Setting foot on an iced-over lake involves some assumption of risk. Thickness can dwindle from feet to inches within a few paces. Density can likewise go from marble to porous in a matter of hours. Even ice that is several feet thick can be under so much pressure that it explodes in a semblance of tectonic convulsion.
Over the course of a winter, lake ice expands and contracts until it is laced with hairline cracks and the occasional pressure ridge. Anyone who has spent any decent amount of time out on the ice has heard the ice groan and fracture underfoot.
Sometimes it collapses and you go through the ice and find yourself neck-deep in a cold, dangerous situation with a limited time to get yourself out of trouble. Other times you can see a new hairline crack shoot out ahead of you or off to the side, cleaving the ice from its air surface down to its contact with the water below, yet not giving way underfoot as the fracture immediately heals and gets stronger.
Depending on how you're wired and the exact sounds and sights, these sorts of phenomena can be unnerving as all get-out, or thrilling. Sometimes both.
So why assume the risk and venture out on such suspect seasonal terrain? The photos in the accompanying gallery are my best answer to this question.
Looking out the window and seeing how blue the sky was, and how bright the sun was gleaming off the vast expanse of white on Lake Monona, I strapped into a pair of snowshoes on Saturday and ventured out to find a glazed wonderland of snowdrifts that had been scoured by wind and tracked by Nordic skiers and dogs and shoes and boots -- all these signatures fixed into the icescape by a thin etching of frosty varnish.
From the middle of the lake, homes arranged along the rise and fall of the distant shoreline gave way to the downtown skyline, which grew closer in the tiny increment of each crunching step. Pausing amid a great engulfing silence at the farthest point from shore, under a glorious vaulting blue sky, I stumbled on a feeling of insignificance.