Chasing Little Frost Trees in a Prairie Wetland

Back in late December, I was spending part of a brisk morning exploring some frozen wetland sloughs in our Platte River Prairies. The sloughs were covered with thin ice – just thick enough to slide carefully across in some places, but not in others. As a result, my boots and lower cuffs of my coverall legs were wet, but my feet were still dry and warm. Ok, to be honest, the front of my coveralls were also wet, and getting dangerously close to soaking through. Also, my feet were a little damp and cold. A sane person would have retreated to the nearby warm truck and turned the heater on high.

But you see…

…all across the treacherous thin ice, there were tiny little stalks sticking up above the ice, each covered in frost. They looked like so many tiny white evergreen trees and I was determined to get some good photographs of them. I was running out of time, though. It wasn’t going to be long before I was soaking wet and at risk of more than just a little discomfort.

The challenge facing me was that most of the little ‘trees’ were relatively close to the edges of the sloughs where the ice was thinnest. When I tried to lie on the dry banks and point my camera toward the frost, I was too far away. To get closer would mean putting my elbows on the thin ice – and that would mean both breaking the ice beneath the trees and getting wet. If I could get safely out onto the thicker ice in the middle, I could approach from that side and maybe get my shots. But that had its own set of risks. In my head, I had a vision of me lying on that ice as it cracked and sent me (and more importantly, my camera gear) into the shallow water below.

But the cute little trees…!

Getting desperate, I finally found a path out onto the thicker ice in the middle of one slough and slowly slid myself toward the edge and my tiny targets. In most cases (not all), I was able to get close enough for reasonable photos before the weight of my elbows started cracking the ice beneath them. I worked as quickly as I could to get a handful of shots before finally succumbing to common sense and retreating to the truck.

Now, nearly a month later, I can look at these photos and appreciate the dainty beauty of the little frost trees without thinking too much about my cold wet elbows and the smell of damp outerwear all the way home. I was pretty lucky not to have gotten a lot wetter (and colder!) than I did, and even though it wasn’t a life threatening situation, it could have been a pretty uncomfortable ride home.

Still, it would have been totally worth it. (Did you see those little trees?? They’re so adorable!)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

8 thoughts on “Chasing Little Frost Trees in a Prairie Wetland

  1. Getting down very low for your perspective is a way to create compelling images most of us never stop to appreciate. In the wetlands it turns the images into an icescape, and shows the stark beauty of hoar frost. You’re getting pretty good at this, Chris!

  2. Some of us have more blessings than others. We live within a mile of a paved bike trail that goes through a reconstituted prairie, woods, park, etc. It is marked off in tenths of a mile. For over 20 years I have taken my morning run on Sundays on this trail, out & back, distance depending on time available.. There is sort of a spring just uphill about a mile out. Sometimes the ice on the pavement is a hazard, but often there are Chris’s trees there along side the pavement. Lots of them, mostly on grass peeking through ice. I have photographed many from the pavement – never any worries about thin ice. Thanks for sharing yours. Mine are stuck away on memory cards somewhere. Always wonder if anyone else sees them. They disappear quickly.

  3. Those down in Florida and Arizona visiting from the ‘North’ don’t see this!
    this is why I live in Minnesota, We walk on water and see the frost in the winter.
    Great photos.
    thanks

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