Winter Villages

Sarah Martin documents characterful
ice huts on Ontario’s Lake Simcoe


by Kate Mothes

Lake Simcoe, Ontario’s fourth-largest lake, is a fishing destination for trout, whitefish, and muskies, especially in the winter. Originally called Ouentironk by the region’s native Wendat (Ouendat) tribe prior to their displacement from the area in the 17th century—among a number of other names—the lake contains several islands that form the reserve for the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation or are privately owned by residents. Photographer Sarah Martin, who lives nearby and regularly takes her beagle for walks around the shore, ventured out further onto the ice last winter. “Growing up near the lake, I have long been fascinated with the way the colourful ice huts dot the all-white winter landscape,” she says.

Repurposed from garden sheds or built from scratch using whatever materials are at hand, ice huts are a common feature on frozen lakes in Canada and the Upper Midwest of the U.S., such as the annual sturgeon spearing event on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. The huts are designed with holes in the floors so that people can sit in a warm shelter, protected from the elements, and keep an eye on a line dropped into the ice. Easily hitched up to trailers, they can be moved onto the ice in winter and then stored on land during the summer.


Solitary huts contrast the bright white of the snow that spans across the flat surface of Lake Simcoe. During the pandemic, when lockdowns necessitated long periods away from friends and family, Martin became more interested in ideas around isolation and the way individual huts represented something akin to a provisional microcosm of society: a village. “In the past, I have photographed them from a distance, with the specks of colour contrasting against the all white lake and winter skies,” she says. “What was interesting to me is that these ice huts were often grouped in communities… a symbolism of how much community matters. Even on a barren, frozen landscape, community gathers.”

The annual ritual of hauling the huts out to the ice and creating temporary villages highlight how specific interests, pastimes, and traditions bring people together in seemingly remote places. “This place brings fellowship and camaraderie in shared experiences, which is particularly fascinating because the villages are removed after a couple months,” she says. “This place draws in, unites, and then is disassembled year after year. A beautiful cyclical synergy.”

Martin has recently begun to construct and photograph miniature sculptures made from soft materials like moss and cotton based on the outline of the ice huts. You can find more on her website and Instagram.

No. 8
Chasing Sunsets
Candy Striper
Party Hut

All images © Sarah Martin

Header image: Duck, duck, duck…

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