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Classic: Seasons of Ice

Classic: Seasons of Ice
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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).

Mel Allen


Mel Allen


Mel is the fifth editor of Yankee Magazine since its beginning in 1935. His career at Yankee spans more than three decades, during which he has edited and written for every section of the magazine, including home, food, and travel. In his pursuit of stories, he has raced a sled dog team, crawled into the dens of black bears, fished with the legendary Ted Williams, picked potatoes in Aroostook County, and stood beneath a battleship before it was launched. Mel teaches magazine writing at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and is author of A Coach’s Letter to His Son. His column, “Here in New England,” is a 2012 National City and Regional Magazine Awards Finalist for the category Column.
Updated Thursday, July 31st, 2008

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