Headed down to The Village Grind this morning for my Wednesday coffee and giant cookie and noted there was a bit of skim ice on the river. It’s to be expected, what with the temps getting down in the lower teens at night lately. But if this year holds true to recent form, we’ll see no freezing over of the river’s channel.
Global warming? Well, yes, a little. But mostly it’s because the character of the river’s changed a lot over the last 50 years, driven mostly by the explosive development we’ve experienced out here in our formerly rural corner of northern Illinois.
When I was growing up along the river in the late 1950s and early 1960s, winters were cold and snowy. Temperatures of -20° F. were not uncommon and they lasted for several days at a time. If we were lucky, the autumn had been dry, and with low water in the river and those even lower temperatures, the main channel froze over regularly.
That meant ice skating heaven for us youngsters. On frigid, crisp mornings as the sun was just coming up, we’d lace on our skates and glide downstream to the U.S. Route 34 bridge across the river, a half-mile trip. It sometimes took awhile, due to rough ice and even missing ice in areas where springs welled up from the bottom of the river, or flowed into the stream from the bank. Some of those spring-fed areas were deep, as well, much deeper than the riverbed immediately surrounding them.
Or if a trip south wasn’t in the cards, we’d head north, skating from smooth patch to smooth patch, watching out for open water, and listening to the ice cracking like rifle shots as it contracted in the cold.
Even though it was -20°, a hooded sweatshirt was plenty of clothing to wear, because skating on the river was hard work and we were plenty warm, although thick gloves or mittens were a must. I preferred wearing my shooting mittens because I could open the finger flap to tie my skates or make any adjustments. And besides, mittens are a lot warmer than gloves.
Nowadays, the river never completely freezes over, although sometimes it makes a valiant try. When the channel narrows to an ice-bordered riffle, the Canada geese leave, which is fine with me. When I was a kid the only geese we saw were migrating in spring or fall. Today, there are some 60,000 of the critters living in the Fox Valley, and they’re pests who stain the ice with their droppings and create the most remarkable racket. It’s enough to create a soft spot in a person’s heart for the foxes and coyotes who are expanding their populations here.
Why doesn’t the river freeze over completely? Well, our winters are getting warmer, but that’s not really the reason.
The real reason is because the water temperature has been warmed before it ever entered the river. A half-century ago when I was skating up and down the river, its major tributaries were other streams and the springs that pepper its banks. But by the early 1970s, development in the Fox Valley was having a major impact on the amount of fresh water in the river. By 1973, only about 25 percent of the water in the river was fresh, coming from tributaries, by the time it got to Kendall County. That meant that by the time it got here, three-quarters of every gallon in the river had already been used at least once by folks upstream. The numerous municipal wastewater treatment plants, along with private and industrial wastewater outflows had replaced natural streams and wetland seepage as the river’s primary tributaries. And every use of the river’s water warmed it up just a bit until by the time it reached its middle course, the water was too warm to solidly freeze.
The good news, I suppose, is that with infrequent freezing, the river has also ceased turning into an unruly stream with ice dams and jams that flood low-lying areas. In the 1800s, spring freshets were common, caused when the ice suddenly gave way during spring rains or a particularly fast warm-up. When that happened, such as the great Freshet of 1857, bridges and dams were attacked by the fast-flowing water and the thick ice it carried downstream. In 1857, virtually every bridge and dam from Elgin south to Ottawa was either destroyed outright or badly damaged.
Not today. Today, we wish mightily for cold enough weather to persuade the Canada geese to move to another place or at least a nice deep covering of snow or ice that makes it hard for them to find enough food to give them a helping hand out of the area. But lately, that’s mostly a forlorn hope. And certainly skating down to the Oswego bridge or north all the way to Boulder Hill are similar forlorn hopes.
In some ways, these modern times are definitely not all they’re cracked up to be.