Strengthening Ice, Strengthening Confidence

Clear night in the Boundary Waters.

A clear night in the frozen Boundary Waters.

December 7th, 2012:

The glittering blades of grass were silent beneath my feet as I padded down toward the lake. I’d left my anorak on the dock sections sitting on the shore, and I needed to grab it before heading home. It was only 7:30 pm, but the sky was midnight black and studded with stars. Frost crystals coated the red fabric of the anorak, and I chided myself for my carelessness. The ice crystals would dampen the anorak I brought it to my room.

Out of summer habit, I stood on shore. Birch Lake stretched black before me, irregularly splotched white with thin snow. I knew the ice would support me clear to the other side, but my feet remained planted as I craned my neck at the stars. The sound of a rope whipping through air traveled across the lake. The whoosh started far from me, rushed close, and continued away. Then the shifting roar of a distant jet engine sounded from within the lake, rippling as if someone were keel-hauling the sound itself along the bottom of the ice. One volley started near the mouth of the Kawishiwi River a hundred yards southwest of where I stood, undulated through the ice, and ended with a loud phffft of cracking ice. I jumped backward. I imagined the ice in front of me moving and swaying from the force. The ice was alive.

The irregular whooshes and sci-fi sounds of forming ice transfixed me. I listened as cold poured through the holes in my Crocs and seeped through my fleece. My bare hands and face registered the cold, but did not feel it. I thought of ice crystal formation, crystal propagation, and pressure building across the solid sheet of water. With every boom and whoosh, the ice got stronger. The growing pains encouraged me.

December 13th, 2012:

I woke in darkness. The air was cold on the tip of my nose and my cheekbones, my only parts exposed to the night. Crrrrrraaaacckk! The sound that shaken me from sleep. Frost glinted on the tarp overhead, and I could feel icy prickles on the outside of my sleeping bag. Earlier in the evening clouds had hung thickly where now thousands of stars glittered. It seemed the temperature had plunged when the clouds withdrew.

Wer-wer-wer-wer-crrrrr—pffffft! Loud as thunder. I turned my head wildly in my mummy hood, looking to see if my more experienced companions were concerned. None moved. I suddenly saw a round section of ice cracking and sinking into the cold darkness below before any of us could claw our way out of double layered sleeping bags. I breathed slowly, and my imagination receded.

CCCRRRRRRRAAAACCCKK! I sat bolt upright. Not only had the ice moved, but it felt like it had sunk at least an inch. I inventoried the resources strategically placed in my sleeping bags and arrayed around me. Paratroopers’ boots, down booties, socks, long underwear, puffy coats. Which should I prioritize after I freed myself from my inner and outer bags? If I even had time–perhaps the double layer of insulation from the sleeping bags would provide buoyancy as well.

More deep breaths, and my rational brain fought with my reptilian amygdala. Remember Birch Lake? The same sounds there meant that the ice was getting stronger. I wasn’t facing certain, immediate immersion and death. I should get some sleep. I lay back down and turned onto my side.

I heard it coming from a mile away. PffffffffffffffffffffffffffffFFFFFFFTTTTTTTRACK! The final crack boomed directly beneath my ear. I sprang up again and tapped the sleeping form next to me.

“Calvin,” I whispered urgently. “Calvin.”
“Mrrmph?”
“Was that okay?”
“Rrrmmm.”
“Calvin, I’m serious. Was that okay?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry.”

Trusting Calvin’s years in the frozen Boundary Waters more than my own rationality, I lengthened my spine and closed my eyes. For the first time in my life, I welcomed my alarm when it sounded a few hours later.

We--and all of our gear--were obviously still there in the morning.

We–and all of our gear–obviously remained safely above Clearwater Lake until the morning.

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