The Styrofoam lid from our waterhole turned out to be a nifty personal flotation device. Come to think of it, I had used a similar contraption, some sort of Styrofoam board, as a child in swimming class.
It all came back to me the moment my right leg went through the ice.
Over the past week, the lake ice had turned that mottled turquoise-greyish shade of bottle glass.
Its hard and solid state after a cold night had been disintegrating into a mess of slush throughout the daylight hours, with pools of meltwater collecting on its surface.
I had been eyeing its questionable condition for a few days already, wondering when it would become too unsafe to walk on. Because the daily chore of getting water involves venturing out onto it, to our waterhole, it had been more than idle contemplation.
A group of woodland caribou a few days earlier had seemed to have similar reservations about the lake ice. With their broad hooves sinking deep into the slush, making soggy noises, they carefully crossed the lake in single file. The string of seven animals had not deviated from the chosen route of their leader, who paused cautiously at every meltwater puddle for a few seconds before resuming the trek to the other shore. I had breathed a sigh of relief when all of them had made it safely onto land.
So it wasn’t entirely unexpected when, on my way across the slushy ice to get water, my right leg had suddenly vanished from under me and disappeared into the lake. Not unexpected in a way, but still a shock. I immediately dropped forward, spreading my weight over as much ice surface as I could and cursed heartily.
It was more of an inconvenience than a dangerous situation: shore wasn’t far away and Sam would eventually realize that I was taking a long time getting water. A quick overview of things, and I realized that I had a convenient buoy-like floatation device in my empty water barrel. The Styrofoam lid of the waterhole was just a couple more steps away and brought back long lost memories of learning to swim with a similar floating board.
I definitely didn’t want to leave it out there to become a piece of junk in the lake, this obviously being my last excursion onto the ice now.
Carefully juggling my weight so I wouldn’t break through at a different spot, I heaved my leg with the soggy gum boot out of the ice. So far, so good. Clinging tightly to my water barrel cum buoy with one hand, I crawled, crab-like, closer to the waterhole. It was almost like a yoga exercise (one I wouldn’t recommend) as I lay spread-eagled, the bucket in my left hand and stretching out with all my might to grab the edge of the Styrofoam lid while trying to keep my weight evenly distributed.
Just one more centimetre, and then I closed my fingers on the lid. Breathe out.
I quickly pulled the lid close to me and, gripping it tightly, shifted a good portion of my weight onto it, then turned back towards shore. By pushing the lid ahead, scrabbling with my toes to move myself forward and leaning on the lid, I slowly inched my way back to land—all the while still gripping the empty water bucket like a blue balloon whose string has ripped. I managed to make it to shore without breaking through again and celebrated the success of my operation by flinging the barrel, board and wet gum boot from me; although the boot was reluctant to come off. Filled to the brim with water and ice crystals, its swollen felt liner was holding my by now semi-frozen foot in a tight embrace. Eventually I was able to lever my numb limb out of the boot and hobbled back to the cabin.
“What happened to you?”, Sam exclaimed when I came in the door, water dripping from my pants and jacket.
Once I had dry clothes on and my lobster-red foot and leg were thawed out, the whole episode was more funny than anything else.
What didn’t seem so funny and silly anymore was the long harboured but never executed idea of wearing a regular pfd to the water hole in spring.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who
lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.