This might seem odd to some readers, but I am always sorry to see our ice melt. I have concluded by now that the weeks of spring in the high north, as in the high mountains, are the most wonderful weeks of the year. Under the wheeling sun and 24-hour daylight, the flat smooth plain of McLeod Bay stretches for miles – 72 to be precise – to the south and west, 8 to 12 straight across and southeast. It is a smooth, surprisingly dry surface, beautifully textured for walking and running, landings and takeoffs. The planes sit on it, tied down to logs laid crosswise beneath drilled holes, taxiing and landing easily and smoothly on tires, with the skis in the “up” position if we have not taken them off completely. We run on it, fish through it, walk and laugh and chase puppies. Summer, really, with not a mosquito or a tourist in sight. A little private lake has opened at the mouth of the river, where grayling jump and terns swoop and loons yodel.
Little by little, hour by hour, day after day, even the big ice goes away. There are an untold number of variables in the annual progression of spring melt. It is not a straight-line process, but a wild mess of chaos and physics and climatology. Looked at from above, the bay is a patchwork quilt of enormous trapezoidal pans, each with a slightly different crystalline structure and rate of decay. Even a dedicated team of scientists could spend many lifetimes trying to unravel and quantify the vagaries of breakup. And over those decades, there would be more changes.
One thing, though, is crucial to the process: heat, from our dear old star. Even I can understand that. By this date, June 7th, there is as much heat in a day’s sun as there will be on the 4th of July, because we are on the flip side of the summer solstice. If I had to hazard a guess, it would be that on average, come June first, out on McLeod Bay, the ice dwindles at a rate of about two inches every 24 hours.
A few short weeks ago we had 53 inches of ice out by the hole where we have been collecting our winter drinking water. As of today that area has become black and candled, a rotting latticework of slender shards creaking and groaning under footsteps. Beyond that, out away from shore, floating atop water many hundreds of feet deep, the ice is still solid, not yet weakened to the point we call “making noise.” An airplane could still be sitting on it, landing and taking off — but now that time is over. The Husky is on floats, using the wide swath of open water at the river mouth for takeoff and landing. The Bush Hawk is in Nunavut, 230 miles northwest of home, where I write today (we are grounded in slashing rain and high winds). This plane here is still on wheel-skis, for one final job up near the Arctic coast before the start of float season. (Even bits and pieces of the Northwest Passage are showing signs of loosening up by early June.)
As spring progresses, the tracks of winter, the packed lines of snow left by hundreds of departures by dogsled, snowmobile, ski-plane, and footstep, all emerge briefly into view, then fade, then disappear. The winter’s slate of stories is wiped clean. Soon the ripple of open water, then the season of huge floating pans and the tinkle of ice candles (ahh, perfect for evening Scotch), and finally the deep blue of this inland sea, flecked with whitecaps and the rhythmic surge of honest-to-goodness rollers.
Down the bay the old boat is now floating free in the cove which makes its winter harbor (sorry Brits, I’m an Illinois boy and I just can’t stick that “u” in there!) I flew past it yesterday as I left home to start this job. Looking at it, eager to set sail, I knew it would be a while yet. It will be late June, maybe the first of July. Far out in the bay the ice still looks so solid and white that I wonder, as I wonder each year, that it will ever melt at all.
Farewell to the ice, at two inches a day. 40 to go, way out there? June 29? Bets, anyone?