Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2024

Ordeal On The Killer Ice

By Norman Carlisle


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Hope had been abandoned for the marooned ...

On the bitterly cold morning of January 22, 1929, Lewis Sweet made his way across the ice toward his fishing shanty. He was spare and weathered and moved with an ease that belied his fifty-odd years. Feeling the bite of the wind, he wondered if he should have stay at home after all. There had been a hint of snow in the air when he’d left home in Alanson [Michigan], and now Sweet felt sure that before the day was out, there’d be a storm. Still, he judged that he had time to get in a stretch of fishing, a view shared by a dozen other fishermen also heading toward the shanties scattered off Waugoshance Point, the westernmost tip of Michigan’s Lower peninsula. Several good trout would be fine.

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The marooned man began to run frantically for his ...

By the time his own shanty, one set apart from the rest, was warmed by a pine-splinter fire in the “airtight,” Sweet settled down to the pleasant routine of fishing. He cracked out the thin ice which had formed over the hole cut through the pack weeks before and grunted with satisfaction when he looked down into the blue-green water, marveling, as he always did, at its strange luminosity. He could see all the way down to the bottom, maybe 25 feet. Quite a walk out here – a good three miles from where he had to park his Model A – but it was a great spot for fishing.

From his pocket, Sweet extracted his prized possession, a decoy minnow he’d carved from pine and fitted with fins cut from a tin can. He regarded it fondly. It had caught him many a fish, and Charlie Noon, an Ottawa Native American from Cross Village, famed for his perfect decoys, had warmed Sweet by pronouncing this the best he’d ever known a white man to make. In the water it performed perfectly, spinning down in enticing spirals as Sweet deftly moved the rod.

His thoughts ran along pleasant lines. With the fish he caught in these twice-weekly trips to the ice, and the venison hanging in his shed at home, his wife and three kids would have plenty to eat for the winter. He always managed to sell the extra fish for enough money to keep coffee on the table and tobacco in his pouch. He had a little cash left over from his last summer’s work of fixing up cottages for the summer people, too, and already had quite a few jobs lined up for next spring. Not much of a life by city standards, but just right for Lewis Sweet.

He didn’t know just how much time had passed when the sight of a shadowy form below brought him to attention. Sweet’s body tensed as he weaved the decoy and excitement coursed through him. Big one. Three or four meals in that trout.

Silently, Sweet came to his feet. He felt a faint shock and knew he had his fish. Instantly the line attached to the ceiling whipped past him as the fish plunged downwards. Sweet let the line run until its motion ceased, then began to pull it in, kicking the door of the shanty open and stepping outside to get space enough to bring up his catch.

It was at this moment that Sweet realized there had been a change in the weather. The wind was up and there were flurries of snow in the air. He stood studying the sky and was relieved to see that overhead there were touches of blue. Wind still from the west though. Nothing to worry about yet, he thought.

It was after he had finished his lunch of two sandwiches and three cups of coffee brewed on the “airtight,” that Sweet heard the pounding on the door and the voice of a friend, Gilbert Lefford.

“Don’t like the looks of things. We’re going in.” Leflord nodded toward a knot of fishermen plodding across the ice. Sweet squinted up at the sky and felt the wind. “Still hasn’t shifted,” he said. ‘’I’ll stay for a while.”

Lefford rubbed his mitten across his face. “Ice don’t look good to me. If the wind changes, she could break up.”

Sweet nodded. “I’ll watch it. Gotta get me one more fish.”

It was perhaps 20 minutes later that Sweet felt, rather than heard, the first whisper of sound. Then suddenly the ice under him began to heave and the walls of the shanty swayed. break up. Kicking out the door, Sweet stopped to pick up his ax and his big trout and ran, slipping and sliding, across the rough ice. He felt the whip of wind against his face, hard, cold, and out of the northeast off shore. As he ran, he heard the angry crashes of the ice tearing free from its shore anchorage.

Sweet’s breath was coming in racking sobs long before he neared the point. Suddenly he slipped and fell, losing precious seconds scrambling to his feet. He had less than three hundred yards to go on the heaving ice, which seemed alive under him, when he saw a black strip ahead. Open water. Sweet flung himself to the edge of it and then stopped to stare. Twenty feet. No. Twenty-five. More. The fissure widened with horrifying speed and for a moment Sweet thought wildly of jumping in, trying to swim the gap to shore. Then he stopped himself. Even if he survived the icy water, he wouldn’t stand a chance of pulling himself up on the slippery ice where the floe had broken off.

Numbly Sweet stood there, knowing that he had come to the thing that every ice fisherman, at one time or another, thought of with dread-being carried out onto the bleak reaches of the lake. It had happened before, and Sweet had never heard of a man coming back after having been swept lakewards on a moving floe.

In the blinding smother of snow which now lashed him, he could not see far enough to gauge the dimensions of the pan he was on. Whatever its size, it surely would not stay together long. Stresses set up by the wind and the movement of the ice through the water would break it up into smaller and smaller segments. The cracks could come any place. but he felt he’d be safer toward the center.

Sweet stood for a long time in the biting wind, staring at the shanty when he came upon it. It would be warm inside, with enough split logs to last for hours. His only shelter-and he dared not use it. He had to stay out in the open, ready to leap for his life if the ice broke. Yet the cruel sweep of the wind was already biting deep, and he was shivering – violently.

He tightened the grip on the ax and fell to work on the crusted snow, cutting crude blocks of it, which he began to pile up for a windbreaker. He had built a wall two feet high when he felt the ice under him quiver and. heard the ripping sound of an opening crack. As he watched tensely, he breathed a prayer of thanks that he had denied himself the shelter of his shanty, for the spot where it had been was now a widening patch of dark, roiled water.

Sweet went on building up his snow wall. When it was three feet high, he stopped and crouched behind it, feeling a momentary sense of warmth as the wind was cut off. As soon as he stopped to rest, however, fear such as he had never known gripped him. He tried to fight it off, to think rationally. But what was there to think about? He was completely helpless, at the mercy of wind and ·water. And the winter night wasn’t far off.

Just before dark, he saw something on the lakeward side that brought him to his feet, wild hope surging through him. A dark bulk of land. Trees. That would be an island in the Beaver group. He picked up his ax and his trout and moved as close as he could to the edge of the floe. A resolve had taken shape in his mind. He’d take his chance on the water if the pan floated close to land. Better to die swiftly that way than out on the stormy reaches of the lake.

Closer and closer the floe moved. The line of black water between it and the island was down now to maybe a thousand feet. Five hundred. Three hundred. How far could a man swim in that icy water? Sweet shouted encouragement to the ice, as if his command could make it move faster. Then the cry choked in his throat. The wind-whipped patch of water was no longer getting narrower. It was widening instead. The floe was going to by-pass the island. Sweet cursed the lake. It seemed like a personal enemy, toying with him, playing tricks.

He felt so more strongly than ever an hour later when again land loomed ahead, Hog Island, bigger than the one he’d missed before. But, straining his eyes into the darkness, he knew that the he would not even come close. It was going north of the island, Now, there was nothing left but open lake, more than 50 storm-wracked miles of it.

Dazedly, Sweet crouched behind his shelter again, with his ax he chopped off a chunk of the fish and gnawed on it. Just a little piece. No telling how long that fish would have to feed him. One part of his mind told him he might as well eat as much as he wanted; he was doomed anyway. Another part refused to admit it. The stubbornly hopeful part took over when Sweet faced his first enemy, cold, He wanted to lie down and sleep, but he made himself get up and run, flailing his arms.

Hour after hour, he kept up the grueling routine. Lie down behind the snow shelter for it few minutes, Fight drowsiness. Force himself to get up. Then run and dance to the point of exhaustion, Then lie down again until he felt himself sliding off into sleep.

It was one of the times when he was on his feet that he heard the sound and felt the ice begin to leap. He was standing on the very spot along which a new fissure was riving its way through the ice. He started to run, and then realized with horror that he was running downhill, into water. He was on a small fragment of ice and it was tipping him off. He felt icy water going over his boots. With all his strength he leaped toward what might be a bigger pan, what might be a treacherous small one...or open water, for all he could tell. He fell, feeling hard ice slash against his face. But it was steady. The lake hadn’t killed him off yet. And it hadn’t succeeded in taking away his ax nor his fish. He still had them gripped in his hands. Somehow, it seemed to him that if he lost either of these two possessions, he would lose his chance to live. The thought was laughable. Methodically, he set to work to build another snow sheller, cutting the snow blocks clumsily now, for his hands were numbing. And no amount of stomping seemed to bring any feeling back into his soaked feet, encased in boots that looked like monstrous blocks of ice. He chipped some of the ice away with the ax.

Sweet had little sense of time after that. He did not know when, or how many times, he found himself running wildly to escape a new crack, fighting to build a new shelter. In a way he owed those cracks a debt, he thought, laughing into the teeth of the wind. They were keeping him alive, stopping him from going into that easy sleep that time and again was so close.

Sweet was lying down behind the fourth – or was it the fifth – shelter he’d built when he heard a sound, a deep, ominous rumbling that was different from any he’d heard before. It jerked him out of a stupor, and grabbing fish and ax, he stumbled to his feet in alarm, staring into the faint grayness that betokened dawn.

The ice under him rocked wildly, and as he tried to figure which way to run, he saw it coming toward him – a great moving pile of jumbled ice. Sweet ran, stark terror driving him. The thing was after him, thundering along behind him. He went down, full length, scrambled to get up, and then realized that the rush of motion behind him had stopped. Now that he had a moment to think, he knew that the ice floe must have smashed into some kind of a barrier, folding up against it to create the tumbling hill of ice blocks,

The barrier could not be another ice floe, it must be something solid, something anchored. Land. The thought brought Sweet up, shouting. Land. Could it be?

He stared up at the massive heap of ice wonderingly. Then behind it he saw a dim shape looming up . . . up . . . A lighthouse! Sweet went scrambling up over the groaning pile of ice.

His thoughts were racing. A lighthouse. But what would one be doing here, as far out on the lake as he must have drifted during the night? Then as the shape became clearer, he recognized White Shoals Light, which he knew to be 12 miles offshore in Sturgeon Bay. Without his realizing it, the wind must have shifted, carrying his floe south and east, back toward the shore. Hope leaped in him. He danced a little jig, and shook a fist at the lake. He’d fooled that old devil. He’d stayed alive through the night. And now he was back on land.

But within minutes Sweet knew that he had survived one ordeal only to face another as deadly as the first. As the cold daylight brightened, Sweet stared up at the lighthouse and felt the JOY drain out of him. What he saw was not safety, not release from the lake, but a frightening obstacle. The lighthouse was set atop a concrete base, something like 18 feet high. Every inch of that huge concrete block was sheathed in glistening ice. A low moan escaped the shivering desperate man standing beneath what looked like a mountain of glass. Up there on top of it was surely food and warmth, for he knew it was the custom of the lighthouse keepers to leave some supplies when they closed the light for the winter. But it was denied him, for how could he get up this barrier? Ordinarily the lighthouse was reached by means of a ladder of iron rungs, set in the concrete. But now those rungs were covered by a foot of thick shining ice.

Sweet stumbled forward and began to swing his ax, slashing wildly at the ice. He had to chop it away from the rungs. He had to get up there. He was freezing. Numbness was gripping his legs. He couldn’t hold out long.

Then, panting with exhaustion after a few minutes of violent chopping, he got a grip on himself. It wouldn’t work this way. He forced himself to take careful strokes. Finally, a rung appeared. Another. A third. He forced his numb arm upward by sheer strength of will. Take a short stroke, trying hard to keep the ax from glancing off the brittle surface. Swing again. Minutes. Hours. How long did it take to bare a single rung? Sweet didn’t know, for in the gray skies which continued to spill snow, there was no sun by which to tell the time. Chop. Then slide down to the pile of ice blocks to dance in a weird stomp, trying to bring some life back into his feet. Then back to the rungs again.

Another rung. Another timeless stretch of agony. Another and another. Two more rungs to go. He raised his hand and felt dull surprise that there was no shock of the ax meeting ice. He laughed hollowly. He had dropped the ax without knowing it, so lifeless had his hands become.

For a moment he swayed dizzily, unable to move, unable to think; then he started down. He made it to the bottom, but when his feet hit the ice, he toppled over. He lay for a time and then went up again, the ax a burden that taxed his screaming muscles. When he raised it to strike ice away from the rung he’d been working on, the effort sent him off balance. He felt himself falling, crashing down onto the ice.

For a moment, blackness swept over him, then he came out of it to stare up at the glittering wall.

For the first time a cry of despair escaped his lips. Lying there, knowing that his feet and hands were already hopelessly frozen, he realized a truth. He had lost his battle with the ladder. His hours of agony were wasted. Only two rungs left. Warmth. . .food . . . shelter . . . all were there above him. Even if he could muster the strength, he knew he couldn’t manipulate an ax with the dexterity needed to chop ice from those last two rungs. His hands were stiffened and unfeeling; his arm muscle-strained to weakness. They were uncontrollable.

The thought of it maddened him, and he struggled to his feet, looking around him in a kind of helpless anger. He picked up the ax and flung it.

His eyes roved to the wall of ice and then back to the jumble of broken ice. hundreds of chunks of it, some large. some small, heaped up in wild confusion. Then his mind seemed to explode with the shock of an idea. He had it. A ramp of ice! He could see it as plainly as if it were there – a long incline slanting up from the island’s edge to the lip of the concrete base. A way to crawl up to the safety of the lighthouse!

Fantastic for a freezing man to think he could move all the thousands of pounds of ice it would take to build such a structure. It was, but to Lewis Sweet it seemed reasonable. Maybe his hands couldn’t keep a grip on a ladder. Maybe they were too far gone to permit careful strokes with the ax. But they’d be good enough for this rough work. He wouldn’t need hands to grip pieces of ice. Just throw his arms around them and push. Strength. Yes, it would take that, but not the kind of cramping tension that had torn at his muscles when he made those chopping strokes on the precarious ladder.

With sudden hope exploding in him Sweet felt his strength coming back. He sprang forward and threw his arms around a slab of ice almost as big as himself. Tugging and pushing, he succeeded in moving it the 20-odd feet to the base of the lighthouse. Feeling savage joy, he went back for another, a smaller one, which he shoved into position in front of the first block.

After the first elation was over the going was harder. He tried to keep his strength up by eating more of the trout, but his stomach revolted and he worked on, growing weaker from hunger as well as exertion. He pushed smaller and smaller pieces as the incline grew. But it was growing, and his activity made him feel strangely warm, even though the fury of the wind had increased, lashing at him so hard that it threatened to sweep him from his feet.

Hours later, he stood atop a ramp which had its high point a bare three feet from the rim. He had no strength left, Sweet knew, as he chopped crude handholds in the ice. If he couldn’t pull himself up from here . . . His fingers gripped the ice. His feet kicked out into space. Then he was up and over, rolling on to the flat top of the great concrete block.

Lewis Sweet had survived his second ordeal. He had escaped the lake, and now he had climbed the hill of glass.

Hardly conscious of having battered in a door and climbing three flights of spiral metal stairs, he burst into the living quarters and stood swaying, looking greedily at the oil stove that would give him heat, the cupboards that would yield food. The stove came first. He had to have heat. He saw a match box and pulled off his mitten to grab it. He knocked it onto the floor and the matches spilled. Sweet got down on all fours, commanding wooden fingers to pick them up. After great effort he lit one and held it to the wick of the oil stove.

He held out his hands as it built up a faint circle of heat, then snatched them back as the searing agony of thawing went through them. And his feet. No feeling at all there. He saw a knife on a rack and slashed away his boots.

His stomach cried for food, but he was too weak to prepare it. In a single unconscious motion, he fell on the bunk and jerked a blanket over himself.

A faint daylight was filtering into the windows when he came awake. For a time, he lay there, staring around, trying to think where he was. Then it came on him with a rush, and he remembered the night before. He floundered to his feet, but fell back on the bunk with a groan, pain shooting up his legs, tearing at his hands. He looked at his hands and saw they were black and swollen. His feet were monstrous too, and his socks soaked with a bloody ooze.

Thus, Sweet came out of merciful blankness to his third ordeal. For, as hunger at last drove him to forget the pain and hobble about the room to brew tea and throw frozen bacon in to a skillet, he knew that the warmth which had kept him alive through another night was going to make every moment a living hell. Every moment, that is, until he got help.

Help. It was a wonderful, comforting thought. Up to now he’d been on his own. No one could have helped him stay alive on the ice floe. No one could have helped him get into the lighthouse. But now . . . He stopped wolfing food and looked out at the lake. Help, he’d been thinking. But how would it reach him? The lake was a broken patchwork of black and white. More water than ice. Twelve miles across it he could barely make out the shadowy line of Sturgeon Bay’s wooded shores. Men would be tramping up and down them, perhaps, men looking for him. More men in airplanes would be hunting him from the skies. Or would they? Wouldn’t they figure that a man lost 48 hours was a goner? And would anyone think of looking here, in this out of the way lighthouse, to which only improbable chance had brought him?

The food he had eaten so eagerly lay like a cold lump in his stomach as Sweet, reasoning like a searcher, realized that he stood little chance of being found. Yet he had to be, he had to be. He looked down at the bloody, blistering flesh of his legs, and then out across the miles of ice and water. Not even solid ice a man could walk on. . . if a man could walk . . .

It came to him that he had only found a haven to die in. Feet and hands frozen as his were could mean only one end. Gangrene. The black death. Slow and agonizing.

As the thoughts tortured his mind, he heard a sound that made him jerk to attention. A plane! Frantically he looked around. This had caught him off guard. There was no way he could be seen from this room. He felt he could not make those three flights of stairs to the base below. Up, then, up the spiral stairs to the lens room, only one flight above. A balcony rail around it.

Pain almost doubled him over, but he stumbled upward. He couldn’t hear the plane’s engine now above the noise his feet made on the steel. Make him come slowly. Make him circle, he pleaded.

In the lens room he fumbled with a heavy bolt that his fingers could not seem to grasp. It scraped back finally and he half fell onto the wind-swept balcony. He stared at the sky. Far off he saw a black speck, growing smaller and smaller. The chance was gone. Maybe his last chance. The pilot had probably not even given a thought to the possibility that a man might be in this lighthouse, closed up when navigation on Lake Michigan stopped for the winter.

Sweet spent the afternoon treating his feet, swabbing the continually forming blisters with petroleum jelly he had found, and trying to forget the pain. Once he thought he heard a plane and again painfully stumped up the stairs, but he saw nothing.

When darkness came, he made himself struggle up the stairs once more. With him he took a kerosene-soaked rag fastened to a stick. Striking a match to it, he swung it in long arcs. It blazed brightly enough but even if someone on shore happened to see this tiny dot of light, would he sense its meaning? He looked up at the mocking lenses, capable of casting powerful rays for miles. If only he had a way to get the light on! No hope for that. He’d found the keepers had left the apparatus in a baffling state of partial dismantlement.

Sweet stood as long as he could, lighting one rag after another, and then eased himself down the stairs to fall into the bunk, legs racked with pain. Yet the pain was not enough to keep him awake, and he almost instantly dropped off into sleep. When he awoke, dawn light was creeping in the window. This would be . . .

yes, Friday morning. Seventy-two hours since he had walked confidently across the ice to his fishing shanty.

That day Sweet tried something different, tearing up strips of blankets and letting them float in long streamers from the balcony. If another plane came over . . .

It was a vain hope. The day went by with no sign of one and when the snowy darkness fell again, Lewis Sweet knew he had moved one day closer to dying in his concrete trap.

That night he stood for more than an hour, swinging the burning rags, while the wind bit through his clothes. It was turning colder he noticed. He clumped down the stairs and fell into a troubled sleep.

In the morning, he came awake to feel a new chill in the room. The oil stove still sputtered with flame, but the cloud of his breath told him that the temperature had plummeted during the night. He got to his feet and looked out the window. Sharp rays of sunlight fell on a glittering expanse of ice. His heart began to beat faster with a kind of excitement. The black bars were gone from the lake. Frozen over. Now it was solid from the lighthouse to the shore. Solid so that rescuers could walk to him. He had been worried about that . . . about how they would get to him.

Then it hit him hard. Stop fooling yourself. No one is coming. He’d played the little game long enough. No one was going to come to look for a man who should have been dead days ago.

He was right. That morning, the nation’s headlines read, ALL HOPE LOST FOR MAN ADRIFT ON LAKE MICHIGAN. The search, which involved several army planes and hundreds of people, had been called off.

But there it was, that dazzling ice. If only he could cross it himself . . . The desire for life that had driven Lewis Sweet this far blazed in him afresh, even as he looked down at his feet and their bloody bandages. It was madness, what he was thinking, but it had all been madness.

He’d licked the lake alone so far. Perhaps he could lick it the rest of the way. There was a wild look in his eyes as he made his decision. Lewis Sweet was going to go back to shore! He’d go on his feet as far as he could, and then he would crawl.

He debated with himself about the direction he should go. The mainland was only 12 miles away if he traveled due east. But what good would it do him to get to that deserted shore. He’d only have to turn south after reaching it and somehow make his way to Cross Village where the Ottawa Native Americans lived. No, better to head off straight toward the village to begin with. It would mean perhaps 20 miles on the ice, instead of 12, but it was the shortest way to help. Yes, he’d head due southeast, as best he could judge it. When he got closer to shore, he’d be able to recognize the bluff atop which the village stood.

So it was that on Sunday morning, five days after he had been taken by the lake, Lewis Sweet prepared to go home. All of Saturday he had spent building his strength, knowing that the ice would be in better condition after another day and night of solid freezing. Biting his lips to keep back the pain, he pulled on three pairs of woolen socks he’d found in the lighthouse. Even if he had not cut his boots to pieces, he could never have gotten them on over his grotesque feet.

Just getting down the stairs was an agonizing process. When at last he started down the ramp, half sliding, half crawling, with ax in hand, he felt only a sense of joy. He’d make it. He’d make it. And pretty surprised they’d be to see old Lew Sweet coming into Cross Village so long after they’d been saying he was dead.

He made it a ways on foot but the pain soon forced him to his knees. He turned to look back at the lighthouse and got a shock. It had seemed to him that he had gone maybe half a mile, yet the lighthouse still loomed above him and he knew that he’d made a bare two hundred yards. He made up his mind he wouldn’t look back for a long time. Don’t look back. It got to be a little game with him. Crawl another yard before you turn around. And another. Don’t think about this being just the start. Don’t think about the way the ice hurts cutting into your raw knees. Think about not looking back.

Sometime in the course of the morning, he knew that what he had planned was impossible. He couldn’t make it to Cross Village. He could never stay alive on the ice, utterly exposed as he would be during the night. He had to make a choice. He could go on, crawling on his planned course across the ice . . . and die before morning. He could go back to the lighthouse and die a little warmer. Or he could change his direction and head eastward, and maybe make it to the shore by night. He just might find shelter there

. . . use his ax to cut wood and build a fire.

It was the third way Sweet chose. Soon the line of trees grew larger and seemed to dance before him. Then there was a tree straight ahead, one with many dead branches, fine for a fire. He reached for them. Fire. He had to have fire. Then everything went black. When he came to, he was lying flat on his back, looking up at a pitilessly cold sky in which sundogs whirled. There were no trees in sight. He had only imagined them in his delirium. He inched to his elbows and saw that the shore was still far off. He forced himself to start crawling again.

The hours were a blur of pain. He didn’t know how long he had crawled, only that he couldn’t stop. The dancing sundogs were gone and long golden banners strung across the sky in a winter sunset when it seemed to the crawling man that he was among trees again. He reached up a hand to grasp a branch and felt something solid in it. It was a branch! He was off the ice! He looked around wildly. Now he could build a fire. Now he could be warm. He raised the ax. It dropped uselessly from his hand. His last bit of strength was gone. He couldn’t even bring down a dead branch. He’d die here in the woods as surely as he would have on the ice . . . He knew he was blacking out again, but he was powerless to stop it.

When he came awake, he was aware that he must have moved. In front of him was a wall. It would go away when he touched it, this cabin wall. He reached out. It was real. The shock of it cleared his senses. A hunter’s cabin. He found himself falling against a door. It yielded to his weight and he tumbled into the room.

Stove. Firewood. Matches. His thoughts came jerkily with long breaks between them. He had no awareness that he got a fire going, but its bright yellow flame was roaring up the stovepipe chimney.

Food. He clawed open a cupboard door. Empty. No, a can of condensed milk. Coffee can with a few grains in it. He staggered to the door, scooped up snow in a coffee pot, set it on the stove and dumped in the coffee. He poured it before it was boiling and gulped it down, no feeling in his lips.

He staggered to the bunk. fell across it, and blacked out again. Morning sun was streaming in a window when he stirred. He tried to stand but fell back, clutching his stomach. It was shot with agonizing cramps. He huddled under the covers, shivering. with chills, weak and helpless.

Morning came again and Lewis Sweet felt that it would be his last. He marveled that he was still alive. He tried to make himself get up, and was surprised that there was some kind of new strength in him. He’d heard that dying men sometimes experienced a burst of strength. Maybe that was it.

He did not even bother to build a fire, but lurched out the door, falling in the drifts. Weaving, zig-zagging, he slammed into a tree. It knocked the wind out of him and brought a flash of thought to his dulled mind. Out on the ice there were no trees. A man bound for Cross Village could crawl freely.

Feet . . . yards . . . miles . . . he had no sense of distance, nor was he conscious that the sun had passed its zenith when he saw the high bluff. It came to him like some far-off forgotten memory that Cross Village was on a bluff like that. He stopped short, stunned by the thought. He changed course and crawled toward the steep bank. His numb fingers clawed at it, digging into the snow, snatching at roots barred by the wind.

He was far short of the top when he knew he couldn’t make it. He had strength enough only to stand and shake a fist at the lake, with the red trail along its edge. He uttered a wild cry as he fell. His ax still gripped in his hand; he lay motionless. A slide of snow, released from above, slithered down and partly covered his face, but he did not stir. Lewis Sweet had come to the end of his fourth ordeal.

Seconds later a puzzled man peered over the edge of the bluff, curious about the eerie, strangely human cry he had heard. He looked with incredulity, then scrambled down the bank.

That evening, in a hospital in Petoskey, Lewis Sweet opened his eyes and blinked up at the doctors gathered around him. They told him where he was, and what they were going to do.

Sweet tried to get up off the table. “Don’t cut ‘em off!” he begged.

The doctors held a conference. Anyone who had survived what Lewis Sweet had might yet pull off a medical miracle. They’d take a chance. They did what they knew they must do, and amputated all of his fingers and toes. Then they stood by to see if they’d have to take the rest of his hands and feet. They didn’t.

Lewis Sweet fought as grimly during the three months of his fifth ordeal as he had in his desperate week on the ice. He lived to walk out of the hospital, stumping along on his toeless feet. “Better than crawling,” he said with a grin to the watching reporters.

Later he learned how to use hands with no fingers, even to handle a fishing rod. For summertime fishing, that is. Lewis Sweet was willing enough to leave ice fishing to others – to men who could never really know what it had been like during his incredible seven days of frozen torture on Lake Michigan.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2024 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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