Winter Layers

Over the last month western New England has received an impressive series of snow storms.  Every few days either a low pressure area will track from west to east blowing in from the northern plains or a snowy freight train, referred to a nor’easter in these parts, will rumble up the east coast, picking up moisture on the way, and cover us with additional layers of winter.  Most of the snow has occurred in sub twenty degree temperatures resulting in light, fluffy flakes that blow horizontally as much as fall vertically.  Feet of snow have found our area during the last 30 day period. About a week or so ago one of these low pressure areas tracked too close to the coast line resulting in eight inches of snow and about a half an inch of freezing rain.  This was followed by several smaller storms of two to eight inches burying the ice cap beneath the fresh snowy surface.

I love winter.  Make no mistake about it.  I love the fact that it can close human enterprise down and hold our modern world hostage despite all of our technology.  I love that it proves that humans are not yet quite in charge of everything.  I love how it holds us back, makes us take our noses out of the cyber world, and take account of all things wild in our midst.  I love that it makes me feel small and weak and that is not an easy task.  I love the fact that it pulls at my heartstrings and makes me joyous.  I love how it can build character for those willing to meet its challenges.  I love winter because it is fresh and clean and pure.

So it was on this day that my youngest son, Liam, and I decided to go ice fishing.  Liam is an adult and lives about 40 miles south of our homestead. He is still young and vibrant and celebrates daily life on a regular basis with his friends.  These facts dictated that our ice fishing adventure would not take place in the early morning.  Given the single digit temperatures when he arrived at about 11 o’clock in the morning I was quite content to have a half of day of ice fishing to look forward to.  After loading the truck with our ice fishing sled that carries all of our equipment we hopped in the pick up and started the drive north where we thought a half day of fishing on Sawdaga Lake was in store.  The trip between Heath and Whitingham is undertaken on secondary roads.  Plowed snow piled high on both sides of our route gave us the feeling of driving through arctic tunnels.  Along the way there are several vistas looking north.  There we had fabulous views; thick blankets of white snow lying on rounded purple mountain tops.  The sky was sunny, blue, and bright.  We both looked at the majesty of the winter landscape as we drove along.  We didn’t say much as we motored in a northerly direction save an occasional off the cuff comment about snow and winter.  Mostly we just took it all in.  Big view, small view, it was all so beautiful.

When we arrived at Sawdaga we noticed that there were hundreds of people there.  This is a lake where on a normal day there might be five or six other people ice fishing.  It became apparent that there was ice fishing derby.  There were signs, fish cops, trucks on the ice, newly located ice shanties, and lots and lots of people; most of them carrying and ice auger under one arm and a case of beer under the other.  We kept driving.

Within a mile we arrived at a large reservoir known as Harriman.  The lake is about eleven miles long and a mile or slightly more wide.  This is vast as compared to the 190 acre Sawdaga Lake.  We immediately recognized that the reservoir was almost completely devoid of people; just right for two guys trying to get away from it all and take it all in at the same time.

Easy access on this southern end of Harriman is nonexistent.  We found a little pull off on the side of the public road and hiked in on a summer boat access.  Liam broke trail as the area had seen very little human traffic.  There were no snowmobiles tracks and only one other set of foot prints.  He pulled the ice sled while I carried the ice auger.  The ice sled towed neatly on top of the snow while Liam trudged along in thigh deep winter.  I followed and was glad to be trailing in his foot steps that made my journey just a little bit easier.  I have been nursing a bad back injury and on this day Liam would not only haul in the equipment but dig away the snow where each tip-up would be erected and bore each auger hole by hand.  I was principally there to be along for the ride.  I was just happy to be out under blue skies, in cold air, and in the presence of my son.

We traveled about half a mile in all.  Despite the single digit temperatures and ten mile an hour breeze Liam had worked up a mild sweat for all his efforts in the thigh deep snow.  I hadn’t worked up a sweat at all and was feeling just a little guilty about not being capable of carrying my end of the bargain.  Liam immediately began digging the first hole in the snow covered ice.  Each snow cleared area must be at least a square yard.  I focused on the different layers of snow as he dug away.  Light and fluffy on top, then a layer of ice, light and fluffy below that, then a layer of compacted snow and a layer of slush on the bottom.  The deep insulating snow had actually kept the slush from freezing on the bottom where it lay on more than a foot of ice.  I wondered if the twenty below zero weather that was going to start the next day would put an end to that.

This winter lasagna, layers of recent weather history, fascinated me.  A cross section of the dug snow revealed the weather patterns for the past month.  I brushed the side of one of the vertical walls of the freshly excavated snow to get a clear look.  Not only could I see each winter precipitation event but I could see thin frozen planes of ice telling me that there were days when the strengthening sun softened the snow and then it refroze at night.  I thought about all the mysteries that must be locked up and now being lost in our last remaining, and melting, glaciers.  Atmospheric gases, ancient pollen, and other relic airborne particles are held within these monoliths of ice; history being lost to global warming.  I wondered how so many humans could be cavalier about this ongoing crisis.  I wondered what secrets were disappearing that might have clues to our present climate crisis.

I looked up.  Liam was boring another hole.  The least I could do was set up a tip-up.  I unfolded the wooden contraption.  I pulled some line off the reel and then wound it back onto the reel as line pulled though my forefinger and thumb clearing any ice off the fishing line.  I netted a small minnow out of the bait bucket and put it on the hook.  I dropped the minnow into the clean ice hole where it swam fast and far away from the light.  When the minnow was about eight feet into the black watery abyss I set the flag trip on the tip-up, sunk the reel into the water, and balanced the whole unit above the hole using the wooden cross arms.   I then moved onto the next hole where Liam was just finishing his second auger hole.

My mind wandered back to the snow layers.  It occurred to me that our own personal histories are recorded within the recesses of our brain in layers and layers of information.  Peeling back these layers is most often a pleasant task.  The good memories are the easiest to locate.  But, as we all know, there are other not so positive events in our lives that may be long forgotten. Just like the layers in the snow where an old ice storm may be revealed there are not so pleasant memories sandwiched between positive recollections.  Memories like an unkind word, an unsolicited opinion, a deed we wish we could take back.  Like it or not this fabric created by our personal histories are who we have been, who we are, and can be used to help us understand and guide who we will be; good or bad.  Our personal climates are not always within our control.  Like the elements that create the weather there are many extraneous factors that help to shape who we are.

I could feel the biting cold on my ungloved hands.  This brought me into to the present and put me back to the task of setting up the tip-ups.  Liam was laboring ahead of me leaving the less strenuous work for the old guy bringing up the rear.  Finally we set up the last tip-up.  We decided to use our jigging poles and fish two ice holes by hand.  We pulled two old lawn chairs out of the ice sled and set them in front of the holes so the cold wind was at our backs.  We rigged the poles with a jig and minnow and methodically bobbed our poles up and down in hopes of angling success.  The tip up farthest from our jigging set up was triggered and a red flag popped in the air.  I was the closest to that hole and went to check out the situation.  I looked into the water in the auger hole and could see that line was being reeled off the spool.  I gently pulled the tip up out of the hole, set it on its side and pulled the fishing line.  The hook was set.  I pulled the line in hand over hand.  A nice salmon showed its face as I pulled it through the hole.  It was large enough to keep; a nice meal for my son when he got home that evening.

After I reset the rig I went back to my jigging hole. Liam and I talked about some of our friends.  We were catching up on the every day life of mutual acquaintances.  I was interested in the pack with which he still travels.  I have known many of them for most of their lives.  They are now adults.  They are all experiencing life from a different perspective these days as am I.  Fast moving clouds cast rapidly moving shadows as they blew across the lake from west to east.  As we talked I looked at the snow in front of me.  Shallow layers were being swept away as the wind blew from the northwest.  I could see the underlying snow of a week ago bleeding through the thinning upper layer. Seeing these two snow layers and two periods of time simultaneously reminded me of  the term “pentimento”, an underlying image in a painting from an earlier painting or previous rendition that shows through usually when the top layer of paint has become transparent with age.  And at that moment of revelation I looked over at my son.  He sat there breathing in cold air, soaking up life from the remaining sun in the southern sky.  He was content.  He was alive.  He was enjoying the peace of this cold desolate lake. For a  moment I could see myself in him.  His young face covered, for the most part, my own genetic image.  I could see where I ended and he began.  Two separate but intertwined lives.  From his perspective I imagined that this would be difficult to see; at least for the foreseeable future.

As the sun fell behind a mountain to the south and the temperatures toppled to near zero we began picking up our equipment.  We pulled the tip ups, packed the sled, and Liam grabbed the rope and began the long toe back to the truck.  I followed behind carefully walking in his tracks so as to not make two sets of imprints in this white canvas that we call snow.

  • Nature Drunk

    I too love winter for all of the reasons you list and for the time it allows Nature to renew itself. Ice fishing is something I have read about, but never witnessed…one of these days I would love to see in person what you describe so completely. Interesting post!

  • Emily

    That second paragraph, Bill–the whole thing gave me shivers (the good kind!). And what a perfect, intimate moment of recognizing yourself in your son, in what you have undoubtedly taught him to enjoy and savor. Thanks for this. It’s lovely.

  • Montucky

    What a thoroughly enjoyable read! It does my heart good to get a glimpse of someone else who so thoroughly enjoys the outdoors warm weather or cold. I also have a son who is now an adult and though we have not been ice fishing for a few years, each fall we do share several elk hunts which are always successful even when we do not take any game. In my opinion those times are among the very best in a father’s life!

    You have had much more snow and cold weather this year than we have. For the time being here it is quite warm in the valley, although still wet. The high country, happily, does have a generous buildup of snow that will supply our streams and rivers quite well next summer. Our watershed relies so much on those layers of snow and ice that build up over the winter and that lie, protected by the forest canopy, until late July when they finally release the last of their stores into the water cycle.

  • naquillity

    what a wonderful story. i would love to experience ice fishing though i’d probably be frozen before leaving i’m so cold natured. i don’t have a son but a daughter who i can see myself in and reflect from as you did your son… it’s our greatest accomplishment- our children. hope your back feels better soon. take care. have a great day.

  • Wendy

    Beautiful, Bill. “I love winter because it is fresh and clean and pure.” Yes. And I love the layers of the story you tell as you dig thru the layers of snow and ice this winter has laid down, the metaphor for the layers of our personal stories, our personal climates; and then the sweet layers of the generations as you sit in such easy companionship with your son. I am reminded of the poem by Stanley Kunitz called The Layers and the well known line “Live in the layers not on the litter”. I recently saw a National Geographic special on research being done on the ice in the Antarctic where they are pulling up ice cores to study the climate changes in eons past. You touch on so much in this contemplative piece. Very rich and evocative.

  • Sandy

    Bill, I get the sense that fishing is not always about fishing. This is another wonderful piece, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. You are lucky to be able to share experiences with your family.

  • bill

    There are so many things about fishing that parallels the rest of life. I am lucky, you are right.

  • bill

    I will have to check out Stanley Kunitz, sounds very interesting. I find that the pulse of the universe is a series of metaphorical experiences. It’s just the way I think. There are many other perspectives.

  • bill

    Thanks for the compliment. I’m really happy that readers liked this story because I had so much fun writing it. Started on the ice and I couldn’t remove it from my noggin until it was complete.

  • bill

    Thanks for reading this and I’m really glad that you enjoyed it. Time spent with both of my sons at any time is precious, but particularly memorable when it happens in the outdoors, especially wild places! I’m sure you know the feeling.

  • bill

    Your compliment means a lot to me. Since I’ve been reading your writing I have been even more inspired. Thank you.

  • Bill

    Nature Drunk-
    If you live in an area that is conducive to ice fishing you should try it out. It is hard work at the beginning and then, for the most part contemplative. Winter is a time of renewal and being on the ice can aid that process.

  • Out On The Prairie

    What a great day. I was pretty tired trudging through the layer the other day.There is a professor at Iowa state who spends a great deal of his life under a glacier making ice bores.I like how you surveyed this situation on a variety of levels.

  • Emma Springfield

    The best part of your day was the time spent with your son. You are allowing him to experience the joys of nature and teaching him to respect his surroundings by simply doing. I feel invigorated just by reading your post.

  • Zoologirl

    Beautifully written. I love how being out in nature with family and friends presents novel ways to reflect on those relationships. And what better season than winter “because it is fresh and clean and pure.”

  • Bill

    Yes, family, friends, and the wild world always seems to define relationships within new terms. That’s a wonderful observation.

  • Bill

    The best part of any day is being outdoors with either of my two boys or my wife. Thanks for reading Emma!

  • Jack Matthews

    A very moving piece of prose. Winter gives us time to write, gives you time to compose. The layers of snow and ice as you correspond them to behavior is quite moving and then to bring in the history of snowfall after snowfall is just plain beautiful. Having a son with whom you can relate on the coldest of days does warm us all when we read your work. Just a really fine composition, Bill. Again, so glad I found your blog.

  • Bill

    Thanks Jack. Winter is an excellent time for personal and natural reflection. I really appreciate your comments.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Steve. I would love to hear more about the professor who is studying glaciers at Iowa State

  • IcyBC

    I don’t like winter, but I like your thinking about winter, and respect your reasons. I tried ice fishing before, too cold, too rigid so I didn’t like it.. Great post, Bill!

  • Bill

    Winter isn’t for everyone I suppose. You have to love challenging yourself, sometimes in an uncomfortable way. Yep, ice fishing is rigid; especially when you are on 20 inches of ice. Thanks for reading and remember Spring is coming for those who like the warmer seasons!

  • Jack Matthews

    Liam breaks trail on the Harriman…sooner or later, our sons and daughters will break trail for all of us. I remember when my step-father fell ill. Brenda and I had to round-up the sheep and take them to the sale in Goldthwaite. Star, our paint gelding, without saddle, helped round-up the strays like a Border Collie. My step-father gave me an opportunity to help him and I do wish he had let me help him sooner — to break trail for him. But, it was better late than never. You wrote, “I was just happy under the blue skies, in cold air, and in the presence of my son.” There’s not a happier sentence to be found anywhere in the canons of literature.

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