It’s just plain cold at dawn near the Canadian border as two filmmakers haul their high-tech cameras out on a frozen pond to capture an ice fisherman landing whatever bites.

At the ghostly Chain of Ponds in Maine’s northwestern elbow — about 30 miles past Carrabassett Valley on Route 27 going toward Canada — shards of light spill across miles of white flatland. For the film “Hardwater,” a feature-length ice fishing documentary, it’s a familiar yet somewhat otherworldly scene. Jeff Howatt trudges his sled — not a snowmobile but the kind without a motor — out at 6 a.m. through crowded glades and over miles of crunchy snow to set traps for fish swimming below almost three feet of ice.

You might just call Howatt old school. He isn’t really one for technology, yet he’s still allowing two guys to put their Panasonic lens right up against his hand auger, an example of the trust Dan Sites and Ryan Brod have earned.

And there’s Howatt, described by the filmmakers as just a “down-home frugal Mainer who hikes 10 miles to fish his favorite ponds, then winter-summits mountains when he gets bored.” With a camera and red recording light an arm’s length away, he offers his take on new technology.

“I’ll go canoeing, and it will be so peaceful and then off in the distance you can hear a skidder hauling off logs, and then it’s just that noise and you think, ‘If that weren’t here, this would be perfect,’ ” said Howatt.

It’s not always a comfortable rapport between filmmakers and subjects, but for three winters and across 10 Maine counties, Sites and Brod have resolutely kept their cameras on.

The road to “Hardwater”

The two filmmakers are capturing something special, yet they didn’t think their path would lead them to the remote Maine wilderness.

Brod, 27, grew up with his dad near the Belgrade Lakes chain in Smithfield, then put his experience to work by becoming a licensed fishing guide. Sites, 29, graduated from Skowhegan High and went on to study film, then put his energy into documentaries. Both now live in Portland.

“I never would have made an ice fishing film if it wasn’t for Ryan. He knew about the culture and how complex the people and the fishery were. He just needed some help telling that story, and I bought in immediately once he explained his vision,” said Sites.

The former fifth-grade basketball teammates at Norridgewock Elementary School have done the groundwork, packing up their rigs on the weekend for three winters and heading north into winter, seeking adventure.

“Dan didn’t know much about fishing when we started the project and I probably knew less about filmmaking,” said Brod. And on “an unfamiliar lake, 14 below zero, at daybreak, he had to be a bit brave, and very patient. I’m thankful for that.”

They teamed together to capture the culture associated with a Maine tradition, and dispel a few myths along the way.

“There’s a depth to the culture and a diversity that needed to be explored,” said Brod.

“I hope ‘Hardwater’ does it justice.”

The business side

No, these were not a couple of well-funded kids just having fun. Sites and Brod have used Kickstarter (, an online fundraising site for artists of all kinds, in hopes of getting the funding needed for promotion, finishing services and festival submission fees. Kickstarter uses an innovative all-or-nothing funding method where projects must meet their pledge goals before a specified deadline or no money changes hands. “Hardwater” has reached its initial goal of $13,000 and is still accepting donations that will be used toward the project and to help pay for private screenings.

Sites and Brod have relied on this newfangled social media bake sale to tell their tale, and contributions can be made until the deadline at 6:49 a.m. Dec. 20.

Then it’s time to actually push the film to festivals.

Tales from

the frozen Maine tundra

In the wilderness, issues with bandwidth and bankroll are eternities away. Howatt smiles at his squirmy bait with a look you might have seen on his face when he was a boy. The blustery morning has given way to a bright noon calm. Sites and Brod smile back, even with one eye each in a camera monitor. Surely and silently, they’re building what will become “Hardwater.”

For quite a while there’s only wind wisping through conifers and the rustle of Howatt milling about. Then a flag springs up from one of the ice fishing traps.

Howatt crinkles a walrus moustache, and not a moment later another trap pops. On both lines there is a slippery baby salmon, the jewel of Maine’s lakes.

Two healthy young salmon turning up is a good sign for the future health of the pond. That means there’s a good chance that invasive species like the toothy Northern pike, a plague in other ponds throughout Maine, haven’t impacted this water’s natural ecosystem.

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