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OLD TOWN, Maine — As the wind roared down Perch Pond on Wednesday, a hardy group of international students from Orono High School bundled up and learned about a traditional Maine activity: Ice fishing.
At least, that is, most of the students were bundled up. A few hadn’t really prepared too well for a 15-degree day with 15 mile per hour winds ripping across the pond.
“We have three teenagers in sneakers,” Orono teacher and avid outdoorsman Chris Libby said with a laugh. “Telling them they were going to be out in snow and cold didn’t cause them to prepare well. [They’re from] halfway around the world, and have the same mentality [as Maine kids].”
Fashion mistakes aside, about a dozen students in the international and English as a Second Language program enjoyed a few hours on the lake, learning the essentials. Included in that list: How to drill holes in the ice. How to bait traps. And how to huddle together against the freezing cold when the fish aren’t biting and the flags aren’t flying.
For Francesca Bardazzi, a 17-year-old from Florence, Italy, the experience was a first: Although she skis at home, she had never stepped foot on a frozen lake before. And when a teacher offered students the chance to try their hand at drilling holes in the ice with a power auger, she was the first to volunteer.
“I always like to try new things,” Bardazzi said.
But she was in for a bit of a surprise when the auger finally drilled through two feet of ice and some of Perch Pond gushed onto the snow.
“I didn’t imagine the water to be brown,” she said.
Among the things Bardazzi learned on the trip: Perch Pond was formerly called “Mud Pond,” which helps explain the color of the water.
Jane Chau, a 17-year-old from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, said that when she arrived at the pond, she thought there must have been some kind of a mistake.
“I was like, ‘Where’s the lake?’ because I couldn’t see it. It was really vast and all snowy,” Chau said. “I was really excited, to be honest, because I’m not that used to cold, because it’s warm all year round in my country.”
Mackenzie Hanson, the director of the Orono High School international program, said the ice fishing trip has become one of many that visiting students are treated to during their time at the school.
“Every year the group dynamic is different because we have a totally different group of kids from a different collection of countries,” Hanson said. “Last year I think we had 14 different international kids from 11 different countries. This year we have nine from six countries.”
Hanson said the international program strives to provide diversity to Orono High School, and seeks to provide a truly American high school experience to students.
“To that end, we try to do about four activities a month that bring local kids and international kids together,” Hanson said. “And if we can’t combine the two, [we] offer an experience that’s truly Maine or really American in some way.”
And that’s why students ended up walking around on a frozen pond in the middle of winter, waiting for a fish to participate in the outing.
“I don’t think you get much more ‘Maine’ than ice fishing,” Hanson said.
Unless, that is, you’re going skiing. Or considering college in Maine. Both are reasons Li “Shannon” Wu of Tai Zhou, China, has enjoyed her time at Orono.
“I miss Sugarloaf,” she said, explaining that she’d been skiing twice in her life — once at nearby Hermon Mountain, and once at Sugarloaf. “I ski, but I really want to try snowboards. Maybe next year.”
And she said she originally wanted to come to Maine because she hopes to attend Bowdoin College in the future.
On Wednesday, however, her goals were more simple: Catch a fish. Then cook it.
“I feel like if I catch a fish, I’m going to make some soup with tofu,” she said. “You need to use oil with the fish, then put some water and tofu with it. It’s really simple, but it’s really delicious.”
No fish were caught and while the students got a good look at a traditional Maine activity, they did not receive an entirely authentic Pine Tree State experience.
When Hanson pulled out a package of hot dogs for the students to roast over a roaring campfire, each grabbed a dog or two, found a stick, and went to work.
But one fact remained: The hot dogs were … brown. And as many Mainers will tell you, that just won’t do.
“That’s right,” Hanson said, admitting the Maine faux pas. “They’re not red snappers.”
The students either didn’t notice, or didn’t care. And as they cooked and huddled next to the fire for warmth, Hanson asked if they’d be interested in cutting their field trip shot due to the weather.
Surprisingly, though everyone was shivering, an unanimous “No” was the answer.
Then Niklas Dittmar, a 16-year-old from Munich, Germany, explained his rationale and proved once again that when it comes to teens, some things are universal.
“If that means we have to go back to class sooner, no,” Dittmar said.