Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Answer: Finding a story? Could it happen like that?

Is this story for real? 

We've even talked before about how hard this task is.  Perhaps this is why people keep coming to librarians and asking these questions.  They really want to find that story again, and they can't figure out how to do it.  

But we've also talked about some research methods for finding lost stories.  

This week, the story is personal:  Now *I* want to find a story, but I'm having trouble finding it. (Details below).   Can you help out?  

Naturally, I also want to know if this story could be true as well.  Here are the details for the story SearchResearch Challenge for this week: 

I remember reading a short story (that I believe was written sometime in the past few years) about a couple who are hiking across a frozen landscape in winter.  One of them (I think it's the man), falls through the ice as he's crossing a frozen lake and disappears.
The woman thinks he's fallen into the icy water and drowned, but when she goes to check, it turns out that he's actually fallen into the space beneath the ice that has no water in it. He's alive and well, walking around on the floor of the lake.  That is, the lake is somehow empty, but the shell of the ice has remained, and he broke through that. 
They stay for a while in this magical place beneath the lake ice that is somewhat warm and in some way has mysterious flashes of light. 

That's the story as I recall it. As they traverse the snowy landscape, they visit this remarkable place beneath the surface of the lake.  

Really? Is such a thing even possible?  


1.  Can you find this short story for me?  What's the title?  Who's the author? 
2.  Can this empty space beneath the lake ice REALLY happen like this?  (That is, is it true that the water of the lake can freeze over, then somehow the water can drain away, leaving this empty space?)  
3. This empty-space-beneath-the-lake-ice must have a name--this is such a strange phenomena (if real) that is would be called something.  What's that term?  (It's probably not the sub-aquatic-post-freezing-space!)  

I'm going to repeat what I wrote the last time discussed a problem like this.  

My biggest suggestion is to be skeptical of what is remembered about the story.  Human memory is often wrong (and how certain you feel about knowing something has almost no bearing on the accuracy of that memory--you may be completely confident that the main character was a 70 year-old man, but discover later that it was a 40 year old woman--be skeptical...   As several Regular Readers pointed out, 

Here some story-finding research strategies  to try out.  

1.  Try regular web searches for a quote (using double-quotes) IF you have a quotation fragment or element.  (But keep in mind that often the surest memory of what was in the story might be incorrect.)   You can also look for characters
 (e.g., [ "Robin Hood" "Maid Marian" ]  ) 
2.  Library databases may also be helpful in locating short stories. Some databases let you limit searches by categories such as genre, subject, first and last line, and setting, or search for keywords in plot summaries: Lit FinderMagillOnLiterature PlusShort Story Index   Note that you can often connect to these databases through your local public library.  (Usually requires a login with your library card.) 
3. Short story index: You should know that there are many short story indexes, including the print editions of Short Story Index, can be identified by searching the Library of Congress online catalog under subject headings such as:,  Short Stories, American - Bibliography   Short Stories, American - Indexes  Short Stories - Bibliography   Short Stories - Indexes.  Unfortunately, almost none of these index books are available for searching online (they're certainly not in, even though they would be incredibly useful to have. 
4.  Other online collections of stories you might want to search (say, by using site: to restrict your search to just one of these sites):    Bartleby.comProject GutenbergThe Online Books Page
5.  Social solutions:  Some listservs and message boards might prove useful.  These are collections of people who have broad knowledge about plots, characters, setting and stories in general.  Try posting your question to one or more of these:  

The find the short story in this week's Challenge, I started with the straight-forward query first, hoping I might find something that matched quickly: 

     [ short story frozen lake space beneath ice ] 

which took me to several pages, all of which told me that this was a short story by Rick Bass entitled "The Hermit's Story," in a book by the same name (The Hermit's Story, Haughton Mifflin, 2002, which has 10 stories in all).  Once I had this, I was able to read the story which includes this description of the space beneath the ice: 
“..she took one glove off and eased her bare hand down into the hole. She could find no water, and, tentatively, she reached deeper.

Gray Owl’s hand found hers and he pulled her down in… there was no water at all, and it was warm beneath the ice.  “This happens a lot more than people realize,” he said.  “It’s not really a phenomenon; it’s just what happens.  The cold snap comes in October, freezes a skin of ice over the lake—it’s got to be a shallow one, almost a marsh.  Then a snowfall comes, insulating the ice.  The lake drains in fall and winter—percolates down through the soil… but the ice up top remains.”
 “…The dry lake was only about eight feet deep…”

Once under the ice, Gray Owl and Ann explore a kind of magical place that's sheltered from the deep Canadian winter cold by a sheet of ice, with marsh grasses and pockets of methane that would occasionally catch fire making “…explosions of brilliance, like flashbulbs, marsh pockets igniting like falling dominoes, or like children playing hopscotch…” 

And while that's a brilliant description, we don't yet know if this is a real phenomenon, or if it's a great story metaphor, a kind of special place that's removed from our ordinary, sublunary world.  

I started my search for this mysterious ice-covered dry lake (and what it might be called) by searching for: 

     [ air gap frozen lake ] 

which led to many pages that have some information.  Unfortunately, at this point, it's just click and read through the content.  I'm looking for a web page that describes the ice and an air gap to the bottom of the lake.  

Like others, I read about subglacial lakes that can drain out, leaving an ice roof that can then collapse, although that doesn't sound like what we have here, although it does seem really interesting.  (As reader Verda Stelo points out, this kind of drainage can leave pretty large gaps or tunnels in the glacier, though the bottom of the air gap would be more glacier, and not marshy lake-bottom.)  

I don't have the scale for this image, but it looks to be fairly large.  

A subglacial lake surface can collapse, leaving a depression in the snow.
Aerial photo taken in Greenland. P/C Gizmodo.  

With this query, I also found the source that Debra Gottsleben found:  Reading the Short Story which tell us that Rick Bass was inspired to write his story when he heard about a lake with ice on top where the water below had drained out, leaving a gap.  (But the blog post doesn't clarify whether or not this actually happens at the scale we're looking for.)  

Then there's the frost heave idea, pointed out by Chris who found a technical paper on frost heaves, which could heave up the bottom of a lake enough to leave a gap. But the paper says the max amount is around 30 cm, which isn't anywhere close to the 8 feet mentioned in the book.  

The book describes Gray Owl as falling through the ice after walking on it for a bit.  That implies a certain kind of structural strength to the ice.  It was strong enough to support him for a while, but then thin enough to break under his weight.  

This led me to search for: 

     [ ice safe thickness for walking ] 

and I learned that 3 inches is usually considered the safe thickness for walking.  So the ice Grey Owl broke through was less than 3 inches.  BUT, remember that this ice didn't have any water beneath it!  That is, this is the situation: 

The ice that Gray Owl is walking on is supported all around the edge of the lake, right?  So the structural strength of the ice is going to be limited by how far it is between the lake edges.  Ice is pretty heavy and isn't that strong when trying to support a wide gap.  In other words, if the lake is 100 yards across, and the middle is 8 feet deep, that's a LOT of ice weight to support in the center.

We could probably do a bit of fancy math with structural equations (after looking up the shear strength of ice--if you're curious, I recommend the highly technical, but fascinating, Ice Handbook which tells you how to calculate all the stresses and loads).  The bottom line here is that to support a shell of ice over a drained lake without any internal additional support structures, you'd need the ice thickness to be.... well, let's just say it's MUCH thicker than it would take for a man's weight to break it!  This is starting to sound a bit unlikely.   

I kept looking for more web documents that describe air gaps beneath frozen lakes and ended up finding an interesting resource after going to page 2 : Lake Ice Glossary, which defines MANY terms for ice, including a few ones that sound plausible.  

I learned that Dry shell ice is a shell of ice that covers a "puddle" that has drained away.  

Then there's Soufflé Shell Ice, which is a kind of dry shell ice that forms when deep puddles drain in cold conditions.  This can create a relatively unusual form of shell ice that typically has a crust on top and a supporting matrix of ice flakes underneath.

Soufflé shell ice forms an air gap with a "soufflé" of supporting thin ice crystals...
It can be over 1 foot thick from top to lake bed.  P/C Lakeice Glossary.  

It seems pretty clear that soufflé shell ice could be the inspiration for the dry lake bed of the short story, although it probably wouldn't be quite as clear and empty as described in the story, but filled with a light matrix of ice flakes that give support to the ice above.  It would be quite an extraordinary event to have an ice shell that covers a lake large enough to be 8 feet deep AND wide enough to have a thin shell that can support a man's weight, yet one that's still breakable by Grey Owl. 

Two things strike me about this Challenge.  

First, the term "soufflé shell ice" is ONLY used at the Lakeice site, and doesn't seem to be used anywhere else.  The site seems fairly authoritative (its depth of coverage and documentation of different kinds of lake ice is impressive), but the authors of this site might have coined an idiosyncratic term that's not widely used elsewhere.  

Second, given ALL of the research that goes into ice (there are millions of results when you search on Scholar), and all of the specialized vocabulary on the topic of ice, properties of ice, and the structures it forms (see glossary of ice terms), it seems strange that there does NOT seem to be a specialized term (other than at Lakeice) for this phenomenon.  

A few examples:  

Sastrugi  Sharp, irregular, parallel ridges formed on a snow surface by wind erosion and deposition.
Polynya Any non-linear shaped opening enclosed by ice. May contain brash ice and/or be covered with new ice, nilas or young ice; submariners refer to these as skylights.
Grease ice   A stage of freezing, later than that of frazil ice, in which the crystals have coagulated to form a soupy layer on the surface. Grease ice reflects little light, giving the sea a matte appearance. 
Sermik  A body of ice (usually with some firn) formed by the metamorphosis of snow, lying wholly or largely on land, and showing evidence of present or former flow.

Search Lessons 

Of course, that doesn't prove this under-the-lake-ice-gap doesn't exist, merely that it's not well documented in the literature available on the web.  But I gave this a pretty good shot, checking Google Scholar, newspaper accounts, and I even tried my favorite reverse dictionary to seek out any specialized terms for this... but failed.  

But after investing several hours on this, the next step would be to activate my social network, and reach out to either the author (no success so far), or other writers in this area.  I haven't started that process, but if I were really interested, that would be the next step to pursue. 

It could be the soufflé shell ice that we read about above. I'm not sure that this would be structurally sound enough to support a shell over an 8-foot air gap, but it's a working hypothesis.  

For right now, we found the short story (fairly easily too), but have to leave the mysterious space under the lake as part of Bass' lovely story.  Maybe soufflé, but as yet still unknown.  

If you meet Rick Bass on the road, ask him for me, will you?

Search on!  


  1. Dan this was a fun challenge. Enjoyed working on it. Sorry you were so sick but happy to hear that you are better!

  2. Good Morning, Dr. Russell and everyone.

    About this Challenge, I'll write to the author of this site. Maybe he can share something else.

    And, I think you will like this video aboutAntartic underwater world.

    1. nice Antarctic color Ramón - you might like this too (hope you are avoiding the fireworks & Volcán de Colima…while Popocatépetl slumbers?)
      Davy Jones's locker
      roman_fedortsov, instagram mysteries below
      Vessel M-0254 Korund
      Korund, out of Murmansk
      I think Rick Bass exercised some artistic license in regard to the ice structure imagined… the literal & the figurative, metaphor, allegory, conveyance of concept, notion or experience…
      I like "licentia poetica…"
      AL,AR,AI intertwine
      AL image morass

    2. from the recent past/latent future - super lunar -
      Ramón, ran across this…
      from imgur

      interesting – was iJustine flying near LAX & SMO? pretty footage - Del Rey… no shortage of new apts. going up…
      YouTube L.A. was the touchstone
      GooMaps - Randy Johnson Park Bluff Creek Fields

    3. Good Morning, Remmij and Dr. Russell

      Thanks for the links, Remmij. I need to check the recent post. Very interesting the artistic license and those creatures are not pretty. Davy Jones´s locker is also new for me. And also discover some new information about male/female symbols (Mars and Venus) checking searching with them.

      That Moon is very famous! Glad you find it in another place. You were right is fake and you noticed since the first photo.

      Here in Mexico, we are fine. As you mention volcanoes are in action but everything "normal". The one that is not normal, for what I read, is this Volcano near Naples showing signs of reawakening

      About fire works, sadly each year we have at least one big accident with them. Authorities said days before this one was the safest in Latin America, so I hope no more accidents and no more casualties.

      Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays