North Fork Outdoors: Watch your step on that slippery ice

One of my graduate school roommates had an obsession with snow. Even if the fall only amounted to a couple of inches, he got busy pushing and scaping sidewalks and driveways. Coming from Golden, Colo., as he did, this did seem peculiar to the rest of us, but he was adamant. Snow, left to settle and then stepped or driven on, became ice — layered, thick, and nasty, and he hated ice.

In later years, we’ve come to respect this attitude. Icy splats are no fun; sometimes they’re downright destructive. Unless you’re a ski racer or hockey player, you avoid the slick steeps or the frozen, glassy panes that gleam blue or green in reflected sunlight. Even the great racer Lindsey Vonn spoke with awe recently about the chance to occasionally take a break and ski on real powder in the Rockies while making a living on slopes deliberately iced for added speed. And what Rangers fan can ever forget how one of the stars took the team out of playoff contention years ago by slipping on ice and breaking an ankle while stepping out of a taxi in New York City!

In New York State nowadays, a ditty I learned long ago from a St. Louis veteran of many ice storms is absolutely appropriate:

Our weather in the winter,
How wonderful it is!
First it snew;
Then it thew.
Now, bigawd, it’s friz!

Swings in temperature are often responsible for frozen surfaces. For example, only last week in the North Country we endured a gray all-day fog that turned into a heavy downpour around sunset. The mercury climbed steadily, well into the mid-40s, but began to drop shortly before midnight. Next morning the thermometer stood at minus-five degrees below zero. Our driveway was a skating rink, covered by an inch of ice. Despite the light snowfall arriving on the back side of the front, surfaces were still treacherous underfoot.

Of course, this event couldn’t compare with the “Great Ice Storm” of January 1998, when three inches of icy rain fell over several days and took parts of the Northeast off the power grid for a month! For a week, major roads were closed except for emergency vehicles and the National Guard.

It’s one thing to hunker down temporarily and wait for a thaw, but it’s quite another to deal with the ice and get out and about, e.g. if you have dogs and livestock. One thing you cannot do is get angry and let the frustration get to you, as I did one winter on the prairies of Illinois when I got so tired of seeing my sedan caked in ice that I took a stick and shattered the ice off the sides, doors, and trunk. As soon as the weather warmed up, I took the car into a shop for a repaint job.

Faced with more ice than ever in recent years, I ordered a special family Christmas gift this year from “The Surfcaster” in Guilford, Conn., a pair of “his and hers” Korkers for me and Janet. Korkers, for the uninitiated, are heavy rubber sandals that strap onto boots or waders. They have some 50 sharp carbide spikes fastened securely to each sole, and the spikes are replaceable, too. They’re standard issue for surfcasters who walk moss-covered jetties or salmonid anglers who fish streams with algae-covered boulders.

Heavy? Yes, you know you’re wearing them. Clunky? Yes, you better be out on the porch rug, not the tile floor, when you put them on. Do they work? Yes, and how! For the first time in icy conditions, I could walk naturally and handle a couple of active field dogs on the ends of their leads, even when they surprised me with an occasional simultaneous lunge (“crack the whip”). In fact, my traction was so good the dogs flipped; carbide spikes trumped dog claws!

For those who find themselves walking on ice without hobnails or chains, the rules are simple but important. Proceed slowly the way you would walk the slippery deck of a party boat in a heaving sea. A wide stance works best for stability. Since you don’t have boat rails, use a walking stick or a “trekking pole” (or two, if you have them). Watch exactly where you step and try to find a grassy surface under the ice rather than Macadam.

Most “old-timers” on the East End won’t recall too many ice storms mixed among the major snow events, but all this has changed over recent decades, we think. Warming winter temperatures coupled with larger temperature swings and, often enough, increased moisture content in the snowfall — all these factors contribute to ice. No point in wailing or gnashing teeth. If you have to get out, think of those hardies who get out on winter trails and frozen lakes regularly, and gear up.