Photo by Alice Hagan

The fourth winter at the lake the water froze solid before a single flake fell and we nervously looked out onto a shining, black glass canvas. The ice appeared to be about half a foot thick but you could still see moving water in some places below the ice floor. The ice cracked and cried out as we stamped our boots down on the shoreline and listened to a chorus of vibrations that scared us back onto the dock. It was difficult to tell if the sounds were warning or welcoming us.

All night long the lake moaned a sad and melancholy song. I got up and crept down to the kitchen so I could watch it in the moonlight as I listened to it groan. The sounds were guttural and eerie as the ice, I later learned, was expanding and thickening. The sounds are accentuated in the early morning and late afternoon when the outside temperature is fluctuating.


Photo by Robert Forlini

The next day I saw a child skating on the lake in great looping circles. I had my answer, it was safe to skate. We made hot chocolate and lugged our thermoses, skates and extra socks down to the dock. Initially we stayed close to shore before we brazenly skimmed over a sheet of black ice that was so beautiful I felt guilty about laying tracks of skate blades across the top. You could see frozen bubbles just underneath the surface and my son often chose to lie down on the ice and stare into the abyss.

Rob ditched the skates, preferring to walk across the ice taking pictures. My daughter and I  skated restlessly to the other side and as we turned around we had to remind ourselves that we hadn’t just skated through water and it was safe to return. There is a feeling of endless freedom accompanied with open lake skating.

Photo by Robert Forlini

I had grown up skating on a similar sized pond called Butler Lake in Libertyville, Illinois. I remember the thrill of the opening day of skating. The town managed the safety of the ice and hung up warning signs if the ice ever grew too thin. Libertyville maintained a small warming house that sold cheap snacks and pumped WLS radio through a set of loudspeakers attached to the outside of the house and facing the lake. ImageMy mother used to drop us off for the day during winter vacation from school and no matter how low the temperature plunged we couldn’t leave until she was good and ready to pick us up.

One bitter cold day the warming house was packed with kids like us, each hesitant to give up their seat on the bench. My older sister bargained for me to go buy the hot cocoas.

            “You go get them,” she prodded. “I’ll save your seat.”

I stared at the endless line of shivering children in wobbly skate blades waiting for a surly high school boy to serve them while he flirted with a cluster of overly zealous girls. I sighed and took my place in line.

I returned quite a bit later with two partially filled Styrofoam cups that had sloshed down around the cuffs of my snow jacket. My seat was filled by an oversized middle school boy in hockey skates and knee pads. My sister looked at me with one of those “what do you expect me to do?” looks. So I teetered in my skates on the thick rubber mats that ran through the aisles and sipped at the chocolate flavored hot water and wished the day would end.

Out of boredom and the increasing din in the warming house we dressed back up in our hats and scarves and ventured out onto the ice for short bursts. Just long enough to not freeze to death. The ramp down to the ice had a metal railing that you clung to for dear life hoping one of the hockey boys didn’t plow you down before you cleared the path.

After about five minutes of limb numbing exercise we pulled ourselves back up the ramp, our frozen fingers barely clinging to the metal rail.

By the time our mother arrived it was almost dark and most of the other children had left. We stuffed ourselves into the back of the station wagon and our silence confirmed to her that we’d had a great day. She obviously had.

            “Well you must be exhausted from all that exercise,” she’d say. “I bet you can’t wait to go back tomorrow.”

            In actuality we did have fun at Butler Lake over the years but the area you were allowed to skate on was cordoned off  and if you ventured too far out someone skated after you with a bull horn and made an example of you.

           “Hey kid, you in the stocking cap,” he announced to every turned head on the rink. “Whatya want to die out there?” You’d nonchalantly pull off your stocking cap and skate back looking at your toe grips hoping you could blend back in.

My memory of the color of the ice on Butler Lake was always a dull grey, never the jet black color that spread out in front of us that winter or the expanse of a rink that was as big as the lake was long. Butler Lake may have called out long heart wrenching cries of expanding ice but any sounds it produced  were drowned out by Larry Lujak  playing  songs like “Harper Valley P.T.A.” or “Little Green Apples.” You expect to hear these things at an indoor rink even today but out on a lake you should just be listening to the ice speaking.

Last winter, my children grown, I skated alone on my lake through a thin crust of snow and watched the late day shadows grow long. A lost seagull was circling above me, both of us inadvertently moving to the song of the ice beneath us.


Skating through thin snow. February 2013

I am ending this blog post with a link to silentlistening that has posted a recording of ice sounds. Enjoy.


Life on a lake takes on new meaning during the winter months, especially our view from the kitchen window. With the absence of leaves the vista expands and the black branches are a stark contrast to the now frozen water crusted with thin white snow. A red tailed hawk circles overhead, waiting.


Black ice before the first snowfall. ©Robert Forlini

After the first leaf season ended we settled into what we believed would be an almost sublime skate across a wide open sheet of black ice. This would be followed by a cozy scene of a happy family toasting marshmallows in front of the open fire while the snow floated past the picture window. Who could ask for anything more from winter?

During one of our tours of the house before buying it the owner highlighted all the selling points. The house had new windows, it was wired with an alarm system and oh yes, it was wired for a generator.

As city transplants we cocked our heads and asked, “Why?”

“Just in case the power ever goes out,” she said.

“Does that happen often?”

“No, but best to be prepared,” she said.

A thinking person would have investigated this a little further and asked around. Instead we looked at the large red metal box on two wheels and asked, “Is it difficult to use?”

The owner, a petite woman weighing no more that 100 pounds answered. “Oh no, it’s so easy. I simply wheel it outside that door, plug it in and it starts right up.”

I know what you’re thinking. Did you ask her to demonstrate it? Wrong again.

A few days before the sale was final the husband of the petite woman talked Rob and I through a series of steps to hook up the generator.

“Okay, now first you have to shut off the mains.”  He pointed to the circuit breaker.

“All of them?”

“Oh yeah, if you don’t shut this down you’re likely to blow up the place when the real power comes back on.”

“We wouldn’t want that,” I said.

“Then you wheel the generator out, fill it with six gallons of gas, but you better have extra tanks of gas on hand,” He said.


“You wouldn’t want to run out.”

“Now after you plug it in, click this,” he moved his hand quickly past a small, black nondescript button. “Then adjust the choke, you gotta fiddle with it sometimes, then just pull the crank until it starts. Piece of cake.”

Again you would think we would have asked him to actually demonstrate it. I looked at Rob with a concerned face. “Do you understand this?”

The owner, a man we later always referred to as “the Strunz,” from the Italian “stronzo” made his own face. “Listen, my wife can do it,” he disparaged.


©Robert Forlini

Exit “the Strunz” and return to that first winter. Long before a flake fell a strong wind blew down a power line and we rushed to get our generator running. Standing in the dark Jackson clutched a flashlight in the cold night air while I held the funnel in place and Rob sloshed in six gallons of gasoline.

“Shine the light here,” Rob shouted.

“Where? Here?”

“Just stand still.”

“Maybe we don’t need all that gas,” I suggested.

“Maybe you should shut up,” Rob barked as he tried to steady himself on an uneven walkway holding up six gallons of flammable liquid.

He finished and staggered back a little with the empty can.

“Can I go now?” Jack asked.

Rob grabbed the flashlight without answering and went to switch over the power. Jackson went back upstairs to play with his sister by candlelight.

“And don’t flush the toilet until I say it’s okay,” Rob called after him.

“Maybe we should just go out to eat or to the movies,” I said.

“Maybe you shouldn’t talk,” he said, nervously as he handed the light back to me. “Shine the light here while I set the choke.” Rob moved a small lever and stepped back ready to pull the crank. Which he did repeatedly until he had to sit down on a nearby lawn chair and catch his breath. I’m leaving out the string of curse words that filled in that span of time.

We regrouped and tried again and low and behold  the engine suggested it might start the way an old lawnmower sounds when it wants to help you out one last time. Encouraged, Rob took a deep breath, braced himself against the machine and pulled with every last article of strength he had left.

“F#*K!” Rob spat.

The little red generator roared. Rob beamed. He proudly turned on the alternate power circuit breaker and low and behold we had a smattering of lights come on in the house including the refrigerator and well pump. We were back in business.

Quinn came to the top of the basement steps and cried, “What’s that horrible noise?”

The sound sputtering from the generator was deafening but we had overlooked it in light of our recent success. We went inside and tried to shield ourselves from the din but it vibrated up through the walls and could not be ignored. Again I suggested we head out to the movies which was again rebuffed.

“We can’t leave the house with a running generator.”

And I hummed, “…we are all just prisoners here, of our own device.”


©Robert Forlini

Jackson cupped his hands around the kitchen window and declared that all the houses across the lake had lights on. Either everyone had a generator or the regular power had been restored. Rob looked deflated as he turned off the motor reversed his steps and switched back over to the main line. But nothing could take away the fact that he had been able to make it work when needed. The cursing returned as he tried to figure out how to drain the generator of the remaining six gallons.

In the thirteen years that followed the little red engine that usually couldn’t sometimes came through in a pinch. The process never changed, Rob cursed his way through each encounter but he and little red began to get to know one another a little better. Each time Rob begins to switch over the lines he mimics the previous owner’s wife. “…it’s so easy. I simply wheel it outside that door, plug it in and it starts right up.”

When Superstorm Sandy hit last fall we had been prepared with a row of filled gas cans, gallons of drinking water, candles, lanterns, batteries, dry firewood and plenty of food in the fridge. True we still have to shout to be heard and Rob still curses but you can’t have it all. With life on the lake you sometimes find you get what you need.


©Robert Forlini