It started on the Eve before Christmas Eve, if a natural process can ever be said to have started. Better said it was a turning point in continuing events. Despite an early ice-in and mounds of lake effect snow only recently, for the weekend we’d had wet days with heavy rain and overnights above freezing.
Jokes at the Fire Department were that Santa Claus would arrive across the ice on water skis pulled by snowmobile to Sunday’s annual kids’ party. (Instead he came by fire engine as he always does.) But Monday as the afternoon ebbed, the slow drizzle grew slower and flecked into tiny snow. Soggy-bottomed tracks left skiing one way were glazed coming back. Wet, black roads are suddenly white.
During supper was when it started, if start’s the right word. Or maybe it was that during supper I first heard it, first noticed. As the temperature finally fell to the teens the lake that had been soft-topped and puddle-covered was freezing hard, stretching out again toward the shore, having melted away from rocks and sand, and risen with the rushing in of all that rain from surrounding brooks, those brooks roaring yesterday and quiet now.
Outside the window there’s creaking, as ice shoulders struggle outward to find comfort. Puddles and edges freeze first, next the mother layer, then the whole mass together. Without room for it all and crack- another adjustment. Creaks and booms and moans; appear random but are anything but. There’s math to explain and predict, chaos theory with way too many variables.
In forty years of coming to this lakeside between Christmas and New Year never is it the same. One year I coaxed friends to drive from Maine for the excellent skiing then two feet of snow disappeared overnight in rain and heat. Other times the car is frozen hard to the ground by icicles and won’t start.
The ice was early this year, so strange to spot it on my webcam while in Florida Thanksgiving morning. At the Fire Hall no one can remember an earlier freeze. So early that no one trusted it, until that talk of Santa pulled by snowmobile revealed Jamie’d been out. There are two ways to know whether it’s safe to go on this lake’s ice. First is if Jamie’s been, or says he’d go out were he not so busy. Second, is ice fishermen. When distant dark forms are seen, standing around out between the islands, you know it’s ok. No one is sure how the ice fishermen know. They’re not locals, maybe they’re from Gloversville, and somehow they can confidently set out for the 80 mile drive, knowing intuitively they’ll arrive to good ice.
The other ice-related mystery is the longevity of the term bubbler, as in Stay away from that dock, they have a bubbler. Years ago there were in fact bubblers, crude systems with a compressor feeding perforated pipes placed around boat houses and docks, theoretically to disturb the water and prevent ice damage. The bubblers made a lot of noise but didn’t really work and have been replaced by far more effective small propellers turned by submersible electric motors; a simple rig called a deicer. Lots of people think it’s the moving water that doesn’t freeze but the way deicers really work is by pushing deeper, warmer water up to the surface to displace the cold water that had been there. Simply continually cycling warmer bottom water to the top prevents the freezing.
Today’s deicers are quite good, maybe too much so, giving docks and boathouses huge arcs of protective open water. Brochures for deicer companies feature thrilling aerial views of marinas equipped with dozens. From the perspective of the owner, a small amount of electricity can save expensive cribbing or bulkheads but out on the lake those arcs can be dangerous, thinning the ice way beyond their visible edge. On cold days the unfrozen lake water in the open arcs steams out, coating surrounding trees with rime and if the propeller is too close to the surface pushed water can jump into the air with a splashing that intrudes on a quiet night. However, I’ll admit that adjusted right, and with a thermostat and timer so they’re only on when needed, deicers have a place, even though I long for the days when the whole lake locked up and it was safe to walk, skate or ski almost anywhere.
Ice safety comes from experience and a few times breaking through is a superb education. A refresher every few years doesn’t hurt such as the recent time when I skied by a rock only to have the ice around it shatter. There in a scene fit for Charlie Chaplin I teetered on my skis on a round rock. Only a threat from my laughing spouse to call the Fire Department for an embarrassing rescue convinced me to leap bravely for solid ice. Or there was that foolish time when the bay froze to black ice overnight and the whole family played hockey while the ice rippled beneath our weight. Yeah, sure in theory we were near shore, but it was still fifteen feet deep. Now, forty years wiser, I never step on the ice unless Jamie or the ice fishermen have gone first
Today though, this lake ice is solid and getting solider. The cracks, moans and groans must have continued all night but after supper I slept the skier’s sleep and didn’t hear. As forecast, the morning is bitterly cold with a light wind but sunny. I step outside, destined for the toolshed, when I hear what sounds like a distant airliner, then another, softly fading, rolling and echoing. Walking down to shore, I hear rumbles travelling though the ice, passing by the island and rolling toward West Bay. Expanding now in the sun and pressing tighter toward shore, trains of under-ice waves roll down and echo back. Then, I’m startled by a deep faah-whompf, right over there, chased by still more retreating rumbles.
What we see is a still sheet of ice, gray and flat, covered maybe by snow in the patterns left by wind and puddles and shining in the sun like as it did Christmas morning. Stop and listen though- all that subdued thunder, those sharp cracks, and the wonderful moans are reminders that out there is a lake in motion, a living lake. Faah-whompf!