Out on the ice

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For about a week now, Kingsford Lake, at least the portion that our house looks out over, has been frozen over from one shore to the other. While there were a couple days of -10 oC (14 oF), it hasn’t been exceptionally cold for a long stretch. Looking out at the ice from the house, and even the few times we’ve gone down to the dock and looked at the water’s edge (such as when I was taking the photos for my new header image), the surface looked thin, unstable. The ice is cloudy, so it’s difficult to get a visual estimate of the ice’s thickness, but because the lake is rather wide (at least compared to a pond in the backyard, for instance), we assumed it to be less than an inch thick.

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This morning, as Dan was standing at the window sipping his coffee, he saw two people skate by, their dog bounding along behind them. Intrigued by this possibility, this afternoon we grabbed our skates and went down to the lake to check it out for ourselves. Sure enough, the rough, cloudy surface of the ice was deceptive. The ice was at least a few inches thick, perhaps more, it was hard to gauge exactly. In any case, it supported our weight without even a groan or a creak.

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We laced up and glided out onto the lake. The surface was rough, it seemed that a snowfall last week had laid down an inch or so of snow, which melted and turned to slush on our couple of warmer, sunny days, and then refroze when the temperatures dropped again. It was still smooth enough for easy, enjoyable skating, though, and we skated back and forth over the 600 meters (650 yards) of the lake that was frozen over (in front of our house the lake is quite shallow; the deeper parts remained partially open).

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Neither of us have skated for a few years. In the 4+ years we’ve been together, we’ve only gone out skating once, to a public rink in the Toronto neighbourhood where we lived. I’ve never really got excited about public skating – it’s enjoyable enough, but too crowded, and the having to go in a counterclockwise circle gets boring after a bit. Growing up we had a pond in the backyard we skated on, which is what ice skating should be, to me. In the city there never really was that sort of opportunity.

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Prior to that, I probably hadn’t been skating since high school. When I was younger I skated as part of a precision (synchronized) skating team. I started learning some of the turns and jumps, but never got very far in it. I’ve long since forgotten all that fancy stuff, it’s enough for me to be able to turn from skating forward to backward in a particular direction while still moving. Dan was a hockey player. He played competitive hockey right into university, but eventually left it when the competitiveness seemed to overshadow having fun. At one point I think he had considered going pro – a funny career switch, from hockey to birds, and now to art.

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Initially Raven was reluctant to venture out onto this strange surface. It was hard, and slippery. And her humans were moving in the the weirdest motions. She wasn’t at all sure about this, and thought the shore seemed a safer bet. On the other hand, her humans were moving upsettingly far away. Maybe if she sat down and barked they’d hear her and return.

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Still unable to make the decision to come out on the ice, I eventually had to go back, pick her up, and carry her a short distance out. Once she found herself out in the middle of it, and nothing terrible was happening, and she got used to the weird way her people were moving, she started having fun. Dan would race her along the ice. Once she got the hang of how to adjust her gait for the best traction, she could really boot it. Not having blades strapped to her tootsies she was still slower than she is on land, though, and for once we could actually beat her.

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The shore still looked temptingly secure, though, and she returned now and again to reassure herself that normal, solid land hadn’t disappeared. I’m skating after her here to cut her off and engage her in another chase. The whole point here (well, at least the point of bringing the dog along; we, of course, are out for fun) is to burn off some of that boundless energy of hers. She won’t burn much by just sitting on the shore. Okay, if I’m honest, I included this photo ’cause I think my butt looks good here. It’s not often one’s butt looks good in a photo. And if I’m sharing some rare photos of me (normally I’m the one holding the camera), I might as well share the good ones. Look at Raven smiling there. She really did get into the whole thing by the end.

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We noticed these interesting patterns in the ice, just under the surface. To me they resembled neurons (nerve cells), with a large centre (the soma), the part that houses the cell’s nucleus, and long, spreading branches extending out from it (the dendrites), the parts that receive the signal molecules from other neurons. Missing from my ice formations are the axons, long “stems” with fingerlike projections on the end that produce the signal molecules that get sent to the next cell’s dendrites. This is how nerve cells talk to each other, how your toe tells your brain that it’s just stepped on a somewhat painful tack. Really, it’s rather remarkable how fast it all happens, considering the process involved even just for one cell to receive the signal and release its own transmitters. It is helped by the fact that in most animals a single sensory nerve cell will run all the way down the spinal column and down the leg to the toe (the axon makes up most of the length, and can be up to 1.5 m [5 ft] in an adult human). Motor neurons, the ones that send the signals to contract a muscle, may be only slightly shorter – the ones reaching the toes begin at the base of the spine. [And yes, I did have to look up the names of all the different parts of a nerve cell; even though I would have learned it back in one of my university courses, I’d long since forgotten the details – use it or lose it, as they say.]

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They were many and varied. I don’t know what created them, but many were in long lines as though they’d started out as the footprints of an animal, formed when the ice surface was soft. Perhaps the sun had melted these thinner areas, and as they melted the water ran out in branching channels. Or perhaps the “dendrites” actually represent cracks that formed when the ice got soft. In the centre of many of them was a small, circular hole of clear ice. Looking down through it you could see some bubbles frozen a couple inches down in a ring formation. Perhaps they were formed by gas being leaked from the lake bottom? We avoided skating right over them just in case, but I suspect they would’ve held up just fine.

I don’t know how long we’re likely to have this oversized skating rink. Aside from the potential for warmer temperatures that might soften or thin the ice, there’s also the likelihood of snow, which will mean we’ll have to shovel the ice to skate on it, and we’re unlikely to clear more than just our little bay. In the meantime we’ll hopefully be able to get out a few more times to enjoy all this open ice.

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5 responses to “Out on the ice

  1. Chautauqua Lake was just starting to freeze yesterday. When I headed up to my friend’s house, it was still water. When I came home, much of it looked “solid”. It would be fun to skate again!

    In the photo with Raven near some dendrites with a hole in the middle – it looks very much like the holes in our pond ice where the muskrats push up through. Or, do you have beavers on the lake?

  2. I love your pictures. What fun!

  3. What fun!
    Can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this on your blog before, but when we lived on Lake Scugog when I was a kid, my dog got a fish hook in his leg once from all the ice fishermen. Just a precaution, if you get any on your lake.

  4. You know, Jennifer, you’re probably right about those holes – we have both beavers and muskrats on our lake, and actually have a muskrat who lives in a little lodge on our own shoreline. I would hear him chewing on cattail roots after dark some nights.

    Thanks, Ruth! We had a great time out there. We just had a few warm days and I’m eagerly waiting for the temperature to drop again so we can get back out.

    Thanks for the heads-up, Lavenderbay. I know the lake has a few fisher-people on it during the summer, but don’t know how popular ice fishing is. I haven’t seen anyone out there yet, but that’s probably just because the ice hasn’t been strong enough.

  5. Have you considered the holes may have been made by meteorites? Especially if this hasn’t been seen there before. Time for some fun with magnets? :)

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