/ Opinions / Gray to white

Gray to white

April 17, 2020 by Ted Rulseh


Last Friday afternoon I sat on the lakefront screen porch, needing only a fleece for warmth, and listened as the melt water from the roof hit the leaves on the ground below. It was a lovely sound after a snow melt that had been agonizingly slow, highs in the upper 30s, low 40s at best, and back to well below freezing overnight, the decline in snow all but imperceptible.

But on that Friday the temperature reached the low 50s and the sun beat down on the rooftops, the woods, the lake. If your lake is like mine, just a few days before, the ice surface as seen from atop a slope looked gray interspersed with the white of snow. If you went to investigate, you found the ice, in the bare patches, still rock solid. For walking on it, ice creepers would have been a good idea.

A couple of warm days, though, changed things greatly. From our porch, Birch Lake’s surface shone pure white in the sun, almost as if new snow had fallen. Knowing that had not happened, I went down for a close look. 

The whiteness came from a grainy slush about an inch deep, the product of a day or two of serious melting. This surface provided great traction for my boots; I could walk on the lake in a way I could not for much of the winter, mostly because of deep snow.

So I did some walking, near the shoreline and out toward the middle, knowing it was safe because, just days before, my ice fishing auger had drilled down two feet before hitting a gusher of water. The ice remained plenty thick. Sunlight doesn’t do much melting on its own when striking a stark white, highly reflective surface. Most of the sun’s rays just bounce back into the air, unless they strike something of a darker color.

To see the difference a bit of non-reflective surface makes, just look at the accompanying picture. The sun heated up that brown oak leaf so well that it had melted its way two inches into the ice by the time I observed it that Friday afternoon. 

The real decline in the ice sheet will begin as more water opens up along shore and the sun can beat down, warm the bottom sediment thus warming the water, and melt the ice from below.

Even in the lake’s still firmly iced-over state, I found early signs of breakup. Stress cracks in the ice had widened. At one spot well out from shore, a gap about four feet long and six inches wide had opened along a crack. I steered clear.

As I write this on March 28, I look forward to a series of three sunny days in the 50s. I wish I could say with authority that it won’t be too long until ice-out. Instead I can take solace in that snow melt dripping from the roof, and the rivulets streaming down our road.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, “A Lakeside Companion,” published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at [email protected]


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