frozen the art of ice on a beaver pond

The wind was blowing so hard that I was getting shoved along the ice as I tried to take pictures.

The warm sun had spread a thin sheen of water on the frozen beaver pond where I was standing and the gusting west wind was hitting me full-on. Despite the ever-creeping corpulence that is giving my body more and more gravitational attraction, the combination of wind-polished ice and slick film of water made it nearly impossible to stand in one spot. I slid along the ice like a third’s stone thrown at hog weight.

I was out there trying not to fall on my head so I could take pictures of all the cool things trapped in the glass-clear ice that, thanks to the latest chinook, is now snow-free and all polished up.

The wind had blown sticks and spruce cones and tendrils of lichen from the surrounding trees onto the surface of the beaver pond but what I was really after were the all the amazing shapes of the bubbles that were trapped in the ice itself.

Methane is a gas that forms as plant material and other detritus on the bottom of the pond is broken down by bacteria. Held by water pressure and the surrounding muck, it accumulates until it builds up enough volume to break free and rise through the water column. In the spring, summer and most of the fall, the gas pops through the surface and scatters with the wind. That sulphury, rotten-egg smell you get a whiff of driving by a slough or a beaver pond? That's methane.

Or maybe flatulent beavers. Same process, different source.

But as the ice starts to form in late fall, the bubbles of methane get trapped below the hard surface. With nowhere to go, they just sit there as the ice thickens and surrounds them. And as the ice deepens, more and more bubbles get trapped.

A lot of times bubbles rising from the same spot on the pond bottom get trapped in stacks. Thanks to the even pressure of water coming from every angle, the gas bubbles start off pretty much spherical. But when they hit the underside of the ice, that same pressure causes them to take on a more flattened shape. Ice forms around them and they turn into formations that look like piles of coins or cookies.

But there was more than just bubbles trapped in the ice. Twigs, spruce needles, beaver nibblings and water plants had ended up suspended in the ice as well. And they were every bit as interesting as the bubbles.

I’d smartened up and gone back to the truck for my drug-store crampons and they helped to anchor me but even so, the wind was still making walking difficult. But it was worth it.

A lot of times, there's so much gas trapped in the ice that it turns cloudy and translucent. But this winter, thanks to the sudden, deep cold we had at the beginning of the season, the ice, at least on this beaver pond, froze fast and clear as glass.

And because of that, the things trapped in the ice looked almost surreal.

Bits of plant matter, a lot of it still green, looked like they were suspended in mid-fall, as if they’d been photographed in motion and frozen by a camera’s flash. Twigs sticking through the ice surface from the local beaver’s larder were willow-coloured where they stuck out and coated with tiny bubbles below the surface. Other bits floated over backdrops of trapped methane and made fascinating shapes, their straight lines and long curves contrasting with the rounded blobs of the bubbles.

The colours behind them varied by the depth of the water and the angle of the light. Over shallow water, the background varied from soft brown to light green. Over deep water it was nearly black. If there was a layer of small bubbles, the ice around them was a soft pastel blue. Where the ice nearby was a little rough, the light diffused and scattered and spread a soft magenta tint that mixed with the cerulean shades.

For the most part, the surface of the ice was skating-rink flat but long cracks had formed and they added to the patterns of blobs and lines. Where the ice was the most clear, they looked feathery from an obtuse angle, more like the cracks you’d see in clear plastic than glass. Other places they were wide and soft-edged.

And they were still forming. More than a few times the ice below me made a sound like gunfire and I could see the hairline splits radiate away. Kinda spooky but given that the ice was more than a foot thick, I wasn’t in much peril.

Having said that, though, if you’re going to walk out onto any icy surface, always be careful.

First, make sure the ice you're walking on is safe, at least 15 centimetres thick. Stay away from any open water and never - and I mean never - venture out onto ice over flowing water. It might seem like it’s thick enough to be safe but ice formed over flowing water is full of air pockets and places where the water flowing underneath may have eroded the ice from below, making it look thicker than it actually is. Don't trust it.

Wear crampons or some kind of slip-on ice gripper on your boots. Needless to say, ice is slippery and you'll have a lot more fun taking pictures if you're not constantly worried about falling on your head.

Use a polarizing filter to take some of the glare off the ice surface. If you don't have one with you - I didn't have mine for these pictures - try to wear dark clothing to minimize getting your own reflection in the photos.

I wandered around for more than an hour marvelling at frozen bubblescape below my feet but finally, with the sun waning and the wind still howling, I walked back to the truck.

Glancing back, I could see the wind spinning more detritus across the surface, some of it flying by, some getting stuck in the thin slick of water where it will end up suspended until the ice finally melts for good.

And when it does, all the trapped methane that made that bubblescape will get released from its icy suspension as well.

That sulphury smell you inhale as you pass a slough or a beaver pond?

It’s the dissipation of beauty.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

FEBRUARY 5, 2017

Photographed with the Canon EOS M5 and 15-45 zoom.

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