Lake Ice, Wild Ice

The lake ice came early this year. There was nothing unusual about its first appearance on the lake in early December. As is often the case, it materialized overnight into a ghostlike sheen that seemed a mirage or a throwback to the perfect stillness of a summer’s morning. Sometimes the only way to know there is ice is by looking for contrast near the center of the lake that remains open, its dark, churning waters needing only a strong north wind to shatter the surrounding thin veneer of ice and send it skittering for the shoreline.

But this year, a series of still, cold nights allowed the ice to hold its ground against its center and grow four or five inches thick well before Christmas. And so, one Saturday, we shoveled the few inches of snow off the ice close to shore and discovered perfect, marble-black ice. Two football fields away open water churned, but up and down the shoreline, for 50 yards out toward the center, dream ice held its ground.

There is no telling when lake ice will hold. It is wild ice, born of things entirely beyond our control. And anyone who knows lake ice understands that this is its gift – not knowing when it will appear or how long it will last means we have to be spontaneous. We have to drop what we’re doing and live for that moment and that moment alone. Lake ice teaches us to just let go.

There are people, like those in my family, who have tried to hang onto perfect lake ice or re-create it. If you’ve skated upon a lake you know that it’s impossible not to want to try. But creating a rink on a lake like ours is a huge task. The wind off Lake Michigan roars over the top of tree-covered dunes at one end of the lake and is met with an open, unencumbered surface across which to dance and swirl and rage. Snow fences blow down or are instantly made obsolete. Straw bales shed and loosen almost immediately then break apart and are thrown about like tumbleweed through the empty streets of a ghost town. Under the force of a northern wind, the ice in front of our house buckles, ripples and gives way to a crusted snow that doesn’t succumb to shovels or blowtorches or even our homemade Zamboni. For years, we flooded rinks on the lake, sprayed them and doused them with warm towels before finally acknowledging that lake ice we could skate on would not be of our making. In order to skate regularly, we put a rink in the yard instead.

But on a Saturday last December, when the early ice held its ground and revealed itself to be stone smooth, we shoveled a large rink on the lake. It was effortless. There is nothing to shoveling snow off of perfect ice. The blade of the shovel glides with its own momentum. In fact, the challenge that day came in knowing when to quit, as each expansion revealed more smooth ice.

The large expanse of ice was so inviting that the kids hurled themselves onto it intentionally, sending their bodies gliding forward like colorful curling stones, moving in slow motion until they slowed to a graceful stop where they lay a moment as if to absorb the whole sensation. Hats littered the sides of the rink, and cheeks flamed as skating legs were regained for another season. Snow blew off the desolate face of the lake and skipped across the cleared ice, and heavy clouds hung over the moraines of snow.

We wondered aloud if we’d ever really started with this kind of perfect ice on the lake before and whether we’d tried hard enough to keep it. Surely, maintaining this ice would make a lake rink feasible. We glanced away from the clouds heavy with snow and talked about how soon we could bring a snow blower onto the ice so it would be handy when the big snows came. There was talk of small windmills that could generate lights and a pump that could provide water for our homemade Zamboni. And all the while, the wind picked up, the clouds moved closer and evening closed in. We staked the corners of the cleared rink before we went in, our nod to the reality that maybe even by morning it would be hard to know where we’d shoveled. And by the next night, a wet snow had fallen and caked itself over our marble ice. Our stakes stood like sentries guarding what was and what will surely be again.

Lake ice is wild ice. The combination of expansiveness, landscape, wind, sky and ice cannot be simulated or manufactured. Nature charts its own course; all that is left to us is to be ready. If we’re really lucky, once or twice a season, the ice that emerges knows no boundaries, and we can skate unencumbered across the entire lake. And like so many things in nature, the sense of freedom and abandon found in ice that can’t be tamed is felt within each of us, every time we glide upon it.

Deborah Wyatt Fellows is founder and editor-in-chief at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]

This article was first published in February 2008.

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