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Classic: Seasons of Ice

Classic: Seasons of Ice
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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.

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.

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