Tellus: (tel’us), n. 1. [Latin] earth, soil, and the land; a country; the world. 2. a collection of Willamette University student’s insights, stories, photos and thoughts from their experiences studying abroad.

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Latvia Encapsulated in Icefishing

Rīga is bitterly cold in the winter. It was -18° Celsius (just under 0° Fahrenheit) in late January when I got off the plane in Latvia and walked across the tarmac to the gate, still wearing the jeans and T-shirt I had on when I left Seattle. The next three weeks only got colder. On a frigid, windy February day on which the temperature never got above -25° Celsius, I had my first experience ice fishing. The cold bit through my gloves, my boots, and my heavy winter socks, and I was sure I wouldn’t regain feeling in my nose until at least the next day. And yet, ice fishers were out in force on the Daugava River.
Ice fishing is more than just a way to spend an afternoon in Latvia—it’s an integral part of life, and it is an important microcosm of Latvian culture. winter, and the ice it brings, to a great extent dictates the way the city works. The Daugava River, which is about half a mile across as it makes its way through Rīga, is completely frozen. Most ice fishers congregate in this inlet on the east side of the Daugava because the current is weakest here, allowing them to catch more fish. When the inlet freezes, it also creates a much shorter commute for people who live on one side of the inlet and work on another.
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There’s a fiery debate in Latvia between those who support global integration and industrialization and those who favor a Latvia more in touch with its traditional roots. The controversy over the impact of Latvia’s increasing industrialization on its traditional ways of life is discussed in my university classroom, but it is felt on the river itself. Here, the traditionalists appear to be winning: the early 2000’s were boom years for the Latvian economy, and a construction bubble grew rapidly. That bubble burst dramatically with the current global recession, and huge cranes now sit idle, a dormant backdrop to successful ice fishers.
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Ice fishing is at once an intensely personal and very social experience. One man can sit alone for hours some days, as seems to be the case in here, with nothing to show for his work but a head full of his own thoughts. It’s getting dark; the sun is setting, and yet this man still hunches on his small stool, waiting for a bite. Others, like the man in the second photo, seem at least slightly more successful. When I asked in my broken Latvian why he ate his fish straight out of the water instead of cooking it, he responded with one word: “Izbadējies.” Hungry.
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For many people, however, ice fishing in Rīga is a social activity. This group of men who quietly for hours on the river.Dahlberg Photo5.JPG
Many ice fishers are visited by friends, like the woman in the background of that photo, to assuage the monotony, and a vibrant social network exists of ice fishers who meet daily on the river to exchange news. Solitary ice fishers are forced to become more social, though, as spring begins to thaw the Daugava’s tidal estuaries. Late March brings out the daring fishers to try their luck.Dahlberg Photo6.JPG
It also gives a glimpse of the stubbornness that my Latvian friends agreed is, for better or for worse, a central part of their national character: at this point, it would probably be safer to simply cast a line in from the shore, but that’s not how it’s done. “In winter, we fish on ice.” Ice fishing offers a window into religion in Latvia, as well. The men here say they sit in front of their neighborhood старове́ры, (Starovery) or Russian Old-Believers church, every time they fish so that they can easily attend afternoon prayers.Dahlberg Photo7.JPG
Spring has finally arrived. It’s still freezing, and heavy coats are still essential, but the swiftly-moving parts of the Daugava are devoid of ice. Even without the moving water, though, I would recognize that Winter has passed. I observed a remarkable shift in the general attitude in Rīga around this time. When the river thaws and trees begin blooming, people begin to smile. The men are laughing in this picture, something I never heard from fishers on the frozen Daugava.Dahlberg Photo8.JPG
Ice fishers have a profound impact on the economy in Rīga and Latvia. The domed structures are former zeppelin hangars along the Daugava that have been converted to a fresh food market. One entire hangar is devoted to fish, and on big catch days, the market spills out into the surrounding streets. To put this in a more typically American perspective, one and a half football fields is not enough room to hold all the fish that are caught and sold in Rīga on some days. The market is extremely successful, and people, undeterred by the cold, continue to give the fishers a reason to while away their time on the ice.Dahlberg Photo9.JPG

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  1. 15 Comment(s)

  2.   By Emily Carpenter on Oct 14, 2009 | Reply

    Hi Brett-
    I thought your blog was really interesting! My dad ice fishes, but I never would have imagined ice fishing to have such an impact on a city and country. Thanks!

  3.   By cyprus fishing on Nov 13, 2009 | Reply

    Hi Brett!
    Interesting to read about mother land. Fishing in Latvia is very popular and actually there are more ice fishing lovers then others. Yeaaah… I would like to try ice fishing.. but it is impossible in Cyprus where I’m leaving now 🙂

  4.   By Heidi Hunt on Nov 28, 2009 | Reply

    Hi Brett,
    Your photos are beautiful–I love the views of the city–old & new–behind the fishermen on the river. Your commentary made me feel I was there on the cold winter river & gave a window into a unique culture. Based on your comment about spring,I would love to see an essay on winter turning to spring in Riga!

  5.   By Gold coast deep sea fishing on Dec 15, 2009 | Reply

    Wow, intersting article, they must be really keen to fish in temperatures that cold, looks like a popular past time. great pictures.

  6.   By Ice Fishing House Reviews on Dec 17, 2009 | Reply

    Great article and I loved the pictures. Thanks for the info. What kind of ice fishing shelters do most fishermen use? If you could give me some feedback on my site, I’d appreciate it.

  7.   By Emile Duball on Jan 19, 2010 | Reply

    Wo Google mich den lieben Tag hinfuehrt 🙂 Tolle Page, ich werde nochmals kommen.

  8.   By Construction Tools on Feb 28, 2010 | Reply

    Now that’s diehard ice fishing when you have open water but would rather poke a hole in the ice!

  9.   By nocona boots on Mar 3, 2010 | Reply

    Nice time to have ice fishing as everyone in the above pictures enjoying it…

  10.   By Fredrick Reidy on Mar 8, 2010 | Reply

    I’m buying you a beer if you ever come to Tampa.

  11.   By Elan Technologies on Jul 30, 2010 | Reply

    Great post and I loved the pictures.

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