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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fishermen Find Peace on Ice Patch




TOMSK, Western Siberia -- What kind of man would stand for hours in the middle of a frozen river in the middle of Siberia in the middle of winter, battered by winds that could snap an oak and temperatures that would scare an Eskimo?


Who would be crazy enough to stick live worms in his mouth to keep them warm, drill a hole in the ice with a corkscrew taller than he is, drop a line through the hole and wait patiently until an unsuspecting fish happened by?


Why, a Russian man, of course. In fact, a few million of them.


Each winter weekend, fortified by nothing more than a mug of soup and a bottle of vodka, the men of Russia traipse off through endless expanses of snow to stand on huge stretches of ice in the hope of pulling a few small, mostly indigestible carp or perch from the icy depths beneath them.


"What do you mean, why?" Igor Makharov, 54, shouted in response to the obvious question. An engineer, Makharov was standing in the middle of the Tom River here, not 10 minutes' walk from the center of the city. Other men -- always alone -- had fanned out across the frozen river, each boring holes through the 2-foot floor of ice.


The temperature stood at minus 32 degrees Celsius, but Makharov was in heaven. "I don't know how people live without ice fishing," he said. "If you had ever done it even once, you wouldn't have to ask such a ridiculous question."


"Ice fishing is the only real way I have ever found to forget my troubles completely. It is the most peaceful thing a man can do."


It also seems to be the perfect expression of two immutable Russian traits: a love of suffering and a mystical soul. Standing alone, swallowed by vistas of white on every side, gives any Russian who wants it the chance to star, if only in his own mind and only for a little while, in a personal version of "Dr. Zhivago" or "War and Peace."


Nobody ever says what they catch. It doesn't matter. Russian men will stand on a sheet of ice until their toes freeze, carefully bending over with a soup ladle to flick unwanted chunks of ice from a lovingly crafted fishing hole. They will return to the same spot on the same river or lake week after week, certain that their spot has a special meaning that could not be found anywhere else on earth.


The routine never varies. The men lower a lure -- a worm warmed by mouth or kept alive pinned in an armpit -- and then they retreat to a stool and a bottle for a half-hour to see what happens. Like so much of Russian life itself, the experience is really a challenge: the ultimate outward-bound event.


It can also be perilous. Ice fishing may sound sedate, but it is often deadly. So far in Russia, more than 50 people have died ice fishing this winter. Some fell through unexpected cracks in the ice. Two froze to death. Several simply drifted on a broken ice floe out to sea.


"There is a little risk to everything that's wonderful," said Sergei Shubov, 44, an electrician. He argues that serenity and isolation are well worth a small chance of frostbite or death.


"Look at Russia's favorite summer hobby," he said. "Do you know how many people die gathering poison mushrooms every year? It doesn't mean it isn't fun."


There must be something to the serenity, because nobody could be doing this for the fish. A man can stand from morning until night, often wrapped in a plastic garbage bag with a hole big enough for a bottle, and his catch can amount to three to five scrawny white fish.


"I don't really do it for the fish," said Shubov. "I don't even eat them. I do it for the chance to be alone with my thoughts."


Asked if he thought it was a rather extreme way of getting to know himself better, Shubov laughed.


"This is how Russians relax," he said. "Who said it's supposed to be comfortable?"