Story & Photos by Brian Kelsey
It isn’t the early setting of the sun, or the blowing wind. It isn’t how cold the air temperature becomes either. Snow? Nope, the more the merrier.
Ice? Well, now you are on to something.
I should be clear: I do not mean ice in all manners of speaking. I love icicles and how incredibly beautiful they can be. They are winter’s stalactites hanging majestically like chandeliers from eaves, rocks and trees. I also love the sound ice makes on the bay, Lake Michigan and smaller inland lakes. There is clinking, moaning, popping and other-worldly audible emanations of the ever shifting, living, breathing entity.
It certainly couldn’t be the color of ice one catches glimpses of each winter when ice shoves appear off our shorelines. The blue of an ice shove is as rich and inviting as the Caribbean Sea, albeit a very different temperature.
No, the thing about ice that bothers me is what lurks below. Ice is the Mr. Hyde to the Dr. Jekyll of water, if you will.
The water under ice is indeed the best example of a fair-weather friend. Embracing and loving in summer, but angry and frigid in the winter.
They are the same being, like the dichotomy that lives in each of us. As we are but one person…water and ice are but the same, just at different points in existence.
But, I digress, and being esoteric about the various states of human nature and the nature of water is not my intention.
With every issue, it seems I take you to a place from my childhood that has influenced and created the man I am today. Whether it be learning to garden, sail or enjoy a fire…all those things were introduced to me as a boy. The man I’ve become understands the strong influence youthful experiences have on shaping us as we age.
It is the same for this topic. For me, my absolute love-hate relationship with ice today formed when I was a boy. Growing up just north of Sturgeon Bay on the generally warm and calm waters of the bay, I spent a great deal of time swimming, sailing, sail boarding or pulling a variety of towable objects behind our 14-foot Rambler II (my favorite was pulling the bright yellow sunflower sailboats…who needs inner tubes?)
The water was my friend, my confidant. I swam during rain storms, I swam when the waves were big, I swam in the late evenings, after washing dishes at the Bay Shore Inn, to cool off after a long day of work (those were my favorite swims, as the stars shone above me).
The bay was always my friend.
But, as we all learn at some point in our lives, a friend or loved one can also hurt you. It was something I discovered during one winter of my youth. While it is something I have forgiven (if you can forgive water), I certainly have never forgotten.
At the time, we were a family of seven with five children in the mix. These were pre-internet, pre-cell phones, pre-cable television (heck, we didn’t even have the antenna to get PBS yet) and pre-video games days. So, during winter we had to find ways to keep ourselves entertained. We invented games and challenges, such as running from our front door, up our driveway to the road and back in nothing but our socks—or, if we were feeling particularly brave, barefooted.
We had snowmobiles, too, so that was always fun until one of my sisters mistook the throttle for the break and crashed it into a tree in our front yard. You want to see fun stop on a dime…that’ll do it!
Nothing much was off limits to us in the winter. Looking back, the things we did make me question my thought processes back then. But hey, I lived, so what’s the harm? I mean, what could go wrong jumping off the roof of your parents’ house into snow banks?
But it wasn’t without having some common-sense rules instilled. Growing up on the water, we were taught to respect it. We all understood the risks that went along with swimming and sailing, and we took precautions, like wearing life jackets and watching out for one another.
But then there was winter, with the bay locked in a frozen expanse. The surface seemed as solid as concrete. I mean, cars were driving on it…and, at the time, I was a kid of less than 80 pounds.
Well, I’m living proof to tell you that there is plenty that can go wrong. One late afternoon, in the dead of winter, two of my sisters and I were playing on the ice in full snowmobile suits. The bay was definitely frozen solid—no questions about it.
We ventured away from our home and closer to the home of neighbors. And what we didn’t know was they had an aerator—a bubbler under the surface that prevents solid ice from forming—running to protect their pier from ice damage.
Being that it was so cold, a thin layer of ice had actually formed around the pier. With fresh snow on top, one could never guess it wasn’t any different than any other place we had been that evening.
It didn’t seem any different until the moment I went through, in water so deep, I couldn’t touch bottom. Thankfully I was able to grab the edge with two hands so I didn’t go under.
My quick-thinking older sister, without even thinking of risk to herself, immediately came over and grabbed my hands and pulled me out.
That moment. Frozen in time.
That is a moment I recall vividly today. I have never been more scared.
I was so young, if my life flashed before my eyes it was but a blip. What I recall most is how incredibly, shockingly cold I was…and how thankful I had my sisters there with me. Had I been out there alone, well, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.
That experience certainly had an impact on me and made me question my dear friend, the water.
But, I warmed up. And, as a peace-loving person, I did not hold a grudge against the water or its colder cousin, ice.
The experience reinforced how important it was to not go not go out alone. And to be extra cautious, even when you feel confident of the ice’s integrity.
I’d like to say that that moment was the only time I felt the icy grips of the bay, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth.
As I got a bit older, and as spring approached each year, my sisters and I enjoyed going on the icebergs which were breaking up just in front of our house.
No, we did not go out far or allow ourselves to venture into deep water. Jumping from berg to berg was a lot of fun, and missing was also a common occurrence causing one to slosh around in wet boots for the remainder of the time. I even went end over end into the icy waters more than once and got soaked through and through which inadvertently was always the game-ender.
I hated how quickly the icy water would penetrate my clothing and suck the heat away from my body. The trudge up from the water to the house was not something I looked forward to. Thinking about it from an grown-up perspective, I’m sure my mother didn’t look forward to me falling in, either, and the inevitable wet boots, socks, snow pants, etc.
Venturing back to where I started with this and previous winter articles, let me repeat—I love winter. Always have. I love the cold blowing wind, the snow, the other-worldly sounds of the water and ice and quiet hikes in the park when I am alone in nature for hours.
And, go out on the bay ice. I love hiking the shoreline at Peninsula State Park. There is no better way to take in the sheer beauty of our shoreline, than from the perspective of the frozen surface. In winter, there are no boats making sound, no swimmers, no jet skis…just the wind, the shifting snow formations and the other-worldly beauty.
But the boy in me who fell through the ice, he is still there and he cautions me. I NEVER go out until I know the ice is fully formed—and never before the end of January. If I am going to cross a bay in the park to save time, I always place a phone call to notify my better half exactly where I am. We sometimes speak the entire crossing so we both know all is well. I know what lurks below and respect it, perhaps more so than others who haven’t felt its icy grip.
So, come January 1, I can promise you one thing. This guy will never be in Jacksonport doing the Polar Bear Plunge. I’ve been asked to do it a million and one times, and I’ve respectfully declined each and every time.
I’ve gone through the ice and lived to tell the tale. Many others haven’t been as lucky. It’s not just frigid discomfort—it can be deadly. So, I know my place and it isn’t “in” the water during the winter time. I’ll spend my time carefully on top of it…admiring its beauty and its ethereal winter song.