The sky above a frozen lake is the same color as it is above a road, a soccer field, a housing development, on the same day. I know that, but I don’t feel it. There is that clouded over slate blue-grey that has the feel of reaching perfection from the middle of a frozen lake, on a windy day, alone.
The winter I was twelve cooperated in my liminal state. It was cold enough for the lakes to freeze solidly and stay that way, no worries of open water or even thin ice, but not cold enough that anyone would worry about a newly-grown girl-child bundling herself into scarf, mittens, boots, coat, and heading off on her own for hours.
Twelve is big enough–at least, it was for me–that you can watch smaller kids, that no one needs to be deputized to watch you. Twelve is small enough–again, at least it was for me–that no one needs to worry that you’re sneaking off to do something worrying on an adult scale. I was adult sized at twelve, this height, very nearly this body shape that I have twenty-seven years later. I was very recognizably myself. I had been street harassed already, at twelve. I had started to grasp the edges of what so worried my mother about me growing up. But while I’ve been harassed in parkas that come down to my knees and hoods up over my head, winter is safer: fewer people on the street means less street harassment.
And I wasn’t going on the street.
My mother and I had been spending the last year and a half in what I then thought was a companionable understanding, which I now recognize as a productive misunderstanding. I thought that we mutually understood that I was too big for playgrounds (although I have never lost my fondness for swings), that I would stay safe and not do anything stupid but of course would not be going to a playground for hours. What would I do at a playground for hours? I was twelve, for heaven’s sake. I was big.
(Now that my goddaughter is eleven, now that her mother and I repeat to each other, “she’s so big now!” on at least a weekly basis, I understand how it was that my mother could have missed the fact of my bigness.)
So I thought that we understood that I was going to hike and not do anything worrying. My mother, on the other hand, thought that being away from the main road and out of shouting distance of the rest of humanity was something worrying and naturally I would not be doing that. This misunderstanding between us turned out to be formative for me, and I stand by it. I was immensely safer–I am safer now–in the woods than on the road. Twenty-seven years of experience tells me over and over again that the rest of humanity is the problem.
But I was speaking of the year I was twelve. In the summer, this had meant hours in the woods, sometimes up a tree, sometimes with my sneakers tied to each other hanging around my neck so I could walk down the rocks in a shallow brook. It was green and quiet and peaceful, and I was competent there. One of my best friends got a rampaging case of poison ivy to start the seventh grade. I had told her not to touch it, it most certainly was not Virginia creeper. I was the one who knew the difference.
My new longer legs were useful in the woods, and my new curves were…not absent, exactly. But they had room to just be part of me, just present, neutral. Nobody told me to do anything like a lady. Nobody shouted that I was a cunt. If I set off at a fast lope through the trees, I bounced a little more, and it didn’t have to matter.
In the winter, the bare trees didn’t provide as much cover. But my clothes did, and the cold. When it’s cold enough, you can escape a crowded, smoky house full of relatives and no one will wander out after you. The outdoors will be quiet and still and empty. The ice is its own protection.
There are only a handful of other walkers on frozen lakes. You are almost guaranteed you will not run into them. If you are very careful, you can avoid all human companionship. If you’re not feeling that antisocial, you will walk past the ice fishers. The ice fishers will not make you talk. The protocol with ice fishers is simple: you can nod, or you can say, “Ayeh.” And they will do one of those two things back.
They will not say, “Awfully cold for you to be out, isn’t it?” They will not ask if you aren’t very young to be on your own. The ice fishers do not want to talk. They want to fish. And you want to walk. This works out well for everyone. The ice fishers may well be escaping a loud, smoky house full of relatives as well. Fishing is the thing that they are allowed to say they are doing, not “getting away from you all.” I had an aunt who would say she was doing both, but she was widely regarded as eccentric.
I loved her for it.
She was not in the house I was walking away from.
You pass the ice fishers, then, and you keep walking. You fall into a rhythm. If there’s a good crust of snow, or if there was wind when the lake was freezing, you can walk like you can on any land. The wind matters because it pebbles the ice, gives it a texture, your feet can find purchase. If it was a still day, you shuffle along like a purposeful penguin, not lifting your feet too far, moving straight from the hips.
(What about skating? they will ask. Well, no. Skating ice takes maintenance. It has to be a really still day, or more likely water that is carefully sprayed and smoothed, to get really good skating ice. You can’t skate on just random ice, mostly it’s far too rough for quality skating. Random lake ice is much better for just walking.)
The cold seeps into your legs. Your coat comes down over your upper thighs, your socks up over your calves, so it’s the middle, your lower thighs, where you really start to feel the cold first. Everything else is too well bundled, but the wind will hit your knees and start to numb them. But you keep walking. You’re going to go all the way across the lake to the trees on the other side. No one can take this from you. The cold can’t. So you walk, and the blood flows back into you with exercise, and gradually you get warm again, the warmth of exertion.
With the rhythm of walking, you regain the ability to notice things. Clouds. Cars on the distant road, the noises they make. Your own crunchy footfalls, whether there’s a difference in their sound. That difference is important.
In the present day, as an adult, I had gone on the assumption that everyone knows how to gauge ice thickness visually, that while you hear stories of people falling through, you also hear stories of people setting their microwaves on fire. Sensible people, ordinary people–certainly everyone you would socialize with–know you need at least two inches of ice to bear human weight. Sensible people know what that looks like.
But when I went to talk to my friends about it now, as a grown-up, other perfectly competent grown-ups had no idea. They worried about this. How would you know. That doesn’t sound safe. What are you doing. This is not sensible, stop it, come inside, surely this is not something you do.
It is. It’s something I do. Every chance I get.
And even as a twelve-year-old, I knew what good ice sounded like, even if it was snow-covered and I couldn’t look at it. I knew what it felt like to have a run of days cold enough to freeze the lake solid enough to hold me. I knew what patches to avoid until it had been good and cold long enough–rushes and ducks would be near open water, don’t go poking at the rushes and ducks, just keep walking.
These things were so intuitive that more than twenty-five years later, when my friends, my southern friends, my coastal friends, my city friends, balked at the notion of walking out on frozen things, I had to interrogate my own mind: I know this, but how do I know this. What does good ice look like. Good ice is milky, good ice shuts you out from the waters below. Clear ice that holds you up and lets you watch the fish below is a cinematic dream. Good ice, firm ice, is opaque enough that you know that it is doing some serious ice business below your feet. It does not creak or crack. Some parts of it might crunch, but that’s different.
And yet you know you are not walking on the ground. You know that you are walking on ice. How do you know? You know. The sky is not a different color, the air does not taste different…rationally. Notionally, liminally? It might. It does.
Twenty-five years later, walking out on Lake Superior was not the same as a small lake. It is full of many jagged points and miniature cliffs–its limnology has structure and nearly seismic activity in a way that a smaller lake never could. And of course, walking all the way across, walking the whole lake, is impossible for any human. There is always the wall of spiky mist at the horizon where the giant body of water is subliming even when the temperatures are below zero Fahrenheit.
And yet. And yet the crunch and slide of ice, the penguin slip beneath my feet was the same. The feel of walking away from shore, out on the ice, squaring my shoulders and knowing that everything beneath me was water, everything above me was steely sky, and around was…nothing. No one and nothing. The perfect silence and wind is the same, exactly the same, always the same.
And getting warm after is the same, the excessive feeling of blood rushing into cheeks and fingers and thighs, burning and tingling, gulping hot tea too fast and burning my tongue. Not wanting to talk. Not wanting to speak a word. Wanting to keep the frozen lake wind in my ears.
I have never let myself collapse to my knees in the snow, upon attaining land again. Someday perhaps I will. I have always made myself keep moving, onward to warmth and the rest of humanity and its noise and hum and frustrations. I have never let myself kneel and feel the difference between snow on ice and snow on dirt in my hands, not just through my boots.
Someday I will. For now, I let myself be quiet when I come off a frozen lake. I don’t have to go into the hubbub of a family gathering. I can reenter the world of humans gradually, warmth first, light second, then tea and noise. And so I do.
Because of how geology works, frozen things are lower than their surroundings. Water, down in a hollow. So you find yourself looking up, up at the trees, up at the buildings, even up at the roads. Up at the clouds, and suddenly up at the clouds isn’t as different from looking at the manmade things as it usually is. Everything is at least a little up, and you are down, set apart, set aside, protected.
My friends who are not from the frozen north will find that feeling of protection strange, I think, but ice is like the poison ivy/Virginia creeper problem in the summer woods: safety comes from knowledge. You know how to walk, you know where and when to go, you’re fine, you’re much safer than you are on the street. And the quality of silence alone on the ice is impossible to replicate any other way.