In January of 1977, the Ohio River froze over solid enough for cars to drive across. The mercury went down to 25 below zero that month, some of the coldest days on record in Kentucky. On one of those days, I and a dozen or so like minded souls were out in the woods in northern Kentucky, just a few miles from that frozen river, riding trials bikes in the snow.

We had Observed Trials competition events scheduled far in advance and more than a few in the winter because we were, for the most part, young men and therefore impervious to reason and any arguments that might keep us off of two wheels. In our minimal defense, this kind of weather was unusual to say the least and not in our contemplation when the competition schedule was drawn up in the spring.

So on that January weekend, we gathered at a place named “Rolling Hills” just south of Cincinnati. There was a small restaurant by a lake and beyond that, maybe a hundred acres of, well, rolling hills with trails meandering through the trees and rocky creek beds typical of the area. Around a loop, the organizers had devised trials sections to test the mettle of riders of varying degrees of skill.

But when we arrived that day, the extreme cold meant that none of the spouses and significant others who were to act as scorers for the sections wanted to spend the day freezing in the woods. So they passed the time in the restaurant, with the children who ordinarily would have been gamboling through the woods, while we few optimists/idiots mounted our bikes and charged into the snowy forest for a self scored event.

Coming prepared for competition, but not the weather, we wore thin leather gloves, ventilated trials helmets, jerseys and jeans. In minutes, we were freezing, but loath to admit it to each other until the crashes started. Combining youthful enthusiasm, iced over trails and cold-enhanced stupidity, bikes began falling with increasing regularity. Many of us had plastic “Preston Petty” fenders on our machines because they were indestructible…until the temperature got into the minus 20 range. These previously malleable fenders, which were so flexible one could tie them in a knot during summer temps, shattered like glass in the extreme cold. Somewhere in the rolling hills of northern Kentucky there are still fragments embedded in the dirt, probably being used as durable nesting materials by enterprising mammals and birds. I would later discover that, despite my firm belief in those days that I was invulnerable, I had frostbite on all of my fingertips, the effects of which would dog me for decades.

Somehow the plastic carnage managed to get through to us that this was a fool’s errand and we shivered our way back to the restaurant to join the smarter ones of our entourage for lunch in the warm. Children, however, having been confined inside, wanted to go out and play for a bit, soon returning with urgent news. A duck had frozen to the surface of the lake and was in acute distress.

A delegation was dispatched to assess the situation. The lake, like the river, was frozen solid and there was, indeed, a duck firmly attached to its surface. A very unhappy duck. Its billed companions had left it there, saying they had urgent business elsewhere, but would be sure to write. The bird had flapped his wings in a futile attempt at extraction until he was exhausted. We tried gently working fingers under his breast, to no avail. My son was sent back to the restaurant to fetch hot water, which we poured around the duck to loosen the grip. The cold was so severe that the hot water became ice almost immediately upon contact, offering us no help at all. Finally, when it appeared that the frantic fowl was fading fast, I reached as far as I could under the bird with my fingers and yanked.

The duck came free with a sound like industrial strength Velcro being ripped off a kettle drum and the bird’s surprised squawk still reverberates in my memory all these years later. He had a bare spot the size of a playing card on his breast, but he was too exhausted at that point to care.

The bird collapsed in my hands while I carried him back to the restaurant where it was warm inside. I sat him down on the floor. Within minutes, the duck was walking around the place, smacking his webbed feet on the hardwood, quacking indignantly at anyone he encountered, acting as if he owned the facility and why the heck were these people taking up his space ?

The human owner, a kind soul, assured us that the bird would be treated well and returned to the outside after the weather broke and he’d recovered. Still, I couldn’t resist the straight line when someone asked me later “how is the duck?”, so I replied “delicious”.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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