Monday, January 27, 2014

Day 260 - Walking Across Lake Mendota (Facing Winter)


I have never walked across Lake Mendota. For those that are unaware, Lake Mendota is the largest of the four lakes in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, which occupies a significant area of the city with its more than 15 square miles of surface area. Now, let me be clear in stating I never had any intention of walking across Lake Mendota, or any lake for that matter, as a part of my "I have never..." year. In fact, I'll be the first to admit the idea is more than a little stupid, and as someone that has a subtle fear of falling through ice, it was the last thing I wanted to do in my year of new experiences. Regardless, I found myself facing the challenge tonight as a result of a sudden change in my "I have never..." plans and as a result of my propensity to dig in my heels and be stubborn at the worst possible moments.

Tonight was supposed to be a routine evening in my "I have never..." year. I had a class scheduled for this evening, and I was looking forward to learning something new. However, our third bout of record-setting, "polar vortex" cold in as many weeks resulted in the class being canceled just one hour before it was scheduled to start. That occurrence left me scrambling to find another new experience that could fill the void and rescue my "I have never..." year as this evening set in. Unfortunately, every potential new experience I came across resulted in the same four word conclusion that had caused the issue in the first place, "Canceled due to weather." After nearly an hour of searching I met nothing but dead ends, and the only thing to blame was the bitter cold.

As a result, my frustrated mind began shifting focus to ways I could use the frigid weather to my advantage in my effort to gain a new experience. With the sun setting and the wind chill pushing past -25 degrees Fahrenheit, I started rifling through ways I could stand up to the cold and prove to myself its absolute control over the city, and over my "I have never..." year, was in some way restricted. While I don't blame anyone for looking out for the safety of all, I was over the idea of the cold could forcing me inside and uprooting my plans for another time this winter. Stated plainly, I was tired of winter owning me, and I wasn't going to let it go this time.

Bring it...
It wasn't until my eye caught a glimpse of Lake Mendota on my drive home this evening that I realized one of the best ways to face the conditions in their full force would be to traverse a wide open, snowy space like the lake during the peak of tonight's record setting cold. I knew if I made it to the center of Lake Mendota by foot I could face the onslaught of winter headlong and prove that it couldn't beat me, but I also acknowledged that walking to the center of the lake alone wouldn't offer much in the way of accomplishment. In turn, I decided I would walk across the lake through the bitterness and bluster of tonight, and I decided my path would take me across one of the widest portions of Lake Mendota.

Geared up!
With the potential of several new experiences at my feet, I knew I needed to act if I was to make the nearly four mile trek with enough time to get a decent night's sleep. As a result, I moved into action preparing for what would be the coldest outdoor experience of my life. Plotting a course from Tenney Park on the Mendota’s southeast shore to Governor Nelson State Park on the lake’s North shore. With a lot of uncertainty wracking me, and with the temperature plunging further with each passing minute, I geared up and prepared for a new experience unlike any to date. It was time to walk Lake Mendota, and I was doing it on the coldest night I have ever faced.

Before leaving my house tonight I did my best to quell Rachael’s worries and to reassure her I would be fine. Although I fully understood her concern, the closer I came to my departure the more I realized my walk across Lake Mendota was something I needed to do for myself. Every shred of reason in my mind told me it was a stupid idea, but my desire to face winter, and all of its harsh, bitter force, overwhelmed me. A reminder on the motto I have maintained during the course of my “I have never...” year was all I needed to push myself out into the cold. Reaching for the door handle I turned to Rachael and said frankly, “I told myself this year would be about going the places people don’t go, seeing the things people don’t see, discovering the experiences left undiscovered, and living without fear. As foolish as it might be, this covers every aspect of that motto, and something tells me I will be fine.” The remark did little to alter the distressed look on Rachael’s face. “I love you. Just know that I have to do this. It’s time for me to do this,” I said continuing. Reluctantly, Rachael nodded her head and rose to her feet to give me a single kiss. “It’s crazy, but if you need to do it, do it,” she said quietly, “Just keep your phone someplace close in case you need help.” I nodded my head in understanding and pulled Rachael in for an embrace, “I’ll be fine. This is just another part of my story.”

The eastern shore, Tenney Park
With that final remark, I grabbed the door handle and walked out into the night. Without hesitation, I immediately began my trek down the street toward the location I had designated as the starting point of my journey, Tenney Park. The vacant, silent streets around me made the walk short, which left me on the frozen shore of Lake Mendota much faster than I expected. Pausing to take one last look at the fading remnants of light wrapping the western horizon, I quietly spoke, “Well, this is it.” In response, the wind howled and punched me with a blast of intense cold. The force of the wind caused my head to turn momentarily, directing my eyes to the dim lights resting on the opposite shore. Knowing they were the guide to my path, I took a deep breath and walked forward onto Lake Mendota.

The view a few hundred yards out
Determined, I marched toward the opposite shore at a steady, rapid pace. Luckily, the punishing wind that had come with the most recent bout of arctic cold had all but swept the lake clear of snow, leaving only a dusting of precipitation clinging to the lake’s surface. The walkable surface meant I was able to make steady progress in the first 30 minutes of my journey, with periodic bursts of wind serving as the only force to slow my pace. Beneath a moonless sky I quickly found myself surrounded by darkness for hundreds of yards on any side until the void crashed into the twinkling lights lining the shores of the lake. The sight of the city wrapping around me was enough to stop me in my tracks so I could take in the city. As I stood on the bald surface of the lake, I looked at the place I call my home in a way I had never witnessed it before. The sight of the glowing city from the lake was almost unbelievable. All along the windswept skyline stacks of steam and smoke rose from the roofs of buildings and into the frigid air. Lights twinkled as wisps of snow blew through the air separating me from the shoreline. It was stark but magnificent. In that moment, I knew why I had taken on the task of walking across Lake Mendota. I was facing winter, and it was showing me all of its beauty.

Well, that's reassuring
Realizing I need to do my best to capture some semblance of the view with my camera, I removed my glove and started digging through my pocket. I immediately felt the cold air tighten up my knuckles and pull at my skin as I moved, but I was determined to document the moment. Seconds later, I turned on my camera and lifted it toward the distant skyline. In amazement, I watched as the battery meter dropped from full to empty over a period of only a few seconds. With the cold sapping all of the energy out of the device, I hurriedly snapped as many photos as possible until the camera screen went blank and the device’s lights slowly faded to dark. In less than 15 seconds the cold had claimed my camera. Although I still felt warm, that fact made the power of the brutal cold real, and it made me realize I needed to continue my trek as to not remain exposed to the elements any longer than necessary.

In hope I could breathe life back into my camera, I tucked it between my neck and my coat collar before continuing in my path across the lake. As I walked I started noticing distinct sounds between the peaks of the wind. Quiet creaks and groans periodically rolled into the air as I neared the center of the lake. At first the noises caused me some concern, but a recount of the persistent cold reminded me the ice beneath my feet was likely more than a foot think. As a result, it was easy to identify the sounds as the lake responding to the conditions on the surface. On the coldest night, the lake was talking, and, frankly, I didn’t mind the company.

About half way... and pressing on
Coming to terms with the noises occurring around me, I continued on my path toward the other side of the lake. Nearly 90 minutes after I left the shore of Tenney Park, I found myself approaching the middle of the lake. With the wind whipping and little light to guide me, I kept my head low and pressed forward until my eye caught something out of the ordinary. Running along the edge of an exposed swath of ice, a winding black line the width of my hand crept its way across the gap between blankets of snow. The sight caused my heart to skip and forced me to an abrupt stop.

“Shit. That can’t be...” I whispered to myself. Doing my best to get a better look at the anomaly in the surface of the ice, I snapped my hood free from the thin rim of ice that had formed between the fabric and my eyelashes and leaned forward to get a better look. Still unable to determine whether the line was a result of open water, I slowly lowered my body to the ice and lay on my stomach. Crawling forward slightly, I stretched my right arm out over the black line, formed a fist, and slammed my hand against the darkened space. The force landed on a solid, immovable surface, sending a dense thud into the air. Relieved at finding a solid area over the black line, I rolled to my back and looked at the stars. “Well, what now?” I asked as stared skyward. It was clear I could only turn back or continue on, but the idea of giving up didn’t sit well with me. As a result, I quickly decided I would continue forward, diverting my path along the black line until it permitted me to get back on my previous track toward the opposite shore. I knew it was risky and I knew it would take time, but I wasn’t going to let a frozen over crack in the ice stop me from achieving my objective.

Getting there
Rising to my feet, I quickly pulled my phone out of my pocket to check the time. With the device in hand, I promptly removed my glove and attempted to unlock the touch screen. To my surprise, the few seconds of exposure to the cold made the screen incapable of recognizing the heat from my finger. In response, I raised the phone to my face and forced a strong, extended breath onto it as I swiped my finger across the screen’s surface. Fortunately, the heat was enough to trigger the phone’s screen, permitting me to unlock it and check the time. 

Similar to my previous experience with my camera, I watched as the phone’s battery depleted from full to empty in the few seconds after I unlocked the screen. Moments later, it pulled up a random contact in my phone and began blinking randomly before the screen faded to an eerie gray in slow motion. With a single buzz the phone immediately shutdown, leaving me slightly panicked at the idea that my sole source of contact with the shore had been stolen by the cold. As a result, I promptly tucked the phone between my coat collar and my neck opposite my camera, hoping it too would come back to life with some heat. The reality of the situation settling in, I closed my eyes for a moment to think through my remaining trip and noticed a dull pain moving across the surface of my eyes in response to the heat from my eyelids. With the cold fighting me, I looked up to my destination and traced my altered path through the air. “Time to keep moving,” I muttered as I put my glove back on my hand and lifted my feet back into motion.

Looking back at my tracks...
The yellow and white lights are from Tenney Park
Over the next 15 minutes I made a large swooping path across the ice until the black line narrowed and disappeared into an ice heave sealed together with ice and snow. Stepping past the mound of frozen layers, I rechecked my path and drove forward toward a gap in the lights of Lake Mendota’s north shore. Figuring the darkness was likely the wilderness of Governor Nelson State Park, I heightened my pace until I noticed a change in the ice beneath my feet. The northeast portion of the ice was almost entirely free of snow, leaving a slick surface of ice covering the bulk of the frozen terrain. Stopping to gauge my best approach to navigating the pockets of exposed ice, I suddenly heard a noise pierce the air. Accompanying a slight tremor beneath my feet, a sound similar to an object striking a taut steel cable tore past me and rushed toward the picnic point peninsula on the southwest portion of the lake. A quick check of the space around me showed no change in the ice, but I remained cautious. Eventually settling on the idea that the noise was likely a result of hairline cracks forming in the ice, I closed my eyes and restarted my forward progress. The north shore of the lake was within sight, I just needed to keep my feet moving long enough to get there.

The west shore, Governor Nelson State Park
In my remaining moments on Lake Mendota I took my time to look back at my progress and squeezed enough power out of my camera to take a few more distant pictures. Accompanied by a few more tremors in the ice, my path eventually guided me to a boat landing obscured by snow and lit bit a sole overhead light. With a smile on my face, I dropped my feet back onto solid ground and climbed into Governor Nelson State Park. On a bitter night in -25 degree weather, I had conquered the nearly four mile hike across Lake Mendota, and for the most part I was no worse for wear. My Columbia omni-heat gear had kept me perfectly warm for the most part and my path had guided me safely across the desolate surface of Lake Mendota. With the exception of icy eyelashes and a little eye pain, I was fine. I had faced winter, and I had won.

After reaching the shore, I continued into Governor Nelson State Park where I forced enough battery life out of my phone to make a call to Rachael. Although I was confident I could have made the return journey across the lake without any harm, the late hour and a desire for a hot meal made me decide it was probably best to get a ride home. Eager to help me get home, Rachael was quick to pick me up along the road in Governor Nelson State Park and help me bring tonight’s “I have never...” experience to an end.

Looking at downtown from the shore

Made it!

Initially concerned about my well-being, I assured Rachael I was fine on the drive home, but in reality I was more than fine. My experience had left me filled with a sense of wonder and pride that has been infrequently matched during the course of my “I have never...” year. On a day when no one was supposed to face the cold, I took it on and walked away. I had proven to myself winter couldn’t own me, and I opened up entirely new possibilities for new experiences in my life, even among the most frigid temperatures. Looking out the car window on the ride home I thought back on my experience, recounting the emotions that had carried me across Mendota. From that, I realized that when I was standing on that barren lake looking on the distant light of the city, I was happy. I felt free. I was alone with the coldest forces of nature, and they showed me all of their beauty. To me, those are the moments, the stories, that make life whole, and experiences like tonight prove to me there is no reason to stop seeking them.

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