Christmas plans are not the topic of the day when I talk with our trapper neighbour on the radio.
Rick will spend Christmas alone with his dogs, over on the other side of the lake, and I’ll be alone with my dogs — neither of us is religious, and so the holidays will mostly get acknowledged with phone calls and maybe a nice dinner if inspiration strikes.
Solstice, on the other hand, is more of an occasion, at least for me. But we don’t talk about that either. No, the hottest topic is freeze-up, which is a bit late this year.
It always starts out so gently, just a subtle hint at the change to come: the rocks along shore wearing silly-looking bonnets of ice from which little tassels hang where the splashed-on water drips off. These ice caps are extremely slick and often turn getting water into a slapstick routine.
Eventually, more and more ice crystals begin floating in the water as it starts to congeal, soon forming little pans if conditions are favourable. Once these stretch into larger sheets, it gets interesting as high wind and waves can break them up again.
From up in his valley, Rick has a commanding view of the lake and the developing ice situation. I contribute the close-up details from my vantage point on the lakeshore, and together we indulge in very satisfactory freeze-up forecasts. It is not the lack of other things to talk about that keeps us mulling over this topic. It is because after the lake pulls the blanket of ice over its head, life changes dramatically out here.
To me, it means silence. The bush is not really all that quiet; there’s the wind in the trees, birds, animal sounds, the crunching of foot steps and the lapping of waves and sound of running water. With the lake left to its own devices under the ice, the gurgling, splashing and thrashing of waves which is our continuous background noise is extinguished and sounds travel so much farther.
Temperatures will drop lower because the large body of comparatively warm water is sealed off and doesn’t act like a space heater anymore — something I gladly accept as the ice fog that always steams off the lake when it is cold out now disappears, at long last.
The mountains, which are often hidden for weeks on end in the eternal and infernal fog finally rejoin me. The wide expanse of ice also makes it a lot brighter, especially once there is some snow on it, because it reflects all the light.
At the beginning, when the ice is still new and skinny, the dogs will need extra supervision. Unlike the moose who steer clear of the ice for a couple of weeks, the dogs are tempted to run onto the huge empty surface in a mad gallop, playing wild games of chase. To avoid a frigid bath for myself in a dog rescue situation, I deter them well ahead of freeze-up from going down to the water.
I’m probably overly careful on the ice, using moose as ice testers apart from chopping holes — once the moose traffic is well under way and no tracks end in a dark open spot, I judge it safe for walking on. If overflow permits, long distances can be covered easily without our usual forest routine of having to step over and under trees. It almost feels like racing, being able to stride along so unimpeded and out in the sunshine.
Getting water will involve more work, though: first a hole needs to be chopped and then it has to be kept open, a task that involves insulating it with a Styrofoam lid and lovingly shovelling lots of snow on it on cold nights.
After a while, the ice forms a route out — minor emergencies can then be taken care of more easily and less costly, supplies restocked and even visitors expected. But that will still be a few more weeks, although Rick and I are already comparing the state of our pantries and discussing fresh fruit and vegetables. With freeze-up not even complete yet, he is working on a shopping list.
But for now, I wonder every morning when I step outside if the lake has frozen. I listen for it: for that complete silence as if the land is holding its breath. It’s like a dawn, the standing on the brink of something very big — how the world used to be before we filled it up with so much noise.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon
River south of Whitehorse.