February 29th was as good a day as any; I was bound to fall into the river sometime. I was getting water at my usual spot, about five feet down from river’s uppermost surface of snow-covered ice, a space formed months ago when the ice collapsed down to the water’s low winter level. (See www.indeep-alaska.com/2011/12/03/riverdance/.) Only the location of my water hole remains static; I never know what I’ll find when I get there. The flux of water and weather constantly reconfigures and redecorates what I’ve come to think of as my ice room.
Not long after Thanksgiving, Gary had chiseled through two feet of ice at no small effort to create a hole large enough to dip a bucket, and up until mid-January I was still using it. The ice grew until it was several inches thicker than my buckets are tall. I had to kneel and lean in deeply to force the bucket’s lip under the surface of the rushing water. A five-gallon bucket of water weighs over forty pounds, and a bucket open to a fast current seems to weigh a good deal more. Either way, bringing a full bucket up from that awkward position is almost more than I can manage.
In recent weeks, profound cold has become a rarity, with daytime highs reaching the twenties and testing the thirties. The ice surrounding my water hole thinned, subtly at first, then enough to make my job noticeably easier. One day in early February as we arrived with my bucket-filled sled, Ella and I peered down to find nothing more than a bridge of ice across open water running between narrow shores of ice on each side of the rushing water. Too cautious to make my way down to test the bridge, I left my sled and fetched Gary, who packed snow to make steps down to the lower surface. He filled my buckets, handed them up to me, and recommended I insulate and reinforce the ice bridge with more snow, together with sticks and branches. Ella thought I was collecting sticks for her; packing them in snow seemed a fine game, and she tried to pull the best ones out. But I prevailed and built up the bridge, hoping it would last awhile.
Temperatures stayed high, and the warming friction of the flowing water eroded the ice bridge. In mid-February it disappeared entirely. I looked down from the upper surface, wondering whether to test the narrow ledge of ice built up at the water’s surface. Ella peered down as well. As I squatted to ponder the situation, she kissed me earnestly; she does this when she’s worried — or, as Gary tells me, when she senses that I’m worried. I decided to consult Gary again. To give me a wider surface of ice within reach of the water, he broke off a few feet of the uppermost surface with the ice chisel and let it drop, making a wider shoreline of ice accessible at water level. Up top, Gary shoveled a foot or two of snow down onto the broken ice. Now clear of snow, a patch of surface ice became a sturdy flat shelf, the perfect place to set buckets waiting to be filled. With the jumble of broken ice and snow below, Gary created rough steps down toward the water.
The same flowing water that eroded the ice bridge constantly creates new ice along the edges of existing ice. The young ice is beautiful, but more delicate. The day I fell in, I noticed a lily pad of ice covered with frost blossoms, and paused to take a picture before setting to work collecting water.
I aligned my buckets on the upper shelf, set each lid within reach, and accepted some nervous kisses from Ella before stepping down onto the snow and ice. The new ice had grown to over a foot in width, an awkward reach if I had to lean over it with my bucket. But it was also thicker, so I stepped on it with one foot, then with both. The ice held. I kneeled, pushing my bucket down into the flow. It filled quickly, and as I struggled to free it from the current’s pull, the ice supporting me broke free. The water isn’t deep — anywhere from two inches to two feet — but I had been kneeling and was soaked well above my waist, bucket still in hand.
I emptied the bucket and found a place for it on the ice where it wasn’t likely to topple into the current, then grabbed onto some solid ice to pull myself out. It took a moment for the water to soak through my clothes; by the time I stood up I was covered with ice. The air temperature was around zero. All I could think of was to get home and out of the clothes before I, too, turned to ice, and to see if the camera around my neck had survived. Ella had been sitting on the river at some distance and was happy enough to abandon the sled and turn homeward. If she noticed me turning into an icicle, she didn’t think it sufficient reason to fail to invite me to play ball before we reached the door. I dried off and warmed up in front of the fire soon enough. Although the camera had barely gotten wet, it took until morning for my synthetic down coat to dry.
I dressed and went back; we still needed water. Gary was filling the buckets.
“I fell in,” I said.
“I figured,” Gary replied, handing me a full bucket to put in the sled.
“Didn’t you go looking for me downstream?” I wanted to know.
“No, I saw your footprints headed home. Anyway, Ella would have been running back and forth like crazy.”
Gary plays it cool, but I know he worries. Ever since, as I head out to get water, he voices his concern:
“Don’t forget to take some soap!”
Sunrise: 7:41 a.m.
Sunset: 6:32 p.m.
Weather: High 17°, low -8°, cloudy, light snow overnight. We hit -30° the night of March 4th, the lowest it’s been for awhile, and woke up to -25° on the 5th. We’ve had some beautiful auroras and we’re expecting one tonight if it clears, but it seems to me they always come when it’s too cold to stay outside to enjoy them!