The return trip

Smooth patches

I left off yesterday just as we were rounding the corner into McNally Bay. With the sun now behind us, you could see some reflective spots on the ice surface. It turned out, when we got closer, that these were the most gloriously smooth patches of ice on the whole lake. Evidently the water had pooled in these spots, and with no underlying snow to texture the ice surface it had flattened out like glass.

Where the sun hits

Toward the north end of the bay I noticed this pattern in the snow. The north side of the bay, which the sun shone on most of the day, was snow-free, while the west side, which remained shaded, still had a layer of snow on the ground. It was evident in other spots, too, where little ridges provided protection from the sun, but nowhere was it as pronounced as in this particular spot.

Backcountry campsite

At the north end, the furthest you can skate before you have to turn around and head back again, there is a backcountry camping site for the provincial park. Empty now, of course, I don’t think the park gets many winter campers although in theory the sites are open year-round. The sites are marked by bright orange signs, to guide people in who are arriving to it by a water route. I’m not quite sure where they would be launching into the water, though, unless it was by Kingsford Dam, since the whole west side of the lake, the side the road runs along, is private land.

Taking a break

Dan and Raven take a break. By the time we reached the top of McNally we were starting to feel a tad fatigued, our long visit with the neighbours notwithstanding. Plus it was just nice to sit down in the sun for a few moments and soak it in.

Leaf-warmed ice

I stopped to snap photos of a few things out on the ice. One of the things that caught my attention were the many leaves scattered about the surface. Nearly all of them were oaks, more than likely marcescent leaves loosened by the winter winds and come to settle on the lake. Where they came to rest they absorbed the energy from the warm sun and re-radiated it to the ice around them. Virtually all of the leaves sat in little melted hollows such as this.

Icefishing holes

McNally Bay is a favoured spot on the lake for icefishing. I suspect this is partially due to the depth of the water here compared to elsewhere; Kingsford isn’t a deep lake anywhere, but the deepest spots on it are in McNally. There were at least three different areas where icefishers had set up shop for a bit. In a couple spots they’d brought firewood (or, as we noticed, harvested it from downed logs at the edge of the park – better than cutting live trees I guess, though they shouldn’t be removing anything) and made themselves small campfires for warmth. They poke small twigs into the ice beside the hole, partially, perhaps, to mark the hole in case it snows, but it’s also used to tie the fishing line to. There were perhaps seven or eight holes in this particular patch, and with the surrounding mounds of snow they looked like little winter gopher colonies.

Largemouth Bass

We encountered a guy out icefishing at another spot distant from the ones above. He’d just set up and hadn’t caught anything yet. Today when we were out we happened to run into his brother at the same location. I’m not sure how long they’d been there, but they had a good fire going and a pot of chili simmering on the camp stove. He was friendly and offered us a beer, or a Pepsi, or a bowl of chili, all of which we politely declined since we didn’t want to be gone long. He had already caught a couple of fish, however, which were hauled out on the ice; a Largemouth Bass and a Northern Pike. They were planning on eating them for dinner that night, so I guess the fish were left to suffocate and/or freeze to death. Not having ever had the desire to kill a fish, I’m really not sure what the most humane way of doing so would be.

Northern Pike

I took advantage of them being there to snap a couple of photos, though. I had seen a couple pikes before, in the summer, when Dan had got them on his bass lure, but because they’re toothy he hadn’t ever really pulled them out of the water, so this was the first good look I’d got of one. I was amazed at the amount of colour in it, especially its fins. Look at that orange! This was just a small individual, only about 14 inches (36 cm) long.

Pileated work on downed tree

On our way back down the east shore we passed that downed pine that I mentioned at the end of January. I took advantage of the second visit to have a look at the broken end of the fallen portion. A closer inspection revealed two square-shaped holes in the outer bark of the tree, one just above and 90 degrees from the other. The work of a Pileated Woodpecker. I’m not sure if it had been going after carpenter ants that had invaded the tree’s heart, but the placement of these two holes so closely together was undoubtedly what had weakened the trunk and caused it to snap in the windstorm.

Chasing the ball

As we turned for home we were facing into the sun as it began to sink into the sky. It made navigating the bumps and ridges on the ice more difficult as the glare washed out most detail. I was skating a little bit behind Dan, who was still managing to engage Raven in a game of chase the ball (she always has more energy than we do), and happened to snap this shot just at the moment they crossed over the reflected sunlight. It’s probably my favourite shot of the outing. Notice Raven is beating him to the ball. Even with her barefoot on the ice and us in skates, she’s still faster than we are.

Headed for home

Approaching home and Raven recognized where we are. She took off across the ice in the direction of the house, clearly anticipating a drink of fresh water and a nap on the comfy couch.

They’re calling for snow the next couple of days, so depending on how much we get that might be it for the lake-sized skating rink. I’m hoping it only amounts to a few centimeters; as long as it doesn’t get a crusty top to it, it’s still possible to stake through a small layer of snow. And I really do enjoy getting out on the skates, with the whole lake as our playground.

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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.

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.