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Magical beauty across Lake Simcoe Watershed

2018 12 28 magicBy David Hawke -- According to TV advertisements, this is the season of magic.

And I agree, although my version of magic is not the same as the fairy tale magic that produces flying caribou or an overweight Caucasian that has the weird need to break into anyone's home while they're sleeping (although he does leave a gift as a form of apology for trespassing). No, my belief in magic is for the real thing, or about as real as it can get.

          I refer of course to water, that element of change, that incredible entity that can appear as a gaseous vapour, a solid or a liquid, always composed of the same atoms, yet with the abilities to shape-shift, travel and, most amazing of all, provide life. Every magician needs an assistant, and water has temperature to balance the team, to ensure a smooth transition from one scene to the next.

          I use the word 'magic' despite that fact that water's mercurial changes of character can be scientifically explained. While the explorations of science have indeed revealed astounding insights into how Nature operates, I prefer to stay on the side of wonderment that dazzles my attention.

          Two examples of water performing magic are window frost, and ice formation. That intricate pattern of ice crystals on a frozen window pane was created by water vapour being 'magically' transformed to a solid thanks to a temperature drop. The magician's assistant knows the weaknesses of its master, and in this case it's the threshold of zero degrees (on the Celsius scale of things). At zero degrees everything changes. A liquid becomes a solid, or a solid becomes a gas or returns to a liquid. Just like magic.

          Ice formation, more specifically over a lake, is a touch more complex, as not only is zero degrees involved but so too is plus four degrees. When water is at plus four degrees, it is at its greatest density; warmer or colder temperatures allows air to be held between its molecules, and strange things happen. Now I know that when magic is explained the trick becomes less wondrous, but here goes anyway.

          As water cools from summertime warm to winter chill, it becomes dense and sinks. Water sinks? Bet you thought it's other things that sink through water. But when a layer of water cools to that four degrees it is denser than the slightly warmer water below, so it begins to drop down. As the cool layer sinks it displaces the warmer water to rise up to the surface, where it will soon become chilled. With enough cold nights the surface keeps getting chilled and the layers keep sinking until the lake is the same temperature top to bottom. This is called fall turnover and helps move nutrients through the lake system.

          Then a really cold and really calm night causes a layer of ice to form on the surface. If the freezing temperatures can keep at it, the ice layer gradually thickens faster than the plus-four -degree water below can thaw it. Because zero degree or colder ice is just frozen water with some trapped air molecules, its density has decreased and therefore floats. Voila, lake ice.

          The other magical water-to-ice formation happens around beaver dams. Even though the construction of a dam by a bunch of busy rodents is a marvel unto itself, it leaks. And one thing that water cannot do is change to ice if it's moving. Just as a rolling stone gathers no moss, a flowing river gathers no ice. (I just made that up... feel free to use it.)

          The water that becomes trapped above a beaver dam is subject to the same magic as a small lake, in that the water cools until ice forms and floats on the dense layer below. But that leaky dam is still allowing some water to move and spill over, so the pond seldom gets the chance to create thick ice.

          As the trickle flows over the top or through a crack, the falling water droplets hit twigs and branches and become dispersed as tiny droplets. When a tiny water drops hits a larger and colder object, it immediately turns to ice and sticks there. In quick order a multitude of these droplets begin to hit and freeze on each other, thus building a layer of ice on said obstruction. So much for the science, now comes the magic.

          Say that you are out for a winter hike, and say that you have your camera with you, and maybe you are adventuresome and are following a small stream to see where it comes from, and then, wow, you come upon a beaver dam. At what should appear to your wondering eyes? Ice castles, ice cascades, ice sheets, ice sculptures!

          It's not every day and it's not every outing, but when water and temperature (and okay a bit of gravity) combine in just the right way... magic happens. Hopefully your camera batteries haven't died, as you will find yourself filling the memory card rather quickly. Close ups, overviews, back lighting, side lighting. The sculptures defy description as they are so intricate, so delicate, so beautiful.

          And so the marketing folks of the world have seized upon this magical time of the year, a time of change and almost unexplainable transition. Water to ice, ice to water, liquid, solid, gas. There's only one way to truly witness this magic, and that's first hand. Even the smallest of creeks or wet ditches will reveal tiny scenes of great beauty. Go forth and treat yourself to these gifts of Nature.

David’s Notebook: This freeze-thaw-freeze has created some beautiful ice formations. Just be darn careful with your footing when pursuing these incredible sculptures.

© 2018 David J. Hawke

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