Like a gunshot under their feet– that’s how many Antarctic explorers like Ernest Shackleton, Robert F. Scott and more describe the explosion of sound from the thick ice
cracking beneath them. It was frightening at first, then disquieting, and then finally it just became part of the journey. These men forged tirelessly across miles of uncharted ice, climbing up sastrugi and avoiding (sometimes very narrowly) thinly-veiled chasms. They traveled by midnight sun with their teams of dogs named things like Vic, Snatcher, FitzClarence, Grannie, and Kid (Scott, Edward Wilson & Shackleton’s dogs during their 1901-4 trip), harnessed to sleds which were strapped down with pounds of food and supplies. The Antarctic, unknown and uninhabited except for creatures like Emperor penguins and leopard seals, was their wild frontier, blindingly white and full of pitfalls.
By the shoreline of the Potomac, just a few miles south of Washington, D.C. today, there were no sastrugi and thankfully no leopard seals. Ice had formed in the cold nights and days over the greater part of the river, leaving only spare patches free so that black and white ducks could dip and wash in the frigid water. Earlier this morning I had sat for half an hour in the sun, listening to the duck’s flapping wings as they maneuvered together past my seat on a driftwood log, to the gentle lapping of water on ice, and to the gentle roar of airplanes coming up the river to land at DCA. It was peaceful and gorgeous– everything I’d hoped for when I’d bundled up.
An hour or so later I was back, armed with cocoa and my SO. I had told him the ice was beautiful, and worth the trip, despite the chilly nose and cheeks we were bound to get. But things were different this time. When we got out of the car, I heard a noise. At first I thought it was my travel mug spluttering and wheezing against the cold, but as we moved closer to the water, we realized it was the ice. The tide was going out, and as the water picked up momentum and drew back from the inch or so of ice solid on the surface, the giant floats were starting to break apart.
We ran down the last hundred or so feet until we were standing along the shore. What, from far back, looked like mounds of foam on the pebbled beach was in fact layers of ice. With a crack– not quite the gunshot of Shackleton’s explorations, but loud nonetheless– the ice broke near the middle, and a sheet began to push downriver, slamming against the still immobile sheets attached to shore. As it crackled and crumbled, the roar grew immense, quite unlike the planes from earlier. A large sheet of ice breached like a humpback whale in the small opening of water in the center of the river. Along the shore, jagged angles jutted up from one another, piling and cracking, sending chunks skittering back across the ice float. A whole sheet, the size of three SUV’s placed side to side, broached another, and began floating over its submerged counterpart.
We watched, mesmerized at the trail of ice snapping and piling up, for over an hour. The current took hold of the smaller pieces and a trail miles long began to form away from the point of land on which we stood, and pushed it out into the widened body of the river. It formed an expressway of the crumbling bits that did not deviate for nearly forty minutes.
As we stood, I thought of the power of glaciers pushing over landmasses, carrying boulders the size of houses for miles and miles. I thought of strapping crampons on my feet and hiking Fox Glacier on the South Island of New Zealand; how small I was compared to the mountains of blue-white ice. Ice, not dissimilar to what I was witnessing this morning, what I walked on years ago, carved valleys and dredged canals. I appreciated it as fog roiled up at the nearest ridge of the glacier in 2009, and I appreciated it this afternoon. The ice is immense and powerful, but also intensely beautiful.
I want to end this post by delving into the mind and journal of Robert F. Scott on his experience of the beauty of snow, ice and nature:
As one plods along towards the midnight sun, one’s eyes naturally fall on the plain ahead, and one realizes that the smile of a gem-strewn carpet could never be more aptly employed than in describing the radiant path of the sun on the snowy surface. It sparkles with a myriad points of brilliant light, comprehensive of every colour the rainbow can show, and is so realistic and near that it often seems one has but to stoop to pick up some glistening jewel. (The Mammoth Book of Antarctic Journeys, ed. John E Lewis, p. 15)
I’ll keep reading about these amazing explorers and will be sure to do some more exploring of my own.
For further reading, see The Mammoth Book of Antarctic Journeys or Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration.