At the Stewart Park Promontory and Cayuga Lake ice field
- Temperature: 30 degrees
- Wind: 2-8 MPH
- Clouds: Yes, overcast, gray-white everywhere
- Canada geese on land and others flying against the wind
- A hawk harassing a gull over the ice
- Lots of people at east end of the park walking out on the ice
It’s been frigidly cold in Ithaca for weeks. Cold that prevents you from going out to play in the snow. Cold that freezes your fingers in minutes. Cold that prompted the Ithaca tourism board to recommend that potential tourists head to Key West, instead of Ithaca. (This was a strategic advertising campaign which got the tourism board website hundreds of thousands of hits in one day. The bureau estimates that 10 to 15 million people heard about the campaign over the ensuing days, and thus, now know where Ithaca, NY is on the map.)
In the fourteen years I have lived in Ithaca, Cayuga Lake—40 miles long, 3.5 miles at its widest point, and 435 feet deep—has never frozen over. There are a few documented cases from the past 160 years when the lake did freeze completely: 1856, 1885, 1912, 1918, 1934, 1948, 1962, and 1979.
This year, the ice has pushed the farthest from shore that we've seen, and my husband, Rob, wanted to take the kids as far out as they could go. So we all headed to Stewart Park on the warmest day we've had in weeks (30 degrees).
I wandered over to the Promontory, while they set out into the ether.
I was distracted from the start. Wondering where they were headed, how far they could really go, and if walking out onto the ice was really the best idea in the world? I followed the post-hole steps of one other brave path walker around the loop until the footsteps veered off onto ice-locked Fall Creek. I followed. I stumbled around the edges of the Promontory looking for something to inspire my visit. Though a few windswept snow drifts captured my attention, there wasn't much of note, except the white.
Sitting on the bench looking north over the lake, the white filled everything, the wind was low, the air crisp, but not shocking. Then rose their voices; carrying across the ice, pulling me away from my seclusion at the Promontory and back into my world, the world of family. I saw them, three dark forms—one large, one medium, one small—picking their way across the vast field, getting farther and farther away from me.
Watching them shrink into the distance, I realized that the most profound thing I would find at the Promontory was this ice field, and the three people I love most who were on it.
I left the bench, struggled through knee high snow drifts, grabbed branches for balance and clambered down the bank and onto the thick ice sheet. It was a desert. There was no context for distance, space, time. Take away the gray hillsides and it was how I imagine Antarctica to be. I trudged, seeming to make no progress toward or away from anything.
In some places the wind had whipped the ice bare and my boots slipped easily. In other places the snow had crusted over the top into a smooth, hard face, like oak floorboards. About two tenths of a mile out, the surface texture changed to a rough, jagged, jumble of chunks. Layer after layer of ice slabs jutting up from the thickness below. I stopped there. My family was about another tenth of a mile out, but they were turning back.
Above me I heard a piercing cry. The dark form of a hawk swooped up and down on the drafts, seemingly harassing a gray gull. The gull evaded the hawk, but they kept up their dance for a few minutes. Finally, one bird went one way, the second went the other. It was interesting, but the show, like the ice, held no context.
My family caught up with me, I caught up with them. My son eagerly showed me the triangular ice chunk shaped like a shark fin he planned to keep as a souvenir. My stepdaughter moved slowly, wisps of blond hair sticking out beneath her hat, still clicking pictures on her camera. My husband grinned beneath his enormous, red, poofy coat, clearly pleased at the success of the ice-sheet excursion. We all marveled at how far we had come.
I’m not sure what experience I would have had, had I been at the Promontory or out on the ice alone. Perhaps something deeply philosophical would have arisen. But nature isn't always a solitary thing. Its wonder and magic can be amplified or altered by what other people see and share. I even contend that sometimes, it should be. The truth is, my life is not just about me. For good and bad, everything I do affects or is affected by these three people.
We began the Antarctic trek back across the ice and I looked over at the indistinguishable peninsula that is my Promontory. I could sort of see the Boat House hidden in the trees, but it was vague. Along with the sky, the ice, the birds. The whiteness made everything vague. The one thing that wasn't vague in all that gray haze, was my family. They were colorful and solid and right in front of me. It is they who give my life context.