Unbeknown to me, a river flows below my feet, under the icy dome-road that slicks and cracks with every step. So when I decide to hike near Burnt Lake in mid-July at an elevation of 4,000-plus feet where thick forest’s gentle shade keeps last winter’s snow from melting; and it suddenly occurs to me that I could not be certain that this snow belongs to last winter and not the winter before; who knows the age of water in its many states of matter; that after a mile, which takes an hour, I turn around and start my way back. I notice the snow blankets in all directions, punctuated by straight tree trunks and bramble-low-bushes. My foot falls through the ice and lands flat on the asphalt six-or-so inches below my step; and it feels like the time you walk downstairs in the dark only skipping a step and so falling to the next; that time it stings the base of your foot and you almost tumble the rest of the way; and I suddenly wish that I had brought my walking poles. That is the moment that I notice the river of melt-water rushing underneath the ice that I thought was road and I feel vulnerable. Surely the forest trails are not as treacherous, so I make my way off the road and find a direction still north-ish and more or less uphill, mostly more. After a time, I climb a small hill to survey my path through when the ice breaks open and swallows my right leg, jamming my left thigh against my chest; unbeknown to me, until that moment, was at least twenty feet between me and the ground; my left leg the only thing keeping me above the ice. The brittle ice kept me from pushing myself up and over it, so I decide to feel below for a branch or anything to get my footing. I then climb down, under a dome of ice, make camp and wait for the thaw; which it finally does the following July.


  1. Nancy Bauer-King

    Great description of narrator caught and trying to escape. In this case, a hike in the mountains, and also easily be a metaphor for the universal pitfalls and achievements of a life journey. I was pulling for the narrator to survive, which he does. Though if I understand correctly, his survival takes a year.

  2. sara lippmann

    Hi Randal, There is much to admire here. I’m deep into the nature writing. So many lines pop out — “Who knows the age of water?” Is amazing and kind of kills me dead.

    Your analogy, how stepping though ice is like missing the step in the dark feels spot on, and we can feel that stumble and plunge.

    I’m not sure we need to be told “i feel vulnerable” as that vulnerability permeates the piece, the humility and fallibility of man in nature.

    the fact that the discovers a river of ice melt where they believed there was road is terrifying and also such a loaded metaphor, if you wanted to connect that with more external context.

    (for example, I do wonder what’s behind the story? what’s the inside story compounding the outside story? what this narrator is carrying with them, what’s taken them there –)

    there is the moment of discovery — a river underneath (and I’m wondering, what if we don’t learn this in the first sentence?) — and then there is the takeaway — meaning, add what? finding footing

    losing ground/finding footing — this is the story (that can be both an inside and outside — i.e. literal and subtextual) and i would encourage you to push on that a bit more and crystallize. and the ending: “make camp, and wait for the thaw” is just gorgeous.


  3. Meg Tuite

    The pace of this breathless and I can see this path and the ice and it’s frightening. “road that slicks and cracks with every step.” When I was a kid we used to walk out on Lake Michigan when it was frozen and yes, one kid did go in and under. There are two ‘unbeknownst’ in the piece and I would go for taking out the first. And also I agree with Sara that the sentences you produced are enough to make one feel quite vulnerable without stating it. Beautiful ! LOVE!

  4. Jenn Rossmann

    I really like the contrast between the specifics being reported — we know the elevation of the peak, we know distances to the inch — and the unknowable things, “who knows the age of water” being PERFECTLY mysterious and ineffable. It makes me feel like this narrator is clinging to the things he(?) knows for sure, because of the power of what is less certain (the river under the ice). I would love to know more about what’s going on with the narrator, what other mysteries are confounding him!

  5. Jonathan Cardew


    Nothing like the feel and sound of ice, and this story evokes that landscape so well (all too real for me at the moment in Wisconsin!). I just love the precise and detailed description throughout: “I notice the snow blankets in all directions, punctuated by straight tree trunks and bramble-low-bushes.” The landscape becomes character.

    Depending on where you take this (longer, same length, or shorter), you may want to consider adding in more ‘story’–not sure how much or what. I really enjoyed reading this!


  6. April Bradley

    This sounds harrowing, and I want to know more about what this narrator endures. The descriptions enthrall me, and it’s gorgeous writing, Randal. Thank you!

  7. David O'Connor

    Randal, such an intimate and detailed portrayal of a hike, love what you’re doing with time here, all five senses fully engaged, Total winter read, thank you!

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