I wrote this essay for Victoria Redel's English 1011 class at Columbia University in 1986. It is reproduced here for historical purposes only.
It was a winter that made the ice-cutters reminisce. Mr. Brown, our eighty-five-year-old neighbor, had once cut ice on the Kennebec River, back when Kennebec ice was the variety favored by rich Southerners. The ice industry thrived, he said, in frigid, open winters when the ice was thick and not covered with snow, so that it was easy to cut and haul away the blocks. The winter of '23 had been like that, and so was the winter of '79. By the middle of January it hadn't snowed yet and the temperature hadn't been above zero since sometime in late December.
Back home it was only eighteen below, but we lived up on the ridge. Down here on Lake Maranacook the cold air settled, and it was thirty-two below. We'd come to go skating, and I got to drive because I had to take the road test that summer when I turned fifteen and it was a dirt road, and besides we always drove our oldest car -- a rusted-out Datsun with a broken axle -- when we went to the lake.
I love it when the temperature is under ten below. You can't breathe through your nose else the mucus will freeze, you can't breathe through your mouth else your teeth will freeze, so you have to alternate between nose and mouth -- and no matter how you breathe, your lungs get chilled. Skin, hands, feet, pets, cars, houses all tend to freeze. The woodstoves require constant attention. You can't stay outside for long -- and we were fools to be going skating, but there's not much else to do on a Saturday night in the deeps of Maine. My hands froze as I took off my mittens to remove my boots and put on my skates; my toes, despite three pairs of socks, froze when my boots came off; my ass froze sitting on the rocks by the lakeshore.
It always surprises me that sand doesn't freeze. My blades sank as I stumbled across the small beach owned by our family friends the Molokies -- fellow expatriates from New York. The ice near shore was a series of inclined planes caused by the expansion of the ice into the shore. I fell only twice here, but then we had been skating a lot that year. The reward was eight miles of unobstructed ice.
And the ice was black. Lake ice stays milky until it's about a foot think, but because of that rare winter the ice was four feet thick or more, and dark as the sky overhead. The ice, unlike the sky, was smooth and hard and shone in the moonlight.
I loved that black ice and would fall down onto it to peer into the black and down into the crevices. These visits were less than than voluntary, since using a hockey stick as a third point of balance didn't help me much, and the only I way I knew to stop was to fall. But I didn't mind falling, becase I could look for many minutes into that black ice and the milky stars that were air bubbles.
The danger of skating that Saturday night was the drunk drivers. Whenever the ice is thick enough, people in various stages of inebriation cannot resist driving on it. The attraction of driving on the ice is that even if you are sober, your tires have no traction on the smooth surface. Though these drivers threaten skaters and ice fishermen, there are no rules of the road in the Fish and Wildlife code that governs the lakes, so we did our best to avoid the cars and pickups that were roaming the lake.
There isn't much to say while skating, which is one reason I always enjoyed it -- you can glide over the ice hearing nothing but the grinding of blade into ice. But the darkness makes people uncomfortable, so I had to endure the chatter of skaters that night.
Unfortunately, although local weatherman "Altitude Lou" claimed that a blizzard was on the way, the wind hadn't started up yet. The silent way to skate is to open your coat to the wind and just sail -- there is no noise of action when the wind does the work. The problem then is of returning; a few miles' skating against the wind is exhausting.
The blizzard was indeed on the way, which meant the end of the black ice. I have never seen it again.
We should have gone skating the next day, for the storm was to blow in around noon. But my father and I had trees to cut around the little swamp out behind our house, and we had to fell them onto the ice so that we could haul them away.
We set out at six-thirty with our gear: chainsaw, two handsaws, come-along, rope, fuel, splitting mauls, and layers of clothing. With the storm on the way, it had warmed up to five degrees above zero -- perfect weather for working outside.
We had some ornery trees to cut down. They didn't want to fall into the part of the swamp that was clear of trees, so I had to tie one end of the rope around my beltloop, climb up the tree, and tie the rope around a high branch where it met the trunk. Then we attached the other end of the rope to the come-along, which we'd secured to a tree in the direction we wanted the targeted tree to fall. With the rope taut, the tree would fall in the desired direction, more or less.
Once the tree was down, I limbed it with the handsaw while my father cut it up into stovewood lengths with the chainsaw. With that done, the fun began -- splitting. In winter, we split our wood right after cutting down the tree because that's when the wood is easiest to split -- the frozen sap lets your maul glide through the wood easily.
I loved to split wood, especially after my father turned off the chainsaw, which made a horrible noise. Splitting made me feel quiet inside, relaxing to the rhythm of setting a newly-cut log onto the big splitting log, swinging the maul through the resistance of the wood, throwing the split pieces on a growing pile, then setting up the next log to be split. I must have split eighty logs or more that morning and I didn't tire of it.
The snow started as we were finishing -- I could hear the flakes hitting the few leaves that were left from the fall.
Two days later it was still snowing. The storm was a nor'easter -- it had made its way up the coast, stalled up in the Maritimes, backed up against the jet stream into eastern Maine, then finally had gone on towards Newfoundland. Only the strongest storms do that; this one packed forty-mile-an-hour winds and a lot of snow. We guessed twenty inches or so, but it was impossible to tell since the wind caused so much drifting -- there were three inches in some spots and four feet in others.
As the snow tapered to flurries, I got ready to ski. No fancy downhill skiing for my family -- we simply strapped on our skis in the woodshed out back and went off into the woods.
The snow was deep for skiing. I had to labor at breaking the trails before I could get any serious, fast skiing done.
My favorite trail went from Mr. Brown's field next to ours, down to the brook that ran between our ridge and the next ridge over. On this trail, it didn't matter that the snow was deep -- it was steep enough that I plunged down it anyway.
Cross-country skis are not made for fast turning while going downhill. The farther down the twisting trail I went, the harder it became to navigate the curves; the faster I went, the more my eyes watered from the cold air hitting my face. It was inevitable that I would crash before the bottom of the hill -- inevitable and welcome, since sometime in the fall a big tree had fallen across the trail towards the bottom of the hill, and it would have been impossible to avoid.
Soon after this chute, the trail passed through a forest of beech trees, where few people ever ventured since it was so far from the road and the trail was so steep. I always stopped here and listened to the creaking of the trees in the breeze, alone for a minute or an hour, leaning on my poles, not thinking, just sensing the wind and the air and feeling a reverence for nature and for my life on this earth.
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