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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.

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