People & Places

Oasis on the Ice
A fisherman's tales of life without living for the trophy

story and photos copyright © 2004 by Mike Colclough, all rights reserved.

MEREDITH, N.H. - As shadows grow longer over frozen Lake Winnipesaukee, the daytime high of 15 degrees plummets back to near zero, and the arctic northerly wind only makes it feel colder. But out in the middle of Meredith Bay, one ice fisherman creates a warm oasis where he shows it's possible to shun trophies and live for the love of living, even after the one that got away.

Walk out from shore across the 24-inch-thick ice, and you'll go past bobhouses, trucks, cars, kids skating, and snowmobiles making buzzing noises like amplified model airplanes. The carnival atmosphere of the Great Rotary Annual Ice Fishing Derby does little to take away the frigidness of the air.

Then you happen across a red 6-foot by 10-foot shack with a welcoming light on, outside the door. Wait a minute-a light?

"Come in and get warm," the bobhouse's owner Charles Coffin, 68, says exuberantly. The gray-haired inventor from nearby Rumney is quick to share his comforts of home and his life stories. The shack's running water, electricity (supporting lights, a radio, TV and VCR) and homelike décor have made this man and his bobhouse regionally famous.

Upon entering, the first thing you might notice (after a mild euphoria from standing next to his propane heater) is the array of newspaper clippings featuring your host. He's also been on WMUR-TV 9's newscast. As you look about, he excitedly tells you how he incorporated each utility or appliance into his shack.

"Some people say they've got everything but the kitchen sink in their bobhouses," he says, "so I put in a kitchen sink." Yes, it has running water from a pump that draws water through a hole in the ice. He cooks on a three-burner gas stove with a fan hood and overhead light. On his countertop are stashes of coffee and Twinings earl gray tea next to mugs with pictures of his grandchildren on them.

There's a car stereo mounted in the kitchen. The radio, along with the TV and VCR mounted on a corner shelf opposite the head of his bed, operate from a Caterpillar bulldozer battery stored underneath one of his seats. A solar panel mounted under his skylight charges the battery.

There is an ice auger leaning in one corner. This is, after all, an ice fishing shack. Strategically located trap doors in the pale-blue plywood floor allow for access to the lake ice. Pine beams on the walls have inches notched in them for measuring what comes out of the holes.

Coffin, who's been "fishing my whole life, since I was a boy," admits he hasn't pulled up any prizewinners. However, despite having a last name associated with death, he has a lot of life to share and he's not planning to stop adding to it.

After marrying at 21 he raised four children, two boys and two girls who are now grown and live in Montana and New Hampshire, respectively. His five grandchildren range in age from 13 to 18 and visiting them occupies much of his free time. He never smoked or drank, which he credits for his boyish health.
Coffin started working at age 8 on his grandfather's farm, and became a mechanic after high school. That job led him into construction and excavation for Plymouth State University. Today he has his own construction business and a 22 x 40-foot shop at his house.

"I've got an excavator, a back hoe, and quite a few toys. I do a lot of work." Coffin enjoys being able to spread happiness with his physical labor. "You take rocks and dirt and make it into what the person wants, and it makes them happy," he says. He keeps his outlook on life simple: "Work hard, be honest and you'll get a lot of business. It's dirt work - construction - but I like to work," he says.

"I think I built this house because I wanted something better. The fish knew what I was up to, I think, because they don't bite."
- Charles Coffin

For a person who married young and still lives and works where he grew up, Coffin has a surprisingly large number of stories to tell. He's taken his fifth-wheel camper across North America so many times that he's become just as bored crossing the Canadian plains as he is with the American Plains. He visits his grandchildren in Montana, where one of his sons is a gunsmith who works for singer Hank Williams, Jr. and the other builds furniture and trains hawks.

"It's amazing to watch [hawk training], unbelievable. He's talking to that bird the whole time and the bird does what he says."

Coffin's other son takes him hunting and once sent him a seven-foot-long mountain lion skin taken from near his house.

"Those are scary beasts; big claws that thing had, could cut right into you." While hunting in central New Hampshire recently, Coffin says he heard such a beast scream and growl.

"I didn't get a good look at it but I knew the sound was a lot bigger than a bobcat."

Although hunting and fishing have been a part of Coffin's life since the beginning, he'd never tried ice fishing until 1990 when his older brother died from a heart attack and left an ice fishing shack. His younger brother invited him to use it on nearby Center Harbor bay. The trip was anything but pleasant.

"It was a rainy day, cold and raw, and the bobhouse was leaking. We didn't catch anything. I don't know why I did it again," he confesses. "I think I built this house because I wanted something better. The fish knew what I was up to I think, because they don't bite." He laughs.

There's a sudden bite on his line. Silence. The electronic fish finder on his wall chirps, its screen showing a big fish directly between the surface and the muddy bottom 25 feet down. The fish gets away. Coffin speaks again.

"You gotta be real quick with it; they'll spit it out quick."

Letting one get away is Coffin's only regret in life, and it wasn't a fish. He divorced his wife while in his "foolish forties."

"The judge went through the proceedings, looked at me and asked, 'Is this what you want?' and I almost said no. But then I thought, 'I paid the $800 for the hearing and so I figured I better do it.'" His children were all in their 20s at the time. Recently he asked one of his sons what he thought of it. He had never approved.

Coffin says he and his ex-wife remained friends. He looks away, out the window at the headlights of passing snowmobiles in the winter night.

"If she hadn't remarried, I would've remarried her," he says. "Beware your foolish forties." Coffin says he is happy for her: She found a "nice guy" from Boston whose wife had died from cancer.

Ironically, Coffin lost his ring finger - with wedding ring attached - in an industrial accident. He eventually got the ring back, but still has only nine fingers and remains single.

Coffin hasn't let his losses diminish his love for life, which for him includes inventing. He claims the creation of a "quick mount" snowplow before Fisher made theirs, and says he also developed a hydraulic sander before they hit the market. His ice fishing shack, which he built in 1991, is a trailer with a hydraulic lift for jacking it up off the ice when it's time to move on. For all his inventions, Coffin has no patents.

He doesn't have any fishing trophies, either. Coffin seems to do everything for the love of it, even partaking in the fishing derby.

"I come down [to Meredith Bay] mainly to see the crowd, and people like to see this thing," he says, referring to his shack.

Twilight casts a blue hue across the ice and over the rooftops of the Inns at Mill Falls. The festive lights of Meredith reflect in the circulated water around the town docks. Snowmobiles head off into the distance, back to their homes at various points on the lake. The activity of the bay settles down for the night.

Coffin-who doesn't sleep as well in his shack as he does in his home, grabs his portable TV and a few other valuable items, shuts off the welcome light, and locks the door for the night.

His steps crunch across the ice as he heads for shore.


Copyright © 2004 by Mike Colclough, all rights reserved.
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