Monday, January 5, 2009

You're on thin ice, my friend

If you will just listen, the river will often whisper a warning... if and when risk is at hand.

On New Year’s Day, Julie and I set-out to recover that blue drum that sits in a log jam south of the Osceola bridge. This is the barrel brought to my attention by Lisa at the St. Croix River Association; her group had discovered it while on a general clean-up voyage back in July. It eluded our capture when Julie and I were kayaking back in late October, due to the quickly setting sun and the fact that we still had more than a mile of paddling ahead of us (against the current).

My strategy—and I think it remains a good one—was to walk 1.2 miles from Osceola Landing to where the barrel is resting; I had marked its location as a GPS waypoint. The most direct path would be over-water, leaving from the point at the southern end of Osceola Landing. From there, I would walk a straight line on the frozen river... or at least, on what I thought was a frozen river.

I was well equipped. Julie gave me a pair of Atlas snowshoes for my birthday last fall. They are designed for “trailing,” which means they are slightly more short and narrow than you might think... allowing easier navigation through woods and brush. They are also equipped with teeth… which bite into the ice both just under the ball of your feet, as well as beneath the heel. This Christmas, she upgraded my experience with a pair of North Face boots intended for snowshoeing. (With the right equipment, it has been easy to fall in love with winter hiking!)

Our kids were in on the gift theme, too, as they gave me a Petzl ice ax; I admit to dropping a hint or two about this tool… which is intended to help hikers and mountaineers “self arrest” when sliding down a steep slope. My use would be slightly different, but no less important. When a river freezes after the autumn rains, the water levels often fall… and the ice tends to sink in response. Thus, the ice at the center of a waterway can be several inches (or even feet) lower than the ice on the riverbank, creating a “slope” that draws a hiker from the shoreline out to the channel (not a place I choose to be, as the ice is often more dangerous out there). So, if/when gravity pulls me out in that direction, I can use the ax to arrest the slide. Also, if I found the barrel to be “iced-in” when I arrived, I could chip it out using the ax.

We took a few other precautions, too. I put a 15 foot length of rope on the sled; if I were to break through the ice, the sled far behind me would give responders something to grab hold of. With a two-way radio clipped into my collar pocket, I could call Julie back at the truck to summon such help. My son had provided me with some nail spikes which are designed to jam into the ice, allowing a hiker to pull him/herself out of the water onto the ice ledge, assuming the ice was strong enough to hold you. If not, there was always the ice ax—which would literally become an ice breaker—clipped to the belt of my cargo pants, where I could reach it easily. And most importantly, Julie was waiting for me back at the truck; she knew roughly my route, the time I expected to be back, and that I would check in along the way.

Even with all of this careful planning—and even with several sub-zero days of weather so far this winter—one could not take for granted that the mission would be successful. Nature gave me a number of clues as to the degree of risk involved with my venture.

First, there was open water visible just south of the bridge, in the middle of the river. That wasn’t a shock to me… as large structures and stumps tend to create a "wake" in the current just downstream. But my walk would start more than a quarter mile downstream… far from the obstruction of the bridge. And after all, the St. Croix is not all that deep where I would be walking (our kayaks have even bottomed-out on dunes near here during the summer). That having been said, I’m smart enough to know that there are deep spots, too (as deep as 14 feet in some spots along the path I would be walking). And with a windchill of about zero degrees right now, even three or four feet of water is too deep for me.

There is one other clue as to the risk: No paw or hoof prints. No rabbit, no fox, no deer… no footprints of any kind, anywhere beyond the solid ground of the shoreline. I find the lack of their presence on the ice to be a bit odd. (Sometimes, critters know things humans don't.)

I made my way to the southern tip of the peninsula, and cautiously started onto the ice. At first, my snowshoes create a fluffing sound as they drop into and then lift the fresh snow. But about forty yards offshore, I notice an audible change: Now, there is a snapping sound as my feet pierce the top surface of the snow… followed by a soft mush. Before, you could hear a crisp “bite” as the teeth on my snowshoes gripped the ice. But the those metal tips were penetrating something much softer now. After five or six steps, I stopped, turned around… and realized my most recent footprints have immediately filled with water, and the edges of those imprints were surrounded by fresh slush. Although I have only recently begun learning the art of snowshoeing, I know that while walking over a lake or river, one is wise to pay attention to the conditions by sound, as well as by sight. More importantly, I’ve spent enough time on this river and living through extreme winters... to know that challenging either is a fool’s game. So, I changed paths… opting for to hug the shoreline. But even then, several hundred yards to the south, I discovered more open water. This day, the barrel will have to stay.

Going over ice to retrieve the drum is still a feasible idea, but one that is better saved until January has brought several more deep freezes. The recent cold temperatures have been off-set by the fact that the St. Croix River is heavily fed by spring water. These springs have a moderating effect, cooling the flow in summer, but warming it in winter. Further, the heavy December snows have had an insulating effect on the ice.

I have learned many things over the past few years, spending considerable time on the river. More than anything, I have learned respect… for how the beauty of a waterway like this can belie its power and danger. Even with all of the precautions I have taken in preparing for this day, the greatest measure of safety is having the good sense to call it a day. The river, like a true friend, gave me several warnings that I was on thin ice. Like a friend, I listened.

If you'd like a glimpse of winter on the St. Croix, indulge in the three and a half minute video below.

© 2009 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.

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