OLD TOWN, Maine — Back home in Caracas, Venezuela, Jessie Ben Alaya didn’t do much ice fishing. Or any, for that matter.
“In my country, we don’t have snow at all, except in the mountains, which are really far away from my city,” Ben Alaya said Friday morning as she joined 11 other international students from Orono High School on an ice fishing trip to Perch Pond.
And she admitted that merely stepping foot onto a frozen lake took a bit of a leap of faith.
“I was like, ‘Is that the lake?’” she said. “The first time, I was like, ‘What if we die here?’ But it’s fun. I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
It didn’t. And the dozen students, who hailed from seven different countries, took advantage of the opportunity to participate in an iconic Maine activity.
“We always try to get the international kids immersed in the culture, and this is good Maine culture,” Orono High School’s international coordinator MacKenzie Hanson said. “And we only had one mild disaster today.”
Ah, the disaster. To hear more about that, you’ve got to talk to 17-year-old Mike Dong of China.
His friends and teachers call him “Big Mike.” On Friday, Dong also would have answered to “Soggy Mike.” Or “Cold Mike.”
“This leg fell down the ice hole,” Dong said, tapping his left leg as he warmed up in front of a campfire. “And oh, god. It was cold.”
Dong’s disaster came in typical ice-fishing fashion: Someone pulled a trap out of a hole to tend it, and before it could be reset, “Big Mike” stepped backward into the hole.
All the way into it. Up to his hip.
Not that he was complaining, mind you.
“It is not bad,” he said. “It was really fun. Interesting. I’m not that easy to feel embarrassed or shame or shy.”
Neither, it seems, is Ben Alaya. After stepping onto a frozen pond for the first time, the 16-year-old Venezuelan also took her first snowmobile ride. And she even did a trout imitation.
“I ate a fish. A dead fish,” she said. “We were just checking our traps, and there was a dead [bait]. Our leader was like, ‘I’ll eat it’ … and he just ate it.”
To be accurate, their teacher only ate half of the smelt. That left half for Ben Alaya, if she dared to try.
“I ate it. Swallowed it. I still feel it here,” she said, pointing at her throat.
Back at the campfire, students took advantage in the lull in fishing activity to warm up and graze at a picnic table full of snacks, including chili warmed in a pot not far from a 4-pound jar of animal crackers. Donuts, chips and marshmallows also were popular, both to the students and a pesky visitor.
After checking the ice fishing traps, a group of students gathered at a nearby tree, eager to make a new friend.
“They’re feeding the squirrel,” teacher Chris Libby said, pointing to a throng of students who were using a long branch to offer food to the critter, which was sitting on a branch overlooking the clearing. “[They’re using] marshmallows and donuts.”
Even when you’re killing time feeding squirrels, all it takes is one magic word to spur even the most novice group of ice anglers into action.
“Flag!” teacher Chad Kirkpatrick yelled, prompting a stampede of students toward the lake. Some ran toward the trap. Others vied for space in the two sleds that were towed behind snowmobiles. Dong remained at the fire, still warming his once-soggy leg.
Francesco Silvestri of Italy, among those sprinting toward the pond, said he’d enjoyed the Maine immersion activities that have been offered since his arrival in Orono.
Along with his fellow international students, he has had a chance to learn about Maine culture through a series of scheduled events.
Among the activities: Kayaking, skiing and lobster-eating.
“[And] we did paintball,” Silvestri said. “That was a lot of fun. That’s pretty American. Warring games.”
And ice fishing? Silvestri said he enjoyed that as well.
“It’s pretty cold, but it’s cool,” he said. And after a few hours on the lake, he had learned a few of the secrets of ice fishing.
“Staying really close to the fire, because it’s really cold,” he said. “And next time, wearing boots instead of these [sneakers].”
Back at the campfire, Svenja Linder of Germany showed that despite her near-perfect English language skills, there are still a few gaps.
“Does anyone know where the far-away glasses are?” she asked, gesturing toward people far out on the lake.
Shortly after that, Linder learned a new word: Binoculars.
“But [far-away glasses] make sense,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a glass, and you can see far away with them.”
All in all, Linder said she’d had a great time learning how to ice fish. But she admitted that she might have stepped onto the pond with a different idea a few hours earlier.
“It’s so interesting,” she said. “I didn’t actually think it would be that exciting, but once the flag gets up, everyone gets excited and wants to see what’s under [the ice].”
And at that point, squirrels and campfires are mostly abandoned, and the stampede commences, all over again.
Just like it has on Maine lakes for generations.