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The Spring of the Waters

Advice to Would-Be Ice Pilots

By Tamia Nelson Cracking Up

May 7, 2013

Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
    To know that for destruction ice
Is also great,
    And would suffice.

    Robert Frost, "Fire and Ice"

For more than 20 years, Farwell and I lived alongside the reservoir we called the 'Flow. Our home had few modern conveniences. We got our drinking water from a nearby spring, and drew water for washing from the 'Flow itself, casting tethered five-gallon pickle buckets from shore and hauling them back. Sometimes we'd find more than water in the bucket: a belligerent crayfish perhaps, or a frantic minnow, or even a swarm of the tiny creatures called water fleas. We called this daily exercise "water fishing," and it certainly gave us a good upper-body workout.

Once the 'Flow froze over, however, we had to change our approach. Freeze-up usually came in mid-December, though there were years when the 'Flow iced over before Thanksgiving and other years when we were still water fishing from shore on Christmas day. But sooner or later during the sun's extended sojourn on the southern horizon, we'd find ourselves chipping a hole in the ice some 10 yards offshore. And for the next few months this hole would be our water source—for washing ourselves, our dishes, and our clothes. We were ice fishing now.

I suppose this sounds like a great inconvenience, but it wasn't. It was quite pleasant work, in fact. I preferred it to summertime water fishing, when the 'Flow's waters often bore a rainbow sheen of oil from jet-ski exhaust and a seemingly endless parade of racing runabouts churned up clouds of sediment that took hours to settle out again. And I enjoyed standing on the ice in early morning or late evening, amidst the long shadows of the white pines, while I lifted bucket after bucket of water from the frigid depths. From time to time a large fish would drift into view and then swim out again, and on rare occasions I'd see the tracks of the mink who used our waterhole as a convenient portal into the hidden world beneath the ice.

But nothing lasts forever. And sometime in late March or early April, winter's arctic northers gave way before the soft imperative of an impetuous south wind that carried with it the first hints of the spring to come. Soon, we knew, the icy thoroughfare on which we'd been walking for the last three months would break up and drift away, carried off by the secret river imprisoned deep within the waters of the 'Flow, a river long lost to sight, perhaps, but flowing still. In short,we knew that…

Ice-Out Was Upon Us

It was always a poignant time of year. We welcomed the return of open water, and rejoiced in the freedom which it gave us to travel upriver and down at will. But we were always a little sad to see our waterhole take its leave. We'd sweated buckets to hack it out of the ice just as winter was beginning, and we'd worked through the coldest months to keep it open as temperatures dropped as low as -40 degrees (Fahrenheit or Celsius, take your pick). But we'd also hauled hundreds of buckets of water through its inky portal. The waterhole had kept us company for three months, and it had served us well. We hated to see it go.

The matter was out of our hands, however. And the first sign that the end was near came when a fissure opened across the width of the 'Flow. In the photo below you can see our waterhole, just beyond the broken trunk of a windfall birch:

Hints of Change

That birch, which was rotten through and had been shedding limbs for years, had nonetheless served as a nursery for a family of flickers, and at least one family member returned to visit the tree every summer thereafter. So we were sorry to see the birch go, too. But as I've already said, nothing lasts forever. And the 'Flow wouldn't let us forget this. Soon the first cross-channel fissure grew wider, and daughter fissures appeared alongside it. Our little cottage overlooked a shallow bay, and the secret river running through the 'Flow swirled back into it, creating a languid eddy and helping to hold the shore ice in place. But further out, in what had been the secret river's main channel, the current flowed implacably downriver, without hesitation or deviation. The result? Long before the ice that sheathed our shore had cleared, there was open water on the 'Flow.

This was often too much of a temptation to resist, and in later years we'd push our big canoe out over the rotting ice along the shore in order to explore the open water beyond. (While traversing the ice, we each kept one foot in the canoe, kicking it along like you'd kick a scooter. And if you conclude that we weren't being very sensible, you'd be right.) Within a week, though, even the shore ice would start to break up into individual rafts, which we promptly christened 'Flowbergs. Here you can see the process just getting under way:


And no, these aren't saw cuts. They're natural cracks. Even now, however, the eddy held the nearshore 'Flowbergs back. Sporadic "spot-welds" anchored them to the shallows, too, though bergy bits continually broke off as the current and wind-driven waves gnawed away at the edges of the ice.

Breaking Up

Then the day came when the 'Flowberg bearing our waterhole floated away, never to be seen again. Its place was soon taken by another from further "upriver," however, the first in a long procession of visiting 'Flowbergs, all of them just passing through. (Occasionally, a contrary wind would halt the procession briefly, or even reverse it, and a somewhat diminished but still recognizable 'Flowberg would return for a second visit. These visits never lasted very long, though.) Here's a view of the procession:

Sloshing from End to End

It made an impressive sight. Most of the 'Flowbergs were at least a foot thick, and even the smaller ones could have carried a couple of SUVs on their backs with room to spare. (The largest were larger than a US football field.) When they collided—as they frequently did—the result was a discordant symphony of loud creaks, bangs and groans, not at all surprising in light of the fact that even the smaller 'Flowbergs probably weighed in at something like nine tons, while the largest topped out at well over 100 times that. (Freshwater ices weighs a little more than 57 pounds per cubic foot; you do the math.) I leave the fate of any canoeist or kayaker caught between two contending bergs to your imagination.

Rectangular Bergs

Over the years we became fairly skilled ice pilots, but we had a few adventures along the way. (Do you remember what Vilhjalmur Stefansson said about "adventures"? He described them as evidence of incompetence, and he was right.) In our first year 'Flowside we put our big canoe in the water as soon as we had clear water on our doorstep, so to speak. We weren't completely clueless, I'm happy to say. We knew the hazards of early season boating, and took precautions. But we neglected to…

Take the Ice Into the Equation

We set out "upriver," against the "Flow's vestigial current. Which proved not so vestigial. It was sweaty work, in other words. The secret river is quite muscular early in the year. But a rare following breeze make the job a bit easier. We thought that, for once, we had the Old Woman on our side. No such luck. The freshening breeze that drove us along had also halted the procession of 'Flowbergs, and soon it had turned them round. Before long it was pushing them back from whence they had come.

We were slow to appreciate the implications of this capricious about-face. But when we did, we immediately turned back, only to be confronted by jostling 'Flowbergs stretching all the way across the channel. Our way home was now an icy maze. Paddling was no longer an option. Luckily, though, we found a large, sound, well-anchored berg to serve as a bridge to shore. The upshot? The maiden voyage of our first full year on the 'Flow ended with an ignominious quarter-mile carry.

It was worth it, of course—despite the loss of our waterhole. Ice-out is a long-anticipated harbinger of spring for boaters who live Up North. It's an exciting time, but it's also a dangerous one, as our brief adventure on the 'Flow proved. A recent e-mail from an In the Same Boat reader from Duluth, Minnesota served to drive the point home yet again. (Yes, Duluth is definitely Up North!). Here's what John Graham had to say:

I just read "The View at the End of the World," and want to compliment you on both the value of the piece, and on your style as a writer.

The central lessons of the story are especially timely as winter wanes, snow melts, and water levels and volumes rise. Most of us come out of winter hibernation, skills and muscles gone somewhat dormant, into the most challenging paddling conditions of the season. Our zeal to get back on the water can outvote the common sense voice telling us to ease into the season.

I'm a sea-kayaker (on Lake Superior, in the Duluth area) and I can't wait for the ice to open so that I can get back in my boat. Here on the North Shore of Superior, the wind can swing from the lee (west/northwest) to onshore (east) in less than an hour, and when it does, it has a fetch of hundreds of miles to build the swell. The ice moves shoreward quickly, and open water near shore can close faster than you'd believe. Couple that with a steep shoreline and limited take-out options, and the situation can get tense. As you suggest in your climbing analogy, getting back can be lethal.

Now the 'Flow is to Lake Superior as a gnat to a giraffe, but I still don't have any trouble believing John's account of the speed with which a shift in the the wind can drive large bergs shoreward. Our own experience, on the 'Flow and elsewhere, provides ample confirmation, if indeed, any confirmation were needed. And don't think that the danger is past just because spring is now well along in those bits of Canoe Country south of the Canadian-US border. After all, Up North stretches quite a ways, and notwithstanding the effects of global warming, there will be rivers and lakes in the high latitudes where ice lingers well into June.

And the Moral of Our Story Is…?

Simply this: If you're planning a Big Trip Up North before high summer, and if you'll be venturing off the tourist routes, don't be surprised to discover that General Winter is fighting a vigorous rearguard action. Expect to find ice, in other words, and be guided by John Graham's wise words. Watch the wind. Watch the ice. And be careful. Capsizing in icy waters is never fun, and when luck deserts you completely cold can kill. Breaking through rotten ice is no picnic, either, and while adopting the one foot in the boat kick-scooter approach is a workable strategy for canoeists who have no other choice but to cross a stretch of questionable ice, it's hard on both boats and legs. (And it's not much use at all to a kayaker, unless she has grasshopper reflexes.) So the best course when you find your way barred by bergs drifting under the influence of a fitful wind is simply to wait. The ice will melt. The wind will steady. And the way ahead will then be clear, whether you're headed back home or pressing on farther up north.

After all, why would you want to chance having your world end in ice?

Gradual Melt

Ice-out sets every Canoe Country paddler's heart beating a little faster. And we're all tempted to wet our keels as soon there's open water near shore. But there are good reasons for caution. Ice and wind can conspire to turn even a short jaunt near home into a struggle for survival. Which is why I'm grateful that John Graham recently took the time to write. His thoughtful advice should be heeded by all would-be ice pilots.



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