Walking on Ice

On Grafton Street in November,
We tripped lightly along the ledge
Of a deep ravine where can be seen
The worst of passions pledged.
from Raglan Road by Patrick Kavanagh

Kavanagh had it right. So did Vonnegut; “I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” I have always seen myself as a middling kind of man, despite yearnings to venture out to the periphery – on those rare occasions when I have taken a deep breath and left the comfort of my own zone it has been thrilling, sometimes terrifying. I don’t regret any of those adventures, good or bad; it’s the times when I played it safe that haunt.

One Sunday, whilst out roaming the snowy margins of the Russian town where I was then living, I crossed over the railway tracks and walked down the hill away from the centre; this was new territory and I was surprised to find myself on a bridge crossing a river. Technically, this was still a secret town and maps were hard to come by – and so it went that around every corner lay the potential for the unexpected. Chance had brought me to the Klyazma River; still in its early reaches but already wide, it curved away from me to the East, towards Nizhny Novgorod where it would slide into the Volga before heading South and the unimaginably far away Black Sea. It was frozen solid and I was thrilled to see, out on the ice, a dozen or so men on their haunches, huddled up and presumably fishing. Reader, I tripped lightly for a while; then, taking a deep breath, I stepped out onto the ice.

This was a bold move on my part. I had never walked on ice before – the terrifying public information films of the seventies, encouraging children not to run in front of trains or climb electricity pylons for fear of certain and painful death, along with an innate timidity, meant that I generally did as I was told. The ice was solid enough but the knowledge that some way below me lay flowing water was a disquieting thing. As were the lack of reference points – just white ice, white banks and the white sky. There was no horizon; I quite lost my bearings and felt almost dizzy, like I was stepping into a void. But there was also a kind of euphoria; I was as far from home as it was possible to be. My companions were, of course, quite unperturbed by such nonsense and, as is often the way with fishermen, they were solitary creatures and reluctant to enter into conversation. So I wandered about among them, these edge dwellers, to each man a small paraffin stove warming noxious brews and sad looking bottles of cheap vodka.

This came to mind recently when, on a gorgeous day of cold air and blue sky, I walked out onto the ice of Morskie Oko. It’s an extraordinary place; a lake held in a natural bowl high up in the Tatras, tucked in amongst the peaks of the Polish Slovakian border. The frontier to the south marks a great divide – the European watershed: this side the waters flow north to the Baltic. In Slovakia they drain south into the Black Sea. A dramatic lottery for the marginal raindrop.

It was something of a relief to be out here. The family were skiing (not my idea of fun) and I had ambitious plans to spend the week walking. Heavy snowfalls put the kibosh on that. The local advice was that it was unsafe; big red signs declaring risk of avalanche forced the issue – I was confined to barracks. Not such a bad thing as it turned out; barracks in this case was Zakopane and three or four days exploring the museums, cafes and bars stopped me from going completely stir-crazy. But there is only so much beer, sausages and Szarlotka a man can take – on the fifth day I decided to walk. Rather than heading off alone into the wilderness I chose to follow the well trodden path to Morskie Oko.

My spirits lift with each step through the crisp white snowscape. Every twist in the path brings new vistas, every turn taking me higher up the mountain. Bright sunshine one moment, then around the bend into the dark forest the next. There is no mystery about the origin of the old stories – that these brooding woods are home to wolves and bears, goblins and scary faerie folk, I have no doubt. Fortunately, I am far from alone – there are plenty others following this trail; but I walk in silence nonetheless, relishing the chill on my face. After three hours of solid trudging through the snow I arrive at the lake’s edge and again, almost twenty five years on, I find myself havering about whether to step out. I needn’t worry – the ice is so solid here that in winter the footpath just carries on out over the ice and up the mountain on the other side. There are also about a hundred hikers and tourists already out there; it’s going to be fine. I walk through the crowds, pausing only when asked to take photos of several happy couples, and I soon find myself away from the throng. It is quieter over here and I turn round slowly, taking in the full 360 degree panorama; the snow all blues and purples in the shade, the sunlit mountain tops burnished gold and orange.

Time to head back to the comfort of solid ground and the ornate wooden hut that sits on the shores of the lake. Before long I am thawing my feet in the roasting heat of the restaurant, embracing an enormous tankard of dark beer with a heaped plate of bigos (a stew of sausage and sauerkraut) steaming before me. Such are the rewards for those who step out over the edge, and make it back alive.