Getting Outside Saturday: Ice Out

categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside

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2012: Very Early, Very Gentle


Ice out on the Temple might come slowly, weeks of warming temperatures, stream slowly emerging, easily swallowing all the melt, or it might come all at once—a day’s work after hard rain.  It’s an equinoctial event, coming generally within a week either way of the equinox.  After an all-night downpour, the ice we’ve admired all winter, the ice we’ve come to regard as permanent, starts to float.  Guessing it’s imminent, one rushes down there in the morning, early.  At the bend in the path, one sees that the Dairyman’s lowest field is full of water.  More rain than one thought?  So to the bluff and lookout, where one sees it: a muddy river flowing over the ice.  And though this kind of overflow may have happened in a thaw back in February, this time it’s different, this time the ice is lifting on the voluminous flow, folding and breaking in huge slow movements, damming the stream just enough to flood the low parts of the field.

One has appointments, one has work to do, but one stays.  After an hour of suspense—grinding, subtle movements in the ice—there’s a roar upstream as from a volcano, and a clapping sound, the slamming of enormous dominoes, and suddenly around the bend a prodigious wave arrives: an ice dam has broken somewhere upstream.  This new water lifts the ice three feet in a single heave, breaks it in huge pans that want to move downstream, too, lifts them on top of the downstream ice, lifts whole sections twenty feet square, eighteen inches and two feet thick, lifts them and tilts them and breaks them further.  The upstream ice keeps coming—large floes and pans bumping and thumping till they meet the blockade, where they tilt and flip and add themselves to its mass.  Wherever the water still flows freely, the floes slip under, disappear.  More arrive, more tilt and stop or sink and disappear, more and more till the void is well filled, the streambed dammed bank to bank five feet high.  The water rises fast, pours over the ice dam, thrusting new pans on top and adding whole trees, last year’s sweepers, which will sweep no more.  The pans stack up.  The water rushes higher, raises the dam, till abruptly the last piece comes into place, an enormous pan that flips and breaks against all that’s already in place just below one’s vantage point, blocks the stream utterly to a height of ten feet or more.  Then all is quiet as the stream mounts, even as more and more ice arrives from the morning’s upstream break-outs.  The stream rises fast—a foot in a minute, five feet in five minutes, huge pressure building behind the ice.  One backs away from the edge of the stream—even on our high bluff, the ice is getting close, all seems ready to explode.

Then, sudden stasis as the stream goes out of its banks and flows into the lowest field, making room for all the new water and ice.  Ice pans like loose swim rafts drift placidly out where the cows used to stand, pushing over the forgiving streamside alders till there are no alders in sight, bashing the bark off hardwoods (accounting for all those scars one sees in summer: a barkless patch twelve feet up a streamside maple, a branch no moose or man could reach or hope to break mysteriously torn away above that placid, innocent brook).

The water rises, rises more, flips more pans in front of the dam it has built, rises more, rises to the height of the bluff across the stream, the dam rippling under all the pressure, then bucking, about to let go, enormous flats of ice pushing up the high bank at one’s feet.  The stream has filled the lower field; the lower field is now stream.  It’s flowing.  And it is rising.  Quickly, the flood crests the other, taller bank and the height of water finds a new course, cuts the stream corner, eats the snowpack rapidly, carries ice chunks well into the Dairyman’s higher field.  Quickly again, this new streamway is blocked.  The water crests our bluff—one jumps up on the talk rock, spellbound, ready to run.   Now the stream mounts more slowly, filling a huge basin, something on the order of five minutes to a foot.  It’s been an hour and a half from the start of the show.

In the ice dam there’s a heaving, then a pressure bulge from below.  Upstream, a large new pan of ice gets stuck, flips in the current, makes its own dam, one that briefly impounds the stream behind it, but abruptly it breaks, explodes really, unleashing a wave that hits the bigger dam all at once, raising whole sections of it.  Then, unimaginably, the front wall of the assemblage rises at once, flipping backwards onto the whole with a roar like close thunder, and the new front edge bursts, too, all the millions of pounds of backed-up water roaring though ice in a new channel that grows and grows, throwing floes, flipping pans up on the banks, creating short-lived sub-dams that deposit tree trunks and ice walls high on our bluff, up into the very branches of our trees, extraordinary violence, the material of the original dam slowly flushing down over the local beaver dam (the proximate cause of the bottleneck), then taking that, too, sticks and logs and rocks and ice floes and bigger pans and muddy water roaring into the pool downstream, the solid old ice of which simply folds up, no match for the onslaught, folds up and forms a slow, roaring accordion pleat in front of an eight-foot high wall of debris that pushes downstream and within seven minutes rounds the bend a couple of hundred yards away.  There’s no dam anymore, none.  The accumulated water, freed, flushes out of the higher field taking most of the snow cover with it, then flushes out of the lower field, leaving huge ice pans high and dripping.  Within half an hour the stream is back to gently flowing in its bed as if the season were autumn again, muddy but mild, utterly free of floating ice, its banks strewn as far as one can see, the alders crushed and buried, the sweepers gone, the hard-won beaver dam absent, sticks and old leaves and mud and dripping blocks of ice everywhere, enormous marooned pans settling, breaking on each other, the whole looking (as Juliet once observed) like the remains of a house after a catastrophic fire, winter washed away in under two hours time.


From Temple Stream (Dial Press)

“A Marvel in a genre that’s tough to master.” –National Geographic Explorer

  1. Tommy writes:

    Love this, Bill! Mesmorizing!