I find myself drawn, inexplicably, to late season ice. I do not know why. I am not comfortable on ice. Anxiety rules; stress tightens my gut. Yet I seek late winter ice.
Used to be I ended my ski season on lake ice. I’d ski a big lake studded with ice anglers.
On good days a bit of snow crust would soften about 10 in the morning under the March sun. Skis could hold an edge in the softening snow but it remained granular enough that the skis would glide as if on ball bearings. I’d make a long loop, dodging ice fishing holes, skiing the edge of the lake and then out across the middle.
I’d ski for an hour, maybe more, fast and easy. I’d come back to shore for a picnic lunch and sit in the sun. Then I’d drive home with radio talk of college basketball’s March Madness. I had my own March Madness; me and the skis and the ice.
“I stood and watched the water and knew something had ended, that winter was gone and with it things undone and pledges unfulfilled.” –Mitch Mode
One year I went late and there were no fishermen on the lake. I skied out far from shore and wondered why I had the lake to myself. Then realized that the ice was dark as a grave and nobody was out because it was perilously close to breakup.
I said to myself, “Shoot, that’s why nobody’s out here.” I was near the middle of the big lake. I stood there on the black ice and gazed at the shoreline. It looked a long way away.
I started to ski, easy at first and then faster, fast as I could go, heart racing not just from exertion but from the realization of the stupidity that had gotten me out too far, too late.
I made it to shore that day. The ground felt good. It felt safe. Being on ice puts me on edge.
In the waning days of late winter I look for the shelf ice along the Wisconsin River west of town. I know a place. A place, when conditions are right, that has long stretches of ice extending out over the water. In cold of winter the ice is firm and hard rock solid, as safe as ice might be. I never go there then. I wait.
In the days after February rolls to March I drive, park the truck where the road changes from drivable to impassible. I take skis or a fat bike and make the rest of the way either kicking and gliding on skis or pedaling over hard crust on the bike. There is a ridge where the high oak woodlot slides down to the river valley and I go down that hill fast, go down to the river at the end of the slope.
When conditions are good I go upriver on the ice that remains. The river water runs dark and cold; the current is smooth and rising with snow melt. The sheets of ice extend from shore to water and then fall away. There are cracks and crevices everywhere and at water’s edge the shelf ice is broken and tilts to the current.
The water is gunmetal gray and moves without sound. Pieces of ice float; the water is very cold.I go upriver on the inside edge of the ice and if I get too far out to where the ice plate has broken I slide toward the water and have a moment of panic at the thought of going in. I never have. But I worry.
Half a mile upriver there is a small set of rapids and past that the ice is usually gone and I turn back and follow my tracks to the landing where I have started out.
I am anxious at all times and I do not know why I do it; there is simply something about the late ice and the change of seasons and the failure of the ice shelf that appeals to me. I do it every year, late, when March brings sun and warmth and the ice shelf collapses and falls away into the river.
When the ice is gone winter is gone. When that shelf ice fails and falls winter does not come back no matter how cold it may get. The ice crumbles and calves as the winter falters and fails. When the ice shelf is gone the backbone of winter is fractured, forget what the calendar says.
Last week I rode the fat bike to the river on a day of late chill and cool breeze but when I got there the river was wide open and full and the ice had gone to ruin in the thaw of earlier days. I stood on the edge and watched the river flow silently. There were two otters in the distance. They saw me and moved away then dove and I did not see them again. When they were gone there was nothing except for the river and the woods and what little ice remained.
I rode the bike along the edge of the river where crusty snow gave way to dirt and then back to snow again. It was chilly and I thought, how odd to be chilled when the temperature is 20; a month ago that was thaw weather.
I hoped I’d find more ice to ride on but it was gone. The long white ribbon of ice that I’d hoped for was no more.
I laid the bike down and walked to the river’s edge. The water was moving like time itself moves, moving steady like the wind and cloud and the seasons. I stood and watched the water and knew something had ended, that winter was gone and with it things undone and pledges unfulfilled. It is that way with seasons; they flow like the rivers in our lives, moving all the time. We look back at opportunities lost; look ahead to the new times.
I turned my back to the river and to winter and rode the bike up the hill and into a new season.