Architecture Off the Grid: Quirky Ice Huts Dot Canada's Frozen Lakes
Richard Johnson has never fallen through the ice. Having photographed hundreds of ice huts in nine of Canada’s ten provinces, that’s rather surprising. The small shelters are used for ice fishing across frozen lakes and bays. Eight years ago, Johnson launched a photographic study, traveling with very warm gloves and a sled for his camera equipment. Before heading out on another trip, we spoke to him about how regional differences significantly shape the architecture of the huts and what they’ve taught him about good design.
How did the series start?
My sister lives in New Liskeard on Lake Temiskaming and when I visited her back in the nineties, I got my first introduction to winter recreation on frozen lakes. I didn’t start shooting them until 2007 when I went to Lake Simcoe, which is close to Toronto. A year later, I was on assignment on Prince Edward Island when I noticed a bunch of ice fishing huts out my hotel window. It was that moment that I realized the huts must be everywhere in Canada and the project took on the narrative of comparing the architectural styles form coast to coast.
What kind of differences do you notice in different regions?
The designs are very site-specific. Saskatchewan has the highest per capita ownership of pick-up trucks in the country, so the huts are sized to fit in the truck’s bed.
In Ontario, ice fishermen build sled-based structures that are dragged on and off the ice with snowmobiles. Sheet metal sliding over wooden frames are common because of how lightweight those materials are. In British Columbia, the abundance of fish means you can just drill a hole and catch something, so you don’t need much in the way of shelter. In Quebec, ice fishing is a much more social experience. Women and children are welcome, overnight accommodations are common, so you’ll see larger huts with wood burning stoves.
What do you think the ice huts tell us about design?
The provisional nature of the ice fishing hut is what draws me in. It is pure architecture: shelter, transportable, low cost. But they also have so much personality. They are a reflection of the hut owner—a portrait, almost, without the person.
Are there any architectural lessons to be gleaned from these ice huts?
Learn from your neighbors. On the ice, everyone is part of the same family.
You’ve been working on this series for eight years. What’s changed?
I’ve seen many similar styles so now I'm more interested in the colorful, quirky shapes. The old hand-me-down huts are getting harder to find, and when they fall apart, pop-up tents often replace them. The tents are more practical, but with all that efficiency we are losing the built communities, textures, and individual personalities of the ice huts. With this shift, some of the heritage of this culturally rich winter ritual will certainly be lost.
How do the fishermen respond to your project? Have you ever stopped to ice fish in the huts you photograph?
I tend to shoot in bad weather, which means the fishermen are not usually around. But, over the years I have met many owners. They look at me a bit funny, but they’re usually very friendly. Entering into a hut tends to spiral into drinks and hours of solving the world’s problems. Ice fishing takes a lot of patience, and I like to move around too much.