Harbingers of winter: twortling and tinkling

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 14, 2001

Ponds and lakes in the Bow Valley are freezing over for the winter. Soon the clacking sounds of pond hockey and the scritching of skates will fill the air.

But there are two other sounds I have found especially captivating.

My wife Mary Anna and I experienced one of the sounds for the first time a few years ago while living at Ghost Lake Village. Mary Anna captured it in her diary entry for November 12, 1998:

Twortle, twortle, twortle. We heard the strange sound distinctly as we walked toward the calm lake this late fall afternoon. It was one of those rare times when the wind was not blowing. We decided to savour the stillness and see how much ice had formed inside the lagoon and whether there was any ice on the rest of the lake.

Twortle, twortle, twortle – the sound continued as we drew closer. What kind of creature is making that noise, we wondered. Lately we had seen mud hens floating in groups in open water. But we'd never heard them make a sound like this. Nor was this the sound of geese.

What could it be?

Looking around, we came upon our neighbour Angus McNee and a friend standing on the rocky shore of the lagoon, skipping large stones across the fresh, smooth, snow-free ice – twortle, twortle, twortle.

"Come and listen to the sound these rocks make on the ice," Angus called. "They make this sound only at this time of year. The ice is still thin enough to vibrate with the bouncing of the rocks, but thick enough to hold them."

We listened in fascination to the reverberations as the two continued to skip their stones, and soon found ourselves joining in.

"I call it 'twortling,'" Angus told us, "because you can hear the ice twortle as the rocks skip across it."

Twortling – what a delightful new word to add to the English language, we thought. Whenever I think of the haunting echoes, my memory goes back to another early winter audio moment I learned about from our coffee companion, George Suel.

George and I were walking along Cochrane’s red path through Glenbow one morning. The air was rich with the aroma of snow-dusted fallen leaves. We paused on one of the wooden bridges over Big Hill Creek to watch a pair of mallards at the edge of a partially frozen beaver pond.

Beneath us, the sound of the stream dancing in and out of its nascent icy covering reminded George of an experience he had along the legendary Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories one November some 30 years ago.

The Cochrane-area horse trainer and maker of custom bridles was just a young man back then. He had hired on with a guiding and outfitting company and, with his boss, three other guides, and a 45-horse pack train, was coming out from a five-month hunting trip in the rugged northern wilderness.

Part way out they were hit with a two-foot snowfall, and to make up for lost time they had to travel late into the night. That particular night the moon was shining brightly, the temperature had dropped deep into the frostbite zone, and except for the breathy gait of the horses, all was very quiet.

Then, as they began a steep descent, George heard what sounded like wind chimes off in the distance – the kind that tinkle on breezy porches. But how could this be? The nearest cabin was at least two days away.

His boss told him he’d find the answer to the mystery at the bottom of their descent, at the shore of the Nahanni River.

The pack train continued down the steep slope for a while. All of a sudden, there it was, the source of the beautiful sound, spinning slowly like a giant pinwheel in a backwater. It was a round, 10-metre diameter ice floe, its crystalline spikes and spurs rubbing and breaking to fill the night air with their welcoming, tinkling tones.

What a wonderful sound to join with twortling as harbingers of winter’s return!

© 2001 Warren Harbeck

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