Tuesday, January 14, 2014

the nature of imperfect ice

This ice came in our sleep.  We never knew when it would come, but when it did, we could skate anywhere we wanted...dream ice never melted. 
from Twelve Kinds of Ice, by Ellen Bryan Obed

from Twelve Kinds of Ice, illustrated by Barbara McClintock


There was a ice core sample in a museum to the north of here which we all visited a few years ago. Scientists who study ice core samples can look at what is in the ice, both the debris and the ancient DNA, referred to as impurities.  They can study atmospheric samples caught in bubbles, then encapsulated in the ice.  And they can also study the physical properties of the ice.  The ice tells a story of the history of our planet, providing hundreds of thousands of years of information about the earth's climate, the earth's life, and their effect on the very nature of the ice.

Each winter, our river ice has a story too.  That story begins in the fall, when the weather changes and chills, and the temperature alone causes us to start thinking about what good comes from losing the light and warmth and growth of summer.  

Then it becomes the story of how we waited and waited for the river to freeze, thought the frozen-to-a-safe-thickness moment was about to happen and then it did not, unexpected thaws and rain storms getting in the way.  This happens, invariably, several times each winter, over and over.  You would think we would be more patient.   But we aren't.  It is part of our ritual.  Then we begin to question whether it is really going to happen, or whether we ruined the ice with improper care somehow.  And then, we see a stretch of a bit of warmth, followed by a long hard freeze, with little precipitation.  And we begin having thoughts of -- and making plans for -- middle of the night skating parties and bonfires and fun with friends.  And then, it snows.

Each year we prepare the ice.  Keep it clear.  Trim branches on trees that skaters would bump their heads against. 

This year we tried an even fancier approach to ice preparation, borrowing the advice and equipment of a friend: a sump pump to bring water up from below the ice, spraying water and then smoothing the surface.

The kids have come to expect and accept this strange and repetitive emotional roller coaster ride that their parents have about the river ice.  They go down there and check on the ice with us.  They stand at the window in our bedroom with us and talk about whether it might be soon.

They gamely skate in small circles and short straight lines when we have cleared a small rink sized area.  Their teeth chattering as they bump over the imperfect surface.  

This year, we had a few hours of rink like skating, a rectangular area of smooth enough ice, to skate around in circles with a stick and puck.  And for my personal favorite ice activity this year, slow motion tag in the dark with Elliott and Julia, my effort to get Elliott moving and having fun on his skates.  Slowed by the bumpy imperfect ice, the snow banks outlining the open area, trapping you while It closes in on you.  With a lot of giggling.

But often, it is not about the skating for them.  They are happy to sled the curvy, branchy, steep drainage ditch down the bank a bit from us.  Skittering off across the ice at the end of each run.

They dug tunnels in the snow banks that had been created by our shoveling.

They rooted about the underbrush on some Lord of the Rings inspired trek. 

And boot skating is just as much fun, if not more so, than skate skating.  Because we have found that Bogs keep your feet warmer than skates.  And surviving winters with children?  It's all about the warm feet.

All this work, wondering, figuring, planning.  We spent hours at it.  And one morning came down to find it had all been covered by a foot of snow in the middle of the night.

But then, we had several days of rain and then a hard freeze.  And so had this:

A bumpy ridgy jiggly ride kind of ice.  But cleared.  With the beginnings of amazing ice designs emerging within the surface. Where things had dropped through the once thin layers.

And then, some warm sun and a day above freezing, followed by plunging temperatures again.  And we had this:

Which resulted in three hours of unbelievable skating.  On ice like glass.

Well, in most places.  But this ice, this river ice, not your average backyard rink ice, unzamboni-ed and au naturale.  It is beautiful.

We had our river skate that afternoon.

Just like the ice cores, this ice, now smooth and stretching for miles, had a story to tell.  A story of multiple freezes, of snowstorms and ice storms and thaws and freezes.  

A story of two parents, who for some reason, became focused on the ice.  Likely because they felt it meant something, represented something about who they wanted to be as parents.  Who cleared it, sprayed water on it, smoothed it, put playful skate marks on it.  And then a layer of snow, melted by a layer of rain.  And then a freeze.  

The ice won't show the cheerful shouting, the tears from painful falls, the songs that were sung, or the quiet conversation that occurred above it, though I wish it could in the frozen ice bubbles.  That somehow these bubbles had the ability to capture sound as well as air.

But what it can do is capture shapes.

Capture debris.

Capture things breaking and reaching through.

Okay, so I know.  This ice is very different from an ice core, which exists because it does exactly what our river ice will not do.  Ice cores are the result of accumulating snow and continually freezing temperatures and of not thawing.  Ever.  

But, in the course of one winter?  This ice holds us.  Briefly.  And it holds our hopes and playing and things we leave behind in it.  And then it thaws.  And when we return, the following year?  Well, it has been a year.  And we are different, but still have the same hopes for the river.  Its impermanence, is what makes us value it.  Like a dry erase board I keep in the kitchen, which the kids draw upon and work, sometimes taking pictures of work they want to keep a record of, and then wipe clean.  To begin again.  Just as we do each year.

After all these days and weeks of waiting and working to get the ice skate-able, I was reminded once again of the impossibly unpredictable way of life with children.  What you plan for, what you worry about, what you try to be prepared for?  Is not going to be in any way related to what happens.

Because what the kids wanted to do on our river skate?  Was to break the ice that we had been waiting for so long to form.  Break large shards from the sheets of thin ice that were lifted up by the roots of trees and the rising and falling of the river water.  

The ice was speaking to them, working its way into their minds as it had done to Jonathan and my own.  They, too, were affected by the nature of the ice.  Just in their own childish ways, and their intrigue was actually much more interesting.  Accepting our ice for what it was, right then.  Feeling their own strength as they pounded and stomped on the ice in order to break it.  Enjoying the sounds of breaking and scattering ice shards.  Sliding about the smooth surface, in cushiony warm full body protection that allowed them to toss their bodies about a bit and slide.

They challenged themselves to break as large a piece of ice as possible.

And then carry it somewhere else. 

Scuffing their boots and carrying it up the river a ways to the ice harvest area.

Really.  You could spend hours doing this.

And we did.

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