Destructive beauty


I hope everyone had an enjoyable and relaxing holiday! It can be such a busy time of year for many people, sometimes it takes a conscious effort to slow down and sit back for a bit. I had a nice visit with my family, who are so spread out over eastern Ontario these days (no one is closer than an hour to anyone else, and the farthest distance between two of us is four hours) that we don’t have many occasions where we’re all able to get together. Needless to say, the break in the usual routine proved a slight distraction from online activities, and I’m just getting back into the post-holiday swing.

This afternoon was beautiful and sunny, albeit a bit on the cold side. I bundled up and took Raven out to the 100-acre woods for her daily exercise. We got a couple of inches of snow yesterday night, and the landscape was freshly powdered. I admired it all, through the narrow gap between my toque and scarf, but didn’t take many photos. I already have lots of lovely winter landscape images. There’s only so many I can actually put to use. You’d all get quite tired of seeing snowy scenes if I photographed and posted every spot I admired.


Christmas night and into Boxing Day we got a fair accumulation of freezing rain. In most open areas, where the sun can reach and shine on the branches, the ice had melted off. However, in the confines of the forest where direct sunlight is sparse and fleeting, much of it still remains on the trees, a glittering coat about 1/2 cm (~1/5 inch) thick. We haven’t had any above-freezing temperatures that would melt it in the absence of direct sun, and so it persists. Where they catch the sun as it filters through the branches, the ice-coated trees can be quite beautiful, glittering like crystal. I wish that the camera could capture the scene as well as the eye can perceive it.


Ice can be incredibly destructive, too. Pine trees seem to suffer the heaviest casualties. Of the pines I passed today, very few were unscathed, and most had at least one limb lying on the snow at their foot. The pine out in front of our house has lost two branches. We had some wicked winds yesterday night, and they may have helped to bring down some branches that might otherwise have escaped damage simply through the weight of the ice itself.


The problem for pines seems to be that their long needles all sit slightly separated, so that when the ice freezes on them they can hold a lot more of it than an equivalent limb on a spruce (short needles), cedar (few spaces), or other evergreen might. Generally speaking, evergreens have developed very strong limbs that can support more weight than the average deciduous tree might be able to, because they need to be able to hold the heavy snow and ice that accumulates on their needles. Deciduous trees have comparatively weak limbs – they don’t need stronger ones because they drop their leaves in the winter, instead, and ice and snow buildup is relatively minimal.


Underneath the big maples in our fields the snow is scattered with shards of ice, crystals that have dropped from the tree’s overhanging limbs as the sun has warmed and melted it. It crunches underneath my snowshoes as I walk through. The maples sit out in the open, exposed. They lost a few twigs and smaller branches with the winds blowing the weight of the ice-covered limbs about, but compared to the pines, it was simply a light pruning. You’d be hard-pressed to even detect where the branches fell off from.


Enough ice collected on the dried grass stems in the fields to lay them flat, and blowing snow from last night has all but covered them. Strange shadows, grass blades carved in relief from the surface of the sheet of white. A few scattered stems still project from the soft surface, and these, too, will soon be hidden by the next storm, or perhaps the one after.


This area was part of the Ice Storm of 1998. The nearby town of Smiths Falls actually makes the Wikipedia page on the event as it was one of a number that declared a state of emergency. Perth and vicinity received in the neighbourhood of 60-80mm of freezing rain – assuming it all froze solid, that would be 6-8 cm (2.3 to 3.1 inches) of ice coating everything. Millions of trees through the affected region were damaged or destroyed. Aside from the obvious aesthetic effects, the storm also crippled the maple syrup and orchard industries, who depend on healthy trees for their crops. I bet woodpeckers were one of the few groups to substantially benefit from the storm, as the sudden preponderance of dead trees and snags would provide a bounty of nesting and foraging sites. Although there are very few signs of the storm remaining, or at least ones that can clearly be attributed to that particular event, I do sometimes wonder about bowed trees like these, and what weight might have caused them to bend so.


Sunday Snapshots: Raven on thin ice

Raven and frozen pond

We’ve had a string of below-freezing nights and cool days that have frozen over our standing water. At lunchtime today Raven and I walked back to our little pond. I was surprised to find, by breaking the ice at the edge, that it was already frozen to nearly a 3/4″ (2cm) thickness. It wouldn’t support my weight, but it seemed thick enough to hold Raven up. I kept expecting the ice to crack and for her to fall in, but she never did (I wouldn’t have been worried; it’s less than a foot deep, and she’s a water dog). It sang as she walked about on it and tugged on weeds and branches frozen into its surface, though, a high twittering like a flock of little birds. I took 140+ photos – but I’ll limit it to 18 here…

Raven and frozen pond
Really want that stick...

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond
Trying instead to get those grass tufts.
Raven and frozen pond
Guess she'll settle for a hunk of ice.

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond
Ooo, but what's that?
Raven and frozen pond
Not so certain about the ice.
Raven and frozen pond
Always likes a challenge

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond
On the trail of something

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond
Ripples of vibrations transferred through the ice

Back on the blades

Nameless Island

Yesterday was such a nice day that Dan and I decided to take Raven and go out on the lake for a skate. The warm weather last week had melted down the snow on the ice surface and smoothed it all out, so the lake was snow-free and relatively smooth, perfect for skating, something we hadn’t done since before Christmas. Despite that we’d had a few days of above freezing, though, the ice was too thick to melt enough to be a concern. A couple weeks ago our neighbour measured it at 23″ (58 cm), and peeks down through frozen-over ice fishing holes confirmed that it was still plenty thick, despite the warm temperatures. Our neighbours suggest that the ice will stay on the lake till April 15, give or take a couple of days, which means we’ve still got a couple months of frozen water, although I imagine the last few weeks as it starts warming up it’ll begin to thin out and become more unstable.

Playing ball

We went out with the intention of being gone just an hour or so, but ended up spending the whole afternoon out. We skated up to the far end of the lake and dropped in on some neighbours we’ve gotten to know there. Dan hadn’t met them and I knew Raven would be thrilled to visit with them and their dogs. I told Dan it would just be a short visit, but he saw through that, he knows me too well. The skate was nice, though. Easy going, and considerably faster than walking. It’s about 3.5 km (2.2 miles) to the end of the lake one-way, and we tagged on a loop into the eastern bay (Kingsford is sort of Y-shaped, with one branch being the original river channel heading to the dam, and the other being an enclosed bay), so we probably did about 8 km (5 miles) of skating all told.

Cabin on the lake

The lake is interesting in that the residents are divided into two groups, a set of cottages along a private lane at the north end, and the houses and cottages along our road and the offshoot lanes down at the south end. In between is no man’s land, aside from a couple of small cabins such as this one, barely large enough for a cot and a heater. The reason for this split is because the waterfront in the centre bit is too far from the road to be practical to run access in. Laying in a private lane, and then following that up with hydro, would add an extra hundred thousand or more to the price of your home.

Grapevine arbour

It’s funny the evidence of people that you come across, though. In one spot we found these metal chairs set up along the edge of the water, now acting as a grapevine arbour. I’m not sure if that was the original intention of their placement there or not. Just a short distance away was a little fence-like structure, also covered in grapevine, that may or may not have been built for the purpose.

Raven in the wetland

We swung by the wetlands we’d visited back in early winter, but because we had our skates on we didn’t go in to poke around (except for Raven). The wetlands are another reason the mid-section of the lake hasn’t been built on. Because they block easy access for boats or swimming, your effective waterfront would actually be a couple hundred yards out. Wetlands also affect what sorts of building restrictions are applied to your land (obviously more would be in place given the sensitivity of wetlands to runoff and other pollutants). The properties along that stretch would make great hunting or vacation retreats, and I do suspect waterfowl hunters take advantage of the proximity of the wetlands in the fall (we heard gunshots in that vicinity during that period), but it would probably not appeal to residents or serious cottagers.

Shotgun shells

And then there’s the evidence of people you don’t like to see. Shotgun shells dumped and left carelessly on a little island beside the wetlands. Some of them looked older, but some looked relatively new. I don’t think that gun hunting has been open since early December, though archery was still allowed for a while longer than that. Even if there isn’t someone potentially hunting out of season, at least clean up your mess before you leave. I’m not that keen on sport hunting, and things like this make me even less so.

Muskrat pile?

I believe this is the work of a muskrat. Called a “push-up”, muskrats make these piles in spots around frozen ice by either finding or making a hole in the ice (when the ice is thin) and then pushing submerged vegetation, fine roots and other debris up through the hole. As they push more up, the pile grows and expands to create a dome-like structure over the hole. They then use these frozen dome covers as protection while still allowing them to come up for air and rest when away from their lodge. There were lots of these push-ups scattered about the lake, but mostly in the vicinity near the marshes.

Open water

There was also a fair bit of open water around the base of a couple of stumps, and a small channel that cut through the ice for a little ways. We didn’t approach closely enough for me to take a good look, but I wondered whether it might have been the work of one of our lake residents, muskrat, beaver or otter. I still haven’t seen the otter myself, just their tracks that one time back in December.

Stress fractures

The entire lake was criss-crossed with these stress fractures, cracks that formed as the lake ice shifted and settled. Most of them only ran through the top two or three inches of ice and appeared to be just superficial. They were a bit disconcerting at first, but after the initial wariness wore off, it was interesting to look at the cobwebbing patterns they made on the ice surface.

Open channel

Another channel in the lake ice, going from a small island to the mainland. There were a few spots in the lake where the original river channel still carried the water swiftly enough to open it up before the rest of the lake, but I don’t think it goes through here. It may be another mammal corridor.

Snowmobile tracks

This is also a mammal corridor, the sort with big machines on skis. The snowmobiles compacted the snow enough that when it all melted, the tracks remained in the ice, rendering it rough and bumpy. The snowmobilers were coming from the north cottages and going round into the enclosed bay. They’d taken the same track enough to really rough up the ice through this spot, making it difficult to navigate on skates. Other tracks, where they occurred just singly, could be glided over without too much trouble.

I took so many photos during the outing. I didn’t realize just how many I’d taken until I got home and started going through them all. Ten to twelve photos is my limit on a post, so the other half will appear tomorrow.

Ice formations


Just before Christmas a neighbour from the other end of the lake discovered my blog while searching for photos of Kingsford Lake to send to a friend. It’s nice to know other people on the lake, but we haven’t met too many of our neighbours yet. Unlike in subdivisions, where you might meet someone who’s out shovelling their driveway while you’re walking your dog (or etc), you don’t tend to have many opportunities to run into your neighbours in rural settings. Most of the folks we’ve met have been deliberate introductions – for instance, Dan returning a dog to house 8994 (the number on the dog tag) and meeting the owners (it turns out their dog is a regular wanderer), or our neighbour to the south noticing me with Raven down at our dock, and coming down from his place to say hello. We have met a couple others on the road, but we still don’t know a lot of the residents. So it was nice to meet someone who’s been in the area a while and knows the lake and its people.


She sent me a note the other day to warn that the company who manages the dam at the north end of the lake, up near where their house is, had opened it up to allow some water to drain. She indicated that the water had been flowing through the dam at an impressive rate, which would cause the water level of the lake to drop abruptly and might make the ice unstable. We’ve heard some eerie groans and gurgles coming from the lake, often sounding remarkably like a bathtub draining, frequently at first though they’ve mostly subsided now. We’ve seen some of our other neighbours (whom we can identify from our house by their accompanying dogs) out skating or skiing on the lake the last few days, so this afternoon we decided to venture out with Raven for her daily walk.


When the water first started draining out of the lake from under the layer of ice, there would have been an air pocket between the new water surface level and the frozen ice above, sometimes referred to as a suspended ice roof. If this is large and/or the ice is thin, it can be dangerous, as the ice no longer has the pressure of the water pressing back on it from underneath and lending support. Even thick ice, that’s normally considered safe, has the potential to crack when it’s not supported by water underneath, and if someone falls through a hole into the water, their head and arms can often be below the level of the ice and therefore out of sight from potential rescuers. Some of the bathtub sounds we heard was likely air being sucked in from the edges of the lake or islands where the ice was open, to fill the void that the emptying water was leaving.


However, there is some evidence that the ice has settled as the water level dropped and now rests atop the water again. One of these signs is the ridges of ice affixed to the sides of rocks and tree trunks at the lake edges. I was really fascinated by the ledges left behind by the sinking ice, where it had affixed to the earthbound surfaces. You don’t think of the ice as moving, and yet here was evidence that it had.


I thought it was neat how you could see the progression of the sinking ice level. In some spots there where three or even four ice ledges, one above the other. If the gurgles were the air seeping in under the ice surface from the edges as the water level dropped, the groans must have been the ice itself settling back down to sit on the water.


The other apparent sign that the ice has settled down onto the water again was this. We found about eight of these holes. About 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter, and spaced regularly in a line across the open part of the lake, these were obviously someone’s ice fishing holes. The ice level in the hole was about an inch below the surface of the surrounding ice, and while most of the lake ice was cloudy white, the ice in the hole was a clear black. If you cleared the snow off its surface you could see the milky white of the thick lake ice forming the sides of the hole. The fact that the hole was frozen over implies that the ice was resting on the water surface, since if it had been drilled while there was air under the ice it wouldn’t have frozen closed again (there being no water in the hole to freeze). I suppose it’s entirely possible that these were made before the water level dropped; although they looked relatively fresh, it’s really rather hard to tell for certain. There was a layer of crusty snow over the pile of ice shards, which we got last night, so all I could really tell was that they weren’t drilled today.


The most definitive way to tell where the ice sits relative to the water, of course, would be to drill a small hole and check it directly. Our neighbour to the south has been checking the ice; when we saw him the other day he said that it was 6 inches thick, but gave no indication of whether there was an air pocket underneath. We don’t have an ice auger or a drill bit long enough to make even a little hole that we could poke a straw or stick through, so we have to rely on the information of others. As long as we haven’t had a warm spell to soften the ice, we’ve still been going out, but we stick to the shallows and go out in pairs and try to be careful while we’re out there.

Out on the ice


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.]


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.