I am fascinated by water in its frozen form. Etched into frost, swirled into snowdrifts, clinging like garland to trees, or polished into ice formations, winter’s frozen water is like time stopped. It may be months before last week’s snowfall will melt from the hillsides.
When I reach the cave opening, about three feet tall and six feet wide, I drop to my knees to peer inside. Before me stand dozens of crystal clear, haunting shapes encased in ice. On the left must be a miniature Merlin captured in a spell. In the back, a see-through hound sits on its haunches. I could start a pilgrimage rush, as the drip figures right in front of me are none other than the Holy Family in a manger.
And from the dark corners of the cave I hear water plinking, plinking, plinking in the warmer recesses of the earth’s lungs.
Iced-over waterfalls offer another wonder, and for that I take a quick drive to Wisconsin’s Governor Dodge State Park to view Stephens Falls. In summer its plunge-mist cools the valley. Here in winter the waterfall is preserved mid-tumble, a moment of flow hardened and stilled like a photograph. Water still trickles behind the thinner panes, catching and dispersing slight shards of light, reminding me that stopped time is just an illusion.
At the Mines of Spain I’m headed off-trail on snow shoes again. Just beyond the cliff face the slope softens slightly into a steep wooded hillside. Even with my snow shoe crampons I’ll still need to latch onto tree trunks to hoist myself up the bluff. The payoff is a few more ravine climbs ahead: a pockmarked field of hundreds of lead mine pits on a river cliff. The unbroken snow proves that no one has been in this thick forest for some time, here where miners labored in the 1830s. When they left, the forest regenerated, but otherwise time has stood still amid the abandoned mines. The oldest oaks date to the end of lead mining.
Cross-country skiing across the farthermost bridge at the Swiss Valley Nature Preserve, I stop to watch the tussle between time frozen and time flowing as rounded snow mounds hold out against the quick-running trout stream. I wonder how clear water can look so dark against the snow. Higher up in a hillside woods, a recent wet snow still laces the burr oak limbs stretched laterally across the forest. Heavy white clumps weigh down bushes and brambles in the understory. Slight breezes puff away the accumulations until, in a day or two, the woods will be just another sea of brown in a weary, rotting snow.
I’m not an ice-fisherman, but if it’s not too cold I’ll tip my cap to those whiling away the hours in shanties splayed out across the river. Me, I’ll wander down to the Mississippi on the lookout for bald eagles with their snow-capped heads perched as still as branches in the upper reaches of the river forest. They, too, have fishing on their minds. Instead of poles they’ll use their talons to snare a reckless bass come lumbering up to sip the air from an ice-free pool.
From above the river, at Eagle Point Park, I’ll contemplate the jammed ice floes interlocked and solid across the wide expanse above the dam. I’m reminded of a sleepless night on a jet across the North Atlantic. While everyone else slept, I gazed down across a sweep of icebergs backlit by a dusky orange hint of sunrise and thought, this is the loneliest place in the world. Sometimes a winter’s glimpse of the Mississippi River can feel the same.
To ski or snowshoe at night is more enchanted than lonely. Once I skied among some blue spruces on the hillside near my home under a moon-lit sky. It was warm inside the clump of trees, so warm that I thought about kicking off my skis, molding the snow into a back rest, and stretching out to watch the moon-clouds pass. I didn’t, though. The spruces on the outer edges were buffeted by an increasing wind, and their branches, heavy with snow, pawed and bobbed like nervous steads. They were warning me of a changing weather.
* * *
Snow and ice are water held in place, a stymied flow, like stilled time. Maybe this is why some people think that winter is long.
I’m writing today from the warmth of my kitchen. The evergreens along the driveway are heaped in powder, and the snow-piles between them are deep and still fresh-looking. I leave the dried-out husks of flower heads on the hydrangeas all winter long to trap the snow and bow in the wind. Sunny winter days like this are rare, but usually crisp and cold.
I am writing a few days before the winter solstice when the sunrise halts its winterly southward trek. For five days the sunrise will hold still against the horizon, and then begin inching northward again.
The shadows across the snowy lawn are lengthening. The snow’s not going anywhere, for now, in the deep freeze. But the sun will dip, the weeks will pass, the season will warm, and the frozen water will let loose and flow again, all in due time.
It’s happened before and before and before. I know it. Maybe as I grow older that is why I marvel that for a short while each year, water freezes in place, time stops, and even the sun comes to a momentary halt.
--Published in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 1 January 2017