If someone asked you to shovel a river, would you do it?
Of course you would. After all there’s the Ice-Jam to worry about. If your life is anything like mine, you’ve doubtless heard of the Ice-Jam, but let me tell you about it anyway. Over the winter the babbling brook freezes over, the ice pad grows as temperatures dip lower and lower and flakes and flurries pile. Even fluffy snow forms to unforgiving ice under the cold pressure of the pile. The ice and snow sneak steadily up underneath the abutment until they are but five feet from the bottom of the bridge. Then the weatherman forecasts rain. The warm weather will signal a massive melt, which coupled with the rain will cause the water level to rise. Thick chunks of ice will break off and float until becoming jammed in the enormous dam of ice that will begin to form upstream. The dam will build and build until it breaks. Water and ice will rush in a vicious cryoclastic flow that will reach heights ranging from six to ten feet, easily enough to carry the wooden bridge away, downstream like an unmanned raft to be smashed to pieces at the nearest bend in the river. This is the ever-present threat of the Ice-Jam. This is way we must shovel the river.
My father told me this story and now I’m telling you. I thought he was a madman. He said the Ice-Jam sounds like an airplane at first, a distant abrasion that gradually gains volume until it deafens all other sound. I was seven years old and I thought I heard an airplane. We walked to the bridge, carefully. My sister and my father went first, peering upstream, their feet firmly on the wooden bridge. I took one step more. Then I saw it. A wall of ice and water pulling trees from the bank, littered with leaves, logs, and debris. I saw the Ice-Jam and I ran. My sister and father stood on the bridge watching as the water rushed under, narrowly avoiding the wood beneath their feet. The Ice-Jam doesn’t always take the bridge. My father lives in fear that it will. We passed these off as the delusions of an eternal pessimist until the year the ice washed under one cement abutment, causing the bridge to sink six inches on one side and lose all structural stability. After the reconstruction his conviction couldn’t be questioned. The ice is our enemy.
You’re probably wondering where to start. Get a shovel and a sharpened maul. I call it a maul because my dad calls it a maul. On one side of its steel head is an axe blade and a sledgehammer on the other. Start in the middle. You might be thinking, this is a good way to end up waist deep in frigid water and you’d be right. If you’re afraid to get wet, then the ice has already won. Step one is to open up a channel. There’s no point in moving snow around if it’s not going downstream. Shovel the snow until you get down to the ice then start chopping. Chop between your feet, straddling the fault line that your maul-work creates. Use your body weight to your advantage. When the ice bridge breaks you’ll have a panicked half second to scramble to one side or the other. Pick your side well. It’s no small task to cross back. Oh. And don’t drop the maul. You don’t want to go swimming just yet.
Once the channel is open, it’s important to keep it that way. Snow will turn to slush and join with ice, swirling in eddies and gradually stagnating your flow. Don’t let the past build up, push it in the current and keep it moving downstream. Don’t let the cascading crystalline beauty of the ice formations fool you. The ice is not your friend. Unnecessary attachment will limit your ability to do what you must. I’m sure the Vandals and Goths recognized the staggering beauty of stone formed into columns and Roman arches, standing defiant against gravity, stretching toward the sky. But at some point those brilliant structures became monuments of oppression and they had to die. So it is with the ice. Look at it, marvel at it, then smash the fucking thing.
Use your feet. Stomp and kick. Don’t be afraid of the water. Freshwater can only get so cold and if you fall in all it will succeed in doing is pissing you off further and anger not only makes axe-work easier, it keeps you alive. Beware of the side of your tool that resembles a sledgehammer. If your swing doesn’t break off a chunk, it will send shattered shards of ice hurtling towards your eyes. Which is why the faint of heart wear eye protection. I prefer swinging with my eyes closed and flinching a little. As far as safety goes, you should probably have a spotter too. But these can be hard to come by. No one wants to help. At least, not initially. It may be easier to find onlookers, who will sit on the bridge and watch you, sipping beer or coffee or cocoa, laughing as your smash and grunt. Eventually, they’ll get caught up in the madness of it all, the utter futility of watching man chop wildly against an icy and unyielding nature as she calmly freezes around his feet. They’ll get caught up and they’ll want to join in. Taunt them, at first. Goad them, saying you’re not sure if they’re cut out for it, that they’re made of the right stuff. Tell them it takes real strength and balance to swing an axe-head at the same chunk of ice you’re standing on. Work furiously, letting your anger fill each swing. Stomp and spit and yell. This will draw them in. They’ll want a chance to experience that sort of primal rage.
When they climb down, sinking knee deep in snow that fills their shoes, they will start to lose interest. Hand them a shovel. Tell them they can use the maul when you’re good and ready. Tell them to work up some body heat. Don’t let them take breaks. Tell them the ice wants them to take breaks and that resting is a registered trademark of Quitter’s Incorporated. Tell them that if you’d been resting before you fell in the icy channel, you’d surely have frozen. Be impressive. Knock off massive blocks of ice. Use your waterproof boots to kick chunks that threaten to clog your channel. When they are winded and sweaty, hand them the axe. Give them a few pointers. Let them chop away and while they do, sit down and do nothing. They’ll give up soon enough, but until then, take a break and use them for all they’re worth.
If you don’t have a spotter, then do the same game, but play both parts yourself.
What? You think that’s crazy? You’re breaking ice in the middle of a frozen river. You’re digging and cursing, chopping and spitting, on the off-chance that the weatherman is right and steady rain and heavy melt come, and the rebellious waters and ice rise up to attack, forming together into the treacherous beast known only as the Ice-Jam. Crazy is none of your concern. If you keep your head down, your back hunched, and your arms moving, you might just widen the channel enough to save the bridge.
Remember, if the Ice-Jam comes it might still take the bridge. If it doesn't come, you've wasted your time. And even if you do everything perfectly and the Ice-Jam misses the bridge by a slim margin, when it's all done, no one will know that you've done anything at all.