Weird winter

The funny fellow in the picture is seated out on Birch Lake, easily visible from the Birch Lake Bar windows. He’s the focal point of the annual “through the ice” contest, and in most years it would be months too earlier for him to be out there. This year is quite different. I can’t claim not to enjoy this (so far) incredibly mild winter after the way the season beat us into abject submission well into April last year. But this winter is definitely weird. Daughter Sonya, husband Chad and grandsons Tucker and Perrin were here for a few days just before Christmas. The first day they enjoyed ice skating, the second day ice fishing (11-year-old Tucker called it his “most successful fishing ever!” The next day, December 24, was very warm and rainy, and I no longer trusted the ice.

Then came a few snowy days, followed by the January cold spell that brought more than a week of temperatures down around zero and wind chill factors to minus 20 and lower. That definitely hardened up the ice, but it made the lake uninviting. Those are days to stay off the lake. The snow-covered, stark white surface lay undisturbed, and mostly it stayed that way while the cold prevailed.  As best I could see, no one went fishing. No one drove across with a four-wheeler. The snowmobile trails had not opened and so no sleds buzzed across the ice going to and from the Birch Lake Bar.

Out on a frozen lake in frigid weather, you’re fully exposed. If you walk the roads, the woods on both sides give some shelter against the wind, but not so on the ice. A wind from the north can blow across a mile of pure, flat whiteness, gathering speed, setting little clouds of snow swirling. Wind-driven flakes hit your reddened face like daggers. You walk half a mile or so, you warm up beneath your coat, layers of shirts, and polypropylene underwear, but walking, or skiing, or snow-shoeing someplace else is a great deal less miserable.

Then gradually the cold let go, temperatures climbed into the thirties, and the Birch Lake denizens seemed to make up for lost time. Visiting the lake I found people had been fishing, including some in my two favorite places, the ice in each area riddled with clean eight-inch holes newly frozen over. Boot prints made trails in the slush that had been snow. Snowmobiles had scribbled their tracks along the shoreline and into the bays. In a few places, cottage owners had pushed snow aside to create small rinks for skating.

But as of today (February 2) we’ve seen a week of thaw, and the ice conditions are grim. In some places the softening ice lies bare. In others the lake’s surface is a slush sandwich, a crust of snow on top, sound ice below. As of now, at least here on Birch Lake, I trust the ice enough to try fishing. But the forecast calls for days with highs in the low- to mid-40s for at least the next week, maybe the next two. How long before the ice become treacherous?

For now I enjoy the mild weather, but with more than a tinge of guilt. The landscape needs moisture – we are in what surely qualifies as a winter drought. The businesses need real winter and the money the skiers and snowmobilers bring. There’s still time of course and, if last year is an indicator, winter could last nearly three more months. How about we settle for two, with enough cold and snow to make the season real? And keep that silly fellow high and dry in his chair for a reasonable spell?