Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Adirondack Ice: When The Lake Goes Boom, Boom, Boom

Andy Coney Lake PhotoIt 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!


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Aims "Andy" Coney is a lifelong Blue Mountain Lake seasonal resident. He is a Nordic skier, guideboater, paddler, orienteer, three-time 46er, and a member of the Protect the Adirondacks board. In 2019, after a twenty-five-year break, with a superb partner he completed his eighth Adirondack 90-miler, finishing 22nd overall. Andy's favorite season though is winter, and he tries to ski every day.

5 Responses

  1. Charlie S says:

    I was up in Blue Mountain Lake on Christmas Eve taking photos of Blue Mountain from a point on the west side of the lake and ‘boy,’what a wonderful sound coming up from under that froze-over jewel…bass-tone thumps and booms,afar and near,echoing throughout on a continual basis,some of them rolling away and echoing like you say Aims. It don’t take much to stir this here cowboy’s imagination.When it was down to zero recently here downstate, with all of that fresh-fallen snow and the world a-white, and the wind a-blowing,I had a hard time going inside at night.I would stand outside (dressed accordingly of course) for long lengths of time just soaking it all in.
    We get things in the winter we get no other time of the year.I make the most of these frigid days and nights and, I must say,there aint enough of them to go around it seems.

  2. Pass the water bottle says:

    Your prose triggered many wonderful memories of BML winters, the talking ice, the quiet of a heavy snow storm, winter temps from bitter cold to balmy. Thanks!

  3. Big Burly says:

    Thanks for the reminder — our ice booming experiences are a favorite memory of our daughter who was amazed while x country skiing around Osgood Pond near Paul Smith’s when a youngster. The whole family (now including grandkids) is still awed and we have had lots of opportunities this winter.

  4. AG Bolton says:

    The sound of making ice is magical on any waterbody. A memorable winter’s diversion except for the brief and erroneous discussion about bubblers:

    “The bubblers made a lot of noise but didn’t really work and have been replaced by far more effective small propellers…” .Our family has used two bubbler systems to protect our boathouse and the other to protect stone seawall for years replacement ever since the ice saw broke and people were no longer interested in manually keeping a narrow ice free expansion area open on a weekly basis. The one half horsepower motors have been a cheap investment against the continual expansion of the ice on Lake George. Granted when the ice breaks away from shore and starts moving in thick sheets in the Spring, only the wind from the right direction can protect the boathouse or seawall. That is a different, and not as charming, sound of ice.

    If the sound of the compressor is bothersome, then you might be correct. Bubblers may generate slightly more noise than an ice-eater. But in terms of public safety, I can and do walk up to the edge of a bubbled system. You can know and see how thick the ice is. Neither the bravest of ice fishermen nor I would dare such risky behavior around an ice-eater system. There is a lot more “usable”and safer ice to enjoy with a bubbled system than with ice eaters.

  5. Al Pouch says:

    Nicely done, Andy. I’ve been listening to Lake Abanakee and the sound is stirring!

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