I used to know a couple from Virginia who each spring would head for the canoe country and take off for three weeks as soon as the ice went out. Once, they said, they had to sit on a lake for a couple of days and wait for the lake to open. They woke up one morning. The ice had gone out. Off they went.

Like most of us, they had a powerful desire to be on open water again after a long winter. Almost daily, we assess the progress of ice-out, a process that unfolds in small increments.

I think I understand the process. The snow atop the lake must first melt, exposing bare ice. Now dark, the ice absorbs more of the sun's heat. The ice near shore, where the sun has warmed the land, goes first. The ice "pulls away from shore," as they say.

The sun, growing more potent by the day as its angle of attack increases, bores down on the ice, eventually rotting it to a honeycomb state. It's still there, but if you put a foot on it, you'd punch right through.

Sometimes, a good spring rain hastens the process, percolating through cracks and further weakening the ice.

Now all it takes is a good wind to shove that mass of rotten ice to the nearest windward shoreline. Remember a few years ago? Did you see that video from Mille Lacs Lake of wind-driven ice moving inexorably ashore? Remember how it just kept piling into a bay, sliding up onto land in a slow but relentless mass, like some monster ooze from a horror movie? How it pushed up against the cabins and worked around and between them?

So cool - unless one of the cabins was yours, I suppose.

One year, heading up to fish for lake trout on the Canadian side of canoe country just after ice-out, we cut it almost too close. We came across a blackened mass of ice on Basswood Lake north of Ely. Paddled right up to it. It was dark and glistening, but still thick and firm. We tried jamming our paddles through it. No go. It must have been a mile across. We couldn't see the far side of it. And it was tinkling like ice in a glass of tea, but on a much grander scale, like about a million glasses of tea. We have the video. You can hear it.

One good blow, and that floe would be smashed to bits against rock outcrops of the Canadian shield.

Tempest Powell Benson, who was raised on Saganagons Lake northwest of Grand Marais, told me about growing up in the canoe country. In late winter, her family would take off by dogsled to go trapping. They'd trap until spring break-up, until the ice went out. Then they'd paddle canoes back home with their furs.

They called that "springing out," she said.

Last year, a buddy and I portaged and paddled into Little Gabbro Lake in the Boundary Waters about this time of year. We hit it just right. Much of the lake was ice-free, and the rest had broken into trapezoidal chunks and bite-size bits. We sat high on a campsite overlooking a narrow bay where the current was carrying spring break-up downstream toward the Kawishiwi River.

The day was warm, and we sat there a long time watching the last vestiges of winter disappear before our eyes.

It was sort of our version of springing out, I guess. And it was plenty good.

 

Sam Cook is a freelance columnist for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCook.