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by Jack Nisbet
is the author of The Mapmaker's Eye, Sources of the River, Purple
Flat Top, Singing Grass, Burning Sage and Visible Bones.
His newest, The Collector, won a 2010 PNBA Award.
Ice waterfall on Bonnie Lake south of Spokane
by Charles Gurche
A space of five miles square, recently in a state of
igneous fusion, in the process of cooling has been broken up into
immense ledges and rolled masses, like the breaking up of a great
river of ice.
David Douglas, from Kilauea crater on the big island of Hawaii,
When Scottish naturalist David Douglas visited Hawaii almost two
centuries ago, he was under the influence of Charles Lyell’s
recently-published Elements of Geology—a classic geology text
which set forth the notion that all the basic principles of earth-building
remain at work, and that anyone who carefully studies their surrounding
landscape can watch them happen. For Douglas, who had made several
trips into the wild coulees and scablands of the Columbia River
Basin, studying the flow and cooling of hot lava in Hawaii provided
real-time lessons into how the formations he marveled at in the
Inland Northwest had come into existence. And because Douglas lived
in the Little Ice Age, when the Columbia River regularly froze solid
during the winter—in the winter of 1830 he reported that the
river at Fort Vancouver, opposite modern Portland, remained closed
for over a month—he naturally could compare the cooling and
fracturing of hot magma with the grinding processes of spring breakup.
That approach of comparing fire and ice to learn about geological
formations still works fine today, even without rupturing volcanic
vents and dependable full river lock-ups. Every winter offers endless
variations on basic patterns of temperature fluctuation, of freezing
and thawing, of the formation of ice and the deposition of snow.
With each new cold season, every different body of water recasts
the wrenching transition of liquid to solid; every warm season reverses
the process for all to see.
The relatively cold, dry beginning to the winter of 2011-12 provided
a platform to get out and experience this transformation anew. With
photographer Charles Gurche, I tried to cover the story in double
time, on ice skates, in order to feel the changes through moving
The first real stretch of cold weather came in early December, and
brought smooth ice to several open marshlands south of Spokane.
As always, variables that include artesian springs, organically
rich black mud, stands of vegetation left over from a dry fall,
and the churning legs of lingering geese assured that each body
of water produced a different texture of ice.
in Black Ice, by Charles Gurche
As we tried each one out on skates, we could trace the mysterious
formation of bubbles, all sorts and sizes captured in frozen glass
the moment the water solidified. In basalt scablands scoured by
Ice Age floods, it was tempting to compare this endless variety
of bubbles to certain volcanic rocks that surround the wetlands—in
tribal sweat lodges they were once known as “whistlers,”
because they come riddled with burst gas bubbles that make the steam
When single-digit temperatures hung on in mid-December, farm ponds
and then flood-scoured lakes turned over, allowing us to follow
black ice for miles. As the ice thickened to five inches and more,
the push and pull of the larger bodies of water sent deep cracks
from shore to shore, tearing the surface apart. Watching such powerful
forces at work offered direct lessons in plate tectonics. Sheets
would bump and grind against one another, separate, then bond again.
Tops would shatter in to fractal patterns that could catch a skate
and send us flying. Pressure ridges buckled clashing ice sheets
upward and dropped them down, forming distinct steps that we had
to hop across to avoid getting tripped. When one large sheet rode
up over the top of another, we were watching the process of continental
subduction on a small scale. When space opened up between two sheets,
we could imagine bowhead whales feeling for open leads as they rounded
Point Barrow in Alaska.
In the 21st century, winter’s cold breath is never a constant
force, and after Christmas warm snaps and Chinook winds began to
eat away at these natural rinks. Surface bubbles were scoured out
to create pits of tinkling glass. Areas where vegetation poked through
held the heat of the sun, melting curved pock marks into the surface.
In some areas, strong steady breezes rolled up ripples exactly like
sand on a tidal beach; in others they carved bubble clusters into
large oval depressions that looked like mirror images of the patterned
ground hummocks that dotted the surrounding scablands. Now the trick
to skating was to weave back and forth among the imperfections,
feeling for smooth ice.
Cracks, by Charles Gurche
On some wetlands the alteration of warm and cold weather actually
warped the entire surface, so that we were skating up- and down-hill
as well. Terrain skating, we called it. It showed us the way that
intense heat and pressure over time can bend entire layers of stone,
which is exactly what happened to the warped bedding of ancient
rock formations in the North Columbia country.
When early January snows came down on this mess and refroze, they
formed white ice. While not exactly smooth, this was sometimes skateable
enough that we could work our way down the length of a lake, as
long as we avoided the larger bumps, ruts, and ripples. It could
be slow, messy work, much like the churning together of melting
snow, thawing ground, and rotting vegetation that mix up new soil
One last cold snap put all these forces into play at once. On a
shoestring lake well protected from the sun, waterfalls leaking
from the cracks between basalt flows froze solid, and long stretches
of black ice returned. Even with the knowledge that we will never
see the same extremes of steady cold that David Douglas experienced,
such conditions still allow a glimpse of deep time.