Suspended Animation

My world is getting quieter. As winter descends on the boreal forest, it’s like a veil of silence wraps around us, stilling all motion, save for the whisper of the wind across the newly-formed desert of snow.  One by one, the waterways stop, frozen in time, held captive by the solid grip of truly frigid temperatures.

Around here, the last body of water to succumb to this relentless creep of ice is the great Lake Winnipeg. Staring out over its endless expanse during the summer, it’s hard to believe that this inland ocean, the tenth largest freshwater lake in the world, finally gives in and stills beneath over a metre of ice.

It’s not a quick process and it actually starts a lot earlier than most of us realize. As the days get shorter and the air gets cooler, heat from the lake is slowly released into the atmosphere, often creating lake-effect precipitation, but that’s a story for another day.

As the water cools down, it becomes denser because the molecules’ natural vibrations slow and they cluster together. This denser water sinks deeper into the lake, letting warmer water rise to the surface and release its energy to the skies. This cycle continues until all the water in the lake reaches the same temperature. For freshwater, the magic number is 4 degrees Celsius, not zero, like you may have guessed. The water still freezes at zero degrees, but from 4 degrees on, the water molecules start to form the lattice work that ultimately becomes ice and at this point, this water is less dense than the rest of the layers below it, keeping it at the surface, where it starts to freeze.

At over 23,000 square kilometres, Lake Winnipeg doesn’t go quietly. November is a restless month, with flinty skies and often driving winds. Wild weather churns up this giant, but relatively shallow cauldron, breaking apart the fragile skin that forms on the surface, forcing it to start over.  Still, the cold eventually wins. The ice thickens and sheets knit together, sealing off the water below as it creaks and moans like a giant humpback whale trapped below the surface.

By the end of December, the ice will usually be thick enough to hold the weight of snowmobiles and tank-like Bombardiers used by the commercial fishermen to get to their harvesting grounds. By January, it’s strong enough to hold the weight of fully-loaded semi-trailers charging across the barren ice roads to deliver goods and supplies to towns that in summer can only be reached by air or by boat.

All the while, the lake is still very much alive beneath its frozen shell, reminding us of its presence with rattles and muted groans rising up from the depths. It’s a sound I never tire of hearing because it reminds me that the lake I love is still there, restless and waiting to be released with the warmth of spring.

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7 thoughts on “Suspended Animation

  1. A fascinating description of the process, Heather. I’ve watched ice creep inwards from the edges of small waterbodies; imagined it expanding by milimeters as if sneaking across the surface until it triumphantly meets in the centre, enclosing the life below. It’s a mysterious phenomenon, but especially with regard to huge entities like fast flowing rivers and huge lakes. So I appreciate your not just perfectly understandable, but wholely enjoyable narrative accompanied by your inspiring image. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Cindy! I should get you to write some of these. What a lovely, poetic description of the inexorable advance of winter ice. I’m glad it was understandable. I work hard to make sure whatever process I’m explaining makes sense. Better keep practising because I’ll be explaining all sorts of things to a room full of 2nd year zoology students for three months.

      • If the writing is poetic it is because your narrative inspired it. I very much admire the way the word play in your writing expands on our understanding, like the sounds of the lake – I can hear the “veil of silence” and the “rattles and muted groans rising up from the depths”.

  2. To Heather and Cindy both,
    How I love being able to observe your talented, generous natures… With such soul-stirring photography and evocative prose, it is a delight to be in your presence; wholly, thoroughly, completely immersed in Nature; where I truly long to be.
    Thank you.

    • Thanks, Deb. With all the inspiration that nature offers, I’m lucky to always have a wealth of things to write about and photograph. Nature does all the work. I just record it for posterity 🙂

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