Yankee classic from January 1981
People who live along inland waters in northern New England know there are really only two seasons: ice-in and ice-out. All else is but prelude and aftermath.
A frozen lake draws us: we dare it early and we dare it late, probing the limits of a most delicate balance — the freezing point of water, zero degrees C, is also the melting point of ice. Freezing water gives off heat, the melting ice absorbs it. At absolute equilibrium, water and ice lock together, shifting to and fro, solid and liquid.
It is why ice is so fragile. Yet the six-sided crystals bear a remote resemblance to granite, and ice crystals are so similar to those in metals that scientists study ice to learn about iron. Ice can be planed, turned on a lathe, sanded, drilled, and polished, yet a January rain and a steady wind can turn the most solid-appearing ice into treacherous pools. Then a few hours of calm can reform it thicker than before.
Anyone who has lived beside a lake in winter knows nothing is absolutely certain when dealing with ice. Its changeability is at once its fascination and its danger, an equilibrium point all its own.
Ten percent of all the land area in the world is covered with ice, yet we are just emerging from the infancy of a science designed to study it. We have domesticated ice in our refrigerators, while each spring renegade ice jams cause floods and buckle bridges. Scientists talk hopefully of towing icebergs from the Antarctic to the Middle East, propellers lashed to the rear, the whole thing covered in miles of plastic wrap. Meanwhile other scientists project that sooner than any of us think we will be plunged into another ice age with glaciers once again scraping the earth.
There are glossaries just for the definitions of the myriad forms of ice. In some classifications over 100 are listed, yet to most of us ice is ice is ice. That is why I like the ice that comes each winter to the waters around me. It is at once awesome and friendly, a part of the landscape, what I see and touch every day for five months or more.
I learned about ice the year I lived beside a lake near the foothills of the White Mountains. It was a small lake, a mile across and five miles around. I watched the lake ripen and freeze, then, months later, rot and thaw. The ice became a constant companion, always changing, never dull. There are people who confuse a frozen lake with stillness and silence. They should live beside one. The ice seethes with activity. With sharp temperature fluctuations it contracts and expands. An ice pack a mile wide will expand nearly three feet when a daytime temperature of 30 degrees F. plummets to zero at night.
As the ice is pushed and pulled it groans, pops, shudders, and at times makes a curious sort sigh — winter songs at once startling and comforting, each retort a signal of change. In winters of heavy snows the sounds are muffled, as the snow insulates the ice from drastic temperature changes; but there are times when the first hard crust of ice, pure as crystal, stays long into a snowless winter. These are the winters of black ice, days of breathtaking skating over transparent ice, the deep dark waters gleaming below.
I stood on the shore of my lake one night in late November when the stars burned and the cold whipped down from Canada. I made a fire on the beach and stayed warm while the night worked its way on the waters of the lake. At dawn a surface of ice, thin as mica and clear as a mirror, floated at the cove. It did not freeze hard and true then, but a few weeks later after a few light snows, the nights snapped cold and sharp again. With little wind to ripple the waters, this lime the balance was tipped to the ice.
The ice grew downward in columns, congealed in place. It is a process that occurs one molecule at a time. When an ice crystal has attained the critical size and the freezing process is dominant, it continues to grow, adding molecules to its crystal structure, as bricks are added to a wall. Even a thin cover of snow slows ice growth: bare ice can often grow faster at 0° F. than snow-covered ice at -20 degrees. But there was no snow and the ice grew so rapidly that in a few days I could stand on it. Each night the temperature dropped lower and water froze along the underbelly of the ice sheet, thickening it hour after hour. Soon the ice was thick enough to insulate the water below the ice, and while the ice continued to grow, it grew slower each day.
Black ice really is ice free of bubbles. Nearly every winter heavy snows press the ice downward. Water squirts through the fissures and freezes with the snow. The result is a milky white snow ice, as bubbly as soda, devoid of mystery. But black ice is something else again. “At once it is ice, shining and clear, but it is also black, dark and impenetrable. The position of the viewer and the angle of the light decides which. In one light, black ice is a perfect mirror, projecting the skater in an inverted world where his or her skates appear to cut through cirrus clouds rather than ice crystals. In another light, black ice is a nearly perfect lens, granting visual trespass to a foreign world,” wrote Jack Aley.
Another writer, John W. Miller, remembered a day of black ice in his youth: “We saw muskrats with silver air in their fur paddle under us. They swam from underwater holes in the bank along cloudy runs, dug up water-lily bulbs and left strings of bubbles on the underside of the ice that showed us how (hick it was. We saw two groggy snapping turtles as big around as peach baskets, hibernating side by side on the pond bottom, and we sat a foot above them, tapping the pane with stones until our pants soaked through, but they wouldn’t wake up.” Black ice is a nearly perfect medium for ice skating, as treasured by a skater as Rocky Mountain powder snow is by a skier. Black ice is virtually free of the ridges, bumps, and depressions formed when ice constantly changes from layers of snow ice to slush that refreezes.
I remember one skate in particular from that winter of black ice. I do not expect to ever have another like it. Along that shore there lived only my wife and I, and our neighbors Tom and Sue. Tom’s grandfather had first come to the lake in 1938, and since then generations of his family had spilled along the shore, six houses lined up, filled with uncles and cousins. They came in summer from suburban towns in Massachusetts; Tom was the first to come (0 live in winter, arriving from Florida burnt out and discouraged).
We were all unemployed, in transition from jobs that had failed, living as cheaply as possible off small savings. It was a vulnerable time in many ways, but we were happy enough, and without saying it, we were all aware, I think, that the days and nights on the lake were but moments caught between our own days of expansion and contraction.
This unforgettable skate was on New Year’s Eve, after an unseasonably warm day. The ice remained hard, and that night only a few pale stars poked through the clouds. We made a small fire in the middle of the lake and placed bottles of tequila against the ice to cool. We skated from the center, each on a different axis, and from across the lake you could hear someone shout, then another shout, and in time we skated to the center, gulped the harsh drink, then skated away again. It was dark enough on the lake to fear weak ice, or just the dark, but the momentum of the night kept us going.
A strong wind picked up and we unzipped out coats, opening them out to our sides, as though they were wings. We needed frictionless ice and a north wind to sail that night, and we got it.
In time a snowstorm came howling from the northeast, burying the black ice beneath a foot of snow. The snow had three effects: it destroyed the black ice, creating slabs of snow ice formed as a result of water spurting to the top of the snow and melting it; it blocked the sunshine to the lake, thus shutting off photosynthesis and beginning the winter kill of millions of organisms in the lake; and it caused me to change the pattern of my days.
The morning skates around the lake were now gone, replaced by long walks across the lake to the post office. The snow on top of the good crust of ice attracted the ice fishermen, the only ones who found the transparent ice distasteful. Closely stacked ice shacks sprang up on the lake by late January. Early on cold mornings I’d see the same men trudge across the ice wrapped in thick coals, until they disappeared into the brown weathered shacks, not emerging for hours on end.
One evening I went out with Tom, broke a few holes, baited a line, and put in our tip-ups. We wanted pickerel, and we took the time to gouge out the deep troughs in the snow ice to keep our catch fresh. Our nags sprang up in lime, and we shot forward, jolted out of our lassitude. We had an eel and a catfish waiting. Wanting neither we cut the lines. That was the end of ice-fishing season for us.
By late March we knew the ice was changing fast. Sometimes while walking to the post office across the lake, we’d pinch through the ice, and it would give slightly, as though suddenly grown rubbery. Along the shore, we’d see the same needlelike crystals we saw at the first signs of ice in November, as though we were unwinding a tape of the winter. The ice that I had relied on throughout the winter could no longer be trusted.
Not only was the ice melting slowly from the top, but it was also being eroded from below by warm water sloshing against its belly. Honeycombs with cracks and fissures appeared. As it melted from the bottom, vertical candles of ice grew, holding each other up like dominoes. We would look down and see long, dagger-like crystals adhering together. If we nudged them with our chisel they’d crack instantly with barely a whisper of protest. As the ice began to melt, the lake water began to cool to its coldest point of the year, but the balance was irreversibly shifted and the spring deathwatch for ice-out began.
The ice broke free from the river banks first, and large cracks appeared. A chunk of ice pushed water before it, nudging weakening ice ahead: the shoreline eroded faster each day.
It was no time to be loose on the ice, though giant cakes of it remained, seemingly thick enough to support a horse, but thoroughly rotten and weak, its tension destroyed.
One warm afternoon the thermometer read 70 degrees beneath a bright sun. Tom and I chipped ice ten feet from shore to make ice cream. The ice was the darkest since December, with a film of new ice formed from water just released from below the ice sheet. Small pools of open water formed like potholes between the ice floes and for over an hour Tom eyed them. When the ice cream had thickened, he stripped quickly, leapfrogged among the ice floes, and jumped into the water. Two weeks still remained until the lake was free, but watching Tom lift himself from the water, his elbows extended on the ice, emerging in shivering ecstasy –; this signified ice-out for me.
In the town, though, ice-out had to wait until you could put a boat into the lake at the dock behind the post office, and could travel to the head or the lake, no mailer how many twists and turns were needed to dodge ice floes. People wagered small sums, usually ten dollars, on when that would happen. They’d keep a watch on the south wind that would jam the ice together. Tom and I would take his canoe and go on long rides between the chunks and islands that formed natural canals.
I would have liked it if the ice had gone out with a final shudder beneath a star-filled night. But there were only a few days of warm drizzle and the fog that held the warmth close to the lake. On the last day or April a wind blew from the north, breaking the last floes apart. They rode across the lake with white caps whipping at their heels, and within a few hours people from town came down the road to watch the first open, blue water of the year, not minding the slightly acrid odor of lake-bottom water now rising to the top.
Soon the lake shore filled with smelt fishermen, released from winter bondage of their own, who had driven for miles to fish this lake, one of the best smelting spots in the lake. Tom had heard from his parents, his uncles and cousins. Soon they would fill the shoreline, and their motorboats would hum across the lake. The lanterns of the smelters played out over the lake, and even as Tom and I dipped our own nets silently into the still-icy waters along the shore, we could hear the faraway shouts of revelry.