Storm Lake Sunset

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A full day in trial and a four-hour drive home in freezing temps at the end of a Friday. Part way through the journey, I cut through Storm Lake. I had never been there but wanted to take a look, even though it was iced over and barren.

Just as I turned onto the lakeside road, the sun began to slip behind the horizon, the skyline erupting in colored brilliance. I turned around in the parking lot of the Sail Inn Motel, pulled over on the road and wrestled my work camera from its bag.

After stepping into the wind, I fired off a frame and realized the camera was still set for the interior of a dark courtroom. The image was washed out. I quickly re-metered and resumed shooting. One frame, and the sun was a sliver peeking out from trees on the distant shore. Another frame, the sun was a thinner sliver and gone on the third frame.
A lot of things in life involve just the right timing.

Ice-covered roadside assistance

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How to change a flat tire on an ice-covered road in the frozen Midwest:

Step 1) Don’t live in the Midwest. Live somewhere that’s warm year round. If somehow this step has failed, proceed to step 2 below.

Step 2) Pull over and check the tire. If it’s flat, make sure no one is in the car, moving around when you change the tire. If you 9-year-old daughter is in the car, this means you have to drive several blocks to get home because you don’t want her to freeze on the curbside while you take care of it. Plus, you are wearing shorts because you just came back from jogging indoors (because it’s too cold to take your daughter jogging outdoors). On the plu side, the mushy snow on the roadway should mitigate damage to the rim when you drive.

Step 3) Make sure the donut spare buried under the spare coats and emergency blankets in the trunk is in good condition or is at least inflated.

Step 4) Loosen the lug nuts before jacking up the car. Tugging on the nuts while it’s in the air might bring the car crashing down.

Step 5) When you have trouble pulling that last lug nut loose, adjust the tire iron and stomp the crap out of it to finally get the nut to budge.

Step 6) Find the almost undetectable notches in the frame that mark the jack points. Mistaking a scrape in the body from that time you jumped the curb while adjusting the radio for a jack notch could result in tearing off the quarter panel.

Step 7) Make sure the jack is placed on a stable surface, which doesn’t include several inches of snow and ice. This is why we recommend Step 1. In the event you are unable to find a dry, solid surface in a hospitable environment, continue while keeping yor distance in case the jack slips and the whole affair comes crashing down.

Step 8) Being careful to avoid having your skin adhere to the bare metal handle, jack the vehicle into the air, remove the lug nuts and the flat tire. Place the temporary spare and return the lug nuts, but don’t tighten until the tire is back on the ground. 

Step 9) Return home and take you chances with a new repair shop because it’s Saturday afternoon, and your regular mechanic is closed. Don’t worry about the warranty on the old tire because driving home while it was flat probably voided it.

Special thanks to Mechanix gloves for making this repair possible.

Climbing in the land of no mountains

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Maybe it’s a sign of insanity. Or maybe just cabin fever.

On Tuesday, I stood outside in the below zero weather, soaking up the windchill and documenting a farm house fire. Out in the rural Midwest, there are no trees to buffer the wind, so it rips across the frozen terrain, cutting through everything in its path.
Two days later, it was another house fire, but the temperatures were lower. The wind was so fierce, my filings hurt, and my phone died when I tried to update my boss. That day, when I arrived home, I wrapped myself in a blanket and sat on the couch sipping warm tea until bedtime.
So, when Saturday came around, what did I do?
Ice climbing, of course.
Being the land of agricultural sprawl, the area doesn’t have much in the way of mountains or giant waterfalls to scale. There are a few good sledding hills, but not enough to justify downhill skilng. But there are plenty of old grain silos, so a few years ago a local university athletics professor teamed up with a farmer to hose down a dormant tower in the middle of winter. The resulting ice columns have been a draw ever since.
A $35 day pass includes safety gear, foot spikes and ice axes and access to a propane-heated warming house (formerly some farm outbuilding) with hot chocolate between assents. There’s even a friendly farm dog that comes around.
The 80-foot tall silo has five lanes rigged with top ropes and manned with belay buddies. The instructors say silo climbing is some of the most challenging. Natural waterfalls tend to freeze at an angle, but silo ice runs straight down. Only one in 12 make it all the way to the top on the first try, one instructor tells me. Another says it’s more like one in 20.
Saturday was a balmy 20 degrees Fahrenheit with light wind. This was my first time ice climbing. I’ve done rock climbing before (and I brought my own helmet but didn’t need my chalk bag) but not all the techniques transfer. I kept trying to find purchase with the side of my foot instead of kicking in a toe crampon. When I did kick, it was a bit too hard.
The climbing was slippery, and wielding the axes burned out my forearms before I got too far. After awhile, I learned to use my legs and ease up on the grip whenever possible to give the arms a rest. I had one minor fall when my hand slipped and left an ax sticking in an ice pillar. My belay locked the rope, and I swung to the left and then worked my way back to retrieve the tool.
In the end, I wasn’t able to make it to the top after a few tries. That’s my new goal. Lucklly, there are plenty of frozen days coming up.

Photos: Mill on the river

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Mill on the Wapsipinicon River. (C) J.S. Reinitz

Last night, we drove through the obligatory Midwest spring break snow storm, which means we only have a few more weeks of freezing weather before it starts to warm up.

So, as we prepare for spring’s belated arrival, here are a few more winter scenes. These were taken around a former mill on the Wapsipinicon River. Here, the ice on the dam was starting to thaw, and the water was beginning to flow.


Drainage pipes form frozen waterfalls on a bridge over the Wapsipinicon River. (C) J.S. Reinitz.


Drainage pipes form frozen waterfalls on a bridge over the Wapsipinicon River. (C) J.S. Reinitz.

Scraping by winter

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winterAs soon as I heard the noise, I knew what it was.

The sound of something slipping from my Pontiac as I reached 55 mph could have been any number of things, most likely a chunk of frozen something or another dislodging from the snow-covered roof. 

But I knew better.

I knew it was my ice scraper/snow broom. I had placed it on the roof after dusting off the freshly fallen powder from my windshield and starting the engine. It stayed up there as I started shoveling the driveway in the pre-dawn darkness, then carving out a path down the sidewalk. I hacked through the wall of road snow the city plow had shoved across the driveway entrance when it passed. Next, I dug out my wife’s minivan and plowed a small trail back to the house. After that, I hopped in the car and fought through the sort-of-cleared residential streets until I got to the highway and could start making time.

Then whoosh and clatter. And that was the end of the ice scraper.

Later in the day, after work, I doubled back, but there was no sign of it in the chest-high snow banks lining the highway.

The loss was both practical and sentimental. My wife bought the scraper during our first winter back in the frozen Midwest after several years in the warm South. It took some looking, and ultimately shopping online, but she found exactly what I needed. The eggshell white high-impact plastic stock was a about two feet long with a hard bristle brush. It was the perfect gaffi stick to wield in the brutal six-month battle that is winter. The long handle gave needed leverage, but the ultimate source of its power was the metal blade at the business end. Where plastic scrapers do little more than massage the ice, the metal blasts through in a single pass.

Sure, I’ve used plastic blades in the past, but they’re futile tools when it comes to freeing cars that are encased in ice.

Since moving back to the Midwest, I’ve occasionally glanced at snow tool assortments in stores and noticed the lack of metal. So, the day after my scraper slid from the roof into frozen oblivion, I found myself at a national chain auto parts store looking for a replacement, hoping to find something beyond the big box discount store offerings. The place specialized in car parts and accessories, so it seemed the logical choice.

The stand near the door had nothing but plastic — small fit-in-your-pocket scrapers with plastic blades, long snow brooms with plastic blades. It had a nice assortment of colors.

“Do you have anything with aluminum tips?” I asked.

The clerk said he didn’t and went on to guess the government had banned them because he hadn’t seen any in a long time. It had something to do with people scratching up their windshields, he continued.

I explained that I had been using metal for more than 10 years and never had a scratch. He said the government was overstepping its bounds.

I left with a plastic scraper, price about $8, as a stop-gap until I could find something better. If nothing else, I could drive by the scene in spring when the highway snow banks melt.

That night, I searched the internet for any sign of the government meddling in metal scrapers and found none. Big Brother wasn’t behind it, just lazy retailers. What I did learn was the metal scraper blades are brass, not aluminum, according to several online hardware stores selling them. Asking price was $8 with another $10 for shipping.

News: Keep off the ice


The winter island hopping season is over.

“Ice conditions are deteriorating over much of Iowa, leaving only the far north counties where ice fishing is still happening. Even in these northern counties where the ice thickness had been over two feet a few weeks ago, the access to lakes is becoming more difficult as snow melt and runoff is beginning to open some of the edges, and anglers who were once driving on the lake are now walking out,” reads a Department of Natural Resources release.

It continues …

“Anglers still going out on the northern lakes should look out for weak spots, black ice and avoid areas with slush or water on top of the ice that could create an unsafe situation.”

It might have something to do with this (from an earlier DNR release) …

“The incident Saturday occurred at about 8 a.m. on Fish Lake, a backwater of the Mississippi River near New Albin. An ATV pulling a trailer … went through the ice along with (the driver and) two other adults and a juvenile. All four were able to escape the water and get to a nearby island where they started a fire to keep warm.”

Photo of the week: Ice house


The frozen Cedar River flows over a dam near a old ice house. Formerly used to store ice that was harvested in the winter, the building was more recently a museum.

Snow Henge


The icicle finally touched down. Three strands reached the ground through last week’s dripping and freezing cycles. They started off pencil-sized, then expanded to the size of magic markers. Ultimately, they thickened to the diameter of forearms.

It was about that time that Julie emailed me a copy of a news story about a huge icicle on a Cedar Rapids apartment complex that plummeted and knocked out a gas meter. We should probably knock down the icicle, she told me. Are you suggesting I aim for the gas meter?, I responded.

So on Sunday after we took a family walk around the block, I fetched a broomstick and started hacking away at the icicle from the bottom. When it was about half gone, I switched to a pool cue-like jab, knocking the ice out toward the yard and away from the gas meter, which is actually located on that corner of the house.

Our son was devastated and began to whimper. Then we told him he could play with the lengths of frozen stalactites. He and his sister dragged them to the ice field that is our front lawn in February (and March for that matter) and began planting them straight up in the snow. By the time they were done, they had a little Stone Henge fashioned from the debris. Julie helped them top it off with a snowman. For pictures, check our photo album.

The Icicle


Only another foot or two.

That’s all we need before the giant icicle growing from the southeast corner of our house reaches the ground and becomes a column. Kylie is fascinated by its size, but we keep her back because we don’t want it crushing her, should it fall.

Yeah, there isn’t a whole lot to do around here when it’s below freezing (I guess I could shovel snow from the sidewalks, but that would only make me look responsible). So watching the icicle has become the regular activity.

The dormer on our roof creates a nice valley, and when there’s enough snow we get a good-sized glacier in the crevasse. As the snow and ice being to slide and melt and freeze again, the drippings can really add up.

Frozen Lake

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We finally bagged the Brinker Lake geocache.

Julie and I used to paddle our aluminum canoe out to this island before the cache was placed here (before someone swiped the canoe and likely sold it for scrap). After the cache was hidden, I tried to walk out to it a few times in winter. But I never could get the time and temperature lined up right.

Then today we drove past while trying to figure out what to do with our day and spotted a half dozen ice fishing tents on the lake. Someone even parked an SUV out there. I figured the ice would hold us.

Kaden and I set out for the quarter mile trek to the island via the NW passage. It wasn’t difficult to find, and you have to admire a cache built to survive flooding. People who found it in January described a stench it has taken on, and the smell is still there. The wooden cross inside wasn’t enough to fend it off.

“Is that smell rabbit poop? You might want to avert your nose,” Kaden said, using vocabulary impressive for a second grader.

I thought it was more of a good-cheese-gone-bad type thing. It stuck to our gloves (I stashed them in the trunk on the ride home). Left nothing, didn’t dare take anything.

We explored the rest of the island.

“This area here covered by snow and ice is were your mom and I would land the canoe and have a picinic,” I told Kaden.

There was a pause.

“Yeah, you really have to see it when there isn’t any snow,” I explained.