I caught myself cursing the cold. Six inches of fresh snow covers the ground. Temperatures are supposed to be 20 degrees warmer than they are and while winter is supposed to be winding down, it feels like it’s just getting started. I want the spring and the migratory fish runs it brings, but my reality is the cold, the largely fishless cold.
I hike in through the fresh snow. We got another inch or two today and the half-moon shines through a wispy haze of a cloud cover and reflects off the snow to make the night pretty bright. The creek is 75% covered by ice and I approach one of the few openings. The river flows two feet beneath the surface of the ice. I turn my head lamp on, slip underwater, and my world is narrowed into the beam that shines on the bottom
A black nosed dace leans against a rock. His clean gold above, cream below and black striped body is an artful contrast to the drab olive algae that covers the surrounding bottom. The dace’s red tinged pectorals and caudal fin almost glow. The fish is lethargic with cold and I suspect I inadvertently rousted the dace from his winter home. A northern case maker caddisfly creeps along the rock a few inches above the fish.
I pull upstream against the current into the ice cave formed above the swiftly flowing water. Silver icicles hang from the roof and almost touch the water that also shines in the light. I feel like I have entered into Jack Frost’s palace through the moat.
Last week there was ice from the surface to the bottom. Today the ice sits a foot above the waters’ surface and the ice cave it forms is adorned with jewels. I am fascinated by the dynamics. How does this happen and change from solid top to bottom to hollowed beneath? How does ice affect the ecology of the creek? Where was this dace last week when the water here was hard? It is intensely beautiful, a crystalline palace, with fanciful gravity defying sparkling frozen shapes.
I feel fortunate to have witnessed this beauty, this frozen ephemeral world that will be gone. Maybe next week, maybe in a month but it will be gone, and will never return the same. The ice that forms next year will be different than this sculpture just as this ice is very different than last winters. The shad will be here again, I hope, and the ice will be gone. But for now I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in this ephemeral frozen world.