Friday, February 10, 2012

Winter Sport

Deep winter now, and for more than fifteen hundred miles the Upper Mississippi lies white and silent under the ice-wind. On broad Lake Pepin the ice is nearly three feet thick and still expanding. In the clearest, coldest nights of the year the trees crack and bang as the deep frost expansion crack begins, running out of the distance like an express train coming onto a trestle—a long sustained boo-o-o-OOOMMMM-m-m-m! amplified by the vast drumhead of ice, passing on and fading as the Great River returns to its slumber.

With first light, the ice-wind is back. It is hardly more than a breeze, an airy zephyr that would be scarcely noticed in spring or fall, but now it carries a chill factor of 50 degrees below zero and strikes into exposed flesh like blue steel.

I walked across one of the river-lakes to visit a place where a commercial fisherman had discarded a seine-load of carpsuckers and gizzard shad. Eagles were said to be there, scavenging the frozen fish. It was rumored that one was a golden, and although it was almost certainly an immature bald eagle, I had to see it for myself. The ice was varied, with large patches as smooth as any glass except for the expansion cracks, and adjacent fields of rough crystals that broke noisily under my shoepacs. It almost appeared to be burning as the wind whirled talcum-fine snow over its surface, making the ice seem to fume and smoke. There was no sun or any sign of sun. The sky was a single white blankness that neither promised nor threatened anything. I had left my camera in the truck, for although there was light enough it was flat light without character, providing neither shadow nor highlight. No matter. I never reached that slough with its alleged eagles. The parka hood and thick woolen cap were not enough to turn the edge of that wind. It was literally striking into bone, into the sinuses of face and forehead as a sickening ache that I could feel clear down under my breakfast, and when I put my mittened hands over my face there was no sensation in nose or cheekbones. Even in the heavy beaver-skin mittens my hands were growing numb—and the eagle slough was still almost a mile away. Enough. I turned tail, the ice-wind scourging me off its River.

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