Here in Maine, ice is both the precursor and hanger-on of winter. It arrives as October's first frost – decimating the garden in one fell swoop – and lingers long past spring's first gleaming.
As I look out my window at the sidearm of the Penobscot River on which I live, it is still locked up tight, bound from bank to bank with a flat, unbroken sheet of ice as gray and smooth as slate. Well after spring has arrived, it will persist like a remnant of that extinct civilization called winter.
While snow may come and go, ice is a constant during the cold months. It not only transforms the waterways, but, greedily, it clutches at everything: fence posts, windshields, telephone poles and wires, and the eaves of the house, where it hangs down like sharks' teeth, glistening in the sun.
Recently my 10-year-old son and I came home on a fairly mild day to find huge stalactites of ice hanging from the gutters. "Wow!" Anton shouted, which inspired me to grab hold of one and break it loose at the root, like unseating a tusk. I handed him the four-foot-long ice stick and then extracted one for myself. We indulged in a bit of swordplay until the ice lay in shards at our feet.
By the next afternoon, after another thaw-and-freeze cycle, the things hung in front of the back door like a portcullis, through which my son burst in an exuberance of ice fever.
The power of ice goes beyond pleasing a child. Every winter, without fail, I bite my lip in daily anticipation of the day when a door won't close or a window won't open. As the ice sinks its claws into the earth about the house, it heaves our abode like a weight lifter hoisting a large piece of furniture on his back. This leads to the ritual of having to lean heavy objects against doors to keep them from swinging open. And then, one day, the heaving subsides, the weight lifter drops his load, and all our hatches are once again battened.
This winter began in mild fashion. But then, at the end of January, it turned bitter. The cold was so profound that it felt as if it were coming not at me, but from inside me. There just seemed to be no way to stay warm.
Ice formed on the walls inside our house, low down, next to the beds. This is due to ice's ability to creep along, like a living thing. It comes up under foundations, through windows, and under doors.
But worst of all is when ice creeps up under the shingles, and there seems to be no way to stop it.
The thing is this: When ice gets under the shingles, it is, ironically, waiting for warmth. When that sunny day comes, it melts, but it doesn't retreat to where it came from. Instead, it heads straight down through the ceiling and into the house.
Two winters ago, the problem was so severe that I had to commandeer every pot, pan, and mixing bowl we owned to contain the weird interior rainfall. No fun at all.
Warmth, of course, does eventually come, but ice can be fiercely resistant to the interloper. I remember one winter when the thermometer shot up to 50 degrees F. I took my son to a nearby lake for some skating. A neighbor warned us, "It's 50 degrees! You'll fall through."
This was, of course, nonsense. When a lake puts down 18 inches of ice, nothing short of a lava flow is going to compromise it in so short a time. Eighteen inches! Enough to hold a dump truck, never mind a tall, skinny man and his little boy.
But no matter how cold it is and for how long, the steadily lengthening days slowly take their toll. With increased exposure to the sun, the ice to a large extent forgoes its transition to water and simply sublimes, or evaporates, from solid to gas, as if it were giving up its spirit.
Like an entity that has lived among us and doesn't wish to be forgotten, ice leaves its footprint where it can.
Last year, well into May – when the fields were green, the rivers were rolling, and the trees had leafed out – I went for a hike up a nearby mountain to gain a view of the whole lovely scene.
The path was wet but sure, and I was making good time. And then, as I came around a bend, I stepped onto a sheet of ice as slick as oil, and tumbled back down the path, landing, in the words of Robert Frost, "on the seat of my sense."
If the ice could have spoken, I'm sure it would have said, "I'm still here."