“I can’t take my eyes off you for a second,” my mother sighed, reaching to turn up the heat in the car. “Are you sure we don’t need to stop at Sears on the way home?” she added teasingly, referring to the time I’d fallen into the fountain at the mall.
I grinned. “Nope, I think I’m good with just going home. Believe it or not, I’m not three years old anymore.”
The afternoon had started innocently enough. We’d driven down to Evanston for her to give a presentation on Lightroom, and after lunch, she’d asked if I wanted to drive over to the lake to take pictures. I agreed, since even on cloudy sixteen-degree (F) days, the snowdrifty ice sculptures are usually worth seeing. We parked the car and trudged across the oddly porous surface of the beach, whose sand-like color and texture belied the fact that it gave underfoot like week-old snow. We paused briefly to admire the marbling of colors that occurred where the wind had mixed snow and sand, and then she headed for the erosion wall while I made for the shoreline.
Lake Michigan is too wide to see across, deep enough for tallships to sail through, and located in area where winter temperatures hover close to freezing, so the ever-present wind has plenty of chances to toss up large waves before the surface alongshore glazes over with a thin coating of ice. The twenty feet of beach nearest the waterline had disappeared beneath irregularly-shaped hills of ice. Have you ever let wet sand dribble between your fingers to form coral-like castles? Beneath their patchy coating of new-fallen snow, these ten-foot hills had the same knobbly texture.
I made my careful way to the top, climbing at an oblique angle to avoid losing my footing and wishing I hadn’t left my new phone in the car; to my right, the wind and water had created an overhung cavern bedecked with icicles, and I wanted to take pictures of it. But I wasn’t going to go back and get it, so I turned my back to the wind and contemplated the surface of the lake before me as I waited for mother – who is, after all, the photographer – to catch up. The steely grey water near the horizon was in motion, but everything I could see clearly had frozen over. Twenty feet out, I could see faint inklings of the tide in the in-and-out swirling of the bubble just below the ice, but the ten feet closest to shore were opaque and lighter in color; clearly the ice there was thicker.
When Mom reached me, I pointed out the cavern, and as she lay across the crest of the icy hill to get a few pictures of it, I picked my way down to the waterline. There was a reasonably flat spot that looked like a good seat, so I eased into it and swung my feet over the edge so that they dangled a few inches above the ice. I found good handholds to either side of my hips, settled my weight into my hands, and scooted my right foot down.
The ice held firm upon light contact, and so I made to tap it to test its strength. It gave almost immediately, shifting my weight beyond the point where I could support my weight with my arms, and then sh!tsh!tsh!t I was going down.
My left hand lost its grip as my left foot foot broke the ice, but I hung on with my right and found myself turning as I went in, so that I ended up dangling one-handed facing the wall of ice, waist deep in the half-frozen lake. My frantically-kicking feet did not touch the bottom, so I’d gone in somewhere more than waist-deep.
I was not inclined to test how much more. Yanking my left arm out of the water, I seized a likely-looking knob of ice, to which my wet glove clung helpfully, and hauled.
You know the moment in the first Pirates of the Caribbean when Jack, catapulted into the rafters of Will’s forge, hangs from both arms for only an instant before flying fluidly to his feet? (At 3:18 in the clip below; the link is cued, the embed isn’t.)
That doesn’t happen in real life; they had to use wires to make it happen on-screen. In real life, that maneuver involves pulling yourself up to chin-up height, awkwardly repositioning one elbow at a time until both are above the surface in question, and then pushing down with all your might until you can swing a leg up and over, all the while flailing your feet in a frantic and unconscious manner that leaves you with scrapes and multi-colored bruises you don’t remember getting.
The water was probably cold, but I didn’t notice the temperature any more than the beating my knees were taking; I was too focused on getting out of it. I didn’t make it up on the first try, or the second, but I didn’t fall in either. And so eventually I clambered out of Lake Michigan and made my soggy way up to my mother, who was still taking pictures.
“Mom, I did something stupid,” I said. “So it’s time to go back to the car.”
I hadn’t said anything during the mishap, nor fallen quickly enough to make an audible splash, so I had to explain to her that I was now soaked from the waist down. “Well, sh!t!” she said, tossing me the keys. “What’d you do that for? I haven’t hardly gotten any pictures!”
“Sorry,” I said, and began sloshing my way back to the car, abandoning the circuitous route I’d taken to the shoreline in favor of something more direct. But high school geometry, I remembered when the snowdrift through which I’d been wading suddenly topped my kneecaps, tells but half the story. A straight line may be the shortest path between two points, but rarely is it the easiest. So by the time I made it back to the car, my left hand was no longer cooperating enough to unlock it, and creases on my pants and left sleeve had frozen stiff.
I turned on the heat and leaned out the window to wring the water out of my yak-wool socks while I waited for Mom to join me. “I guess it’s a good thing I left my phone in the car!” I said as she buckled up. She just shook her head.
“You want to go to Homer’s?” she asked on the way home, referring to the old-fashioned ice cream parlor we’d pass en route.
“Sure!” I said.
Alas, it was not to be. Apparently she felt I’d had enough ice today already.