Monday, January 3, 2011

Yellow Bellied

The lake has a yellow flag. I've never seen such a thing, and I'm not entirely sure how to interpret it. To fill you in, across the street from school, there is a flagpole. Underneath the American flag, they fly a colored flag that is meant to communicate the status of the ice vis a vis walking safely upon it. The system is simple... red flag = Stop! Danger, ice not thick enough to safely support you! Green flag = Go. For the past 7 years, those were the choices... and now, all of a sudden, yellow. Proceed with caution, if we continue with the obvious traffic signal parallel. So is that... Feel free to walk on it, but we won't be held responsible if you break through and sink into the frigid waters below, succumbing to the calm of cold as you wish you had exercised more caution at the "proceed with caution" color? Only certain parts of the lake are safe? (Which parts?) We were too lazy to go out and measure the thickness, so we're letting you guess? Things are changing so fast... what with the 55 degree day on New Year's Eve followed by a 22 degree day on New Year's day... that we don't even know what's going on with the ice from minute to minute? I don't know... yellow is my favorite color, most of the time, but this is not a place where I want to see yellow.

Personally, I will be staying off the ice unless the following conditions are met:
1. Green flag, for at least a few days.
2. Very cold weather, so there's no water on top of the ice.
Travelling on ice is not something I did as a kid. I mean, we skated. Quite a lot, when I was young. But we skated indoors, generally, and if not, on ice rinks that were not lakes the rest of the year, but fields flooded for that purpose.

The first time I went on a frozen lake, I was already 23, and we were learning to teach frozen lake ecology at Wolf Ridge, where I did a naturalist internship. We walked down to the lake and got to the edge and everyone else followed right on but I stopped at the edge, a statue paralyzed with fear. Yeah, I saw the truck out there. And the little "house" (if you will). But still. Lakes are not meant to be walked upon. I did go out, after a little coaxing, but for the entire (long, cold, Minnesota) winter, I had to swallow my fear when I taught that class, or had to snowshoe across the lake.

The very worst days were the relatively warm, sunny ones, when a layer of water would from on top of the ice. This was terribly disconcerting. The ice was 15 inches thick under the water, and crystal clear with integrity and strength... but no matter. Snowshoes would get clumps of ice frozen to them and if you slipped, you became uncomfortably wet, and... ugh. Or when there was cracking. The ice would sometimes creak and crack. Again, They assured me that 15 inches of ice would hold even with a crack (or 10, or 8 inches). The ice was floating and a crack wouldn't stop that, and the sheet covered the entire body of water so it's not like the two pieces of ice could split even if there was a crack all the way through, which there actually wasn't. But I didn't care. When the ice moans and groans, it's not because it's welcoming your weight.

All that is to say... I am not afraid to go on the ice (anymore) when I know it's safe. But I don't play around with maybes. Shiver. I don't even like imagining it...

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