A View from the Hill: A frozen lake answers no questions

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In a search for adventure and a break from all that has become a dull routine, I went skating the other day with a friend at Highland Lake.

It’s only a dozen or so miles from Portland, yet, it seemed very far away. Other than a few fishermen and fellow skaters, we had the place to ourselves.

It was a wondrous winter day: Bluebird sky and a sun warm enough that we shed our coats after skating half the 8.5-mile perimeter of the little lake, the ice covered with a half-inch of new snow. My friend described it as “a velvet dusting of snow. The ice gurgling beneath our skates.” It did indeed gurgle – and occasionally crack ominously under our weight. A fisherman estimated he had drilled only 5 inches through the ice.

I was reminded of winter nights during my childhood in a lakeside cabin, listening to the ice moan deeply, hauntingly. Ice is alive.

As our skates carved clean lines through the snow, we talked little, enjoying the silence, away from the noise of the city, away from the racket of news. We skated. We stood. We listened. We looked.

Heading back down the other side of the lake, we encountered a fox.

By all appearances, the fox was resting peacefully on the snow-covered ice. Its eyes were open, black and shining in the bright sunlight. It lay on its side, bushy tail extended on the ice, ears perked, forelegs bent in the way dogs rest, nose in the snow.

I started when I thought I saw the eyes blink, though that made no sense. 

Then I thought I saw it again. 

No. 

Clearly, this fox had met the end of its life. At some point, body heat had melted the ice beneath the fox. Now the ice had re-frozen, locking the body to this spot a dozen yards from shore.

Though it had snowed a half-inch the night before, and the snow clung to the lake despite the bright sun, there was no snow on the fox and the lovely fur, red and black with silver highlights, was dry. There was no sign of ill health, no visible wounds. 

It was a beautiful animal, fully intact. And completely dead.

The angle of the fox’s repose begged the question: What had happened? Had our fox headed here from the woods aware that the end was near? Was this the natural and inevitable conclusion of the very short life of the average gray fox, about six years? (Those years must be extremely hazardous for the wild fox, since a gray fox in captivity can live up to 15 years.)

We wondered if a wild animal is subject to the same instantly crippling events that humans are, cut down by a heart attack or a brain aneurysm. There was no blood, there were no obvious injuries, no sign of struggle. It was a beautiful, and by all appearances healthy, animal.

I pictured the fox in a book that was a favorite of my children, “The Tomten and the Fox.”

On a cold, starlit winter night, the fox, Reynard, leaves his warm den and creeps through the snow, which sparkles in the moonlight. Hoping for an easy meal, Reynard heads for a nearby farm.

“Who will see him?” The book asks. “There is a light in the window, and there are people inside the house, but no one will look out to see a hungry fox coming through the snow.”

There are hundreds of homes and cottages on Highland Lake, and many people live there year-round. Did anyone see this fox as it stole silently through the night and stepped onto the ice? Did something terrible happen after only a short foray onto the ice? Or had the fox crossed from the other side of the lake, almost reaching shore?

Had it simply gone to sleep?

My friend yelled to someone walking down the lake. “There’s a fox over here!”

He yelled back that it had been there for a few days. And he pointed to the middle of the lake and said there was a deer carcass on which an eagle had been feeding. We skated on. My friend gave the carcass a wide berth, but I was curious.

The deer, or what was left of it, lay in a large circle of blood-stained ice, its body haphazardly ripped apart, bones exposed, nearly not a deer anymore. I didn’t linger.

A fox. A deer. Two mysterious deaths on the ice on a bright winter day.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.