Lake News

Breaking the Ice

Each spring we wait- watching the weather patterns and the nearby rivers for clues- hoping that the ice will break before the guests arrive.

Last year was a ‘late ice’ year. The winter was long and spring was slow to arrive.  This year, winter has been harsh; we are still anticipating the arrival of spring (4+ inches of snow yesterday).

So we will wait.

The photos included show decades of such waiting, some years more patiently than others.

In the story below, Jay reflects on his experience traveling on spring ice.


Travel on Ice

Jay Hotaling

“What we need to do is go grab one of those cedar snags over there.”

My dad was finishing a knot on our lifeline rope and nodding his head towards a fallen tree.

Knowing it was my job to retrieve the branch, I stumbled along the rocky shoreline and cursed missing Saturday morning cartoons for such insanity. It was a clear, crisp April morning and the sun was just peeking over the pines of Burnt Island. My dad and I were preparing to journey across the thin and rotting ice of Snowbank Lake.

As usual, we would drag a canoe behind us as a twisted sort of insurance policy. I never had the nerve to ask my dad why we did this ritual every fall and spring or why he didn’t take one of his other children with him. It was just an accepted, albeit silently questioned, way of life.

Needless to say, these risky travels were always justified with some “time-sensitive project”. As I grew into my teens, I began to suspect that these urgent projects were something my dad conjured up to combat my mom’s plea that crossing thin ice was foolish and unnecessary.

The canoe skidded easily across the early morning ice. The rhythmic sound calmed my nerves as I stared down at the black, pocketed ice.

“Hold on to those gunnels now, we’re coming up to a reef here.” Walking out in front of the canoe, my dad studied the colors and textures of the ever changing ice.



“Isn’t this black ice really dangerous ?”

“No, it’s when it changes back to white that you have to start worrying.”


“Let’s move over towards this old snowmobile trail.”

My dad jerked the rope and the canoe quickly changed directions. The snowmobile trail, much to my dismay, looked ghastly white.

“Dad! The trail is really, really white!”

“Yes, but see how it’s raised up above the ice around it? It’s been tramped and the ice under it is thicker.”


“Less insulation and more compaction.”

“Oh.” I decided just to be quiet and follow for a while.

As we neared the bay I got more curious about our mission.

“Dad? Why are we spreading gravel around the docks?”

“We’re gonna put gravel around the docks so the sun beats down and frees them from the ice. Otherwise, when the ice breaks free from the shore, it will lift and the docks will lift with it. It probably won’t lift them much, but they never go down to the same place they were before. Then we have to go around and level them. It’s a cold, wet job in thirty five degree water. It’s called preventative maintenance.”

“So, dad….one more quick question….why do we have this stupid pole with us?”

“Well, a pole like that saved my life once. If you hit a patch of ‘honeycomb’ ice where water has eaten tiny holes in the ice, your feet will punch right through, but if you use the pole and distribute your weight, you’ll have a better chance of climbing out of the hole.”

Neither my dad nor I fell into any holes that day, but there were other times that we got to use our insurance policies. Fortunately, these times were close to shore and not life-threatening.

Today, I miss traveling the ice with my Dad. I know it was something he enjoyed; it was a challenge to him. Not to mention that the destination was probably the closest thing to heaven on this side of the cloud line. But perhaps even more than that, somewhere in those journeys was a lost link to times gone by.

A time when people traveled these lakes and rivers like roads. A simpler time when people weren’t dependent on satellites and screens to tell them what way to turn. A time when people understood just how linked their existence was to the land and water that surrounded them.

The canoe skids to a halt as I survey a patch of open water in the narrows leading to Pickerel Bay. I’m alone today, and yet my dad is always with me in a way.

I smile and wonder just how many times he fell through learning all this stuff. I step forward….moving backward on long forgotten paths.