The Slippery Meaning of Ice

Author: Tim McNamara '98

It’s February, and I’m sneaking a pair of skates and a Sherwood into the trunk of my dad’s car. Snow flurries paint the driveway and frost the leafless maple trees in the front yard. I’m in between jobs, and I stare at the flakes twisting earthward, wishing this natural scene would help me gain some insight into the order of things. But this longing recedes when I blink and remember more immediate plans.

I’ve inveigled my parents into driving to Lake Placid for the afternoon. I could drive myself, but I think I want company, or an audience—I’m not sure why. Far as they know, it’s strictly a sightseeing trip: drive up, watch some ice-climbers, see if there’s any activity at the ski-jumps, have lunch, return to the cozy warmth of home. Far as I’m concerned, they don’t need to know my plan to make an additional stop, just before Lake Placid, at the place where Cascade Brook widens into a lake. I’m not sneaking my skates and stick into the trunk for ballast. I’m hoping the pond is frozen as even and smooth as the marble floor of a bank. I want to see eight or so people flipping pucks and swirling on the ice like sharks, waiting for a game to start, for feeding time. I’ll play hockey again, on natural ice, even though my legs and skills aren’t what they used to be.


Pond hockey has few rules, if any. There are no icings or offsides and there are no real positions. In “real” hockey, there is something called a “defensive defenseman.” There is another thing called a “defensive forward.” In pond hockey, there is a position called “rover.” Everyone plays this position. A rover’s job is to chase the puck wherever it goes.

In an age of specialization—when job titles are so long they often spill onto the backs of business cards, when the average coffee order makes War and Peace seem like a pamphlet —this generality is refreshing, especially for people like me who tend to feel a little cornered by the lack of simplicity in the world.

Five years ago, after the last game of my unspectacular freshman collegiate season, I gave up playing “real” hockey, and I continue to cope with a curious symptom of withdrawal. As Odysseus probably imagined every distant sight of land to be his beloved Ithaca, I imagine every body of water as if it were frozen. When shaving, the sink fills with foamy water and tiny black hairs and I think: If I were small enough. . . . Last July I saw a pond in Iowa shaped like a huge kidney, smack in the middle of a cornfield. Imagine a game on that pond in the dead of winter! Pulling the tractors over and turning on the headlights so we can play into the evening. Of course, hell will freeze over before I visit the Hawkeye state in the winter. Which makes me think: The hockey games in hell would be rough, but there would be no shortage of referees.

I miss the organized game, but I find that pond hockey—with all its possibility, its lack of rules—suits me just fine. It’s a game of swiftness, creativity, “natural” opponents (the branches that freeze sticking out of the ice), cold feet and freedom.


My dad, a lifelong resident of upstate New York, puffs out his chest and curls up the side of his mouth condescendingly as he ambles toward the car. He prides himself in being able to travel in any weather without the benefit of four-wheel drive. I can’t tell if he is scoffing at the weather or if he caught me shoving a puck into my jacket pocket. We back out of the driveway and point ourselves north.

When we reach Keene, we can see some of the Adirondack High Peaks out the window; they have rounded tops and wear white chapeaus. Geologists say the Adirondack Mountains owe their visages to ice that receded at the end of the Earth’s most recent glacial episode, 12,000 or so years ago. For many years, scientists were puzzled by the ability of glaciers to slide down mountains. Gravity, sure. But why is ice slippery?

When considering the analogous problem of how skaters skate, the prevailing theory was that the pressure of the blades provided just-in-time melting as the skater glided along. This theory held up reasonably well for skates. But for skis, instruments that spread a human’s weight over a larger area and thus exerted less pressure on the snow, and for glaciers, which distributed their weight over a huge area, the theory explaining the slipperiness of frozen water was suspect.

About 25 years ago, a group of researchers at Berkeley was using a technique called Low Energy Electron Diffraction (LEED) to bounce electrons off ice and measure molecular spacing and orientation. I get the feeling this sort of thing goes on all the time at Berkeley, and I do not think it my place to question their motives. To the researchers’ consternation, half the hydrogen bonds were missing in the molecules on the surface layer of ice. They hypothesized that the bonds were there; they were just attached to oxygen molecules vibrating faster than their counterparts in the layers below. The result of these vibrating molecules is a thin surface layer of matter that is not quite water and not quite ice. Over the past 20 years, scientists have surmised that this layer of vibrating molecules, called the quasi-liquid layer, exists for ice at temperatures all the way down to minus-180 or so degrees Celsius. It is this layer that allows skaters to skate, skiers to ski and glaciers to flow down mountainsides.

Scientists can now skate and ski with clearer consciences, no longer forced to make a square theory fit in a round hole. But, qua scientists, they did not let the quasi-liquid layer lie. Thoughts and experiments turned toward ice crystals in the Earth’s atmosphere. Many hypothesize that the unique chemical composition of the quasi-liquid layer, its bond characteristics somewhere between those found in ice and those found in water, may catalyze certain other chemical reactions. In the atmosphere, quasi-liquid probably helps peel chlorine off chlorofluorocarbon molecules. Scientists are reasonably sure that free chlorine breaks down O3, commonly referred to as ozone. Following the logic leads to a conclusion: The closer we get to requiring triple-digit SPF sunscreen for trips to the beach, the more relevant the study of this quasi-liquid layer becomes. And the message seems fairly clear: When you’re pondering questions big or small, lace up your skates and push a puck around the ice. Something might just come to you.

But there’s even more to it than that. Humans are uncomfortable with in-betweens in this age of specialization. Those who read Homer aren’t often encouraged to also examine, say, the chemistry of ice. Choose one or the other. But ice, whose most important aspect is the inbetween-ness of its surface, relies on the transition zone in order to do its best work. Ice is successful in a state of flux, in a constant state of choosing between two states.

These are the thoughts I’m twisting around in my brain as we approach the Cascade Lakes. Rounding a corner, I innocently clear my throat.

“Hey Dad, lemme check out the pond?”

“You have your skates?” he asks.

“They might be in the trunk,” I say.

He and my mother share a look, but we pull over and park.

Sometimes generosity from your parents comes exactly when you need it. My father used to tie my skates in the car on the way to the rink. I remember sitting in the back seat and pushing my foot up near the gearshift so he could pull on the laces at red lights. When we arrived at the rink he would carry me inside, so the concrete wouldn’t ruin my blades, and give me an encouraging tap on my shoulder as I stepped onto the ice. My jersey was down to my knees I was so small.

This time I’m sitting on a snow bank, wincing as I pull on my own laces. A biting wind colors my fingers red and numbs them. Pushing out a few times onto the frozen lake, I look out over its smooth and empty surface. The wind whips up swirls of snow, and I’m alone in the cold—but that’s okay.

I reach into my pocket and drop the puck at my feet. Evergreen spectators, bowing their heads under burdens of snow, watch me glumly from the slopes above the lake. My eyes sting in the arctic wind. The blades of my Bauers make that wondrous scraping sound of steel on ice as they float on the quasi-liquid layer, the lubricious stuff of constant instability, the substrate of my life.

Since I’m alone, I have time to reflect while I carve wide turns. I don’t remember any specific day when I changed from the son whose father ties his skates into what I am now. Certainly this didn’t happen overnight. I suppose it happens over time by means of a million small, nearly imperceptible, increments. No wonder I find myself always occupying space between some metaphysical here and there. And these intermediate spaces are not insignificant, I’m learning—especially if you happen to be ice skating. Like many of us, ice derives its strength from its depth and its effectiveness in transition. Ice teaches us things. And ice is slippery, for balance.

On the bank, I see another car nudging itself into a parking space. Three forms jump out holding sticks and skates. There will be a game soon. And even the machinations of a contemplative mind will not prevent me from chasing the puck wherever it goes.

Tim McNamara is a writer. He lives with his wife, Heather, in Ocean Beach, just west of downtown San Diego.