At Large: Ice to skate on

At the Net Result the other day the question was the weather. For several weeks, including Sandy, the meta-hurricane, the big northeast blow, and the daily northerlies and easterlies that have prevailed in November, it’s been a chilly misery much of the time. The weather has drizzled and cooled through the Thanksgiving evening overture to Black Friday, through Cyber Monday, and now on to Shop Till You Drop December.

But it hasn’t really been cold, and the question was, will it ever be cold enough again, cold enough to freeze the ponds for skating?

In a long ago farming life of mine, in the farm pond down the steep, grassy slope below the house, the farm-raised ducklings trailed obediently behind their mother as she passed from shore to shore. It was not much of a pond, more of a West Tisbury kettle hole scooped out of the marshy boundary between pastures.

Waste from the cattle pens drained into it, as did water from the more extensive marshes north across the large field. A sheltering cluster of beetlebung trees, a few locust and black cherry, and one overhanging oak sheltered the western side. Grass ran to the water’s edge everywhere else around the circumference.

Springs fed the marshes from the higher elevations, so the pond was never low, not even in the driest summers. But in the summer, algae bloomed thickly green across the surface so that swimming was out. In the winter, because it was low and protected all around, the pond formed ice that hardened and thickened quickly. Winters without skating were rare, as were winters without ice choking Vineyard Haven Harbor and Nantucket Sound. One winter morning, I recall cold, thick fog, drizzle, and bits of ice floating in Vineyard Sound between West Chop and the Woods Hole entrance buoy — in other words, standard February weather for this sea-girt paradise. We were on the Islander bound for Woods Hole, hurrying to Boston to catch a plane to Florida, but the current-driven ice had rearranged the buoys in the Woods Hole Passage. We lay outside the Hole, waiting for the visibility to improve, so the Islander’s captain could navigate to the dock safely, no matter where the buoys had got to. We missed the plane.

Still, ignoring the fact that we were in full flight to the sunny south, that’s the sort of winter weather that makes us happy and the pond water solid. That’s the sort of winter that makes skating and ice boating on Squibnocket Pond possible, or skating parties on moonlit evenings at Old House Pond or Parsonage Pond, or Sunday pond hockey at Uncle Seth’s.

Where can we look for cold comfort? The Farmer’s Almanac is as good as any, for generalized, nothing to bet on, maybe-maybe not forecasts. Here’s what the Almanac says:

“Last winter was the fourth warmest for the contiguous 48 since record keeping began in 1895, with 24 states experiencing below-normal precipitation … For the coming season, we’re predicting that winter will return to some — but not all — areas. We think it will be a ‘winter of contraries,’ as if Old Man Winter were cutting the country in half. The eastern half of the country will see plenty of cold and snow. The western half will experience relatively warm and dry conditions. In other words, as in the political arena, the climate this winter will render us a nation divided.”

Nothing new there.

“We predict that real winter weather will return to areas from the Great Lakes into the Northeast. Most eastern states — as far south as the Gulf Coast — will see snowier than normal conditions and cooler temperatures. We are ‘red flagging’ February 12–15 and March 20–23 for major coastal storms along the Atlantic seaboard; storms bringing strong winds and heavy precipitation.”

And, in a nutshell, “Colder than normal with mixed snow, sleet and rain.”

The bottom line is that we must expect eight days of relatively normal winter weather between now and the vernal equinox. Doesn’t sound like we’ll be skating outdoors much.

By the way, about those ducklings, or the farm’s goslings for that matter, generally they were lucky to get in one roundtrip behind their oblivious parents. One by one they disappeared. Seven today, six tomorrow, four next day. Mother kept pottering out and about, apparently marveling at how fast kids grow up and get out of the house these days.

Snapping turtles had got them all. Small as it was, this pond and two others on the rocky, wet, unfruitful 90 acres met the requirements of a small army of snapping turtles. The turtles did not confine themselves to polishing off the farmyard small fry. When a calf — in the old days, there were loads of them romping across the pastures in the spring, weighing 90 or 110 pounds at birth, big boned and all white — encountered a strolling turtle in a field, the youngster’s curiosity would often be rewarded with a chomped nose, or worse, a badly lacerated foreleg.

Countermeasures for snapping turtles included fishing for them with rotting meat as bait on a big stainless steel hook, hauling the hooked turtle out of the water, and chopping off its head with an axe or machete. Finding one in the field led to the same end, though a stick thrust in the direction of the turtle’s head was needed to get the neck to sufficiently extend.

Or, if winter would get back to doing its job and freezing the ponds, the turtles might be frozen out.