“The ice was here, the ice was there, the ice was all around…”
Samuel Coleridge – “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Our long winters create a wonderland of ice, from white rime ice adorning tree branches, delicate frost crystals coating windows and other flat surfaces, to massive ice waterfalls that cling to cliffs and loom above frozen streams.
While ice in all its manifestations can be a thing of beauty, its perils have been documented extensively in literature and in the journals of adventurers, such as Antarctica explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose ship was trapped in thick sea ice in 1915. While all of Shackleton’s crew eventually survived, other explorers were not so fortunate, such as the Antarctica expedition of Robert Falcon Scott, and the ill-fated Arctic expedition of British explorer Sir John Franklin.
As they do for snow, the Arctic’s indigenous peoples (Inupiats and Inuits) have dozens of words to describe ice.
In Inuit, siku means “ice in general” while the term sikuaq, “small ice,” refers to a skim of ice, the first layer of thin ice that forms on puddles in the fall. Sikuliaq, “made ice,” is the new ice appearing on the sea or on rock surfaces, and igalaujait, “which looks like windows,” is the rime frost that sticks to grasses and other plants.
We northerners, especially those living in remote areas, will certainly agree that getting around the backcountry is much easier in winter when frozen rivers and lakes become highways for dog teams, snow machines and even cars.
One of the conditions I’ve dreaded in winter travel is overflow when water forms on the surface of the ice. On a cross-country ski trip near Talkeetna at -15 degrees Fahrenheit several years ago, I encountered overflow as I crossed a low-lying area. Because of heavy snow, I didn’t realize the area was a spring-fed swamp.
At that temperature, water-soaked skis instantly cake with ice and become useless boards. Whether crossing a lake or stream, I am ever watchful for overflow, and now carry an ice scraper.
One of the most interesting and rarest ice conditions occur when lakes freeze clear and smooth without being disturbed by wind or covered with snow, which was the situation at Eklutna Lake last winter.
Ice boaters dream about such conditions, with the added hope that they are blessed with wind to push their sleek crafts. Ice skaters flocked to the location.
I made a feeble attempt to build a home-made ice boat out of a plastic kiddie sled, with a sail made out of ski poles and a large plastic garbage bag. I have since refined my conveyance in hopes of similar ice conditions in the future.
Water is continually being taken out of Eklutna Lake for hydropower and Anchorage’s drinking water, causing the lake ice to settle with “groans” and “cracks,” oftentimes with high-pitched “barks.” Along the shore, it’s interesting to see how the ice actually bends.
Kenai Lake is so large and deep that it sometimes doesn’t freeze in winter. A Seward friend noted that on one very cold winter, it did freeze solid, clear and smooth – and they drove a car all the way from Primrose Campground (Mile 18 Seward Highway) to Cooper Landing.
I’m not an ice climber, but I like to venture toward those locations to see folks ply their skill.
Ice falls can be spectacular – with some of the most accessible along the Seward Highway.
Our world of ice is beautiful, and it’s all around us. I can remember as a child in Seward staring at the colorful prism created by sunlight striking ice sickles hanging from our roof.
I guess, from that time on, I’ve always been amazed by what nature does with water at 32 degrees F. and colder.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.