By Charlie Sleep
As I write this, the latest January thaw seems to be winding down. It has not seemed to me, at least, as a typical January thaw. We have had more than our quota of foggy days and, perhaps, fewer really rainy ones. We have had some patchy ice on the roads but mainly we have been plagued by fog. The mild temperatures have not been of any aid to the farmers but the rest of us likely enjoyed them to some extent.
It was not always thus. In my youth the winters seemed to be harsher. The river froze early and hard. The ice on the river was a foot or more thick, which made for great ice-skating. My father used to speak of skaters skating all the way to Calamine on the frozen river, leaving it only to traverse around the shallow, unfrozen rapids. The area of the river adjacent to the campgrounds was always the prime spot for skating. It was kept clear and there was always a large log on which to sit while changing shoes for skates.
This clearly indicates much colder winters back then. Nevertheless, along about the middle of January the weather changed. It moderated and snowfalls changed to mists and rain. The January Thaw was under way. Most years it seemed to be gradual but destined to run its course. Snow started to melt and recede and the river and small streams swelled to carry off the melted snow. Some years the nights cooled below freezing and the water runoff slowed, but some years it stayed warm night after night and the water runoff increased to flood stage.
Quite often the lower end of Main Street was underwater and a mild flood was evident. In severe years the crossing at the bridge was closed until the water subsided which usually was only a few hours but sometimes lasted a day or two. The county stationed large trucks there to transport persons across the water so they could get to their homes in the country. The trucks were usually of the dump truck variety but sometimes the big FWD Oshkosh trucks were brought out.
The rising water lifted the ice in large blocks free of the riverbanks and deposited them on those banks when the water once again found its way back within its boundaries. Those large blocks of ice were very visible for weeks, usually until spring began in earnest. They were of no real hindrance to anyone as the fields were in no condition to till.
That was usually the case, but one year, perhaps ten to fifteen years back, when Barney Reichling was the manager and caretaker at the local Wonder Wash, the thaw left a large accumulation of ice blocks behind the building blocking the entrance. Obviously business was at a standstill until those blocks were removed. Waiting for melting was out of the question so Barney enlisted the aid of a large front-end loader to relocate them to the river.
At that point a couple of men in suits approached Barney and inquired as to what he was up to. Barney, in his usual direct way, told them he was returning the ice to the river, thus clearing the approaches to the car wash. The ‘suits’ then identified themselves as agents of the Wisconsin DNR and informed Barney that he had to stop as he was polluting the mighty Pec. Barney’s protests that the ice came from the river were to no avail. He had to stop. And stop he did, until the agents were on their way to wreak havoc elsewhere. Then the ice blocks magically, it seems, found their way back into their river home.