After the gaudy melodrama of fall -- a hundred thousand extravagantly colored death scenes attended by an equal number of gaping onlookers -- early winter is dull, almost boring by comparison. Temperatures tight rope around the freezing mark, snow falls, melts, then maybe flurries again, but few other indicators point to the coming months of winter. The world seems poised on a deep inhale, held like hope until the solstice announces the official birth of a new year.
But every season wears its own enchantment: some are simply more subtle than others. The soul of early winter, when the world segues from the brilliant colors of autumn to the equally brilliant whiteness of winter, is defined by ice.
The Amnicon River is shallow at this time of year, alternating between boulder-strewn rapids as quick and slim as a vixen's step and stretches of quiet water as still as a sleeping Labrador Retriever. The first appearance of ice is ephemeral: where the water meets land a few crystals needle outward, brittle and wafer thin, in places where the current is most sluggish. This ice is so unsubstantial that the merest hint of movement -- a ripple, a breeze, or a chance footstep -- will shatter the house of cards and send glassy shards sweeping down stream like so many handfuls of diamonds. At this time, early in the winter, the river water itself seems to thicken into something almost viscous, like congealing blood.
In stretches of faster water, exposed boulders create eddies within the current -- both upstream and down from the boulder -- wakes of still water that are the first to form tongues of ice as the river freezes. The surface of the river becomes a schematic, with ice marking the slowest, safest places and dark water shooting like a directional arrow to indicate the deepest channels. A whitewater canoeist or kayaker could map a sure route through any stretch of the river simply by following this fingerprint of ice. As the water splashes and sloshes around boulders, an ice sheath builds on these tongues and on the exposed surfaces of the boulders so that the river seems to deepen with the cold.
As the season advances, so does the ice. Still sections of the river, sloughs and backwaters are now sealed solid. At the first snow the older ice, as smooth as a mirror and yellow-brown from the tannins in the water, is covered by a dusting of white that is soon braided with the trails of small animals. Where the current runs stronger, open water runs choppy with standing waves, a black vein through the white flesh of the sleeping river. As the nights become colder, this vein narrows, the new ice freezing as rough as a scab. The wound of open water eventually heals, leaving a scar of ridges to mark the current's path. Soon, the only water that remains open is concentrated around the boulders, where the water level has risen so high that the boulders and their tongues are completely overwhelmed by a brown tumble of liquid ice.
Lakes freeze in a different manner: often the surface of a small lake can become entirely encased in ice in the course of a single, still night. The only lakes that remain open are lakes that are fed by active springs: the water that gushes from the earth invariably is warmer than the freezing point of water. A week ago I hiked through six inches of snow to a lake that had not a trace of ice on its surface: during the night the wind blew stiffly and the waves lapped the shore with the tinkling sound of crystal wind chimes.
Water is a strange substance: unlike almost all others, it is more dense as a liquid than a solid -- think of ice cubes floating in a glass of lemonade (a summer image almost impossible to summon this time of year). Most liquids congeal, grow smaller and more dense as they cool. If water behaved in that manner, ice would sink. Instead of the surface of a lake freezing, the upper part would remain liquid and ice would form from the bottom up. Of course, you can easily envision the problems that would develop: a lake's fish would be confined to a layer of water above the ice, a layer that would rapidly shrink as the temperature dropped. "Ice fishing" would become a simple matter of putting on waders and skidding one's catch across the watery surface of the ice. The fish that weren't harvested would be frozen on top of a layer of solid ice.
But we live in a world of magic, where something as simple and elemental as water can defy the laws of physics. Lakes freeze from the surface down, protecting fish in their watery world beneath. That's not to say that surface ice on lakes does not pose problems. Water expands as it freezes so as the winter temperatures fall and lakes freeze deeper, often the outer coat of ice isn't expansive enough to accommodate the increase bulk beneath it. The ice skin -- five, six, maybe even a dozen inches thick -- cracks apart from the pressure with a deep "boing" sound like the world's biggest rubber band stretched and plucked. By midwinter, the surface of the lake will be covered by a network of fissures, some so deep that they bleed liquid water no matter what the temperature.
Motion on the surface of a lake will delay or even prevent freezing even when water temperatures fall below the freezing point. Most of the north shore of Lake Superior never freezes, despite air temperatures that can drop to 30 or 40 degrees below zero.
Yesterday I walked along the south shore of Lake Superior. The wind, straight off the water, stole my breath, and waves broke a hundred feet out in open water to curl and crash against the frozen sand of the beach. Every piece of driftwood was encased in ice -- they looked more like light bulbs than sticks -- and horizontal limbs wore curtains of fist-thick stalactites that draped gracefully to the ground. As far as I walked along the beach it was the same: the shore was a lake of ice frozen not on the surface of the lake but beside it, as hard and unyielding as this season but as fabulously formed as hope.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources