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As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, January 1994

Beneath the Ice

Ice-diving opens up an eerie, beautiful world of unexpected possibilities

by Andrew Todhunter

IT takes a saw with an eighteen-inch bar to get through the ice in the middle of the lake. When the chain reaches the water, it throws back a clear, arcing fount as thick as my thumb.

I cut a triangle six feet on each side. When I'm finished, I press down on a corner with my boot -- nothing. I sink the saw back into the notch and take another inch, rocking the bar. Another shove with the heel. Now the slab rocks, water pushing up through the cracks and pooling along the perimeter. Two of us sink the floe with our weight and slip it to one side beneath the ice. On the black surface of the water, drops of oil twist into paisleys of electric green and plum. Beside them, upside down, float the reflected summits of the High Sierra.

Over the expedition-weight Capilene underwear, a rag sweater, two pairs of wool socks, and a pile jumpsuit known as a woolybear comes the dry suit. Of coated nylon, airtight, it seals with rubber gaskets at the neck and wrists. Then comes the brass-ringed body harness, followed by the weight belt: some twenty-five pounds of lead shot. Over this is an inflatable vest, called a buoyancy compensator, and then the tank, the regulator, neoprene mittens and hood, the fins, and the mask.

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We clip lines to the rings on our harnesses. Flashlights, secured by lanyards, are tucked into pockets in our vests. Inflator hoses are coupled with valves on the vest and the dry suit, and the air is turned on. We look at our gauges: 2,250 pounds of air; depth, 0; dive time, 0; residual nitrogen, 0. The compass swivels freely in its chamber of oil.

We are about to go ice-diving, which as a recreational sport is relatively new but is beginning to develop a following. Ice-diving is done professionally by ice-salvage divers, who make a fair sum winching trucks and snowmobiles out of lakes. Search-and-rescue divers with the same skills save several lives nationwide every year. To their ranks one can now add hundreds of Americans who go diving under the ice not because they have to but because they want to. Two of the nation's largest diving organizations, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (800-729-7234) and the National Association of Underwater Instructors (800-553-6284), now offer instruction and certification in ice-diving, the prerequisites for which generally include certifications in open-water and advanced open-water diving.

Ice-diving as a recreational sport is practiced wherever conditions allow, from frozen lakes and quarries in divers' home states to the serpentine ice caverns that can be found beneath the polar ice caps.

But whether done at the North Pole or beneath the surface of a more accessible location, ice-diving offers displays and physical sensations that one can experience in no other way.

THERE are two of us who will make this dive, and a support team of four. Bobbing in the water, we go over the signals with our line-tenders. The slow bleed of adrenaline has sharpened the landscape. Low clouds tear their bellies on the peaks. We turn to the sun, gathering heat. Then we let the air out of our dry suits and descend.

In the first seconds the unprotected skin around the face protests and then goes numb. We sink, watching for the bottom. At fifty feet the mud plain looms out of the darkness. We pump a blast of air into the dry suits and arrest our descent, hovering with our fin tips five feet from the bottom. Had we landed in the silt, or even brushed it with our fins, we would have sent a cloud of decaying organic matter in all directions. As it is, the pulses of current from our fin blades strike the membranous surface of the silt. It quivers without tearing. like the coating on milk that has been boiled in a pan.

Far above, the triangle is aglow in the dimly translucent field of ice. Our lines stretch upward, vanishing. I give a firm tug: "Okay." A tug comes back from my tender: "Acknowledged." The trail of air bubbles works its way to the surface without hurry, rumbling faintly. I take a deep breath and expel it with one quick contraction of my diaphragm. The bolus of air breaks into three spheres that flatten into mushrooms the diameter of dinner plates, expanding as they climb.

We send two tugs up the lines: "Going out, give us slack." Keeping our distance from the silt, we move across the bottom. We follow a bearing due north. If we are separated from our lines, a 180-degree turn should bring us within sight of the hole.

A school of fingerling trout hangs motionless above a meadow of freshwater grass. We could pick them like apples if we cared to, collect them in a bag. They're sleeping out the winter, drunk with cold. I touch one with a mitten tip. A tremor in the gills, the tail flickers once, then nothing.

Farther on is a dinghy, perfectly intact. Right side up, it sits becalmed on the surface of the silt. As if abandoned on a winter beach, gathering snow, the benches and deck are blanketed with pale sediment. We sweep our lights beneath the benches, looking for a tackle box, an unopened bottle of beer. This wreck surrenders nothing -- a sign of other divers here before us, or else a thorough abandonment of ship.

WHEN we have used a third of our air, we ascend to the ice, still 500 lateral feet from the hole. We come up gradually, hands raised to cushion the landing. Our breaths lie pinned against the ice in shimmering pools. Expanding as we add to them with each exhalation, they elongate, break apart. Following ravines and valleys too subtle for the eye, they seek the highest place.

The ice seems to glow from its core. Palpable as mist, it is a pale light in which no shadows fall. The ice is smoked through with minute bubbles. Cracks lost deep within glitter like bayonets.

I inflate the dry suit until I am buoyant enough to "fall" upward and lie flat on my stomach against the ice. I crawl a few feet upside down on my hands and knees. With the heels of my fists I pound the ice. Whump. Whump. When struck, the ponds of air leap and scatter into quicksilver, spiraling in the current of the blow.

Pushing off the ice, I stand upside down and join my partner. Our exhalations tumble along our chests and break down our fins. There is a moment of vertigo before the inner ear accommodates the artificial gravity of this inverted world. Then we accept the illusion that we're standing upright on the ice.

The atmosphere above our heads -- the deepening lake -- is green darkening to black. The luminescent plain at our feet is as perfect and featureless as a glacier in the half light of a gathering storm. The horizon is uniform, impenetrable. My hands are getting colder.

We check our air. It's time to head back to the hole. Turning south, we take the lines in hand and send a fast series of tugs. We brace, leaning back.

On the other side of the ice our tenders set off like sled dogs at a run. The lines go taut and we begin to move, gaining speed. Howling through our regulators, we ski upside down across the ice.

The wedge of blue sky suddenly appears, hurtling toward us. As I dive head first through the triangle, I'm blinded. I look straight down into the sun.


Copyright © 1994 by Andrew Todhunter. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; Beneath the Ice; January 1994; Volume 273, No. 1.

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