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A Thousand Chandeliers

illustration of broken lake ice

By Will Weaver
Illustrations by Stan Fellows

To most people in the world, ice is a negative word, one with bleak and chilly connotations. "She gave him an icy stare." Or "The lawyer, in his remarks, was skating on thin ice." And, "At the party, someone needed to break the ice." With roots in Old English, the word ice in ancient times was associated with death, sleep, and punishment. And who, in Minnesota, has not felt unlucky to slip and fall, or encounter the dreaded black ice while driving. But northerners like us -- indeed, all people around the world who live up where our planet wears its winter skullcap -- have found ways to live with, play on, even celebrate ice.

In 1886 St. Paul held its first winter carnival in response to an insult by a New York reporter who likened St. Paul to Siberia -- "unfit for human habitation" in the winter. An ice castle was added to the carnival in 1887 and has appeared intermittently at carnivals over the following 120 years. Its glistening towers, colored lights, glassy rooms, and grand ice sculptures out front draw tourists from around the world.

Other northern cities have their own icy traditions. Near Quebec City, Quebec, an ice hotel is erected each winter. It can accommodate 88 guests on beds of ice, covered with deer and caribou furs -- with goose-down sleeping bags on top! The furniture throughout the hotel is carved from ice; an art gallery is filled with ice sculptures. The bar -- guess what it's made of -- serves drinks in ice glasses and cold cuts on ice plates. Who would want to sleep in an ice hotel? Better sign up early for next year: Reservations are hard to get.

This for a chilly hotel that exists for only 100 or so winter days -- depending upon the weather.

Which brings us, if you're a true northerner, to the inevitable: spring. Ice-out time. The ice sculptures of swans and rearing horses, ice castle turrets, ice beds, icicles -- all begin to shrink. Droop. Tilt. Fall. Outdoor rinks grow slushy and sad as children turn to skateboards and baseball gloves. Environmentally minded clubs and civic groups sponsor lake cleanup days after a season of ice fishing. Rivers develop smoking spots -- black gashes of steamy, open water where the river bends and the current is stronger.

But up north, lake and river ice hangs on almost a month longer than it does in southern Minnesota -- and draws more than a few die-hard panfish anglers and snowmobilers to drive to where there is still good ice. However, ice-out time comes to all of Minnesota at some point -- April 17, give or take a day, where I live on the upper Mississippi east of Bemidji. Ice-out time on the river is often more dramatic than ice-out on lakes; however, the larger lakes unfold their own spring dramas.

I taught for many years at Bemidji State University, which is nestled on the western shore of Lake Bemidji; and I took great pleasure in watching the daily progress of spring. The beginning of ice-out was the absence of cars parked just off shore. Bemidji State students and faculty make good use of the ice to relieve winter parking problems around the campus; on a bright January day as many as 200 cars are parked in orderly rows just offshore. Lake parking ends about mid-March, though some die-hards persist well beyond common sense. (I always cautioned my students that there was no true honor in being first on or last to drive off the lake.)

Before ice-out begins, Lake Bemidji clears itself of human presence. Empties itself of cars. Fish houses. Snowmobiles. Debris. Then, as the snow melts, the lake ice reveals its own unique palette of colors. Day by day the hues of ice evolve: from dull white to steel gray; from gray to gray-green as the ice "rots" or becomes honeycombed; from blue-green to a dull, defeated gray. The last change often occurs suddenly -- within a short afternoon -- as if the spirit, the will to live, has left the ice.

At the Mississippi River inlet on the south shore, the pool of open water widens; a few early diving ducks such as goldeneyes appear in the narrow tracts of open water along warmer banks -- and hungry eagles sit on the ice, as still as yard ornaments, watching them. On smaller lakes, crappie and perch enthusiasts use planks to get from shore to good ice.

But soon comes ice tectonics: Great, shifting plates of ice, some a mile long, slowly separate, break free -- then grind and groan against one another. In folk tradition the deep, tormented sounds are explained by the story of the Old Woman Under the Lake -- a tale of a spurned lover and revenge. On days when the lake's voice seems so tortured, who am I to dismiss this explanation? It is either the old woman or whales calling to each other, I think to myself.

As the ice begins to move and drift, I sense a quickening, a new spiritedness among people. "It won't be long now," a man says in passing -- and everyone knows what he means. Yet for full ice-out, one more factor is often needed: wind.

On Lake Bemidji it is usually a temperate south wind that dooms the ice. The great floes begin to move, crush each other, and pile up two to three stories high, forming a wide, white eyebrow across the far north end of the lake. Open water patches grow to 10 acres, 50 acres -- until a change in wind direction drives the honeycombed ice back southward onto Diamond Point, just up the shoreline from campus.

On such magical, transitional days, I often walked my freshmen students along the shore to look at the ice move -- and to write about it. "You must observe things closely," I harped. "Good writing is always in the details." Such days, the spring sun was warm on our necks and the breath of ice piles chilly on our faces. One of those days stays with me in particular: A gaggle of my students, the supposedly jaded, MTV generation, had their notebooks open and were leaning close, touching the heaping piles of glistening, honeycombed ice as it flexed, shifted, grated, crawled, and tinkled.

"It's like it's alive," one young man said to no one in particular.

"Can you hear it?" another student, a young woman, blurted. She loved poetry and wanted to be a writer.

"Yeah," said another student. "So what?"

The young woman poet looked at us with wonder in her face. "It sounds like a thousand chandeliers!"

At home late that afternoon, I went down to my Mississippi River bank to watch the ice floes moving, rustling, scraping, murmuring. Late sunlight rode trapped and glistening in their porous floes, which passed steadily by with the grace, beauty, and grandeur of exhausted soldiers on a final march.

In the morning the river was totally clear of ice. Its waters lay gray and quiet, as if utterly spent. That afternoon -- right on schedule -- the first loon came swimming by, head erect, apparently happy to be back.

Bemidji writer and outdoorsman Will Weaver's most recent books are Sweet Land: New and Selected Stories and Barns of Minnesota.

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