Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A stretch of river VI: Ice

The river is now almost completely iced over. This fascinates me, for reasons that I will explain.

I grew up in Central Texas, where a winter morning in the mid-20s was unusually cold (the all-time low for Austin is still 2 above 0, recorded sometime back in the '50s; Daddy (he was a boy at that time) told me that the propane in the tank froze on that day) and snow was so uncommon and the area so unprepared for it that even a light dusting would close the schools. During my childhood (up to when I turned 18), I remember seeing 5 snowfalls. In my seven years of living in Mobile, it snowed once: nice, big flakes that didn't stick. During my first winter in Wichita (2000-01), I saw more snow here than I had collectively seen in my entire life. As I write this, at the beginning of my 6th winter here, it's 12 degrees outside and we're expecting snow tonight and tomorrow. The tree limbs sound like dead sticks when the wind causes them to hit each other. The new hasn't worn off this thing called Cold for me (though I'd rather not have to walk Scruffy in the mornings (the afternoons aren't so bad, if the winds are calm)).

But the river. Back in my part of Texas, it was a big deal if mud puddles had any ice at all in them. Of course, I "knew that" further north ice would form on and freeze over rivers and lakes, but that wasn't something I had directly experienced until one day late last week, when I was walking the Scruff-meister in the morning and looking at the water and thinking, "Is that actually ice along the banks?" It would be gone in the afternoon, so I couldn't confirm in better light. But now there's no mistaking it: ducks and geese, who rest at night on open water, have only a few open patches of water to congregate in; yesterday morning, in fact, when some near the bank thought Scruffy and I were a little too close, they moved away from us, and we could hear the claws on their toes scraping on the ice. A strange sound, one that actually reminded me that ducks and geese do have tiny claws on their toes. And this morning, we actually saw a cat sitting on the river ice a few feet from the bank. Scruffy wanted to give chase, but I felt no great urge to experience the probable thrill of fishing a dog out of a river in 9-degree weather. I'm sure you understand.

I have written before about the river's surface when it's warmer: how it can be so smooth at times that it clearly reflects the branches of trees on the other side. The surface of the ice right now, though, before our first heavy snowfall, might actually be a more accurate map of the river-as-river. Portions that froze first are thicker, and you can see a sloping down--a thinning-out--of the ice down to those areas of still-open water. The visual effect is like seeing a beach with a gentle slope to the water. The topographic-map shapes of those undulations, I would imagine, roughly correspond to the slope of the riverbed. And there's one place, maybe 20-30 feet from the bank, that is a near-circle of either open water or very thin ice, indicating the presence of a small spring just below, keeping warmer that section of the river.

The spring, the ice of clearly-varying thicknesses, are clear warnings: the ice may never become thick enough for people to walk on safely. But that cat's sitting on the ice this morning, though, was a dangerous thing for this still-fascinated-by-Cold, transplanted Texan to see, feeding as it does his enormous curiosity as to what it must be like to walk on that frozen surface. I assume that the basic physics are the same as, say, walking on an ice-skating rink or across a frozen parking lot. I've done both those things before, so if that is all there is to it, then I can pass. But if it's different in a more intangible way, a more aesthetic or spiritual way, that is what I'd like to know.

Insight? Knowledge? Advice?

1 comment:

Ariel said...

In my experience, walking on a frozen river or lake reminds one that life itself is tenuous. As well, it makes for very exciting games of tag. Neither of things can happen on an ice rink.

Enjoy the ice.