As the ice-fishing season winds down, an immersive outdoor exhibition celebrating the heritage of the winter angling tradition on the Great Lakes also comes to a close. Featuring the photographic work of National Geographic Explorer Amy Sacka, Last Ice, which showed through Sunday at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan, hearkened to the past with a nostalgic finality. The exhibit’s haunting black-and-white photography is at once a tribute, an ode, and a lament.

The tribute is to Sacka’s father, a 50-year ice angler. The ode is to the culture of Great Lakes ice fishing that he embodies. And the lament is to the threat of loss that culture faces. Frozen in the stark beauty of the photographs, these heart strings are appropriately portrayed in an outdoor setting on a frigid lakeshore in a northeastern suburb of Detroit. The exhibition juxtaposes Sacka’s photos with written reflections capturing echoes from the past and recent conversations with folks who have spent decades of winters on the ice. Surrounded by the head-high photos, displayed on black metal hanging frames, sits a “Detroit Ice Shanty” sculpture, constructed with materials gathered from the city’s streets by artists Scott Hocking and Michael McGillis.

The last of winter's ice.
The last of winter’s ice. Amy Sacka photo
Shanty town on ice.
Shanty town on ice. Amy Sacka photo
Flags are flying.
Flags are flying. Amy Sacka photo

Accompanying one photo is a brief story that illustrates a universal fishing value. Sacka writes, “Sometimes when it’s changing, the ice makes strange noises that sound like whales or some mysterious sea creatures communicating underneath. One time when I was about a mile out with only a few people in sight, the small shanty I was in started violently shaking for a moment. ‘Ice earthquake!’ the man I was with said to me, and then went back to his fishing.”

The photos are of anglers, shanties, and the aesthetics of ice. They reflect the sublimity, the beauty, and the silence of frozen lakes. But, underlying them all is the unique fishing culture and the bonds it creates. Which is why, despite the inherent celebration, there is an ominous pervading sadness to the work. The exhibition cites a National Geographic article, which also features Sacka’s photography, “The Great Lakes’ ice seasons are shortening by an average of about half a day per year. Scientists predict that by 2050, the minimum temperature will stay above freezing for 21 to 25 more days a year in the Great Lakes basin.”

Winter anglers have "a deep reverence for nature," says Sacka, also defining herself. "People do it because they love it."
Winter anglers have “a deep reverence for nature,” says Sacka, also defining herself. “People do it because they love it.” Amy Sacka photo

The images and their verses remind us of what might be lost: “On some Saturday nights on Lake Huron a group of people build a bonfire by the ice. They bring hot dogs to roast, hot chocolate, and other snacks. At dusk, a line of lights forms from miles out on the ice. Hundreds of ATVs begin moving slowly toward the shore. The bonfire crowd is there to watch the light dance on the ice, dark and light swapping places—the ice, black, or maybe disappearing.”

Dipping for a catch on Lake Michigan at dusk.
Dipping for a catch on Lake Michigan at dusk. Amy Sacka photo

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