nice ice Big Hill Springs

I was looking up at a a dome of ice trying to figure out a way to get my camera inside it without falling into the creek.

I was part way on my belly, part way on my hip and I had my left foot hooked behind a skinny poplar that was growing on the bank. In front of me was a hole in the ice maybe the size of my head and I could see the water inside tumbling over a shelf of moss-covered tufa. There was a space a foot or so deep between the water and the dome of ice, enough for me to stick a camera in if I could reach far enough.

I was at Big Hill Springs Provincial Park northwest of Cochrane, one of the prettiest little parks anywhere around here. Half the size of a Walmart parking lot, it hosts the headwaters of Big Hill Creek, a little spring-fed trickle that flows all year round. In the summertime, it’s a lush oasis of green, full of wildflowers and birds. In the winter, it’s a sculpture garden of ice.

I’ve been coming out here for decades and it’s never less than lovely no matter what the season but if you want to beat the crowds - and this little place can get pretty crowded - winter is the time to be here.

Especially on a day like this.

There was a chinook coming in, the westerly wind gnawing away at the bitter cold we’ve endured for the last few weeks, but the warmth it promised hadn’t quite made it to the ground yet. Out in the open the wind was vicious, biting like a puppy that hasn’t quite learned not to play so rough.

But tucked into the narrow valley where the creek runs through, the tall spruce and poplars blunted the wind’s teeth. The heavier gusts still made it through and every once in a while a scattering of snow torn from the hillsides above would sift down but for the most part, the valley kept the wind at bay.

I had the place to myself. There were a couple of people there for a hike when I first arrived but they had gone by the time I packed up my cameras and started to walk. The only sounds were the water, the wind, a squirrel - there’s always a squirrel - and the crunch of my cleats on the icy snow.

Most people come here to either picnic or walk the trail up the valley and onto the benchland above. Me, I come here for the ice.

Because the creek bubbles up from the ground just a couple of hundred metres up the valley, it still flows at roughly the same relatively warm temperature as it had when it exited the earth. It cools, of course, as it runs along but while its in the park, it flows free.

And as it flows, it tumbles and splashes over the ridges of rocky tufa the creek itself has formed, the dissolved minerals carried in its flow accumulating where the water swirls and eddies or flows around debris that has fallen into the stream. A wall of tufa has formed, for instance, about halfway up the valley, the petrified remains of a beaver dam that blocked the flow maybe a thousand years or more ago.

A similar thing happens with the ice.

Where the water slows or meets and object it needs to flow around, the cold can do its work and the water freezes. Thin shelves of ice extend out form the banks, dishes of it form around the trunks of stream-splashed trees, bells of it cling to twigs and shrubs that bend close to the water’s surface.

But the most interesting ice, the ice that I was there to photograph, forms above the moving water itself.

Conditions have to be just right for this to happen - and I’m not sure I understand them all that well - but the combination of cold air and warmish water that Big Hill Springs provides makes for all kinds of interesting ice phenomena.

Flowing water hosts its own thin microclimate, a space just above the water’s surface where the air is kept warm enough to prevent ice from forming even though the temperature of the air only a few centimetres beyond this space could be cold enough to make a musk ox shiver.

But because flowing water tends to splash a lot, some of those splashes go beyond this warm layer and when they do, especially when the temperatures have been as cold as they have recently, those splashes freeze. Gravity pulls them back down and if they happen to fall somewhere that they don’t immediately thaw again, they linger.

And those that linger are joined by more frozen splashes and more and more and soon a shelf of ice starts to form. The shelf extends out over the surface of the flow, the underside constantly eroded by running water, the top side constantly being built up by more splashes freezing and falling.

The same process happens where the waters of the creek tumble over the tufa outcrops. Here the water splashes and falls in an arc and the ice shelf, once it starts to take root and grow, forms a dome-like shape, a concave filigree of ice that often looks more like lace than frozen water.

In fact, the splash ice here is quite often less than ice-like. Rather than the slabs and chunks and flat expanses we’re used to seeing, the ice at Big Hill Springs comes in all sorts of delicate shapes.

The domes are thin and veined with streaks of silver and blue, the ice along the rapids looks like popcorn. On the big waterfalls - relatively big on this tiny trickle - icicles form along the edges and look more like something you’d find in a cave. Where the water spreads and slows over patches of green watercress and aquatic grass it forms edges that wouldn’t look out of place on grandma’s lace tablecloth.

And in some places, it grows as thick and heavy as cobblestones. A hole in one of these heavy formations is what I was trying to reach as I lay on the edge of the stream stretching across the open water.

And trying, in vain, not to fall in.

One little twist was all it took and my hand slipped. I slid sideways, my fingers grasping for purchase, and then suddenly I was up to my left elbow in water and silty mud. But the change in position allowed me to get my camera where I wanted it. I could see the water splashing in front of my lens.

I got my pictures and slowly eased back, trying hard not to fall in even further, and sat in the snow on the shore. The water splashed over the falls in front of me and a gust of wind found its way down to the valley floor. A squirrel - there’s always a squirrel - laughed.

Ice was already starting to form on my sleeve and my own personal microclimate was starting to cool. Time to head back to the truck.

I love the ice at Big Hill Springs. But not when it’s forming on me.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

DECEMBER 19, 2016

Created By
mike drew
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