“When is the ice safe?” I am asked. There are plenty of answers to this, but the only right one is: “It depends.”
Safe for a skater does not mean safe for a snowmobile. There is a generous amount of info out there on judging ice safety by its color, whether it is early winter ice or older spring ice, where it is—such as inland and North, or near the coast and salt—and what the air temperatures have been. Ice safety depends on all of these factors, but there are other variables, too.
Here it is, January everywhere, there is not much local variation in temperature, and yet every pond on our island has a different ice thickness. This morning I ice-walked one pond, with six to eight inches of new, hard, safe ice, and in the afternoon I walked around another pond, not ten miles away, where it was ninety percent open water.
Lake Wood, off the Crooked Road in Bar Harbor, had thick ice with a light snow cover. I met my friend Becky and we donned our snowsuits, snowglasses, aka sunglasses, and walked the short mile to the pond. My suit has taken me on many winter adventures, and I call her Mrs. Peel. Becky bought her suit last year, and we are still looking for the right name. I know this is a bias, but a one-piece snowsuit is just the best possible thing for exploring outdoors in our Maine winters. They are comfortable, no chance of a belly or back getting exposed, so warm, and are a great place to tuck a camera and a power bar.
As we approached the ice a dog barked to greet us, or maybe it was just that our Ninja appearance frightened her. We spoke with the dog owner, a fisherman who was setting his bait trap. Burly, with a classic golden-brown Dickie coat and a long braid, he called back his dog, told us he was hoping for Golden Shiners and suckers and that the pond was rock-solid here. He and his dog left the ice, and we were alone.
The air was still, the sun warm—it was a gentle walk. Lake Wood is small, less than fifteen acres, in a basin surrounded by hills and ledges. There were deer tracks across the pond, plenty of dog-paw prints, but otherwise it was not revealing a lot of animal action. I have been here and seen signs of otter, fox, eagles, and beaver. (Read about that day’s adventures here)
Today it was quiet, so instead of being absorbed by all the sign and sound of wildlife, we let the sun and air embrace us, lull us, and turn us into kids. We made snow angels, ran with our arms out like airplanes, and shadowboxed. The shadow of my elongated big-fisted arm pounded on the shadow of Becky’s head then tickled her, while she made her dark silhouette wriggle and dance like an Egyptian. We lay side–by side on the surface, our suits insulating us from the cold, and shared stories. The inside of my eyelids were a hot orange, I was weightless and boneless, a warm mass on the perfectly flat ice. I could sleep here for centuries.
That was the morning.
In the afternoon the sun always seems to set before I have finished my chores and tasks, but I really want to finish them, and be free to watch the day turn into night. Saluting the sun after a hard day’s work is a favorite weekend tradition.
Today I left most jobs half-done—all that time spent recharging on Lake Wood meant less time working—and in extreme haste packed sliced tomatoes and cheese, bread, a tin of sardines and two tiny single-serve bottles of some cheap white wine. I drove to Jordan Pond, again with Mrs. Peel, and a fur hat, scarf and mittens. There the sun was only a thumb thickness above the hills, indicating maybe 15 or twenty minutes before in set. The wind was cold, coming straight over the water into our faces. The pond was black and agitated, pancake ice was trying to form, and slushy oval discs with frosty-edges were spinning and bumping into each other on the surface.
The sun was reflected in the clear molten ice coating the boulders along the shore. The Bubbles at the far end of the pond are a pair of evenly matched round curves, two mountains displaying a classic textbook example of glacial scouring. They are sometimes called the boobies. Tiny ice pellets blew sharply into our faces. We watched the light on the bubbles shrink to a small edge, and then they were in shadow. The sun sent longs rays across the sky, yellow white against a few clouds that were still glowing a rosy orange. It set behind Jordon Cliffs, leaving us in a world with the lights turned off. Our picnic was still in its sack, but Jordon suddenly felt uninviting, it wanted to be left alone. We’d come back another day. And there was light elsewhere on this planet, in fact just a few miles away.
In contrast to this morning’s ice stroll on Lake Wood this sunset walk seemed wild and fierce, but for Jordan is was pretty tame. In another month the winds will shriek, drowning our voices and making walking difficult. We call it the Arctic of the island, and no other lake here feels as desolate and other-worldy.
Depth is the biggest difference between these two bodies of water. Lake Wood is eleven feet at its deepest, while Jordan Pond has been measured at 150 feet. Jordan is also a wind tunnel, and the constant chop delays the water from freezing. Once it does, it gets thick; there is sometimes more than three feet of ice, enough to support a small village.
Lake Wood is a sweet connection with nature. Jordan is a wake-up reality check.
Jordan is my flavor of choice, and I will be checking the ice, waiting for the day I can walk it safely.
It had been a two-pond day, and it was going to be a two sunset day as well. The beach was just a few miles away, and we sat we sat on a dock by the harbor and watched the sun, now two thumbs above the horizon, begin to sink out of sight for the second time.
There were eiders swimming in a cluster on the water. The remains of one duck that had been picked from the pack were on the rocks below us. Its feathers were scattered and stirred slightly as the air moved. The day disappeared once again; the eider would be gone in the morning.
Ice and snow, two sunsets, two ponds and an ocean. And my friends wonder why I don’t go away for the winter.