To hasten the end of winter, I like to go down the lake and kick ice.
Every winter I’ve been here in Chicago has been brutal. Weeks and weeks of unending ice and grey sludge in the streets. Temperatures so low they lock up all the moisture in the air; getting bloody micro-cracks across my knuckles. The constant need to lotion up my shins (why those?). So cold it’s impossible to ride; or if you do ride, so cold you can’t keep the tires inflated, and you fear the bike will shatter into a thousand metal shards when you hit a bump. Or, so icy you fall down again and again and again until you give up, walking an hour home, dragging a useless bicycle with your numb hands, your backside bruised and wet with slush.
So when the melt finally comes, and on the first barely warm day, I go down the lake. Usually you can find great jagged piles of ice, kilometers long and meters high. The wind whips it up, you see the waves are driven up over the seawall, and they freeze there before they have a chance to run back into the lake. The snowstorms will drive the snow against the steps, where it’ll stick. Or there’ll be layers of ice, slightly melted in a weak sun, refrozen again when night comes. Oftentimes the ice is full of dirt–whatever has been churned up off the floor of the lake by the angry winter waves–and there’ll be a skin of more dirt that rises to the top of the ice wherever some water has evaporated. The ice lingers, great mounds of it.
The first warm day, I go down and I kick ice. Sometimes you can only bust up a little bit of the edges, and you have to move on to another patch. There’ll be other places where there’s a good soft spot, and you can bust through and really do some damage.
The fun of kicking ice is strategically making chunks big enough to break up with a foot, then giving them a great kick seaward, so the chunks go flying over the seawall. The noise it makes hitting the water is fantastic. Crash! If you kick a big flat one fast enough, you can make a ferocious splash. Other times, you lose velocity, and they limp over the edge, almost vertical, and barely make a sound as they ease into the water.
There’s a grave danger involved in this, which I respect but don’t necessarily fear. I wear regular sneakers, because they’re going to get dirty. I pick whatever is messiest or oldest, and thus also the slipperiest and most worn out. The cold, wet concrete gives pretty good grip, since it’s grooved, but it’s ice we’re talking about–it’s slippery. When you kick at it, you can usually tell where it’s going to go and (more importantly) how much resistance it’s going to give you. Just like in shooting, you have to judge the kickback correctly or you’ll hurt yourself. I temper the danger with technique: first I punch straight down on the ice with the back of my heel, several times if need be, then when I think I got a good one loosened up, I’ll give it a full pitch from the hip. Usually, this works and you get the splash. But there’s a risk of following the ice right into the lake. How much is it worth doing? How deadly would the water be? After all, it’s not frozen. Could I make it to the nearest ladder if I fell in? Respect the lake. But attack the ice.
I like seeing lake dissolve the ice. Like I said, lot of times the ice is muddy, it’s full of stones, the chaff that rises up to the skin of any melting and refreezing ice. When you send a good ice chunk into the blue water, a stream of brown silt usually flows off of it. The waves’ll wash over the ice chunk, carry away the silt, in a slow plume. Sometimes you’ll find a pure, white chunk under there. More often, it’ll fracture into a dozen pieces before you see any clean ice. Usually, it all just melts dirty, then gone.
It’s funny how long the ice can last, how many minutes. Drifting away like a dirty ghost. But it can never outlast the waves and the water–however cold it may be–because liquid water is always warmer than ice. There’s a solidity in that, a certainty. It’ll go.
And that’s the real reason to go down kicking ice. Every bit of ice you send skittering over the wall brings spring and summer that much closer. It’s a public service, getting rid of ice. We’ve got to get rid of it, because if the lake path is still crusted over with ice, then it’s still winter, and winter’s got to go.
I kick last winter right into the water. Sometimes only a bit. Sometimes it’s not time yet and I have to come back. Sometimes I find places where the meltwater is coming out, and there’s a small trickle already, or a big one. I can tell it doesn’t need much of my help. But if there’s a trickle I’ll build dams, sometimes, figuring if I can make a big pond of water, that’ll rinse away more ice and faster than I can do with my shoe. But usually I get bored of all that eventually and smash it all up and kick everything into the water.
It’s all got to go. My trips down the lake are restorative, peaceful. Nobody else wants this work; I get the whole city’s shoreline to myself, and as I say it can run on forever. So I walk, kicking, and thinking.
I feel cheated. This winter has been the mildest I’ve seen since I moved to Chicago. Right now there is not a bit of ice anywhere on the shore–and there isn’t even any slush or rutted ice in the streets, either. It isn’t fair. There’s nothing to do down the lake, and it’s not dangerous to go kicking, walking, thinking. And this weekend it was already crowded, at least by February standards. My good work isn’t needed.