Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Alan Wechsler: The Beauty of Lake Ice

A few weeks ago, while trudging across Chapel Pond on our way to climb some obscure ice route, I stopped to gaze at the black, slick surface of the lake.

The wind had swept the lake clear of snow, except where it had collected in a few wispy areas. It was what drivers call “black ice,” but it was far from black.

It was dazzling, this frozen surface. A week earlier, hit by the late January thaw, it had been covered with brown runoff. But on this day it was more than a foot thick. A galaxy of bubbles were trapped in its various, transparent layers. Cracks ran across its surface, the thin ones bisecting the ice like ghosts, the thicker spaces filled with snow.

Ice formation is complex. According to one Web site: “ice has a hexagonal crystal structure with a longer ‘c’ axis and three identical ‘a’ axes (called ‘a1’, ‘a2’ and ‘a3’). The simple ice form is a hexagonal prism with the vertical direction being the ‘c’ axis direction.”

Uh, right. And we thought it was just a matter of water getting cold enough.

On Chapel Pond, the three of us paused over this surface, taking in the temporary beauty of winter. Bare ice like this in the Adirondacks is often rare, soon to be covered by snow. And it attracts visitors. Drive across Cascade Lakes at the right time and you might see locals skating across the long, narrow surface as late-afternoon snow whips across the pass.

On Lake Champlain when it finally freezes, some die-hard Vermonters skate out on Nordic Skates, a Scandinavian invention (of course). These are extra-large skates that attach to cross-country ski boots that allow for huge strides and marathon expeditions. This has its own dangers—big lakes have pressure ridges, areas of open water and the possibility of thin ice due to unseen currents. Practitioners of this sport wear garden rake-like claws on a rope around their neck, so that if the unthinkable occurs they can haul themselves out of the water before hypothermia sets in. Brrr.

Adventurers on motorized equipment are attracted to big water ice too. Ice on lakes like George and Champlain is strong enough to support snowmobiles, motorcycles with spiked wheels and even pick-up trucks. But they should be wary—occasionally, such drivers never return.

Whatever beauty the ice offers, it is gone now. The storms of last week have covered all but the windiest areas with blankets of snow. That means the ice will last longer this spring, thanks to a nice layer of insulation.

Snow adds its own interesting problems to travel over ice. Some say the weight of snow can push lake ice down, squeezing the water up through the cracks to saturate the lower layers of the snow. That means an unpleasant surprise for x-c skiers or snowshoers trudging through such glop.

So perhaps it’s too late this year, but if you happen to be traveling over bare lake ice, take a moment to stop and look. There’s magic between you and the water.

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