The Pleasures and Perils of a Frozen River

by Tom Van de Water | April 2023, Nature and Environment

photograph by Johnathan Esper

Concentric rings of ice form over receding creek water and leave thin crackly plates so satisfying to break and yet too beautiful to touch. In subzero air, vapor crystallizes from the cracks, feathers of ice form interlaced designs and sometimes, after a thaw and freeze, frogs are embedded on the surface.   

We skate on the smooth black ice of Indian Creek outside the northwest corner of the Adirondacks. This happens so rarely I remember the last time doing this with friends, marveling at the ice bubbles and cracks, the plants and fish below the surface, and the holes where otters left shells of freshwater clams on the edge. The ice boomed as it cracked and shifted. This time, Betsy and I skate out through the cattails, find the main channel and continue for an hour, then, on returning, meet our friends Caroline and Marty. We turn and skate again. Marty and I skate fast, moving out toward the Nature Center lean-to. We return and join Caroline and Betsy ambling on in deep conversation. They look as if they’re on the Rideau Canal about to stop for beavertail fry bread nearing downtown Ottawa. As we approach beaver lodges, we slow, looking for the thin ice at the edges. Once, in early winter, we narrowly missed open water as geese flew over and landed. And both Betsy and I have gone through thin ice on our skis and broken through to our waists. Ice is unforgiving. The results can be disastrous. A friend’s father lost all his siblings when they went through the ice on a tragic afternoon. He never told his daughter; she discovered it from a newspaper account decades later.

I learned to skate on thin ice with my grandfather. “Tickly bender ice,” he called it. Once, when I was 12, he stepped out over the thinnest ice along the pond shore. The young ice flexed under his skates, bending. Skating fast kept the ice from breaking. Grandma was not pleased. She feared drowning. At 107, she still does. And she fears for all her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren and now her great-great granddaughter, Sylvie. In the Watertown Times this morning she reads: “Current ice thickness levels are far below past seasonal averages, resulting in weak and unstable ice.” 

When I asked Betsy to skate on our first date in high school, we were on the sidewalk in Canton after play practice.

“Do you want to go skating?” 

“Sure,” she said. 

I was so thrilled she loved what I loved and wanted to be sliding on that smooth ice together. I met her in my family’s VW bus and we walked from my grandparents’ farmhouse out to the pond. I remember the feeling of turning around the pond, holding hands and the landscape wheeling in a circle.

Ice is incredible. Even without mentioning its hexagonal crystal structure or hydrogen bonds or its uniquely lower density as a solid than liquid, or its ability to trap gas bubbles, frogs or leaves, it is simply magic. Its forms are spectacular. Its ability to flow across the landscape as a glacier, move boulders and shape the surface beneath is almost unbelievable. Its ability to encase aquatic ecosystems in a stable temperature for months of winter and shelter trout and sturgeon, clams and crayfish away from the extremes of temperatures is lifesaving. Stability at the freezing point. Life hinges on this knife edge of thin ice.

Our river ice is changing. By searching records from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) at the old Pyrites gauging station on the Grasse River, my earth science students at Canton High School find that all the early and mid-20th-century river flows peak in April. And now, in the 2000s, the USGS gauging station downstream shows peak flows almost every winter month. We no longer have a single peak in April when the snow and ice melt. We have melting events nearly every month and the ice is unstable.

More than two centuries ago, in his The Prelude, Book V, poet Wordsworth wrote of a dream he had while drifting to sleep in a cave near the sea. He imagined a mounted rider approaching with a lance, a shell and a stone across a “sandy wilderness.” He was told to hold the shell to his ear and hears “a loud prophetic blast of harmony… which foretold / Destruction to the children of the earth / By deluge, now at hand.” Wordsworth follows the rider, “And, looking backwards when he looked, mine eyes / Saw, over half the wilderness diffused, / A bed of glittering light. I asked the cause: / “It is,” said he, “the waters of the deep/ Gathering upon us.”

As the waters of the deep gather upon us, I remember ice. Every winter season it comes again. So much depends upon it. Its instability signals danger, not only for individuals, but for humanity. We need ice. It reflects the light of the sun. It shelters our fish. It provides water for drinking and growing. The hidden ice between rocks high in the mountains feeds springs, and the glaciers from India to Montana feed rivers. We need to love ice in a way we never have. It is more than a surface for skating.

At the end of winter, Betsy and I take an early morning hike on snowshoes, while the ice is still firm, over Fox Marsh on the abandoned trail to Church Pond, headwaters of the North Branch of the Grasse. Clumps of sphagnum islands hold pitcher plants, purple cups in the sun. Scraggly black spruce with tufts of green stand against the blue. Stunted tamaracks, scattered on the bog, hide their age. Only when entering the Forest Preserve does the true age of these trees stand out. Thick trunks of spruce, hemlock and yellow birch are two to three hundred years old. Layers of sphagnum below the bog are 10,000 years old. We stand in the silence at the edge of the pond and remember hiking here with our families in the 1970s and, once, swimming across the pond with our clothes held overhead when we were in college. This year’s ice crossing will be the last of the season. Later in the day, the temperatures will reach the 60s. The next day, 70s. We will not cross more thin ice this year.

My grandfather had a stroke that took half his body before a more massive one killed him a week later. Between the strokes, I visited his bedside and, though he couldn’t speak, we knew each other well enough to not need to say anything. Our arms interlocked and we mock arm wrestled. He was a skater on thin ice to the end. When winter comes each year, I’ll follow his lead on tickly bender ice and hope to teach our granddaughter Sylvie to skate on it. Ice marks the season and connects generations. It holds back the “fleet waters” and slows the rush of change. It is the lignin of time and its concentric rings on the edge of the creek melt too soon.  

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