Get Out the Syrup! Pancake Ice on the River…

Pancake ice crowds the shore of the Otonabee River, held there by a sheet of clear patterned ice extending out (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Lately, I’ve been spending part of each day along the Otonabee River, checking the ice. How it forms, thaws, and reforms. All its different forms: Grease ice that looks like floating drapery or a film of grease on the surface of the water; Shuga, small floating snowballs that form after a major snow; Frazil Ice, that forms a layer of aggregated crystals on the water surface as it super-freezes; and, of course, Pancake Ice, which looks like white pancakes of varying sizes that form in more turbulent waters, such as below every dam on the Otonabee River (of which there are several along its length.)  

Road to Lakefield along the Otonabee River with upstream dam in background and pancake ice sheet in foreground, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
The wind ripples across the deep blue of Otonabee River on a chilly day in winter as ice patterns form (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I drive along the river and park on the side of the road then walk between the road and the river. To drivers who pass me, I may look like a lost and aimless wanderer. Except for my camera! HA! It gives me away… 

Yesterday was a cold and brisk sunny day. A chilly wind whipped across the water, making it ripple a deep blue under the azure sky.

The ice was doing interesting things… 

Clear ice hugs a marsh along Otonabee River shore and extends into a patterned sheet, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Small, fist-sized, ice pancakes were creating themselves from ice-foam that was coming down from the dam. I watched the foam and pancakes drift down the river and get caught on shore or on the edge of an already existing ice raft. The pancakes eventually stuck to each other and the shore, sizzling like real pancakes on a griddle. I was mesmerized by the frothing and sizzling.

Ice foam surrounds downstream drifting ice pancakes, crowding and colliding against the shore of the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Small ice pancakes in frothing film sizzle and fizz on the river’s shore, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Foaming ice pancakes crowd together over the river shallows, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Foaming pancake ice drifting close to shore of Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In quiet bays, all those foaming pancakes finally stitched themselves together as clear ice formed between them to create a beautifully patterned ice sheet, extending quite a ways from the shore.

Ice pancakes embedded in clear ice sheet that extends widely into Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Patterns of graupel and milky ice patches embedded in clear ice that reveals the rocks of the river bed beneath (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Larger ice pancakes formed on the nuclei of emerging reeds in the marshy shores of the river. They formed jewelled designs and patterns.

Ice pancakes form around emerging reeds of Otonabee River marshy shore, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

This whole process is all so fascinating, particularly given that the very next day, the patterned ice sheet might all melt back to water only to start all over again. Nature is so dynamic and no place more than the flowing waters of a river over the seasons.

Ice pancakes crowd into the shore of the Otonabee River, from large to small, surrounded by ice froth, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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