This has been a winter unlike any I’ve experienced — a cold blast in the minus 20s before wind chill, several feet of snow, weeks below freezing. And all of a sudden it’s gone.
I know we could still get a snowstorm in the next month or so, but it’s hard to look around at all of the dripping and gushing and not conclude winter has lost its grip. We’ve had some moderate flooding around the Cities, including near where I work, and catastrophic flooding to the south in Nebraska and elsewhere that’s directly affecting old friends of mine and their families.
We could get some of the same, but for now, things are just soaked. This past weekend I went down to Minnehaha Creek to see the back and forth between freezing and thawing. It was a good bookend to my visit back in December when the freezing was really taking over. Streams of snowmelt have carved channels and miniature canyons in the snow and ice, and the creek is gushing.
One of my favorite things with the thaw is watching water and bubbles flow under ice and take on a lava-lamp-like mode. I also found a kind of ice that’s new to my repertoire: etched with wiggling lines as if shattered but whole and smooth to the touch.
I also went further along the creek than last time, all the way down to where it joins the Mississippi River. An orange bluff there seems to be made of the softest sandstone. People have carved names and designs all over it, of course, but I was more impressed with nature’s own contribution. The rock is covered in tree-like, branching tufts of sandstone powder that crumble to nothing at the slightest contact. Nature always one-ups us.
Happy spring, everyone! I’m as glad as anyone to see it.
This is something like the Minnesota March version of that standard image of a bent-over palm tree. Instead of being on a white, sandy beach, this one’s hunched over something like 2 feet of snow. We’ve gotten significantly more than that in recent weeks here in the Twin Cities without much thawing; I’m thinking the weight of each new snow blanket is simply compressing the snow underneath. There’s just a lot.
I’m not thrilled with the “bold north’s” winter at this point, but I have been getting a feel for its details: the knocking of several woodpeckers at once on still days, the ice on my face and inside my nose, the bulldozers and dump trucks loaded with snow, the ever-deepening valleys of sidewalks. Somehow only short segments of the Mississippi River freeze even now, but those that do genuinely resemble the surface of the moon.
I took these yesterday at Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul. The falls are indeed hidden, frozen solid and covered in snow, but the rest of the park gave a nice opportunity to follow snowshoe trails, which are a little easier than raw snow to negotiate, down to the Mississippi and back.
Speaking of wintry details, I’d like to circle back to something I caught a glimpse of in this blog post back in November: odd root- or fractal-like patterns that appear in pond and river ice around here. I’ve since found a lot more of these shapes and actually wrote up a story for work about them here. There’s a few guesses out there, but they might form from warmer water trickling up from below or from water on top of the ice flowing back down through a hole or break.
Here’s some examples:
There are little treasures to find even when it seems like nothing but ice and snow outside.
I foolishly thought Lake Superior’s edge would be frozen in some interesting way this past weekend, but the lake was too rambunctious for that.
A piercing wind blew in from the choppy water and pushed up waves a few feet tall that crashed too loudly for conversation. Occasionally a deeper, concussive boom sounded as the water slammed against Split Rock Lighthouse State Park’s dark cliffs. It was another gray, overcast day on the North Shore, yet the waves and churning bubbles somehow glowed a vivid teal. I was entranced.
It seemed ideal for the lake to be in a lively mood for this visit. The Minnesota Historical Society’s visitor center says the park’s namesake lighthouse was built more than a century ago, even before a road reached the spot, shortly after a disastrous storm rolled over the lake in 1905. The storm sunk or damaged a couple dozen ships and killed more people, including some within view of the lighthouse’s future perch.
Lake Superior is the biggest and deepest of the Great Lakes and is full of danger and shipwrecks from edge to edge, including that of the Edmund Fitzgerald from the 1970s over on the eastern end. The area’s weather and wind get much of the blame, but the historical society also pointed out the iron in the very rock, which helped make the region so important for shipping to begin with, could also screw around with ships’ compasses. I never would have guessed that.
The park’s just a few miles from another park we visited back in October, but still far enough to see a new side of Superior. The water was placid then, and the old, igneous rock of the shoreline was wine-red there instead of black. Instead of October’s fall colors, last weekend we hiked through a foot of snow.
I’m still waiting for the Cities to get that kind of decent snowfall this season.
Some of you might remember my first visit to Minnehaha Falls in June, when it was tumbling over a verdant cliff in a lush valley. Six months later, a good snowfall and a week of freezing temperatures have given the 50-foot falls a set of icicles almost as tall.
I went Minnehaha Regional Park last weekend right after that snow arrived and saw miniature snowmen and snow-plastered trees. But the creek itself was almost completely clear of ice.
So I went back today to see what the cold had sculpted since then. Minnehaha Creek has frozen itself into narrow channels and ice tunnels. The ice’s surface often looks topographical, forming stair-step terraces, sometimes a few feet tall, that remind me of terraced rice fields or canyon walls. Instead of wearing away at these canyons, the water has built them.
Those white blobs are bubbles that continuously flowed through what looked like a 4-foot-long, crystal-clear ice straw.
It can be hard to see with transparent ice, but the shot above shows a good example of the terrace sets I saw: maybe 3 feet tall and stepping down from the upper left to lower right, with water gushing on the left side.
This last shot is what looked to be another set of terraces somehow under the water, giving them a distorted and unreal appearance.