Bradley Carleton, Contributor

To live passionately is to embrace all our experiences with fascination and respect. When I graduated from high school, I tried out for the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team as a top-ranked mogul skier. I came close, but not close enough. When I moved to New York City to pursue an acting career, I frequently attended the Metropolitan Opera and studied with Maestro Carlo Menotti and theater with Lee Strasberg. I have stood in front of hundreds of people on an off-Broadway stage and experienced standing ovations for performances. I wanted to feel successful. Then, switching careers to win the love of a woman, I became a stockbroker and worked in the World Trade Center. I don’t mean to brag about having these opportunities, but the memories often remind me that although I may not have achieved the greatness I imagined, I have been left with some remarkable experiences. I often look at them and think, “My God! How could I be such a failure?” What have I got to show for it? Experience and perspective. I applied myself to each of these careers with passion and learned many valuable lessons. When I look back at my efforts, I see that they taught me that, no matter how many times I didn’t achieve my dream, I was rewarded with the wisdom of the experience and a tempering of my ego.

One common thread that weaves itself through my journey has been a deep desire to feel as if I belonged to something greater. I thought that others’ admiration would make me feel that. I thought that if I could find someone who genuinely loved me, I might finally believe in myself and my spirit would be complete. It was deeply painful to feel as though I needed something or someone to feel complete. With a lot of inner work, I was able to let that go, and I serendipitously met my future wife when she found my ad in the Free Press looking for a roommate. Having let go of my expectations, I found the two most cherished loves of my life: my wife Katie, and my love for the outdoors. To this day, I still need a reminder that I do, indeed, belong to something greater. Ice fishing is a good reminder.

Ozzie and his perch. Photo by Bradley Carleton

Ozzie and his perch. Photo by Bradley Carleton.

Last week, Ozzie, my fishing buddy, and I decided we needed to get outside for some fresh air on a frozen lake. We pulled into the access of a small lake, and a fellow angler from St. Albans joined us in the parking lot. He asked us if we had fished this lake recently. Ozzie grunted, “Not yet.” The gentleman introduced himself and, with a short and very particular dialogue, it was clear that he knew the game. We departed the access and headed 300 yards to the southeast, testing the ice all the way. Eight inches of good, solid black ice made us both comfortable. Our friend headed out to the middle of the lake, crossing a small pressure crack that we later discovered was only four inches thick on the sides. We decided that we would not go further. and set up the shanty, the propane heater and the fish finder. Of course, the thermos of French roast coffee and the ubiquitous donuts were set on the shelf in front of us.

As I sat in the shanty and stared down the cylinder of ice that I had drilled, I fell into a transcendental state of bliss. It was as if all my thoughts, judgements and fears poured out of me and emptied into that hole in the ice. I baited my lure with spikes (to the uninitiated, they are maggots—thought by most civilians as the lowest possible earthly life form) and let the weighted lure drop down into the aquiline environment. It bounced off the bottom and the two-pound test fluorocarbon line coiled slightly. I reeled up just one turn and let the weight of the lure tighten the line. I gently jigged the rod by twitching my wrist and then letting it rest. I repeated this over and over with no results. Nonetheless, I was content. The frigid north wind whipped snowflakes around us just outside the door.

We were surrounded by other hearty souls who embrace misery as if they are proving that they thrive under adverse circumstances. We tried different colored lures, jigging faster or slower, or just moving a few yards to one side, drilling a new hole, and trying again. This is the essence of ice fishing. It’s called perseverance. Some say it’s foolish to keep trying when clearly nothing is working. But we are driven by passion.

After a few hours of this, Ozzie and I—having had meager success—retreated and dragged the shanty and all our equipment back to the vehicle. One dozen medium yellow perch and a half-dozen bluegills were all that we were taking home. This did not live up to our expectations, and that, my dear readers, is the most powerful lesson that the outdoors teaches. When we remove our expectations of what success looks like and instead are present for whatever happens, we open the door to joy. Sometimes it means taking home just a few fish. Other times it means you’ve just spent the most valuable commodity we have, time.

When we returned home, I jumped on one of the many Vermont ice fishing forums on the internet and was struck by a picture of a guy who had a half-bucketful of 14-inch yellow perch. I copied the picture and send it to Ozzie via email with the subject line, “Do you recognize this guy?” After a little web sleuthing, I realized that this was the guy from the access parking lot. At first my juices got flowing and I felt jealous! I compared my catch to his and thought that his catch was my idea of “success.” Then I caught myself and thought about the lovely perch and bluegill I had ready for cleaning. And what about having shared this wonderful moment with my friend?

After a day on the ice, I recognize that none of my experiences have been failures. Living with passion is exemplified by embracing the miracle of being in the moment. That exhilarating moment when the tip of my rod gets tugged violently downward toward the hole. My line is the thread of life that binds me to another living being and is at least as exciting as watching Luciano Pavarotti belt out La Traviata at the Met.

Bradley Carleton is Executive Director of Sacred Hunter, a non-profit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.