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Ice and the poetry of strolling on the edge

Viki Mather on winter’s magical transformation
“This two-day-old ice was covered with huge hoarfrost crystals that were dusted with light snow. Just enough to give a good grip underfoot,” Viki Mather writes. Photo: Viki Mather

Mid-December the temperate dropped, the wind dropped, and we woke to see a sheet of ice from here to the island. Two days later, it had mostly blown away. The blowing continued through the next day and more ice faded away. 

Even more wind through the next day until late afternoon when it tired and the ice began to grow once again. 

I could sit and watch the ice form all day long. Such a magical transformation!  

Another morning and ice covered the lake from our shore out front to the island a half kilometer away … again. I could see water north of the island, and water south by the little islands. Enough wind came through the day to keep the water free. Then came the night.

Cold, cold night, only whispers of wind. At first light Friday morning, the entire lake had gone white as far as I could see. But I could not see far enough. I wanted to know about the rest of the lake … what of the parts I could not see?

The two-day-old ice was nearly three inches thick. More than enough to walk upon without worry. I knew from watching the ice the day before that this older ice wound right around the bay to the south and across to the far shore. I could walk around to the peninsula then across it to see the rest of the lake.

The first time walking on new ice is exciting. To be able to walk where just two days earlier the waves lapped on shore is an amazing thing. The long pole I carry is just for comfort, and for whacking on the ice should I come to an area of uncertainty. 

This two-day-old ice was covered with huge hoarfrost crystals that were dusted with light snow. Just enough to give a good grip underfoot. Out where the waves ruled the day before, a different shade of white appeared. This new ice held mostly hoarfrost crystals, but finer in texture than where I walked. 

Long lines ran across the lake, a foot wide and a shade of white just a tad darker than most of the ice. This from the hairline cracks where water seeped through, spread to melt the snow and refroze. The ice is even stronger along the cracks.         

A watchful eye is crucial when walking on new ice. Subtleties in the colour of the ice, the thickness of the snow and ice crystals on the surface. Sometimes the line is faint at the “event horizon” … where the safe ice meets the newest ice. It can be a very thin line between lots of ice and just a little. It is not dangerous … so long as close attention is kept. 

Walking right up to the edge, I reached out with the long pole to crack the ice just a step away. Easily cracked that ice, which was about an inch thick. Just as suspected. Of course, I did not take another step. I turned and walked along the edge for a while.

I was out for a couple of hours; looking closely at the patterns of thin ice and thick, inspecting a long, low pressure ridge, then crossing the peninsula to see what I could see.

On the other side, safe ice filled the little bay. Just for a hundred feet or so. The edge of the new ice had thickened significantly in the wind of the previous day. The frigid water had lapped over the old ice, freezing in place. A ribbon of pale grey ice tracked the edge where old met new. 

Still, I could not see all of the lake to the south. Often there is a hole there, over the lake’s deepest water. So I climbed a hill to have a better view. Yes!  Everywhere the lake was white. Frozen for the winter. But far from safe.

The roller coaster ride of weather since then has helped, and hindered thickening of the ice … it may still be a while before I feel comfortable to venture forth again.

Viki Mather has been commenting for Northern Life on the natural world and life in Greater Sudbury since the spring of 1984. Got a question or idea for Viki? Send an email to


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