In late winter, the sun has some power. Afternoon can bring real heat to a world locked tight by freeze. Ice softens and grows dark with rot. Dirt shows and the air carries the scent of spring. And in that scent there is more promise than borne by any perfume. The world changes with a haste as if running from behind and trying to catch up.
Ski trails turn to ruin, though. Dirt spreads like a malignancy. The land appears as a mottled mix of remnant snow and emerging mud, the pattern of a spotted pony. The ski season, no matter how long the span, nears its end game.
Of course we still ski. Why would we not? We ski because the season is fleeting and once gone will not return for months. We ski because the spring weather is a wonder to behold. Metamorphosis from winter cold to springtime warmth; transition from short days to long. Daylight and night dark seek balance. We ski to the end of possibility in this season and in our lives.
Late in the timetable of thaw, the rivers break open. Ice is thinner over current so it goes first. One day it's there, a solid cover of white. A day later and the first open water shows, tentatively, as if testing the air. Then the current takes hold and the ice falters and the river runs open. Blocks of ice ride the flow and stack up like a dam of rubble. The river reflects the color of sky: cerulean blue under the high sun or leaden gray under cloud.
We are skiing still when the river opens. We seek the patches of snow where the sun has not hit in full. We ski the degraded trails where a winter worth of snow pack holds a tenuous skim of icy snow. We ski the backwoods on frozen crust in the mornings, pull buckets of maple sap in the afternoon; boil the sap under the blackness of night with embers of oak glowing in the fire box. We ski in the waning days of the season.
Skiing shelf ice
An informal group of us ski near a river west of town. We ski alone, sometimes with one or two others. On this river, upstream dams control the flow. Ice forms and builds in early winter. Then dam keepers slow the flow and the water level drops. Ice remains over the water like a lid.
When the river begins to break open, the ice melts in the center of the stream then recedes toward the banks like a slow moving tide. But if conditions are favorable, the water level under the lid of ice has dropped, leaving the ice suspended over the water. "Shelf ice," we call it. Shelf ice spans over water with a gap of open air between the two. Hard ice over warming air, over flowing water.
We ski the shelf ice when conditions are right. There is risk in this, we all know. For if the ice were to break, and it certainly might, we would be tossed into the icy flow and no good can come from that. Shelf ice will fail, that is inevitable. Push us even a little and we would admit it is a foolish thing to do. We do it anyway. We do it not to flaunt the risk. Nor do we encourage others. In fact, when asked, we dissuade them. We do it because we love to ski and in late season that is all we have left.
We ski to be part of late winter that shifts to early days of spring. We ski because in a too-short winter - or, of late, a winter of no snow - we feel discouragement slide into minor depression. We drift to where shadows fill empty spaces and preserve snow so we can find that waning joy skiing brings.
We follow ski tracks, perhaps your own, across the shelf ice to the edge of heaved up ice. The tracks then disappear as if the skier had skied off the face of the earth. But no, a massive chunk of ice has fallen, ski tracks and all, into the cold water.
What risks do we face?
There is, when one considers things, not much risk that we face as skiers. The cold, the subzero temperatures, presents risk, certainly. To ski a downhill fast and hard on skis that chatter and rattle on harsh snow, there is risk there. To ski too far, to ski too late in the day, to hit the wall a long way from home as the sun drops and the darkness falls fast like a curtain on a stage, in that there is risk.
But in the scheme of it al, there are greater risks on a short bicycle ride on public roads where texting while driving is considered acceptable and dark thoughts cloud the judgements of some drivers at the sight of cyclist who dare use their roads. In that there is risk, every time.
In skiing not so much.
Skiing in the modern age rarely entails risk. But skiing on shelf ice that shows signs of failure brings fear to the fore. One needs to be cautious on unpredictable, collapsing shelf ice. Risk and reward are at play here, every time.
We chance it because it means skiing, and skiing lifts our spirits like a bird riding an updraft. We do not fly but skiing sends our emotions soaring.
Late in the season the shelf ice beckons and we answer the call. All of us find our late season muse. Perhaps it is the crust or rotting snow on familiar trails, even if it means taking off your skis to walk across patches of dirt. Perhaps we ski the big lakes still firm with ice. Wherever we find the joy of skiing this time of year we also find reason to fear skiing.
After a week, maybe a bit more, skiing the shelf ice will be done, as will be the season. We hang the skis up as we put up the heavy clothing of winter. With the roads are open once again, biking and running draw us out. The woods give up the ashen ghost of remnant snow, so trail running and mountain biking come to us as natural as breath. And the rivers run free, shed of ice, washed in flood to the banks, broken and gone. And with it, our season of skiing.
Mitch Mode started skiing with "proper" gear - wood skis and leather three-pin boots - more than 35 years ago. He has skied every American Birkebeiner since 1978 but no longer races. He is co-owner of Mel's Trading Post, a sporting goods store in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, named after his late father who started the business in 1946.