauffer in a thick-as-mud Pennsylvania Dutch accent.

The horses – Ben and Nick – couldn’t pull the fish house anymore. Its wheels had sunk into slush previously hidden under three feet of snow.

“Hep, hep,” Ivan’s son Marvin, 20, yelled.

He slapped the reins on the horses’ rears, and the beasts lunged, snorting with frustration. Ben took a seat.

“That’s what they do when they think they’re starting to sink,” Ivan said. “They lay down.”

Ben and Nick were given a pep talk.

“You have to help us out here, guys. I know you can pull it if you put your mind to it,” Joe pleaded.

Their tails dipped in ice, hooves soaked and auburn fur accumulating frost, Ben and Nick were about done.

Joe knew he was in trouble last week. His fish house, the last remaining on the lake, and possibly one of the last in the area, was stuck – frozen to a frozen lake. Joe notified the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that he wouldn’t make the Monday deadline to remove his fish house.

“This has been an ordeal,” he said.

Joe was there last Wednesday, as were Ivan and Marvin, Amish produce farmers from Leonard.

Their task that day: free the fish house.

Using chainsaws and pickaxes, the trio spent nearly four hours un-sticking the structure.

But that was just the beginning. The horses had to be readied, the Stauffer’s services acquired and a path to the lonely fish house cleared.

Call it the Last Fish House in Northern Minnesota: Part I.

Thursday brought the sequel.

“We’re at the point you get when you’re lost and you start throwing all your clothes off,” Ivan said. “That’s a dangerous syndrome.”

With Ben and Nick blowing steam, Ivan cleared the fish house of its contents – chairs, a propane tank, a car battery, a radio.

“Still works,” he said, turning it on and flashing a snow-white grin. “Must be good batteries.”

Throughout the project – it took more than two hours to travel 250 feet, the distance separating the fish house from the shore – 50-year-old Ivan hustled.

A short man with endless energy and beaming blue eyes, Ivan stopped chatting only to dig, pry or pull. Even in the midst of labor, there were still words.

“Look how that slush sticks to the shovel. That’s kind of interesting.”

As progress slowed, first to feet, then inches, the plotting became more involved and Ben and Nick became less of a factor. It was a situation in which many might have given up. When two, 1,500-pound horses can’t get the job done, what good can men do?

Lots, apparently.

There were no motors, no gasoline, no electricity. The tools used were the most simple. Their effectiveness has been proven over the centuries, aided by physics and ingenuity. Ivan and Marvin used logs as fulcrums and pry bars as levers. Once the fish house trailer’s axle was off the ice, wood planks were jammed in front of the tires. The 12-foot strips provided a road for the final stretch.

Ben and Nick were off the hook.

Slowly, and with inches gained by a hand winch manned by Ivan, the fish house was pulled to shore.

The Last Fish House in Northern Minnesota was off the ice.

Joe’s ordeal was over, but not before one last quip.

“I guess we know what we’ll need to do next year.”

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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