Posted by: trevormeers | January 21, 2010

On Ice With Hatchet Jack

Ice storms are nature’s version of making you wait at your desk while layoffs are going down at your company. You sit. You wait, knowing disaster could crash down any second, realizing you’re utterly helpless to stop its descent. You’re not even sure where you’d go stand to keep it from falling on you.

Ice pushes Iowans into one of our favorite habits. In trying to rationalize living in a mid-continental climate prone to burying the needle at both ends of the thermometer, we console ourselves with positive comparisons to our neighbors’ weather. Sure, Missouri trends warmer. “But down there,” we say with a knowingly raised eyebrow, “you gotta’ put up with the ice.” On Iowa days like today, Des Moines loses any edge over Kansas City. We’re getting their ice, but without the advantage of Arthur Bryant’s barbecue to make it go down easier.

I’ve spent the day working at home and staring up at trees bowed under crystalline layers of ice. (Disclaimer: Nothing, including ice damage, happens by chance, as I observe in Jan. 15’s post “Chaos.” But that doesn’t take all the worry out of looming problems.) You can’t scoop ice, rake it, channel it away with gutters or block it with sandbags. “You can’t do anything on ice,” the state trooper on TV says. “It doesn’t matter if you have 4-wheel drive or a loaded semi. You can’t do anything.”

In a world encased in a quarter-inch of ice, you simply wait and hope the thermometer edges a few ticks higher. Every few minutes, you stick your head out the door and debate whether that big limb near the house seems to be sagging any more. After dark, you listen to ominous pops and crashes rolling in from the woods halfway across the section. You start understanding the mindset of polar explorers tormented by the groans of an icepack gnawing on their ships. Each time the lights blink, go dim, go out, then pop back on with beeps from the appliances, you wonder when the lines will inevitably fall. Should you bother resetting all the clocks flashing 12:00 or just wait until it’s finally over?

It’s hard to conceive how much extra stress ice puts on structures and trees compared to snow, so I looked it up. Powdery, freshly fallen snow weighs about 5-10 pounds per cubic foot. A typical winter snowpack weighs about 12-19 pounds per cubic foot. Ice clocks in around 60 pounds per cubic foot. Every forest path on a day like this, in other words, becomes a gauntlet of widowmakers. In summertime, I’ve cut down large trees near the house based on this fear alone. Considering a native Nebraskans’ lust for mature trees, that’s nearly phobic behavior.

If you’re a deer hunter, you’ve almost certainly felt the ice get personal. It doesn’t take many days in a stand before you experience the onset of an icy embrace firsthand. I’ve sat out in a freezing rain, the ice layering itself onto my body. Icicles droop from the gun barrel, and I kill time melting spots onto the stock with my fingers. Eventually, I stand up and shatter the clear armor. Somewhere deep in my mind, I’m probably worrying about winding up like Hatchet Jack, the hunter Robert Redford discovers in Jeremiah Johnson. He finds Jack iced up against a log, Hawken rifle still in hand. Jeremiah rips Jack’s last will and testament from the ice and reads, “I, Hatchet Jack, being of sound mind and broke legs, do hereby leaveth my bear rifle to whatever finds it. It is a good rifle and kilt the bear that kilt me. Anyway, I am dead. Yours truly, Hatchet Jack.”

Go out to the mailbox on an Iowa day like this without YakTrax on your feet, and you could wind up like Jack at the end of your own driveway. Broke legs and frozen to the barberry bush. Safer to stay put and watch that thermometer inch toward 33.



  1. Keep your nose in the wind and your eye along the skyline.

  2. I went to town once….

  3. You’ve come far pilgrim.
    Were it worth the trouble?
    Jeremiah Johnson: What trouble?

  4. I didn’t know bears wore kilts?
    Huh. I should watch more National Geographic shows.

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