Watching the River Freeze

I moved in August to a little apartment alongside the river. The river is wide and fast flowing. It’s the vein through which industry and pride pumps into and out of this region, from the time of trappers and traders to battleships and cruise vessels.

My new apartment has a big glass door that faces the river, unobstructed. Best damn view in the city said the elderly homeowner before me, boxing his model trains.

And so, day in and day out, I watch the river. In late summer, full of boats. In fall, reflecting the colorful canopy of its bank. And now, in winter, I’m watching it freeze.

Being a wide and fast river, it will not freeze easily. It will take a fearsome cold, months of fearsome cold. But winters here can be fearsomely cold. To watch a river freeze is to watch elements wage war. Ice conquers water from the shore, near and distant, while that fire in the sky liberates.

The freeze weaponizes night. It wins territory while the sun is hiding somewhere beneath the horizon, resting before tomorrow’s thaw. Day arrives and the sun fights back. It’s tenacious, the sun, even during the coldest of months. The freeze is relentless; however, and by December, ice that was once wafer thin and broke like fine china condenses into ranks of hard purple. But this beginning is merely a skirmish, launched by an icy vanguard, and at the turn of the new year begins the all-out assault.

For ten days the temperature doesn’t rise above -10° at night or above freezing by day, the longest cold streak in forty years. The sun hangs perilously low in the sky, bleeding dull warmth, gasping last gasps. The ice fortifies its position on both shorelines and charges across, clamoring to meet in the middle. By the tenth day, a ribbon of blue, no more than a few yards wide, traces a line between sheets of white. A last stand.

And then the gods intervene.

The USCGC Penobscot Bay, an 140’ icebreaking behemoth, with a kettle black hull capable of cracking ice 30 inches thick, steams upriver, past my glass door. I run outside, overcome with excitement, crushed by disappointment. I don’t know which. The tug claws through the ice and around a nearby bend, out of view, onward to the river’s source.

That afternoon the carnage floats downriver. Goliath icebergs, shattered and drowning, exhausted from months of battle. The survivors will be dragged until the salty, temperate waters of Casco Bay melt them like hubris into humility.

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