I came out here thinking, for whatever reason, that today would be a hike in the woods. I suppose all this talk of “wilderness” has me in a woodsy frame of mind, because I’ve always associated that term with a forest. There’s plenty of forest out here, and I look forward to watching winter progress and hope that spring will arrive early enough for me to see it unfold here, too.
Nugget and the humble cabin
Frost on the door, and the frozen lake in the background
I knitted the infinity scarf. The hat is atrocious.
I wasn’t thinking about the temperature, either. (Insert picture of utterly ridiculous hat I had to dig out of the closet because I forgot a beanie…where did we get this hat anyway? None of us hunt and we all despise camo. Whose hat is this? I look like Ma Kettle. )
If I had been thinking about temperature, I’d have remembered that this is the week for the annual ice walk. Granted, the temperatures have to cooperate, but in January the temps almost always drop below freezing for at least a week, and if it’s cold for 10 days, the lake is frozen over. I’m delighted to see it when I turn onto the lane, and moreover, it has that rare, glassy look. This is ice you can skate on, which requires a perfect concoction of weather; the lake froze last week in bitterly cold temps, and then on Sunday we had rain and the air warmed up just enough for the top half-inch of ice to melt, and then it froze again when the sun went down. The result is Zamboni-quality ice. I can see it reflecting back the blue sky.
So I decide that today should be devoted to an ice walk, because it’s an infrequent phenomenon, and because it’s so beautiful and so meditative. And hell, why pass up the opportunity to risk my life all by myself in place with no other people and no cell service?
I brought the girls, Maya and Nugget, with me. How could I not? They’ve taught me as much as anyone about nature. The entire way out I saw nothing in the rear view mirror but the shepherd’s hulking form, her goofy smile almost making up for breath that could knock out a steer. Nugget jumped up to the front, and then to the back, over and over. They knew where they were going, and they recognized when I stepped on the brake to get off on our exit. That’s always their cue to get stupid-excited and begin to pace and pant.
The thing about being a dog—or at least, being one of my dogs—is that there’s nothing in the world that isn’t great. Everything is an opportunity for exploration. Every tree must be sniffed to see who went before them, and whether they’re investigating a log or a pile of leaves, everything is of equal interest. There’s nothing, outside of an unguarded turkey carcass, that is of any more value than anything else. That tin can? Sniff it. That crow? Bark at it. That raccoon carcass? Jackpot! They see the world as an open door, and there’s naught but wonder in it.
Perhaps that’s today’s lesson. I came out here wanting to see the landscape with the eyes of a single, solitary person in the quiet. But I brought the moron twins with me, and instead spent more time watching them than I did thinking deep thoughts. Hint taken, Universe. I shall watch the dogs, today, along with the ice.
(I also notice, when we hike, that there’s no end to the contents of a dog’s digestive and urinary systems. It’s like they’ve saved it up. How many poops can one animal take in the span of 10 minutes? I’ll tell you. It’s 7. Bombs away!)
I make my way down to the lake and the snow is crunchy. The Conservancy lets the lake drop in November, and it rises again at the end of March. The docks are high and dry, and they look ridiculous, hovering in midair. At its deepest point Piedmont Lake is 38 feet, I believe. Our cove, which is shown in my photographs, is probably no more than 25, and that would be way out in the original stream bed.
Piedmont was created in 1938 when the Muskingum Watershed ConservancyDistrict dammed Stillwater Creek. The MWCD created about a dozen other flood control lakes at the time. My grandparents started coming out here when they were young and the lake was brand new. My dad and uncle spent weekends fishing and swimming on the family boat. In 1974, my parents were taking a drive one winter around Piedmont and stumbled down Goodrich Road. There was a For Sale sign on the very last house, the one so quietly tucked into the woods, surrounded on three sides by forest. They paid $27k for it. The previous owners had lived there full-time, and the school bus had journeyed all the way out there every morning to pick up the kids.
It’s quiet here, but it’s not silent. There’s a big difference. The lake lies under an air traffic corridor, and planes heading for Pittsburgh are always overhead. In addition to noise from above, in the stillness I can hear a low hum of reverberation. There is machinery on the move this morning. It’s 9am and it’s 16 degrees and civilization isn’t far away. The echo-y nature of the hills makes it impossible to determine the source of the activity, but I know it’s the bad guys, the frackers, driving on the roads and moving dirt. The noise that carries down to the ice reminds me of the thunder we hear in the distance in the summers, rolling in. Unlike summer thunder, this roar isn’t going to pass off to the east any time soon; it’s like living in the shadow of Mordor and Frodo sold the oil and gas rights under the Shire to Sauron. Shit.
This is the field being considered for an oil and gas well. The cabin lies on the other side.
Ice heaving up onto the beach
I walk along the shoreline and the ice sings to me. Ice sings songs—did you know that? We think of ice as a solid, steadfast barrier between us and the water below, but ice is alive. (That’s a cliché but for a reason.) When it gets thick, it shifts. Water molecules, upon freezing, naturally form tetrahedral configurations, meaning that frozen water expands. (I learned this the hard way when I took my father’s German wine glass, filled it with orange juice and put it in the freezer overnight. Seemed like a good idea at the time.) Along the shoreline the ice is cracked and heaved up on the beach. Out on the surface I can hear the ice’s heartbeat, a random but unending wump wump. It sounds sort of like bubbles, but I think it’s the various pieces of ice rubbing against one another as it shifts and sighs. I try to record it, but I’m not sure such a subtle noise will be picked up by a smart phone. In reality, it sounds like digestion.
I haven’t the cojones to walk out on the ice yet, so I throw a rock and listen to it crash down and skid along. Years and years here have given me the aged ability to judge the thickness of the ice by sound. Emerson, in the reading, mentioned playing the ice-harp, and I know exactly what he’s talking about:
“A thin coat of ice covered the pond, but melted around the edge of the shore. I threw a stone upon the ice, which rebounded with a shrill sound, and falling again and again, repeated the note with modulation. I thought at first it was the ‘peep peep’ of a bird I had scared. I was so taken with the music that I threw down my stick and spent twenty minutes in throwing stones single or in handfuls on this crystal drum.”
There’s a video going around right now of a young guy in Alaska who throws a rock onto a frozen lake and it reverberates with a wonky alto boi-oi-oing. (Start at 3:35 mark.) This is the ice harp, and it indicates the ice is thick but not trustworthy. Never walk on ice that pings. Today, however, the rock makes a dull thud when it hits, and there is no vibration at all. It can bear the weight of a man and a fishing hut (if anyone were so inclined to waste their time ice fishing…only once have I ever seen a hut out here, and once I saw a car on the ice…that can only happen after 3+ weeks of temps steadily below freezing). Nevertheless, I keep to the shore after a crack hundreds of yards long bursts forth right between my legs. I’m safe—it’s very thick—but it’s unnerving and I’m so alone.
And these rules are my own, gleaned from years of Januaries, not the word of ice professionals. Walk at your own risk, kids.
Grab that rock!
Maya, however, is an idiot, and immediately runs out to fetch the rock I’ve chucked. Maya loves rocks. Her teeth are worn and sawed-off from the bricks she carries around the backyard. Rocks make her crazy; she whines and yammers at them as she gnaws. It once cost me $2300 to have a lava rock surgically removed from her stomach. The vet took pity on me and gave me a $300 discount because we’d just repaired her torn ACL six months earlier to a similar financial tune. Damn dog. She fetches every rock I throw, proving for certain that the ice is strong enough way out there to support a blubbery 83 pounds of stupid.
Happy buffoon gnaws rock
I love her. She and Nugget are the only animals I have seen today, save for the red-tailed hawk on the wire on the drive in, and the bird I believe to be a swift lurking around the shoreline. Every creature has gone away or to sleep.
Acres and acres of ice to the south
I walk along the shoreline until I reach the bend in the lake. I peer around it and see the channel leading off to the south; everything is frozen. I’m talking manically in a Scottish accent to my dogs, about the nature of ice and cracks and wondering why I feel the need to fill up the silence when I get an unmistakable whiff of skunk. I can’t see any critters around, and the stink does tend to carry for hundreds of yards. He’s probably way up in the woods. I was wrong–not every creature has gone. Nevertheless, it’s a good time to turn around. When I do, I look back towards our lane on the hillside and see the cabins, roughly 25 of them, squatting in the woods above the lake. They’re all deserted except for our neighbor Frank, who lives here full time with his two yappy shelties. Twenty-five families who have summer homes, who have to schedule their time with nature between 5pm Friday and 8pm Sunday.
We have to work so hard to relax.
I think my parents kept the curtains and rug from the 1970’s.
I sit in the cabin to enjoy silence with a cup of tea, but the heat is slow to crank up, and my digits are too cold to type. Moreover, I’m in a lake frame of mind. Writing will happen at home, reflectively, in fleece pants.
1. A dog is a fine role model. Everything is nature to her. Everything is equal in her eyes, worthy of her time and energy. Whether or not it brings her pleasure, she inspects it all the same. The things that do bring her pleasure are reveled in. She’s joyful. She’s happy to be alive.
2. Ice has an audible heartbeat. It sings. It’s not to be trusted and takes 35 years, at the least, to learn.
3. I get a kick out of the same simian rock-throwing behavior that amused Ralph Waldo Emerson.
4. Change is coming to Piedmont. It remains to be seen how much change, and how noticeable that change may be. It’s not silent out there. Humans are on the move, and no matter what Rogers says, there is nothing natural about what is about to happen here.
Bonus lesson: Pee before I lock up the cabin. Those were some frozen, alabaster hams.
Look at this freshwater clam! He’s hauling buns. That’s probably 7 hours worth of movement.
Here is a 5-minute video from my morning Piedmont Lake ice walk. You can hear the ice talking around the 20-second mark, 30-second mark, and as an occasional wump wump in the background. The dogs had a great hike.
As I was packing to leave, the sun blessed me and the ice by showing it’s face and the clouds blew away. I noticed that the ice was less reflective with direct light upon it, or perhaps the magic of the early morning was gone for another 24 hours.
Best rock ever, suitable for teaching young ones to jump.
It was good to see the sun.
The dock, suspended by Dad’s weird rope contraption. Notice it’s still crooked.
It takes about an hour to get here. Of course as a child I hopped into the car with little more than sneakers on my feet and a vague notion that I was supposed to have brought pajamas and clean underoos, and my concerns were limited only to the size and capacity of my bladder. When the lake came into view we bounced around and eventually tumbled out of the car, dizzy with travel vertigo and sweat and excitement. My dad’s stupid Irish Setter, Barney, paced and drooled and farted all over the station wagon, but even this couldn’t dampen our spirits.
Wheeling is located along I-70 southwest of Pittsburgh.
Aerial photo of the dam at Piedmont
In this lifetime, this adult lifetime, the travel hour is the easiest. The early part of the day will have seen me shopping for the weekend, and packing the food and the kids’ clothing, worrying about poison ivy cream and diarrhea medicine (the great blowout of June 2014), becoming more sour and more dour and hoping only to make it to the cabin without cursing at the children and Shawn (who, between the three of them, do more than their share of drooling and farting in the car). I’m the mom now, and it’s work to get back to nature. It’s an effort to create this childhood for Ben and Andy. So much so that I’ve lost touch with Piedmont Lake in recent years, so much so that I need to reconnect with something that’s as familiar as my own hands, as my own reflection. I’ve spent my lifetime in this cabin, summers and summers, and so it is with both ease and effort that I choose it for the location of this journal. Another location, a spot of old-growth forest to the south or a waterfall close to home would be simpler, and more foreign, and in so choosing this place I make more work for myself, because to know this place, this cabin in the woods, I’m going to have to do some real work, peel back the onion layers of my life here, forget the fights with that damn 9.9 horsepower motor, and the sunburns, and the spot on the couch where the dog fell so deeply asleep that she lost all bladder control. In a literal sense, I have to actually see the forest for the trees, to bring that wretched cliche to life.
For thirty-five years I’ve been coming to Piedmont Lake. I’ve never once come alone. I’ve never driven out in silence with only the excited pant of expectant dogs (how could I leave them behind?), and I’ve never walked to Dad’s frog pond by myself, or sat by The Magnificent Beech Tree (he borrowed a bit of A.A. Milne when I was 5) in silence. Always there have been parents, or partners, or children at my heels, in my ears. Always there have been conversations and thoughts and chatter and sighs and someone taking a leak on a tree.
It’s time to find the quiet part of Piedmont, by myself. It’s time to see it with eyes that aren’t peering out from the body of a child, or a mother.
This time, I find nature for myself. This time, I take the leaks.
Our first date in 2002, walking on the ice at Piedmont. My dad took the photo. Yeah, he was there on our first date. I figured, what the hell. If he doesn’t like my father and he doesn’t like my lake, he’s out. He ended up falling through the ice and spilling hot tea on his crotch.
Teaching Benjamin to fish when he was 2
Somebody tell the dog that it’s not polite to sit on the breakfast table.