COLUMN: Making ice, walking on water

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece aired previously on an episode of “Between You and Me” on 91.7 KAXE.

Making ice, walking on water
By Aaron J. Brown

Water turns dark, swirls thick, moves slow before hardening into ice.

In the novel “Eagle in the Snow” by Wallace Breem we meet a hardened Roman general trying to stave off a sprawling winter army along the Rhine River. Maximus has but one legion, about 6,000 troops against half a million hungry tribesmen from what is now Germany, all clamoring for needed farmland and to lash back at their oppressors.

If the Germans cross the Rhine they have a clear path to a crumbling, disorganized Rome. It is only because the invaders can’t cross the river, can’t counter the Roman boats, that they don’t pour over the tiny legion which disguises its size to discourage attack.

But Maximus knows that when the river freezes, and it will, he is doomed. So he waits out the ice, hoping for reinforcements that never come. In the end the Rhine freezes solid; the barbarians obliterate the legion and storm their way to Rome, signaling the fall of an empire.

All this really puts in perspective the sight of brave December ice fishermen here in northern Minnesota. They too waited for cold nights, congealing water, thickening ice. They too braved the early ice, stepping cautiously at first but becoming emboldened by the frigid overnight temperatures. And, at once, they stormed the ice.

I saw such an angler on my way to work a week ago, an ice house and ATV out in the middle of the O’Brien Reservoir near Nashwauk. I said to myself, “Well, if this guy makes it we should have good ice all the way through April.”

On my way home I looked to see if the gear was still out there. All that remained was a roughed up patch of ice and a series of holes. So, maybe he fell through or else the fishing was no good. Either way, that ice ought to be OK by now.

I grew up near water. Well, OK, it was a swamp, specifically the Sax-Zim peat bog. You only saw a small percentage of the water that actually bubbled under the grass there. The most obvious sign that the winter had come was the hardening of the swamp, mouse prints where mice used to get snatched by snakes. In winter they got snatched by owls.

The winters I remember in the swamp were marked by silence. The water froze like a vice tightening.

But I live near a lake now: a childhood dream, navigable water. These last two winters we’ve waited until late in the season to imbibe in our tradition of walking across the frozen surface of the lake over to the uninhabited forest on the other side, a product of boredom. Not so this year.

Without snow the ice froze smooth, a sort of natural skating rink you hear comes every decade, give or take.

So the boys and I been on the water most weekends, sledding down (inadvisably) through a half-mud, half-slush combination onto a marble lake. This is not silent, swamp ice. This glacial lake sloshes, cracks, whoomps and squeals. The water hisses in the night. The sun turns the ice to fire, a sunrise like a nuclear blast and sunset like the mushroom cloud retreating back into the earth.

This ice, as in ancient times, reminds us that we of the north can walk on water without the aid of a miracle. Then again, maybe it is a miracle.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog and host of the Great Northern Radio Show on 91.7 KAXE.

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