De-wintering: enjoying seasonal transition by soaking in joys of melt and ice

Late March where I am, this year, means one can experience this combination: 1. Spring-like weather warm enough that I don’t need bulky winter clothing anymore, plenty of sunshine, and birdsong 2. a winter-like woods where the floor is mostly covered with snow 3. the sound of rushing water (in a park which doesn’t have any rivers or streams normally). Lovely that I can experience all that at the same place and time!

I’m not quite sure what to call this time of year. Most of the snow is gone, and temps are mostly easily above freezing, so it doesn’t feel like Winter. I’d call it Spring or Early Spring, but others might not think that qualifies either; little new plant growth yet. But the birds are active, we’re in the late stages of a long melt; perhaps we could call this ‘de-wintering?’ The period of uncovering, when the snow goes away and we can again see what it covered (… plus what was added to those places during the winter; the refuse left behind from piles is a not-so-appealing, and human-created, part of the uncovering…)

The paths were mostly ice, but usually with a mushy layer on top that provided a decent grip, if I walked carefully. My steps were fairly noisy: crunchy, ringing with an occasional high-pitch, but also thudding as they skidded, rolling. (I recommend boots with good traction for such conditions.) At times, the ice would softly crack, and shift down an inch or so; in one area, I could step and squish out water, which entertainingly slid out of from underneath the spots I stepped in 🙂

The forest floor was mostly covered in snow, but most objects above no longer had snow on them. Plus, near trees and in some other spots (in patterns that were erratic), I could see piles of leaves. So this was a landscape in white, grey (shadows) – and lots of shades of tan and brown. (Plus just a touch of dark red.) Such woods – which of course once covered some of the land where cities and towns now reside – demonstrate to us what snow-melt patterns might have been like in our areas before we removed the trees (and changed climate patterns, of course).

Perhaps the most striking feature was the melt patterns. Little streams of water rushing down the slope sometimes appeared underneath the snow cover – and at other times remained under. It looked as if the tiny streams had eroded channels, smoothly, down several inches or more (I don’t know if that’s what actually happened, but that’s how it looked). Some of those had turned into ‘dried-up stream beds,’ as channels shifted; a place where water once pooled up might now be dry. (Well, dry except for the frozen water bordering it.) This is a landscape constantly shifting and transforming.

On a smaller scale, I continually found it amusing to see leaves and branches sunken into the ice. Apparently they concentrated heat in such a manner that melting took place underneath them, leading to a path spotted with leaves a little below the surface. (Along with a little brown-tinted water around them, often. I’m someone who loves the whiteness of snow; those more open to appreciating yellow and tan snow might find this more appealing than I did 😉

In other areas, there were small-scale regular patterns that were striking to observe (and difficult to appreciate on film, alas) which looked like nothing so much as slight ripples on a pond, frozen in place. A nice case where the visual metaphor reminds us of what the substance is: water!

When I stopped to take note of the patterns of the ice, I saw that they were fairly striking, too. The crystalline patterns of the melting and refreezing lead to a lot of diversity in what’s on the path. A lot of frozen particles catching light from a variety of angles! This, indeed, is something one can see in many places at this time of year. Patterns develop where mini-pillars, like tiny blocks piled up, form, and can be briefly seen. (At times, I even find this appealing in the blackened piles of snow around parking lots… but I admit I can’t hold that appreciation for too long.)

Lake Winnebago looked wilder today than it has for much of the winter. The shanties, the cars were no longer present out there; it no longer looked like an area that humans had staked out roads to make use of. (I did see and hear one vehicle, an ATV I think, heading across.) And I think it *is* wilder at this time of year than at others, in a sense. Americans like to define and control nature (particularly dramatically in the case of wetlands). But this could not be fixed as ‘ice’ that one could drive on, or ‘water’ than one could boat on. It was not securely one or the other. The tracks of snowmobiles, the roads on the snow, were only barely visible at this point; as the snow melted, tracks faded. Those signs of human management of the ice made sense when the ice was more solid, but (with appropriate symbolism) have been lost as the ice returns to looking more like a wilderness that humans must think carefully about how to use (or avoid until it is safer).

The whole experience reminded me a bit of the time I’ve spent in the summer visiting glacier ice; the mix of warmth, snowpack, and melt-rivers. It was amusing here in Wisconsin (and perhaps a little dangerous, I admit) to be walking above flowing water (usually, on ice less than a foot above the surface). The remnants of snow in most areas might be decisively human-shaped (the dark piles around parking lots). But one can head to the woods to see natural elements at play, melting and flowing in a series of patterns that change quickly. Streams, trickles, snow, ice – where these are is in constant change, in what might be the period of the year with the least stability and the most variety. See what it has to offer today!

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About MilwaukeeSnow

Dr. Jeffrey Filipiak, Milwaukee's Ambassador of Snow, loves winter, Milwaukee, and environmental history! He has taught college courses on topics including history, writing, environmental ethics, food studies, the Great Lakes, and sustainability. You can contact him at ambassadorofsnow@gmail.com.
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