falling through the ice: yow! crash! (crack, crackle) help! holy smoke!

Headed out this week for some pond hockey, a little lake puck? Know that if you’re centrally situated in North America and it’s big wide-open shinny settings you’re after, looks like Lake Erie is your best bet. As of Sunday, some 90 per cent of everybody’s favourite fourth-largest Great Lake was locked up in ice, according to analysis by the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. Throw in Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Ontario, and out superlative lakes are, overall, 29.5 per cent frozen. That’s way up from last year at this time, when the number was 11 per cent.

I’m not saying you should. Head out on a Great Lake, I mean. Safer to skate at the park, or on someone’s backyard rink. In Toronto, where the harbour is frozen over for the first time in years, the message from police regarding natural ice is the plain and perennial one: no ice is safe ice. History and hockey literature have lots to say about this — lots and lots. Picture books, too, and horror movies, and archives.

There’s also a rich library of comic books to instruct us in the hazards inherent in taking the good old hockey game out on the bad old treacherous ice. Today’s exemplar is a 1949 edition of New Heroic Comics, a dead-serious venture from your friends at Famous Funnies Inc. For such a bright and colourful publication, it’s actually a terrifying piece of work. The through-the-ice story is just the start of a harrowing 48-page handbook of true-life havoc and misfortune featuring accounts of runaway horses (“Hooves of Horror”), men overboard (“Soldier Rescues Sailor”), riptides (“Riptide”), flash floods (“Canyon Rescue”), and high-rise calamity (“Elevator Firetrap”).

The good news is that everybody gets out okay. That’s the point, of course: heroes prevail. They stop the stallion, drive their jeep into the canyon, force the doors of the elevator. The hockey story celebrates 18-year-old Philip McAuliffe Jr., a member of the Boston College hockey team out for a New Year’s Day skate with some pals on a Massachusetts lake when the inevitable happens. That’s him in the red sweater, going after poor Johnny, and (I’m pleased to report) hauling him to safety. In a later panel, McAuliffe gets a silver medal for his efforts, from the state Humane Society. “That was a brave thing you did, young man!” says the comics-doctor tending his wounds. “You’re a real hero!”

“Thanks, doctor,” comics-Philip says, “but it really wasn’t anything.”

skaters gonna skate

Cautionary Fail: The temperature on the surface of Mars hit a daytime high of -23 C this week, according to weather-watchers at CTV, which is to say it’s been way more clement there than across much of the Canadian map. Ottawa was down to -29 C yesterday, making it the world’s coldest capital (Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia was basking at -26 C). With the wind, in the alpine shadows, Wednesday’s thermometer was down around -29 C, too, under Fairview Mountain in Alberta’s Banff National Park, where a brisk bout of morning shinny quickened the ice of Lake Louise. (Image: Stephen Smith)

fourwarned

Group of Seven Awkward Moments (Winter on the Don), digital photograph, 2007

River Risk: Elucidating her 2007 series “Group of Seven Awkward Moments,” Winnipeg photographer Diana Thorneycroft wrote that she was interested in combining “iconic northern landscapes, which have come to symbolize Canada as a nation,” with “ scenes of accidents, disasters, and bad weather.” And so she did. “Winter on the Don” is a warning, I guess, as much as anything else: stick to the slot, it advises, don’t be like Bobby Orr. “By pairing the tranquility of traditional landscape painting with black humour,” Thorneycroft notes, “the work conjures up topical and universally familiar landscapes fraught with anxiety and contradictions.” For more of her bracing views of our north, visit dianathorneycroft.com.

falling through the ice: bob the good-natured bay

6500474991_0108422f4a_o

He was doing his job, that’s all. A Tuesday in January of 1929, and Bob, as usual, was hauling the scraper across the ice at Boston’s Public Garden, getting it ready for skaters under the supervision of his driver, James Ward. “The big good-natured bay,” is how the Daily Globe recognized him, Bob, “favourite with all the children.” But on this day, as he neared the shore on the rink’s Arlington Street side, he went through. James Ward couldn’t help him, but as luck had it, Patrolman Arthur Blood from the Back Bay Police Station happened by and soon had the call out for reinforcements.

I’m not going to leave you hanging: Bob got out fine. Patrolmen Noyes, Regan, Gervan, and Maguire all lent a hand, roping up Bob’s legs and hauling him free. Although, from the photograph, some firemen were in on it, too. Nothing to worry about, in any case, according to The Globe:

After Bob was steady on his feet, officer Blood took him to the Animal Rescue League on Carver St., where he was given first-aid treatment. He was found to have suffered no serious injury.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

icelanders

glsea_curThe Great Lakes are 85.4 per cent iced over, or at least they were yesterday, according to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, the U.S. federal body that monitors these things on behalf of science and shinny.

That’s an impressive figure by any standard other than that of impatient hockey players, or Canadians. True, most of us won’t make it out this winter with our Kohos, in our old Tacks, onto a frozen patch of Erie or Ontario or Superior, much less pick up a puck near Kingston and stickhandle it all the way west to Duluth. Still, to the rink born, we feel that such a stretch of ice should be available to us all the same in mid-winter, just in case. It’s what we’re owed, as Canadians — anything short of 100 per cent coverage is at best a disappointment.

If we’re not, at this point, calling it a natural national tragedy, that’s because we know what we’ve learned from all those flooding in our backyards: the freeze takes time. The good news is that the Great Rink is getting there: on Monday last, coverage was at 76.6 per cent. A few more icy nights and we should be good to go — maybe by the weekend, then?

In the meantime, maybe best to review the hazards of pond hockey. Hockey’s literature has been attentive to the dangers involved in venturing out on to natural ice, which you’ll know if you happen to have read all the hockey novels, only a few of which don’t include a scene in which the hero (a) falls through thin ice himself while chasing pucks and/or (b) rescues some other poor sap who didn’t listen and went under. I wrote about that in Puckstruck, citing some of the terrible fictional sounds associated with hockey/ice disasters:

• ominous creaking, anguished cry, crash (Lightning On Ice, Philip Harkins, 1946)
• silence (Pass That Puck! Richard T. Flood, 1948)
• “yow!” “crash!” “crack, crackle!” (New Heroic Comics, 1949)
• gentle splashing, shouts of people running (Brother of the Hero, Lev Kassil, 1968)
• “helllppppp!” (Forever, Roy MacGregor, 1996)

“In fiction,” I continued,

it’s a bit of a rite of passage for young players. If you’re going to learn the game, then you’re going to have to take a swim, losing if not your life then at least a boot. What often happens is that your brother Joe comes by with his hockey stick and lies down on his stomach and says, “That’s a brave boy” and “Wrap your arms around it and hold hard,” and so you do that, and he fishes you out and makes you skate to shore to get your circulation going instead of carrying you, which is smart. That’s what happens in Skating Today (1945), possibly one of the worst titled hockey novels of all, though still compelling as a story in its own hokey way.

You don’t, course, have to be a young scamp in a hockey story to have the ice betray you. It happens in history, too, to Russian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. Whether you’re fulfilling your birthright as a Canadian or retreating from Napoleon with your artillery over a lake in what’s now the Czech Republic, the lesson to learn is the same: as the Ontario Provincial Police like to remind us, no ice is safe ice.

satchan lake

ponderable

We put on our skates in the house and clumped out and into the snow and slid a bit but mostly we stayed steady, moving forward, over the bridge with Kohos in hand and the pucks and shovels, and the axe, blazing our own trail as we struggled up the hill, just like Samuel Hearne, if he’d done his bushwhacking on Bauers.

You need at least three pucks if you’re playing on the pond, allowing for slapshots that the snow swallows and strays stolen by the dog. The Kohos and the shovels — well, obviously. If you don’t have an augur, an axe will do, and did, as we stood on the dock and chopped, gingerly — because you can’t be too careful swinging an axe while on you’re on skates — but also manfully, because is there any other way to swing an axe in the forest?

The pond doesn’t have a name. It’s fine without one. This is up north of Toronto, where this year the winter was for a long time slow to take. The pond used to be a farm field and before that I guess probably forest. Most of the trees closest by the pond are new-growth, pine-trees in straight rows, like puzzled fans who don’t know the game they’re watching well enough to comment. People used to skate here, years ago, but the ice has been lying fallow for — I don’t even know. Decades, maybe?

Two years ago I got a rink cleared at Christmas and kept it going through to March — easy. But last year I had slush problems followed by thaw trouble leading to deer traipsing around while the ice was soft and I wasn’t around and then what happened was the hoofprints froze like one of those learn-your-dance-steps diagrams, except three-dimensional and — I gave up. The tiny goal-nets I had out there stayed sunken and stuck until spring, when I lured them in on ropes.    Continue reading