Nicely Icy

“Winter hung in there, like an invalid refusing to die. Day after grey day the ice stayed hard; the world remained unfriendly and cold.”
    Neil Gaiman, Odd and the Frost Giants

Glowing ice on the shore of Glacier National Park's Lake McDonald

Ice on Lake McDonald's shore.

What a long, strange winter, the one of 2018/2019, a winter with no snow worth mentioning until 26 December, little more accumulating through mid-January, and then absolutely burying us the entire month of February. To make up for that, February saw new records set for cold temperatures, and to make up for that relentless wind piled the snow into huge and fantastically-shaped drifts. The cold and wind stayed with us when March came in like it's supposed to, but the snow stopped as if a switch had been thrown, leaving us to suffer through a stretch of gorgeous, if chilly, blue-sky days. By mid-March we saw daily high temperatures above freezing and they continued to warm, with the month going out like a lamb. Despite February's plentitude, the March drought left the seasonal snowpack here in our part of northwest Montana somewhat below average, but I heard no complaints about the dry, sunny days except by regional hydrologists whose job is to worry about such things. You can't please everybody.

The cold resulted in a couple of unusual lake events: Flathead Lake, near our home, didn't quite freeze across, but came closer than it has in years. Polson Bay did freeze all the way out to the islands that define its northern border; while that's not so rare, much of the lake beyond the bay froze, with open water left only in the middle of the lake. (It's a very large lake, the largest natural, fresh-water lake west of the Mississippi.) Along with that, Glacier National Park's Lake McDonald, no small pond itself, froze entirely across. I last saw and photographed that in 2014.

Pat and I took advantage of those lovely March days to get outside a bit, after our self-imposed February hermitation while the wind blew and the snow piled up. A Saturday visit to Glacier proved lonely in the best way; we saw few other people, despite the sunshine and blue sky. And we saw ice, lots of ice. We entered the park's west entrance and made a stop in Apgar for our first look at the lake. The sun had not yet risen above the Belton Hills east of the lake, leaving it and its shore areas in shadow.

Cave Man

Wave action piles up ice along the shore. Often this looks like randomly-piled plates of broken glass, sometimes several inches thick, with sharp, jagged edges. But on this day we saw ice mounds, smooth hillocks of ice several feet thick, like giant blue anthills on some alien planet, made by creatures you'd never want to meet. My best guess is that waves broke over the usual piled ice shards, smoothing the sharp edges and filling the gaps, and then froze again leaving the relatively smooth mounds we saw. The light wasn't ideal but still I made a few photos of the lake, the mountains beyond the lake's northern shore, and the ice formations at my feet.

Ice off shore of Glacier National Park's Lake McDonald

Ice 'mound' off shore of Glacier's Lake McDonald.

While walking around the ice mounds and looking for compositions I came across a small ice cave. I suspect this started as a pile of ice shards, much like the other ice mounds along the shore, but somehow grew to a larger size. Then wave action hollowed it out and smoothed the outer surface. It also left stalactites of ice dripping from the interior. The frozen lake surface made a solid, rough-textured floor. Lying flat on the ice at the cave's entrance I placed the camera on the ice (using my hat as a pad) with the lens just inside the cave's opening. This positioned the camera about a foot above the ice floor. I could move around enough to get a few different compositions, with the best capturing some of the icicles, the floor, and light coming through the thinnest ice at the back of the cave. I decided to come back later when the sun would be higher and perhaps shine through the roof to light the interior.

We then drove the section of the park's Going-To-The-Sun Road that remains open and plowed all winter, about twelve miles (nineteen km) to the gate that blocks motorized vehicle travel until sometime after plowing starts in April. We made frequent stops along the way looking for good views through the trees of the lake and mountains. We discovered the ice breakup had begun, with open water in the central area of the lake and in a few spots near the shoreline ice stacks. With little breeze to disturb it the mirror-like lake perfectly reflected the mountains. An occasional breeze rippled the water, distorting the reflection. Floating ice provided breaks in reflections that could otherwise create an upside-down world so perfect as to cause a mild vertigo, an odd effect that must be experienced; it's difficult to describe.

After wandering a bit we made our way back to Lake McDonald's south shore for another look at the little cave.

Curing The Blues

Digital camera sensors, like their film predecessors, render ice or snow in shadow as blue, sometimes very blue if the sky is cloudless. There is, of course, a very strong blue component, but our brains filter that so snow and ice appear a more or less “natural” white to us. The camera has no such built-in mediator, and I find the blue so often seen in winter photos to be unrealistic and distracting. Fortunately, Photoshop and (probably) other photo editing software makes it fairly easy to “fix” this so snow and ice in shade can be made to look more neutral, as we see it. I consider this one of those cases where such adjustments compensate for limitations of the equipment used to capture the photo. This is just my personal preference; you may of course feel differently and prefer blue snow in your photos. I see it in lots of pictures.

Lake McDonald ice cave, March, 2019.

The 'final' version of the little ice cave photo, Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park.

Upon returning to the ice cave, I found the sun had made its way above the trees to the east and cast a hazy warm light on the shoreline mounds. The light inside the cave, while much less blue than it had been earlier, didn't highlight the interior as I'd hoped. The thickness of the ice dome limited its translucency. I repeated my earlier setup and made another bunch of exposures, but upon reviewing the pictures later, I found I preferred the light and pictures from earlier in the morning. I did make my usual adjustments as described above, but decided to leave more of the blue than I typically do because it gives the final picture more of the feeling I had (cold) while lying on the ice making the image.

It would be impossible to count the number of times we've been to Glacier, and to Lake McDonald's shores, and equally challenging to count the number of photos I've made there in every season in all kinds of weather. This is the first time I've seen a little cave structure in the lakeshore's ice, and I had a nice morning messing around trying to capture it. Like Mr. Gump's box of chock-lits, you never know what you're gunna git, even in the most familiar places. That's one of many reasons I'm eager for our next visit to the park.

April, 2019

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