The Ice Soar: Pride of the North, Queen of the Lake
Published on February 14th, 2017
Ice boating’s classic ghost story, ‘The Ice Soar: Pride of the North, Queen of the Lake’, as told to Greg Whitehorse.
Outside the windows of the South Side Ice Yacht Club, the Skeeters, Renegades and Nites were effortlessly gliding over the dark gray ice sheet. Suddenly, sailing into view came a chilling blast from the past. A huge stern-steerer, its yellow stained, canvas sails straining against the twenty mile per hour wind. Behind its sheer size, the Skeeters, Renegades and Nites disappeared for seconds at a time before appearing again on the other side.
Two, no three burly men steered and cranked and pulled, trying to tame the unruly beast. Moving in a southerly direction, its left (port? starboard?) runner gently lifts off the ice, a few feet at first, and then quickly shoots skyward. The runner plank is at an impossible angle to the ice.
Surely the beast is going to capsize, but no, the three burly men continue to steer and crank and pull and the ice yacht slowly regains a more proper stance on the frozen surface. A slight change in direction to take advantage of a felt, but unseen wind shift, and the beast sailed away from view.
“Arghh… that thar be the ‘Ice Soar’,” came a grizzled voice from behind. Eye sore? Ice Whore? What? I wondered.
I turned around, behind me stood stout, weather beaten man, who I guessed to be in his 70’s. Perhaps he was younger; decades of hard outdoor labor could age a man beyond his years. “Buy a friend a cold dipper and I’ll tell you the tale of the ‘Ice Soar’.”
What the hell, I thought, I had time. The day’s racing had finished early in the breezy conditions. Besides, at a buck a bottle a guy could afford to invest a little in a good story.
“She was built in the year 1897.” he began. “Fulton Wainwright, he was big in the buggy-whip business ya know, anyhows, he hired a local cabinet maker, ‘Bugs’ Cooper, to cut the timbers and piece ‘er together over that year. Fulton wanted the biggest, fastest, ice yacht on Winnebago.”
“Well, ol’ ‘Bugsy’ had never built any kind of ice boat before, so he just sort of made one based on what he had seen out at the lake. When she was done, I’ll tell ya, she was one beautiful piece. Fast too.”
Wainwright’s wife, Agnes Lenore, well she wants ol’ Fulton to name the boat after her. Fulton, he goes and names her ‘Ice Soar’. Behind his back, folks was saying ol’ Wainwright had still named the boat after his wife.”
“Well anyhows, for the next several years the ‘Ice Soar’ was a familiar site on the local ice.”
“She won her share of races too. One year, around 1910, I’m supposin’, she made the run to Pipe and back in a little over thirty minutes. I’ll tell ya, Pipe and back in thirty minutes, that’s damn near flyin’!”
‘What’s a fella need to do to get a drink around here anyhow?” Catching the subtle hint, I head to the bar, returning shortly with a couple of cold ones. After a long swig of his beer, he continued his story.
“Where was I? Oh, ya, anyhows, when it becomes apparent that Henry’s Model T’s had no need for a buggy-whip, Wainwright’s factory, she goes belly-up. Agnes, she leaves poor Fulton. No money, no Agnes she figures.”
“Wainwright, he loses everything. Everything but the ‘Ice Soar’ that is.” The old man pauses for a few seconds. “It was about that time that the ‘Ice Soar’ becomes a pirate ship. Many a cold, winter nights she could be seen in the moonlight, sailing the frozen waters of Lake Winnebago.”
“Wainwright and his crew, a bunch of local thugs, would sail into the towns around the lake, raiding local stores and gin mills, fightin’ an’ hell-raisin’.”
“The folks up ‘n’ down the coast, they all hates the ‘lce Soar’. But the cops can never catch ‘er.”
“They make off with barrels of beer, whiskey, food an’ loot. More than a few pretty girls sail off on the ‘Ice Soar’, mostly by choice I’m supposin’.”
The old man laughs and then adds; “My throats gettin’ mighty parched if you’re catching my drift.”
I return with a few more bottles of beer. Looking at the bottle in his large, callused hand he says, “Lite beer? I never knowed any good reason for lite beer.”
“Well anyhows, it was the winter of ’38, colder than a grave diggers ass, the ice was already two feet thick, and it was only December. What snow had fallen had blown off the big lake. One night she’s really howlin’, 45, 55, mile per hour winds gusts of 70 they say. The ‘Ice Soar’, she sails into Pipe just about the time the snow starts fillin’ in.”
“They’re a tough lot, but that night they plan on just holin’ up, there in Pipe. Even they can’t handle the storm that’s brewin’. Blizzard of ’38, the storm of the century, folks call it.”
‘Well, the boys are just settlin’ into some farmer’s barn, breakin’ open the whiskey, guzzlin’ beer, when they hear this faint screamin’ outside. Just the wind howlin’, they wonder? No, they can hear words. “My baby, somebody help my baby!” 0l’ Wainwright, he pokes his head outside the barn door an’ sees a women carryin’ a large bundle. Fulton yells out, “Over here, come over here!”
‘When the woman struggles over to the barn she hurriedly tells Wainwright, “My girl is sick, she needs to get to the hospital in Oshkosh!”
“Not in this storm. Nobody’s goin’ anywheres on this night,” Wainwright tells her
‘But my little girl will die!” screams the woman. “Well, I don’t know what came over ol’ Wainwright right then,” continues the old man. “But he turns to his crew and orders,’ Prepare to set sail!'”
“Hoisting those massive sails in the seventy mile per hour wind was probably the hardest work any of those boys had ever done. Yet, somehow they manage. Wainwright, he puts the little girl in the basket next to him. Two others jump in the basket on the other side of ‘Ice Soar’s’ back-bone, one to handle the main, the other the jib”.
“Wainwright yelled out, over the howlin’ wind and driving snow, “I can’t see a damned thing, but I reckon she’s a beam reach over to Oshkosh.”
‘Even in the screamin’wind it takes the boys all their effort to get the ‘Ice Soar’ movin’. But soon enough the mighty ice machine is gainin’ speed and sailin’ off, into the darkness. Well, ol’ Wainwright, he figures he needs the rest of the crew to move out to the end of ‘Ice Soar’s’ huge runner plank to hold ‘er down. Let me tell ya, it’s one thing to try that in a thirty mile per hour breeze, but in pitch black, in sixty to seventy miles per hour of wind and snow, if you’re out there walkin’ the plank, It’s a life or death deal.”
“Wainwright didn’t see the first fella fall off. Hell, he couldn’t even see the end of the plank. But he knew that the beast was harder to control than she was before.”
“Eighty, ninety, a hundred miles per hour, how would you know? The ‘Ice Soar’ just kept goin’ faster an’ faster. 0l’ Fulton, he did know when the second one dropped from the boat. With the ‘Ice Soar’ runnin’ with its plank nearly ninety degrees to the ice, the poor guy lost what little grip he had and fell. He nearly landed in Wainwright’s lap. He bounced off the main sail and dropped to the ice. He was never seen again.”
“Well anyhows, within minutes Wainwright figures that they’re closing in on the Oshkosh shore. How? I don’t know, he couldn’t see a damn thing. It took all his sailin’skills to turn the ship into the wind without spinnin’ ‘er. But somehows he does it. And not a moment too soon, If he’d a sailed ‘er in another twenty yards, he would of run ‘er ashore at over a hundred miles per hour. It would of killed everyone.”
“Well anyhows, they gets the little girl to the hospital, just in time to save ‘er. But Wainwright knows that they still have to high-tail it outta Oshkosh. When the boys get back to the ‘Ice Soar’ the wind she’s a blowin’ at hurricane strength, gusts over a hundred miles per hour, if you can believe it! The local law enforcement is waitin’ for ’em. Wainwright an’ his crew fight their way back to the ‘Ice Soar’, with the jib in tatters, they escape, an’ sail off into the blizzard.”
The old man pauses. “One more beer and I could finish this story,” he says. I again head for the bar, ordering a couple of Budweisers, no lite beer this time. I tell the bartender, “that’s quite the story, the ‘Ice Soar, I mean.”
The patrons of the bar instantly quit talking, the bartender stares icily at me. “What do you know about the ‘Ice Soar’?” he demands. All eyes are on me. The room is silent. “The ‘Ice Soar’, you know, that old stern-steerer that I saw sailing out on the lake today. That old guy back at the table, the guy I’ve been feeding beer all afternoon, was telling me the story.” I reply.
I turned to look back at the table we were sitting at. No one was there. Just a tabletop of empty beer bottles. The bartender leaned in close, “We don’t much talk about the ‘Ice Soar’ around here fella. That evil boat and her crew of pirates was lost in the storm of 1938.” “But I saw it out on the…” I started. “I told you, that boat was lost in ’38. That’s all you, or anyone, needs to know about the ‘Ice Soar’. Don’t bring up its name again.” With that I gave my two bottles of Bud to a couple guys sitting at the bar and turned to leave the clubhouse.
On my way out I passed a large, framed, picture of the ‘A’ boat, ‘Debutante’, hanging on the wall. I had looked over the old black and white image before, but this time, something caught my eye. In the background of the grainy photo there was another iceboat. If you looked closely you could just barely make out the name of that boat. The ‘Agnes Lenore’. I put my coat on and left.