So on that snowy morning, Tori and I were picked up by her host family from the apartment and we drove the approximately 1km to the Hwacheon ice festival. There was much to do, including ice slides, an ice cave, driving ATV's on an ice track (which we did - we are, afterall, Americans, and can't bear to miss an opportunity to play with an internal-combustion-engine-powered machine in less than favorable conditions), sledding across the ice, tall "bobsledding" from a tower off the side of the river, and ice soccer in small rinks on the ice with hockey puck-like objects. There was food to eat, military formations to watch, hot chocolate and coffee and soju to drink, huge ice sculpture installations to ponder.
There was also ice fishing, and among the things I did, that was the most memorable. They would cut small holes in the ice and drop a line to wait for the Sancheno (trout - big, healthy trout) to bite then pull it out and take it home for dinner; but that wasn't the kind of ice fishing I did. They also had a large fishing pool. They tried to talk me out of it, but I decided to sign up... and then was followed by Tori's host dad, and then her host sisters (ages 10 and 12), and then Tori herself. At the appointed time, we returned to the temporary building erected by the fishing pool where they provided each person a t-shirt and pair of shorts to put on. So into the locker room where we strip down and don our fishing outfits. Upon exiting the locker rooms, we find some available sandals, but these would only be for temporary use; upon taking to the ice around the pool, we had to be barefoot. So after standing around outside in the cold for a few minutes on the wooden deck while the MC played to the crowd, we circled around the outside of the pool, barefoot on ice and ice-cold rocks, until everyone was around the edge... Then after a bit more teasing, they instructed everyone into the pool to start catching fish. The idea is to catch fish with our bare hands and drop them into our tucked-in shirts. The limit was 2 per person, but a third could be had by holding it in one's mouth.
I was already having trouble with the cold before jumping in. Not the coldness in the air, but the coldness on the bottom of my feet from walking on ice. I have very sensitive feet. So when we jumped into the water, the first couple minutes were just trying to deal with the intense pain of being in extremely cold water. Let's just say that it was cold enough that they had to keep water pumping into the pool to keep it moving to prevent freezing. So after a couple of minutes, my legs, from just above my knees down, were numb and I could finally get to work. I couldn't feel anything around or under my feet, but no matter, I needed to catch some fish. By this time, however, half the people had left the pool. Some had left as soon as entering the water, others had caught their quota already, and others had been overcome by the cold after a minute or two. This may seem ideal since there would less demand for the remaining fish, but the problem was that with all the extra room in the pool, there was room for the fish to gather in the areas where there were no people instead of just swimming around frantically among everyone. So essentially, I was not able to catch a fish. I had neither the resistance to the cold nor the correct technique for catching live trout, in a pool, in freezing weather. Next time I will know better how to approach the challenge. My only claim to fame was that I as the last person out of the pool that day and therefore endured the cold water the longest.
Upon exiting the pool, I still couldn't feel anything at all on or around my feet. I had to be very careful to watch what i stepped on and to make sure no one in the crowd stepped on my feet, because I could have cut my foot on something sharp or otherwise hurt my feet and not even known it. I hurried inside when called out of the water and had to wait to change because of a packed locker room. I eventually changed, but it took about 45 minutes to regain all feeling in my feet. I still sometimes feel something weird in some of the nerves on the bottom of my toes.
So among our group (of 5) who fished for Sancheno, Tori's host dad was the only one who caught fish. He caught three, so carried one of them out of the pool in his mouth. That night, we ate fresh Sancheno sushimi as well as baked trout prepared by Tori's host mom. It was pretty incredibly good tasting sushimi, and the freshest I have ever eaten. With some soju, some rice, some Kimchi, and some other good tasting foods I had never eaten before, I was definitely recovered and satisfied after dinner.
Today, we head back to the festival, where I have been asked to ride on a sled for a sled parade. Essentially, they are making a spectacle out of the bearded American in this small town of Hwacheon, but I am certainly willing to play along. It is the least I can do after the grace and generosity I have been shown the last few days. The sled I will be riding on belongs to the local Tennis coach, so I think he is also buttering me up for a match so he can stake his dominance over American tennis players. Hopefully at least this time I can stay up on my feet.