Out on the Ice

For the past month or so, I’ve been a resident at a camp on Northwood Lake in New Hampshire where I’ve witnessed something unexpected. About a third of a mile from our shores, there is a racetrack complete with access to the nearby Northwood Lake Public Beach and lanes large enough to accommodate two to three car widths. Northwood Lake seems like an unlikely place for a racetrack given that is spends most of the year as an open source of water for boating, fishing, and swimming. However, it transforms midwinter into an unlikely source of adrenalin driven fun.

I’ve always been wary of frozen ponds and lakes in the winter months. I don’t know whether it is because of my British background or my cautious nature which naturally distrusts the notion of wandering too far out onto a frozen surface lest I become a block of ice after taking a plunge. Even on lakes where the surface water freezes solidly enough to allow multiple trucks to drive on the slick surface, I still don’t trust it. If you’re not from a part of the world where the water doesn’t freeze solid for part of the year then the idea of walking on water might be more of a religious notion than it being more dependent on temperature and states of matter.

According to a pamphlet produced by the Cold Regions Research Laboratory, while all ice can potentially be dangerous to walk and even drive on, the appropriate thickness to allow a snow mobile or ATV onto the ice would be 10 inches thick. One can assume that Northwood Lake is plenty thick enough at the moment because ice racing has arrived! And if you were wondering how to find our more information about it, that’s where the Northwood Lake Ice Racing Association comes in. Their latest event was this past Saturday and they are hoping the ice will remain thick enough until March to allow for at least one or two more weekends of racing. All this is done to benefit a local camp for children with special needs.

Given that racing takes place on the weekend, I was undisturbed, when on a whim I decided to take Harper, my fiance Becca’s adopted sprollie for a walk out onto the ice. It hadn’t been the first time Harper had explored the ice. The previous weekend, he’d tagged along with Becca’s family on an ice fishing expedition where he’d frolicked in the ice and snow and enjoyed the winter sunshine. Our goal was to head over to the racetrack, explore the surface, and take in the scenery around us. I prepared by layering myself in a thick sweatshirt and Carhartt jacket, long pants, and sturdy boots while Harper danced happily around my legs. His herding nature was very apparent as I got ready and after securing his long lead to his harness, he nearly scampered around my legs and out the door before I was prepared! Clearly, he was happy to be out on the ice again.

Image may contain: people sitting, sky, snow, tree, outdoor and nature
The supervisor at work. Photo by author’s fiance.

As Harper charged ahead, I took slow, but deliberate steps across the icy surface. I listened carefully to see if I could hear cracking, but much to my surprise, the crunching of the fresh snow on top prevented me from hearing any tell-tale sounds of danger. I continued on as Harper lunged on the end of the lead at nothing in particular.

I looked around, thankful that I had brought my sunglasses with me. The glare from the winter sun illuminated the white snow field around our feet and a cursory glance with lowered sunglasses sent daggers of reflected light back into my eyes. In addition to my eyes, my ears were caught off guard by the surrounding sounds.

Having spent much of the month indoors, having the opportunity to explore the outdoors was important both in relieving cabin fever, but also in enhancing the senses. Suddenly, my ability to get distracted by my surroundings was changed. When you’re stuck indoors, feeling guilty about not spending more time outside, that can be overwhelming. In addition, I also felt distracted about needing to wash those dishes in the sink, dry the laundry, cook the dinner, and call my parents! And that’s just Sunday afternoon.

Being outdoors feels like you “wake up” somehow. I noticed how bare the distant trees were with nearby conifers like white pine (Pinus strobus) and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) poking out like bottle brushes against a muted grey landscape. Vacation homes dotted the shores like sugar cubes lining a saucer. The sky was that brilliant blue New England winters are known for while to the northwest, clouds like graphite hung like poorly draped curtains, looming, but distant. We continued on towards the racetrack.

As we approached the edge of the track, Harper demonstrated his latent athletic ability and vaulted over the icy pile of snow ringing the rough textured surface. I followed suit, jumping up onto the bank which proved to be quite sturdy and hopped over. Harper sniffed the air and then immediately scampered around sniffing and snuffling along the track. According to the Northwood Lake Ice Racing Association’s website, racers are advised to use ensure that their vehicles do not leak any fluids onto the ice and to pick up any loose parts that might have flown off during a scrape so as to ensure that the lake remains as pristine as possible. Despite these environmentally friendly measures, I’ve always been curious about how simple acts of keeping ourselves safe can have a tremendous effect on the world around us and we are only now becoming aware of the damage that we are causing to the planet and it’s citizens.

For example, sun block has long been touted as a necessity of summer and to be slathered on whenever possible. However, if you like I, have ever followed that advice and then gone swimming or wading in a water body nearby, you may have noticed the pool of white lotion surrounding your body or legs. It takes quite a while to dissipate and I always wondered if the creatures in Walden Pond or Cochituate Lake cared about being doused in sunscreen every summer since post WWII when America started to take their leisure time very seriously.

In April of last year, National Geographic reported on Hawaii’s decision to ban the use of sunscreen by 2021 due to the harm it causes to coral reefs. As surprising as it might seem, coral is not a plant as many people may remember learning in school. It is a colonial animal and is more closely related to jellyfish and sea anemones. Coral filter feeds by sucking in nutrients such as plankton, small crustaceans, and other organic matter and pushing out waste and water. They also have a symbiotic relationship with a species of algae called zooxanthellae that provides up to 90% of the animal’s energy via photosynthesis. If they are exposed to the ingredients of sunscreen, it can contribute to a condition known as bleaching, where the animal expels the algae living within their bodies. When this algae is expelled, the coral will begin to whiten and may starve to death as a result.

What does this have to do with a lake in southwestern New Hampshire though? There are no coral native to the freshwater of New England, so why does it matter?

Well, if it can affect the corals of our salty seas, then it can have an effect on the wildlife we have here too. I struggled in my own efforts to prevent lake contamination when Harper decided to crap on the lake ice as we headed back home. Dog turds are surprisingly difficult to pick up when fresh and tend to mix readily with the snow, creating a gross mess to carry out and off the lake. I had found another example on the before leaving the racetrack. A flattened Twisted Tea can was partially buried in the icy crust of the surface and I picked it up to recycle it back at home.

Before I headed up the stone steps to the house, I watched a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) drift lazily over the pines to the north. Our national symbol was brought back from the brink through careful management, educational campaigns about their wellbeing, and the actions of concerned citizens. They might still be in danger from a lingering problem in most New England lakes and rivers though: the threat of PCBs, mercury, and other contaminants.

Even now, with a significant reduction in pollutants, these contaminants have accumulated in the bodies of bass, panfish, and catfish that people seek for food. I grew up in the Sudbury River Valley near where the “shot heard round the world” was fired over the Concord River and just downriver from where the Ashland Super Fund site contaminated the surrounding groundwater with chemical waste for generations to come. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Public Health recommend that children under 12 and women of childbearing age avoid eating fish in the state due to concerns about mercury contamination. Even ponds relatively close to one another can vary in their potential toxicity.

I grew up near Heard’s Pond in Wayland where no one can eat the fish from the nearby Sudbury River or the pond due to mercury contamination. However, five miles northeast of there sits Walden Pond, the site of Thoreau’s experiment with nature observation and solitude. The recommendation there is that the general public should limit their consumption of largemouth (Micropterus salamoides) and smallmouth bass (M. dolomieu) to two meals per month. The stocked trout who live alongside the bass have a lower risk of such contamination as they are hatchery raised and the native rainbow smelt (Osmeru mordax) which rarely sought for food, don’t seem to have to worry much about getting eaten by humans.

As I watched that eagle soar away, I wondered how our natural world was going to be doing in the next decade or so. DDT had been defeated, dolphins aren’t a regular part of your tuna sandwich anymore, and the fight against invasive species rages on. Indeed, the Northwood Lake Watershed Association has been fighting to remove invasive variable milfoil (Myriophyllum heterophyllum) from the lakebed for several years. But a new fight is coming. Climate change and its tendrils have been slowly affecting New England winters and the life that depends on that cooler climate. We’re already seeing it in our sugar maples (Acer saccharum) as the tapping season gets shorter every year and as heralds of spring like robins arrive earlier than forecasts can predict.

Indeed, if what the UN says is coming in the next twelve years, then we don’t have a moment to lose. We need to keep up the fight and work hard to make sure there is a world left, not just for human beings, but for all life here on Earth.


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