Aurora on Ice
In the North, the breaking up of ice ice in the spring is one of the most violent natural events, and definitely one of the loudest. Experiencing the explosive sound of ice giving in to the warm rays of the spring sun brings out the primitive in me. I stand at the river's edge, clad in fur, spear in hand, praying to the gods of winter to leave for good. The leaving of the ice announces the departure of the night, and and end to the eerie displays of the aurora, which induce psychedelic peace if watched with an open heart.
Quite a few years ago, in my twenties, my friend Ruth and I had traveled north by train for two days, to ski under the aurora. Moving through Sweden, past the Arctic Circle, the train ended at a lake called Tornetraesk. We had decided, on the spur of the moment, to spend spring break in the snow, joking we might even get an auroral tan.
Near the lake shore, we stayed in a small log cabin, one of a dozen surrounding the main house, where reindeer steak was served. In summer this place would be abuzz with fisherfolk and tourists. At our arrival, the house and cabins, buried in snow, looked like a hibernating cave bear surrounded by a scattering of equally frozen cubs. Ruth and I were the only tourists, and the only foreigners. The other guests were mushers, many local, all rough guys, preparing for a big race. They were friendly when we asked them questions, but mostly they were too preoccupied with dogs, gossip, and øl to give us more than syllabic responses.
The weather was a blazing blue on white, and we spent the first few days mostly on our skis. We crossed the white expanse of the lake, Tornetraesk, learning that it made for challenging skiing, being not flat at all. In between smooth stretches, the wind had blown up and packed snow into bizarre shapes. One reminded me of the castle of the Snow Queen. On some days, we climbed mountains, not very tall ones, in a surprising crowd of skiers, we assumed had traveled in for just the day. And more often it was just us, making virgin tracks where maybe no one had gone for decades.
On our fourth of fifth day we returned from a long, leisurely trip through an open pine forest and and extended picnic in the snow. The sun set after 3 in the afternoon, and darkness fell almost instantly. The temperature dropped from a pleasant 28 degrees Fahrenheit during midday, to zero and below while we were eating our dinner of leftover soup--the best kind there is--and pasta overcooked in the Scandinavian way. Then we settled into our bunks and read by the light of our gas lantern. We listened to the howling of the huskies, which intensified as the settled in properly, and would go on for the rest of the night. We imagined they were wolves--some of them probably came close--and we were explorers, and made their yearning our own.
"Let's go out on the lake," my friend suggested. I was very much up for that. We put on clothes until we were bundled up to our noses and stepped out into the biting cold. We clipped on our skis and slid down towards the lake. We must have looked like fur balls on barrel boards judging from the looks we got from the couple of people that were still outside, feeding the dogs.
In summer, this was lake shore resort. Now, the boat ramp was a gentle slope onto the lake for snow mobiles, trucks, and us girls on skis. Under bright stars, unhampered by any artificial lighting, we skied out onto the lake, leaving the cabins and huskies and the ever-present smells of beer and cigarettes behind. The air cooled my lungs and froze my nose. The stars blinked on and off in a completely black sky. Occasionally, a meteor streaked across, leaving a sparkling trail. Nobody in their right mind would be out. I totally loved it and gave myself the the rhythm of skis and poles, running, straggling, gliding across the snow. Behind, I heard the crunching of Ruth's skis and the tapping of her poles. There was nothing else.
We must have gone several kilometers. We had worked up a a good sweat, then stopped, listened. The starlight reflected on the snow and we could see quite well. The irregularities of the frozen snow on top of the ice threw shadow patterns. Where we stood, the ice was almost swept bare by the wind. I cleared a small area with my gloved hand and stared into the ice, hoping to see a fallen leaf trapped, or even a fish that would swim off during the thaw, as if nothing had happened between fin strokes.
Only one thing was missing to make the night absolute perfection. The aurora h, heard our silent wish and put out a curtain of yellow and green streaks, and dancing ribbons across the sky, moving and changing shape and color, so that the eyes could never rest on any detail, but had to take in the spectacle only in its wholeness. The light show covered a large portion of the sky. I only half- listened to Ruth's comments, how such a display was unusual for the time of year, how she'd seen a display this expansive once before, and how we might get a change in weather soon. She finally fell quiet when I gave her the evil eye, smiled, and then just stood together, looking in the same direction. I felt secure in a perfect moment of peace, united with the icy world around me, comfortable in spite of the cold, the snow, and the loneliness.
A shot rang. A loud bang. with its echo, the ice under my feet vibrated. A stab of fear shot through my chest and into my stomach, where it started to roll around in restless turns.
"The ice is breaking," I said, a little too loud, a little too fast.
"Yeah, sure," Ruth said. We laughed nervously, aware of the improbability, but not quite reassured by reason. As the analytical half of our friendship, I laid it out for us.
"One, it's way too early in the year," I said.
The ice breaks in June, after several weeks of warm, mucky, mosquito-dominated weather. Now, the temperatures barely reached freezing during midday. I reminded us that it was called freezing point for a reason.
"Two, the ice is too thick," I continued.
The ice of Tornetraesk was several meters thick, in layers of several feet each, with water in between them. I knew that, because I had drilled for water in a frozen lake before, in winter, on another trip. At the worst, we'd sink in a few feet and pull ourselves back out? "We can handle that, yes?"
Ruth nodded. "But it's not breaking anyway. You saw the trucks earlier today. The tracks across the lake are still open."
"Besides, it's the wrong time of day. Ice doesn't break in the middle of the night." I said that with a lot more conviction than I felt. Actually, I wasn't so sure about this at all, but all the footage of ice breaking I'd ever seen was taken during daylight. And in summer.
"Maybe this is normal," I finally said. "You know, releasing tension in the ice in the evening. The differential--" that sounded very scientific and reassuring. "The differential in temperature creates uneven tension, and the cracking is the release.
"So it IS cracking! Ruth shouted. "We..."
"Well, not really cracking, just..."
Another shot rang. This one sounded further away, yet, was much louder. My voice failed. I was gripped with animal unease. My feet urged me to turn and run.
'Calm down,' my reason whispered. 'Don't be a wimp.'
The way Ruth glanced at me strongly suggested shared sentiments. We were increasingly uncomfortable. My clothes seemed hot while the cold was creeping into my light skiing booties.
"Maybe it's a hunter," Ruth suggested rather feebly.
"Hunting what?" I challenged her.
"OK, no good. What if it's an earthquake?"
This was so far out, and I forced a laugh at our silliness, pointing out how we do this stuff to each other, build up an expectation of disaster when we hear unexplainable sounds, which every time turned out to be harmless. Like, when we had heard the forest fire last summer, camping in a beautiful birch forest in Northern Norway, and we didn't sleep most of the night, instead, conjuring up survival scenarios. Can you save yourself by jumping into the lake? In the morning, we found a waterfall that was the source of the roaring sounds, and I took a shower to solidify its presence and wash away the night's doom scenario. We were just doing it again now, and I couldn't shake it off, and neither could my friend.
"What if spring decided to come right now?" she said.
I laughed her off on the outside, while my inner eye saw the lake crashing open, the thundering of ice deafened my ears, the moaning of the lake as it reluctantly awakened to the sun sounded like the dead returning to get us. I dreamed up two young women lost on an ice float riding North towards the Arctic Ocean where we would be swallowed by a whale, skis and all.
I shook my head to spill out the silly thoughts. Like drops of water they flew off, and like drips of water they stuck to our hats and jackets and froze to stay.
We watched the aurora again. My discomfort settled into a small corner of my mind. The lights flickered purple now and had moved west. We stayed and watched while our hands and feet grew cold and our noses lost all feeling, but we could not let go of the cosmic beauty.
A shot rang.
The ice shivered.
A cracking sound rushed towards us.
Fast. I looked down.
A thin crack opened between my feet and raced on into the night.
I made no decision. My skis turned and ran towards the black silhouettes that out outlined the large boulders of the shoreline. The icy air froze my throat. I ignored it and push my skis to glide as hard as my clammy legs would move. I thought no thought. There was no time or distance. I ran and ran and ran until I ran into the first boulder, scarring my skis and bruising my knees, and hugged the stone with my arms like it was the mother-protective of all life.
I was safe, rescued, supported. I had escaped what seemed like certain termination. I pulled my scarf over my mouth allowing my breath to warm.
Ruth pulled up, collapsed towards the rock, leaned on me, breathing in a hard, slowing rhythm. We waited and listened. Finally, we looked at each other, laughed nervously. But we didn't go back out. We removed our skis and scrambled onto the rocks. To the percussion accompaniment of the ice stretching and rearranging itself on top of its waterbed, we watched the aurora fade until the sweat on our faces had frozen into a thin layer of ice.