Winter in Wisconsin reminds me of springtime in coastal northern California. For example, have you ever heard or seen a thunder and lightning storm, or a tornado in either place in January or February? Not likely. And you can’t see the other side of Lake Michigan from the Wisconsin shore, any more than you can see the other side of the Pacific Ocean from the California shore, either. I rest my case. But instead of belaboring the obvious similarities, leave us explore a couple of the differences.
A really good, glittering ice storm only comes a few times in a lifetime, and you’ll miss it if you’re not here. It takes a freezing drizzle or supersaturated air, and falling temperatures, to coat every blade of marsh hay, every birch, sumac and willow, every barn and silo and fence line, with a smooth, clear sheet. As baubles are arrested and crystallized in mid-drip, the stage is being set, the fragile display is being arranged. Next, if we’re lucky, the cold front moves in, the clouds are swept away, and the stars come out.
You and I, knowing what we will miss if we stick our butts in the sofa and stare at a glaring electronic device, go for a long evening walk. It’s like visiting another, even more inspiring, planet than our old, familiar home. It’s like going back to a time when wonder and beauty seemed more prominent in our individual lives and in human events.
If the storm happens at the right time of the month, and the full moon rises, you find yourself in a great outdoor cathedral hung with exquisitely detailed and subtly lighted chandeliers, no two of which are alike. It’s as though all of the diamonds and cut gemstones, from all the world’s vaults and storehouses and jewelry boxes, had been gathered together and cast at your feet and in the sky within a few hundred yards of where you stand.
And you won’t want to miss walking at the dawn of a bright sunrise on the first morning after an ice storm. The best colors, lighting and highlighting are there for the seeing, then, as well as at sunset.
Another beautiful winter treat also requires just the right sequence of conditions to develop. And this happens only rarely. Don’t miss it. First, the open waters of a pond, lake or creek must freeze with no breeze to disturb the surface. Next, it’s got to stay cold enough, long enough to freeze the ice thick enough for safe walking. And during that time, no precipitation can fall that would mar or cover the surface. Now the ice is a transparent crystal sheet. Walk or skate across it and you can almost get vertigo. If the water’s not too deep for the clarity, you can see the bottom perfectly. Glimpse a fish, spot a dormant turtle or frog. A furry muskrat will startle you by torpedoing through inches under your feet.
Wander about on that same smooth ice on a clear starry night. Each of the stars above will be sharply reflected in the now black and invisible ice. The Milky Way and your favorite constellations will be at your feet as well as in the heavens. Just maybe, a meteor shower will occur while you’re on your night walk (or skate) across the frozen sky. Most people will never have, or take, that opportunity.
This seldom seen ice treat is usually accompanied by sounds that are as disconcerting, strange and eerie to the ear as the Northern Lights are to the eye. It’s called the booming of the ice sheet, but that term fails to describe the sound adequately. You’ve got to see this and hear this for yourself, ‘in situ’. It’s among the top ten reasons to go ice fishing.
Underwater springs, marine mammal runs, moving water, changing water levels can result in varying, and even unsafe ice conditions. Put a couple of stubby screwdrivers in your pockets to give you traction to pull yourself out on slick ice if you do break through.
You can easily find a good place to go snow shoeing, skating or X-C skiing within 15 minutes of wherever you live in Wisconsin. There are chair lifts and instruction and places for the whole family to play with mogul runs or telemarking (forget telemarketing) within a half hour’s drive. Maybe this will be the year you stick that 360 and that half-pipe front flip.
Eat your heart out, sun-belt denizens. We’ve got glorious ice storms and we walk among the stars. And we haven’t even mentioned sun dogs, hoarfrost and rabbit hunting yet.
January 8, 2004