FEBRUARY 23, 2018

Nature Journal



“It was just ten years ago that Bob came home to catch the feeling of the Minnesota-Ontario border country in midwinter. He wanted, above all, to sit in a dark house with me again and watch the circling decoy and the scene below the ice.” – Sigurd Olson, from the Singing Wilderness

The Lake Monona shoreline has been a veritable kaleidoscope of conditions over the past several weeks. Yesterday the temperatures had plummeted back down into the teens, a very thin snow ha re-covered the surface, and all the little cracks and seams and alleyways that had formed by a recent high thaw had nearly magically recongealed, hardened over the fishing holes, and seemed to be capable of holding the intermittent truck once again.  Living across the lake, its safe to say that the frozen months offer the onlooker an entirely new variety of natural beauty and phenomenon. The mere thought that the white trailer that stands out there in the middle of the lake, maybe a quarter of a ton heavy, is on a layer of ice a mere foot thick, full of suspended bubbles and littered with ogger holes which one might think would generally make the vast shelf of ice vulnerable and might, over time, split or sag or sink – any of the things that common sense projects onto the physics of the laws of weight and gravity. It was only last week that the sun had been out all day long, it was fifty degrees, and I decided that I wanted to check the conditions to see what a day of melting did to a frozen lake. I had never seen in my life such a collection of new phenomenon over a particular space. Only a hike last spring up Booths Falls in Colorado could similarly match the changes brought on in the time of one day.  Back here on Lake Monona, the surface of the lake had become a series of clear water ponds, glimmering and rippling with the direction of the wind. Nearer the shoreline, old ice had been heaved upwards over the rip rap, creating wavelike structures of thin ice, looking as if it was diving up toward the park. Dark holes had formed on the thin layer and you could see down to either open (shallow) water, or another layer of older ice. Where cracks cleared and water rose up to meet the thin layer of now pond-like water, small whirlpools were created. I assumed that these little oddities, which I have never seen before on a frozen lake, were created by the meeting of two varying temperatures of water, water pressure differential, and wind itself, which created a near stream pattern flowing from west to east. My boots were just thick enough at the soles to walk over the depth of the water without the uppers getting wet. Because the snow was melted, the lake, for the first time since its original freeze, was entirely clear, a kind of unusual, solid, water dessert oasis. The sun was hanging over the line of trees in its afternoon slot but left its lurching panels of light heading my way. Out in the middle, only one fisherman was left, tending to his multiple fishing holes. Next to him his quarter ton trailer which seemed to be sitting quite solidly over what was clearly a shimmering surface of likely two inches of blown water. All just water in varying forms.  When olson mentions his friend who wanted to come all the way up to the Quetico to experience again real ice, as I looked out across the vast watery space of Monona, I could understand, for it is a temporary existence this frozen lake, something like the combined efforts of both natural science and a random sort of art. To be able to sit on top of this frozen living room floor that you can actually see through to observe the habits of fish is a true naturalist’s catbird seat.