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Classic: Seasons of Ice

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.

One evening I went out with Tom, broke a few holes, baited a line, and put in our tip-ups. We wanted pickerel, and we took the time to gouge out the deep troughs in the snow ice to keep our catch fresh. Our nags sprang up in lime, and we shot forward, jolted out of our lassitude. We had an eel and a catfish waiting. Wanting neither we cut the lines. That was the end of ice-fishing season for us.

By late March we knew the ice was changing fast. Sometimes while walking to the post office across the lake, we’d pinch through the ice, and it would give slightly, as though suddenly grown rubbery. Along the shore, we’d see the same needlelike crystals we saw at the first signs of ice in November, as though we were unwinding a tape of the winter. The ice that I had relied on throughout the winter could no longer be trusted.

Not only was the ice melting slowly from the top, but it was also being eroded from below by warm water sloshing against its belly. Honeycombs with cracks and fissures appeared. As it melted from the bottom, vertical candles of ice grew, holding each other up like dominoes. We would look down and see long, dagger-like crystals adhering together. If we nudged them with our chisel they’d crack instantly with barely a whisper of protest. As the ice began to melt, the lake water began to cool to its coldest point of the year, but the balance was irreversibly shifted and the spring deathwatch for ice-out began.

The ice broke free from the river banks first, and large cracks appeared. A chunk of ice pushed water before it, nudging weakening ice ahead: the shoreline eroded faster each day.

It was no time to be loose on the ice, though giant cakes of it remained, seemingly thick enough to support a horse, but thoroughly rotten and weak, its tension destroyed.

One warm afternoon the thermometer read 70 degrees beneath a bright sun. Tom and I chipped ice ten feet from shore to make ice cream. The ice was the darkest since December, with a film of new ice formed from water just released from below the ice sheet. Small pools of open water formed like potholes between the ice floes and for over an hour Tom eyed them. When the ice cream had thickened, he stripped quickly, leapfrogged among the ice floes, and jumped into the water. Two weeks still remained until the lake was free, but watching Tom lift himself from the water, his elbows extended on the ice, emerging in shivering ecstasy –; this signified ice-out for me.

In the town, though, ice-out had to wait until you could put a boat into the lake at the dock behind the post office, and could travel to the head or the lake, no mailer how many twists and turns were needed to dodge ice floes. People wagered small sums, usually ten dollars, on when that would happen. They’d keep a watch on the south wind that would jam the ice together. Tom and I would take his canoe and go on long rides between the chunks and islands that formed natural canals.

I would have liked it if the ice had gone out with a final shudder beneath a star-filled night. But there were only a few days of warm drizzle and the fog that held the warmth close to the lake. On the last day or April a wind blew from the north, breaking the last floes apart. They rode across the lake with white caps whipping at their heels, and within a few hours people from town came down the road to watch the first open, blue water of the year, not minding the slightly acrid odor of lake-bottom water now rising to the top.

Soon the lake shore filled with smelt fishermen, released from winter bondage of their own, who had driven for miles to fish this lake, one of the best smelting spots in the lake. Tom had heard from his parents, his uncles and cousins. Soon they would fill the shoreline, and their motorboats would hum across the lake. The lanterns of the smelters played out over the lake, and even as Tom and I dipped our own nets silently into the still-icy waters along the shore, we could hear the faraway shouts of revelry.

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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