Having been born and raised in the Columbia Valley of the East Kootenays, my daughters were pretty much guaranteed snow for Christmas every year. Even after moving on to attend university in Victoria, they both returned home to the snow for the winter breaks. So, the prospect of a green and wet December spent in Vancouver had considerably dampened their seasonal spirit. Imagine their delight when the forecast for snow in Vancouver came true; I believe they were much happier than those who had to navigate the roadways.
My dog also loves the snow, and he relished the days when his run with my wife included a frolic in the white stuff. It was on a wintry Boxing Day run that he and my wife happened upon the stranded swan. To be more accurate, the swan was not stranded but rather stuck… stuck in the middle of the frozen surface of the outdoor, saltwater swimming pool at Kitsilano Beach.
The pool is fenced and difficult for a runner with a dog to climb. My wife didn’t want our dog to alarm the swan, so she called me at home to enlist my help. As I prepared to make my way to the pool, I imagined the state of this poor bird. In my mind’s eye, her web feet were solidly frozen into the ice, and she uselessly flapped her wings in efforts to escape its clutch. I expected to arrive and witness the frantic thrashing of a trapped creature, desperate to survive. I was very wrong.
The ice had not trapped the swan entirely. She was floating quite calmly in the middle of a small area of open water, not much larger than the swan herself. Her neck was bent gracefully backward, with her head tucked between her wings. She seemed quite peaceful. Not a birder and ignorant to the hardiness of winter fowl, I wondered if she were freezing. I realize now the swan was likely just fine, as far as temperature goes. But she was stuck. She could navigate this small patch of open water, but could not step onto its surface and fly away. Although not in her best interest, it seemed she had resigned herself to remaining where she was: static.
Even at my Kootenays home, I have a limited tool set: I’m admittedly not a big DIY guy. Here in my temporary Vancouver home, I have even fewer tools. In the coat closet is a small basket that holds a very small hammer and a screwdriver with multiple heads. What more does one really need in an apartment? I left both tools behind, thinking neither would be of much use in a swan rescue. Instead, I brought with me a hollow, plastic tube – a leftover piece from the Canadian Tire pantry shelves. I pictured myself using it to break up the ice encasing this poor swan. So, with the lightweight plastic pipe in hand, I jumped the fence with no idea of how to get this swan out of the pool.
I approached the south side of the pool, noting that it was the shallow end. In fact, the floor of the pool sloped away from the ‘shore’ I stood upon, like a natural beach; there was neither a sharp drop nor a pool wall. Seeing this, I thought that opening up the ice in this shallow water would allow the swan to simply to walk up the sloping floor and out of the pool. Although it wasn’t bitterly cold, it was below zero and a temperature that was less than ideal for lightweight plastic. Two things happened as I set to work: my only tool failed, and the swan decided I was trouble. As I struck the ice, the swan turned away from me and expended her energy working toward deeper water, the slushy ice allowing her to make a little headway but not escape.
My plan had flaws: had it not shattered from the cold, the tube wouldn’t have been long enough to break the stretch of ice between me and the swan; and, I was driving the swan in the wrong direction. She needed to stand on solid ground in the shallow end to step up and out; she wouldn’t find that opportunity in deeper water. It dawned on me that I may be able to drive her into the shallow water from the opposite shore. With a vague plan taking shape, I walked around the pool deck to the deep end.
The swan was no closer to me from this vantage point, and I had nothing with which to hit the ice. I tried waving and yelling, “Hey swan! Shoo!” She just blinked at me from the safe distance, ignoring my antics. I glanced around the pool deck, looking for something to help me wipe the indifference from her stare. There was nothing to be found. Just snow.
My first snowball struck the edge of the open patch of ice in which she sat, and it caught her attention. She turned her back to me, and paddled in the direction of the shallows. The next snowball splashed in the water, elevating her level of concern. The third and fourth snowballs burst apart on the ice surface with a soft pop. The swan tried to climb out of the water, her webbed toes clawing at the slushy edge of the saltwater ice, and her wings extending. Her scrambling efforts were breaking the ice and opening it up in the right direction. Two more snowballs, and she was far enough ‘up the beach’ to touch and push off the bottom, stepping out of the cold water. Her wings extended fully, and she started to run along the ice surface of the shallow end. Four flaps, five flaps, then she pulled up the landing gear and cleared the fence, gliding out over the ocean shore. I, too, cleared the fence to rejoin my support team and a few passersby who stopped to watch. With smiles and nods passed between us, we carried on with the day.
I have puzzled over this experience in the days since, certain there must be a metaphor or fable in here somewhere. Likely, there are a few. They would speak to the cooling inertia of complacency, the ingenuity born of necessity, the provocation provided by adversity … [you can add your moral here]. Who are the swans, and who is lobbing the snowballs? Who is stuck, and needs a prod? What is the ice that has formed the trap, and what shore are we seeking? What are the tools we can shape from the resources at hand, and who can we enlist to help?
As we enter a dynamic Tiger year with its characteristics of bravery and courage, parallels with The Swan in the Ice abound. With fences to climb, ice to break, and action to take, we must be braced for the unexpected and welcome support from unexplored directions. We must also bear witness with compassion to the challenges of this work and its impact on our communities… and ourselves. It is likely that the tale will continue to change, but we can keep faith in one certainty: winter’s eventual end.