One of my favorite winter vistas is that of the shifting ice floes on Cook Inlet, viewed through the windows of Simon and Seafort’s restaurant in downtown Anchorage. By force of the region’s extravagant tidal variations, the ice breaks apart, refreezes and regroups, glinting the shifting light, like fragile slices of color in a kaleidescope.
Similarly, at the end of winter (which for us is mid-May), my favorite sight at home is the leads of water breaking up the ice of our lake. The effect is not as physically dramatic as Cook Inlet, but it is emotionally compelling, spelling the imminent arrival of summer in sinuous, icy-blue ribbons.
For several days I trek along the lake shallows, capturing memorable images. Like time lapse photography, the ice, stripped of snow, reveals frozen bubbles of oxygen, fallen birch leaves, and the occasional dead vole, each of which is released, with a sigh or a pop, when sun or wind or water degrades the glassy bier.
As the lake ice thins and the meltwater deepens, I retreat to the huckleberry berm that hugs the shore, tramping among the spindly bushes and broken boughs that shade the last patches of snow. With the seasonal expertise of a modest mariner, I squint into the western sun to assess the color and texture of the ice. I measure extensions of yesterday’s cracks.
“It is time to Shackleton,” I announce with a smile over a bowl of dinner stew. This noun-turned-to-verb means that each afternoon for the next few days, we will kayak among the ice floes, pushing and prodding, wedging paddles into cracks, and careening through shallow overflow to the next open bit of water. It is a ridiculous endeavor – silly and delightful. It is how we celebrate the end of winter.
The next afternoon, I pull our blue tandem kayak out from under the cabin, disrupting a few chickens perched atop it, and drag it to the lakeshore. We always head to the north and east ends of the lake, where the sun and southern winds soften the ice ahead.
Which is today’s route? In the bow, I paddle slowly into a slim crack between two ice islands, prying them further apart. As any school child or moviegoer knows, floating ice reveals only a tenth of its bulk above water. So we size up the angle and thickness we can see beneath us, and rush forward at ramming speed, to climb a shallow ice shelf and crash over a floe into the next stretch of water, shrieking with laughter and delight.
I don’t delude myself that we speed up the season, but it is certainly true that once the ice cracks into floes, they knock against each other, breaking up further, so there is a sense of satisfaction, like breaking up clods of dirt so plants can grow. Over the ensuing days, the proportion of water to ice shifts, until only the floating remnants of the hard-packed landing strip and snowmachine trails bob about in the water.
Suddenly, one morning, we awaken to the sound of water freely slapping the dock in front of our cabin. I grab a thermos of coffee and kayak down to the southern end of the lake, where I know that a scraggly fringe of black spruce shields the last icy remnant of winter. Once that melts into the frigid water, summer at our home officially commences.
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June 2015 – Alaska Coast Magazine